THE POST-WAR ERA
Noel: During the Depression, pop culture occasionally took up the cause of “the forgotten man,” referring to World War I veterans left homeless and unemployed during the downturn. In the decade following WWII, the economy boomed and the mood of the country was more upbeat, but two contemporaneous movies still dealt well with the plight of vets: William Wyler’s 1946 melodrama The Best Years Of Our Lives, and It’s Always Fair Weather. The three vets in Fair Weather don’t have it as rough as the guys in Best Years, who are dealing with missing limbs, underemployment, and a deeper malaise. Ted, Doug, and Angie are more haunted by the men they didn’t become: the great writer, master painter, and top chef they promised themselves they’d become. But this speaks to the downside of a culture-wide optimism, where the can-do spirit depresses those who don’t do. And the movie offers a couple of fine visual metaphors for this, like the recurring dollar bill that’s been split into three, which the boys then carry around like a shell fragment. My favorite visual, though, is of Ted skating into traffic, as a crowd of bystanders holds back the cars. The situation may not have been as dire after WWII as WWI, but that didn’t mean vets couldn’t use society’s help—especially when tap-dancing on roller-skates, figuratively or literally.
Tasha: For me, the key line of the film is when the three vets hit their old watering hole at the beginning, and the owner, Tim, warns them against downing too many: “People don’t love a drunk civilian like they like a tipsy soldier.” He’s letting them know the lives they’ve lived for years have just come to an abrupt, unceremonious end, and they’re expected to make an immediate transition—the usual problem vets face after wartime, suddenly re-entering a place where the rules and expectations are profoundly different. It’s no surprise that though the protagonists lose their friendship, they find it again in the middle of a huge fight, where the rules of decorum are suspended again, and where they don’t have to talk to each other, or face their differences anymore. War gives them purpose and common cause; society doesn’t.
Scott: Musicals were meant to take audiences away from the glum realities suggested by It’s Always Fair Weather, so the film seems all the more radical for being in a genre that normally wouldn’t accommodate its sentiments. The film is insightful about how friendships forged in combat don’t always carry over in peacetime, either because soldiers don’t have anything else in common, or because they remind each other of a traumatic past they’d rather forget. (Here, there’s also a third, non-war-related issue that affects all friendships: The fact that they’re all going their separate ways.) But the money scene for me is their awkward appearance on TV, where they’re ushered up on stage by showgirls carrying placards that read “We’re Proud Of Our Boys” and “It’s Always Fair Weather.” It’s often said that veterans don’t want to talk about the war, but it’s equally true that civilians don’t want to hear about it. The story of three war buddies reuniting after 10 years is a packaged bit of uplift, and the men are supposed to play along. It’s stunning, watching Ted, Dan, and Angie—and the movie—refuse to play along.
Keith: It also taps into a general sense that peace doesn’t always bring satisfaction or security, even if it brought prosperity. We got through World War II just in time to start worrying about getting blown up in a nuclear apocalypse. Each of the protagonists has endured personal disappointment, but a general unease was in the air. Before we watched It’s Always Fair Weather, we watched the cartoons included on the DVD, both from MGM and both released in 1955. One is “Deputy Droopy,” which is hilarious and inventive. The second is “Good Will To Men,” a Hanna-Barbera remake of Hugh Harman’s 1939 short “Peace On Earth,” in which a bunch of adorable cartoon animals, living on an Earth in which humanity has destroyed itself with war, resolve to abide by the high-minded principles humans failed to follow. They’re both remarkable pieces of animation, but for all the squeaky optimism professed by the animals, a sense of doom prevails. In 1955, Kelly is tap-dancing on roller skates on the edge of an abyss.
Tasha: Incidentally, it was profoundly creepy and fairly fascinating going directly from “Good Will To Men” (released the same year as It’s Always Fair Weather) to the feature, and imagining audiences at the time doing the same. The short turns images of men at war into a nightmare of thoughtless, murderous destruction. Then the feature launches with fields of American flags and soldiers with big shiny grins, singing a marching song that portrays war as the mildly unpleasant duty of men who’ll get through it with a chipper, can-do attitude. The contrast is startling. And while Fair Weather gets melancholy about life after wartime, “Good Will To Men” has a much stronger image: War can only end when every human being on the planet is dead.
Keith: One of It’s Always Fair Weather’s lighter elements is also responsible for some of its meanest material. The portrayal of Midnight With Madeleine, the TV show where the boys end up fighting alongside each other again, is a pretty vicious portrayal of a particular kind of early television show. We don’t get a lot of back story on Madeleine, but it isn’t hard to put it together. In the 1950s, television is where movie stars ended up when they stopped being box-office draws. Madeleine’s “Me!” is a more desperate variation on the sort of direct address found on The Loretta Young Show and other programs that forced actors to lose the cool distance of movie stardom in favor of the “Can I come into your living room?” intimacy of television. Dolores Gray’s performance gives her character an almost maniacal neediness beneath her outsized ego. (Watching her funny work here made me wish Gray, primarily a stage actress, had done more movies.)
It’s Always Fair Weather also sends up the tacky insertion of sponsors and easy sentimentality of TV. Why so mean? Because in the 1950s, television represented a real threat to movies. People were staying home to watch little screens when they’d once regularly gone out to watch big screens. Movies responded with spectacle, shifting the focus to color films and making the screens bigger. It’s Always Fair Weather is an example of that response in a couple of ways. It’s shot in CinemaScope, offering a wider picture than viewers could then get at home, even though co-director Stanley Donen didn’t feel like he could shoot dancing as effectively in the format. (The results suggest he was wrong.) And it’s part of a tradition of 1950s films taking jabs at the competition, as Frank Tashlin was especially fond of doing. Check out, for instance, the opening of The Girl Can’t Help It, or the pretty much the entirety of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?
Tasha: The film’s overt mockery of the era’s integrated television advertising looks different in these days of sponsored content than it might have a decade ago. Remember when The Simpsons used to regularly make fun of the quaint olden days when content providers were also shills? The way the native-advertising movement has been going, we’re headed back in the direction of the kind of ads on Madeleine’s show. That said, her kickline of leggy Klenzrite-box Rockettes is kind of entertaining. Wonder if it’d go viral today?
Scott: The vacant cheeriness of Midnight With Madeleine functions both as a source of great fun and the sharpest possible contrast to the less-cheery emotions shared by these three miserable ex-GIs. It’s an insight not limited to 1950s television: We see these “coming home” stories packaged in such a way all the time on inspirational news segments or reality shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. These aren’t formats that are generally capable of, much less interested in, dealing with ambiguous feelings about soldiers acclimating to American domestic life or maintaining personal relationships that are now under a different form of duress. On Midnight With Madeleine, It’s Always Fair Weather is at its funniest and its darkest.
Nathan: For me, one of the slyest jokes in the film is that Madeline uses the exact same condescending description of Angie—one of “the vast army of little grey men who struggle along, from day to day”—she was going to use to describe the “surprise guest” she nixed as being insufficiently exciting earlier in the day. For all her talk of wanting to provide a heart and a soul to the cold canyon of Manhattan, Madeline is fundamentally only interested in people as human-interest stories and television segments. It doesn’t seem to matter to her that her subjects rarely fit into the neat little boxes she has created for them.
Matt: By sheer coincidence, a few hours before I rewatched It’s Always Fair Weather, I saw a lengthy segment on SportsCenter about vets coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The clip contained almost no context; it was just an extended montage of soldiers surprising their loved ones, mostly at public sporting events. It seems that our collective need for “packaged uplift” that Scott mentioned in our conversation about life after war hasn’t changed much in the last 50 years.
Neither has reality television. Midnight With Madeline’s satirical jabs may have been aimed at the TV of the 1950s, but they still work today, particularly in sending up the way the medium milks human-interest stories for easily digestible drama. Producers don’t simply look for attractive women to populate America’s Next Top Model or love-crazed men to date The Bachelorette; contestants must also have some kind of past trauma or pain to exploit and triumph over. (Addictions, parental abandonment, and poverty tend to be the most popular.) In any era, it seems, we want television to feel like real life and vice versa, and if we have to fudge the facts a little to make that happen, so be it.
ROLES FOR WOMEN
Tasha: Women often got prominent roles in musicals, given the draw of couples dueting and dancing, but “prominent” didn’t necessarily mean “progressive”—in 1950s movies in particular, they still tended to be relegated to victim roles, or treated as feisty prizes to be won. It’s Always Fair Weather director Stanley Donen came to the film fresh off Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which openly touts kidnapping as the best way to earn a woman’s love. And screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green had their previous big hit with Donen and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain, which is firmly centered on a marginalized girl, the laughable lady movie star who jealously abuses her, and the two much more talented men who put the villain in her place and rescue the damsel in distress. So it’s shocking but affirming to see how much agency and independence Cyd Charisse and Dolores Gray both get in It’s Always Fair Weather.
There’s no talk of women’s lib or feminism in the film; it doesn’t create a war-of-the-sexes issue out of women speaking up for themselves. Instead, it just lets the female lead calmly kiss a man who’s interested in her, then add that by being forward, she usually flabbergasts men enough that they stop chasing her. Jackie (Charisse’s character) is a smart, successful career woman who also happens to know sports so intimately and thoroughly that an entire gym full of men stops to sing a song about how impressive she is. She’s beautiful but not coquettish, confident but never humiliated or put in her place, brainy but not sexless or in need of a confident male hand to bring out her romantic side. The film repeatedly positions her as the equal of the men around her, and it never once goes back on that.
Noel: A woman also plays a powerful role behind the scenes. Doug’s wife recognizes before anyone else that his soul has been deadened by years of drawing anthropomorphic mops, and is trying to jar some sense into him by asking for a divorce. It’s a sweet moment when during the big broadcast, Doug admits his shortcomings, then says, “If anyone is watching, I know what she meant, change-wise that is.”
Nathan: It’s Always Fair Weather is full of strong women, nightmarish or otherwise. Madeline is a phony and a hypocrite, but she’s also a force of nature who realizes that she needs to scream loud and throw occasional fits in order to be heard. She is a woman of rapacious needs who knows exactly what she wants and when she wants it, and isn’t shy about calling out the piggish executive on his hypocrisy for bullying her about her eating habits despite being morbidly obese himself.
Tasha: Madeline’s a comic figure, prone to cliché girly behaviors like emotional tantrums and self-destructive binge eating. She’s a brat and a bully, and the shallow face of a medium that’s being mocked. But she transforms into something different in her musical number “Thanks A Lot, But No Thanks,” where the choreography completely transforms the song. Listen to the lyrics, and it’s a demure love song about loyalty and standing by her man no matter what anyone else has to offer. Watch the staging, and you see a sexually confident woman firmly dismissing her unwanted admirers… and when they persist, she steps on them, guns them down, blows them up, and dumps them into a pit. It’s a cartoony version of empowerment, but still bold for its era or for ours.
Scott: This is a very broad statement, but I’ll make it anyway: The women in It’s Always Fair Weather and in many movies of the period are more assertive than the women in most Hollywood movies today. I think the reason is that women’s equality was always an issue in films at the time, even those films (like this one) that weren’t specifically about the battle of the sexes. Jackie and Madeline are both in situations where they’re surrounded by men—Madeline on a TV production, Jackie in the boxing gym—and it’s cheering to see them navigating those worlds so confidently. On the other hand, is it even possible to imagine Cyd Charisse or Dolores Gray meek or mired in self-doubt? They’re the surest sources of can-do ebullience in a movie swamped by darkness and doubt.
Nathan: It’s similarly refreshing that It’s Always Fair Weather doesn’t indulge the hoary old cliché of dramatically revealing that a smart, accomplished woman is actually beautiful once she lets down her hair and takes off her mousy spectacles. (Though the film would certainly have its work cut out for it, making Cyd Charisse seem mousy.) There’s no contradiction in a woman being gorgeous and smart or professionally ambitious and sports-obsessed. Jackie and Madeline are the real catalysts here, and it takes all of their considerable beauty, guile, and strength to get three mopey, fairly weak-willed dopes to stop feeling sorry for themselves.
Scott: Stanley Donen accepted his honorary Oscar for Lifetime Achievement with one of the most charming and gracious speeches I can recall. It began with a bit of soft-shoe (to “Cheek To Cheek,” from Top Hat with Fred Astaire, Donen’s musical hero) and continued, “I’m going to let you in on the secret to being a good director…,” after which he named his many great collaborators (screenwriters, songwriters, performers) and said, “…and then you stay the hell out of the way.” It’s a lovely punchline, and revealing of the Donen instinct to get the most out of the talent surrounding him. But what he does in a film like It’s Always Fair Weather shows the artistry required to “stay the hell out of the way.”
Working on a nice, big CinemaScope canvas, Donen simply and consistently gets the camera in the best possible position to capture the action. When Cyd Charisse tears up the boxing hall with “Baby You Knock Me Out,” she and her magnificent green dress are usually dead center, while the rest of the frame is filled out in perfect balance by the men dancing around her; when Gene Kelly is on roller skates, the camera just glides along with him—why complicate things needlessly? Yet Donen finds other, more creative ways to use that space, like when Kelly and his G.I. pals are quietly grousing about their disastrous reunion and each one gets his own third of the frame to stew. It’s Always Fair Weather is one of those CinemaScope movies that would be a travesty to watch pan-and-scan, because Donen uses every inch of that precious real estate.
Matt: Donen was being too modest. His work (along with credited co-director Gene Kelly) goes beyond staying out of his collaborators’ way. The repeated use of triple split-screen, for example, is the perfect visual expression of Ted, Doug, and Angie’s parallel yet disconnected lives. The technique is particularly effective in the “Once Upon A Time” musical number, where Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd’s synchronized dance steps in three different locations evoke the invisible barriers of class, careers, and families that keep driving these men apart even after they’ve reunited.
I’m also glad Scott mentioned Cyd Charisse’s green dress. That thing is so stunning and physics-defying (how does it whip around like that?!?) it almost deserves its own subsection of this conversation. Charisse needs no help standing out in a crowd, but that ensemble’s bright emerald color really pops against the backdrop of the drab boxing gym, and it sets her apart from the male backup dancers and the muted grays, beiges, and browns of their sweatsuits. Another simple but very effective touch by Kelly and Donen (and costume designer Helen Rose) to focus viewers’ attention in a busy frame.
Nathan: One of the things that struck me was how gritty and grubby so many of the film’s musical sequences are, injecting beauty into ugly, grimy locations. In the show-stopping climax to the first big production number, the fellows stomp around joyously with trashcan lids on their feet (which did a number on Kidd’s ankles, he reveals in the behind-the-scenes documentary), while another number takes place amongst the broken noses and cauliflower ears of an incongruously dance-happy group of boxers. There’s plenty of dazzling conventional beauty on display here, but the film’s embrace of dirt, grime, and even violence lends it an additional subversive kick.
Noel: I’d go so far as to say that It’s Always Fair Weather is one of the most remarkable technical achievements of the MGM’s musical’s golden age, which is saying something, given that this was an era in which Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse, and Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling. The precision of the choreography in that long three-way split-screen dance is amazing, and yet it isn’t so on-point that it looks like a stunt. The men are off by a fraction of a beat here and there, but they’re in unison when it matters.
Tasha: It’s also an achievement in stylized storytelling, through playful editing and musical numbers that occasionally escape being just performative. Where you guys are most impressed by the three-way split-screen dance, I was more charmed by the earlier use of the same technique, when Donen divides the screen into thirds for a series of funny but informative comparisons between the protagonists’ lives over their 10 years apart. Those quick-hit jokes cover a decade’s worth of professional and personal choices for three men in less than two minutes.
The sequence is one of several innovative, funny ways the film gets across a lot of information quickly and cleverly—my other favorite being the song where Donen zooms in for a close-up capturing each man’s thoughts in turn as they bitch about the others over a disastrous dinner, all to the tune of “The Blue Danube Waltz.” It’s hilarious and appropriate how their harmonies make it clear that all three are perfectly united in their feelings of disunity. Re-watching it, though, I’m fascinated by the way Dailey and Kidd glower at the other momentarily offscreen actors, or off into space, while Kelly looks straight into the camera, making eye contact with the viewers, and asking them to share and sympathize with his character’s frustration. They’re isolated in their anger; he’s creating a silent majority of audience members willing to help him judge his jerky former friends.
Keith: It’s such a smooth piece of filmmaking that I found a couple of rough spots all the more distracting, even when they lead to two of the movie’s most remarkable moments. Specifically, I mean the two times the image quality breaks down as the camera zooms in tight on the characters, then pulls back to reveal them in the middle of a vast set. The technology isn’t fully there for the tight shot, but the payoff is great when we see the characters alone together, about to go their separate ways into a big world, first as recently discharged soldiers full of big dreams, then again as seasoned adults ready to enter mid-life, having learned something from experience and disappointment. It isn’t exactly a happy ending, but there’s the potential for happiness after the credits.
Tasha: Immediately after we watched It’s Always Fair Weather, Genevieve griped that she’d spent the whole film waiting for a Gene Kelly/Cyd Charisse duet without getting it. Turns out it was cut from the film, but it’s on the DVD as an extra, and it’s worth a watch. The song is called “Love Is Nothing But A Racket,” and it features their characters playing around in a costume shop, doing quick-changes, donning and doffing characters and dance styles. It’s a lark, but it’s easy to see why it was cut, since it doesn’t accomplish much to move the story forward, or tell us anything we didn’t already know. Still, like Kelly’s roller-skate dance and the protagonists’ trashcan-lid dance, it’s a fun showcase for some talented people playing around with the form.
Noel: I’m a sucker for the elements of old movies that make them look “dated.” So I loved that Madeline’s “reducing” food of choice is pimento-cheese sandwiches—from the days when cottage cheese, a pear half, a lettuce leaf, and a plain hamburger patty was dubbed “the diet plate”—and that Ted’s boxer had delivered eight knockouts in eight months, which is way more action than any prizefighter would see today. And give it up to Comden and Green for making fun of business-speak—wise-wise, that is—five years before The Apartment did the same.
Scott: We’ve said so much in this discussion about the post-war malaise that sneaks into It’s Always Fair Weather that I feel we’ve given the false impression that this film is a miserablist dirge. But there’s a great deal of unfettered joy in the film, too, uncomplicated by anything to do with the war and its aftermath. That includes the boxing-hall, roller-skate, and trashcan-lid numbers, to say nothing of the film’s hilarious send-up of the televised arts. That doesn’t keep It’s Always Fair Weather from being bittersweet or outright melancholy at times, but the overall feeling is one of pure pleasure.
Let me also say this: Watching Stanley Donen at work convinced me that all directors of modern studio musicals—Rob Marshall, Adam Shankman, et al.—should been strapped down like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and be forced to watch Donen’s movies until they learn. Your resident movie scold demands it!
Nathan: It’s Always Fair Weather marked the reunion of the celebrated collaborators behind On The Town and Singin’ In The Rain—and also, the end of an era. Despite their glorious history, co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen never made another film together, and the fabled Freed Unit, masterminded by the great producer and songwriter Arthur Freed, was similarly on its way out, a victim of shifting audience tastes and the rise of television. The culture was at a curious crossroads at the time of the film’s release, and its legacy can be felt less in the bloated Hollywood musicals that followed, like Gene Kelly’s Hello Dolly!, than in in the curious subgenre of melancholy musicals that followed, such as Jaques Demy’s The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg and The Young Girls Of Rochefort, which pointedly cast Kelly in a supporting role. It’s Always Fair Weather stands as a crucial link between the breezy escapism of Hollywood musicals and later musicals that didn’t just acknowledge the often ugly emotions behind the plastic smiles and manic dancing, but reveled in them.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the keynote essay on It’s Always Fair Weather’s joyful despair, and concludes tomorrow with Noel Murray’s argument for the American musical as the purest form of cinema.