Wednesday, November 23, 2016

IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER: Blu-ray (MGM 1955) Warner Archive

Co-directed with formidable animosity ricocheting between its star/director, Gene Kelly, and his behind-the-scenes collaborator, Stanley Donen, It’s Always Fair Weather (1955) remains a musical begun with high expectations from the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. That it miserably failed at the box office is perhaps more a matter of timing – and certainly, very bad marketing – than any reflection on its artistic merit. Indeed, co-authors Betty Comden and Adolph Greene were mortified to discover their brainchild on the bottom half of a drive-in double bill, marching into Dore Schary’s office to demand an explanation. Schary’s tenure at MGM had been plagued almost from the get-go by ambitious plans to overhaul the company he believed was suffering from a malaise of old-fashioned-ness; a holdover from the Irving Thalberg/Louis B. Mayer era. Encouraged by Loew’s Incorporated boss, Nicholas Schenck to find ‘another Thalberg’ after Thalberg’s untimely death in 1936, Mayer would dilly-dally for almost a decade before deciding upon Schary to take over the studio’s daily operations as its VP in Charge of Production. Schary had, in fact, run several successful units elsewhere; for Selznick, at RKO, and even at MGM in the mid-forties. Alas, Schary preferred intimate, socially conscious B-budgeted B&W thrillers and melodramas to big, bloated and glossy Technicolor spectacles a la the MGM stock-in-trade. As such, almost from the moment he became Vice President his tastes began to clash with Mayer’s; so much, Mayer eventually picked up his direct line to Manhattan, informing Schenck, “It’s either me or Schary!”
This ultimatum provided Schenck with the opportunity he had been waiting some twenty odd years to pursue. Ever since Mayer had thwarted Schenck’s bid to sell MGM to Fox in the early thirties, these two enterprising giants had not seen eye to eye. Alas, so long as the winning combination of Thalberg and Mayer continued to make money for Loew’s there was precious little Schenck could do without ruffling the feathers of his stockholders. However, by the late forties, just as Schary was beginning to get comfy in his plush offices in Culver City, there were grumblings from the East Coast about Mayer’s profligate spending; also, his increased time spent away from the studio, courting a socialite/divorcee and playing the ponies with a prized stable of race horses cultivated for his own amusement. It might have gone on overlooked, except that between 1946 and 1949 not a single major Academy Award was won by an MGM picture. Worse, overall profits were at their lowest ebb since the Great Depression.
As such, Schenck leaned heavily on the misperception Schary was actually ‘running’ things in Mayer’s absence, but could manage far more efficiently if Mayer was simply out of the way; the dream factory, presumably rudderless and steering into some very stormy seas. The future course set for Metro was rockier still for the Government Consent Decrees (forcing studios to divest themselves of their top-heavy monopolies; the star system Mayer had so lovingly cultivated throughout the 1930’s and 40’s, theater chains, music and publishing apparatuses, etc. et al); also, mortally wounded by the onslaught of television, cutting theater attendance by almost half. On the whole, MGM had weathered the deluge to remain the ‘king of features’. Yet, too much occurred within a relatively short span to dampened spirits and generate concern over the studio’s dwindling yearly output; worst of all, the chartable dip in profits derived from such lavishly appointed ole-time entertainments, increasingly failing to tap into the popular zeitgeist.
Schary thought he could reform MGM, principally by greenlighting a series of B-budgeted programmers with a darker, grittier edge, using cheaper up-and-coming contract players in place of the more high-priced star talent. As these tenured contracts began to elapse they were not renewed. One by one, Schary cut into the carefully amassed entourage of personalities it had taken Mayer and Thalberg nearly thirty years to assemble under one roof. Schary had no stomach – and indeed – no head for musicals. Even so, after Mayer’s ousting from power, musicals continued to be made at MGM. Yet, despite their profitability, Schary increasingly put pressure on producer, Arthur Freed (who under Mayer’s reign had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy) to cut corners and, in fact, through his penny-pinching prevented Freed from pursuing Broadway’s most popular stage hits. Up until It’s Always Fair Weather, most MGM musicals sported a big gala premiere at one of the irrefutable movie palaces. In New York, that meant Radio City. Shocking then, for Comden and Green to learn Schary’s plans for It’s Always Fair Weather did not include even a brief stint at any of the more prominent venues, but an unceremonious dumping on the market with minimal fanfare.  Schary might have surmised It’s Always Fair Weather was not your typical MGM musical, electing to forego the necessary budgetary blowout to push what he likely – if mistakenly – perceived as a middling effort at best. 
Viewed today, there is no denying the picture’s innovative camera work, its clever use of split screen, and, the dynamic songs and dances that personify the very best MGM had to offer then. Yet, even on surface appeal alone, It’s Always Fair Weather is a difficult musical to digest. It eschews the light and frothy standard, bursting forth in Hollywood musicals like Singin’ in the Rain and An American In Paris. Its Comden/Green screenplay delves into darker issues: the awkward assimilation of three returning soldiers into civilian life after the war, and, their penultimate falling out as their status as ‘war buddies’ reveals they have absolutely nothing in common in peace time ten years later. Actually, the story plays much better from the vantage of our current post-modern cynicism. But in 1955, amid a decade of ‘more the merrier’  and increasingly ‘by the numbers’ entertainments, with musicals, generally considered straight-forward/mindless confections, decorously fleshing out their wafer thin ‘boy meets girl’ scenarios with plush and padded numbers, It’s Always Fair Weather was hardly the proverbial ray of sunshine its title suggested. Rather, it was a thundershower on all that pie-eyed optimism, perhaps even understandably shunned by audiences who, having endured a decade of war, wanted absolutely nothing more or better from their musicals than glycerin smiles married to lollypops, rainbows and wishing-well happy endings.
It really has not helped the picture’s reputation since, that co-directors, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen diligently chiseled away at its attributes, Kelly disregarding It’s Always Fair Weather as “a complete failure” while Donen focused on the animosity brewing between them behind the scenes. “I really didn’t want to co-direct anything with Gene at this point,” Donen later explained, “We didn’t get on. For that matter, Gene wasn’t getting along with anyone.” “It was awkward,” composer Andre Previn concurred, “Here were all these creative geniuses toiling together, giving it their all, but somehow, they could never agree on a particular style to satisfy everyone’s artistic sensibilities…I also don’t think too many of the songs were very good.” Kelly’s verve for perfection is well documented. Yet, on It’s Always Fair Weather, it seems to hinge on an overreaching arc of professional jealousy. As example, Kelly elected to cut a 10 minute ballet, ‘Jack and the Space Giants’ choreographed as a showcase for co-star, Michael Kidd. Having thrown everything he had into his screen debut, Kidd was bitterly disappointed when the number ended up on the cutting room floor. “It was a little long,” Kidd later admitted, “But it wasn’t bad. It worked. It could have stayed.”
Kelly initially wanted It’s Always Fair Weather to be a reunion picture with his costars from 1949’s On the Town: Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin. When Sinatra proved unavailable and the studio balked at Munshin, whose popularity had slipped, Kelly demanded two professional dancers cast in their stead; Dore Schary coming to the rescue with Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. Yet, therein lay the challenge for Kelly, to stand out from his competition. Certainly, he had the biggest cache in star power at Metro then; perhaps, anywhere as the screen’s premiere dancer (tied for this top spot with Fred Astaire). By contrast, Dan Dailey’s solid reputation as a Fox contract player/dancer of the late forties was already on the wane, briefly resurrected in 1954’s ensemble spectacular, There’s No Business Like Show Business. But Kidd was primarily a choreographer, not a ‘star’ and would happily return to his best work behind the scenes after It’s Always Fair Weather. “I don’t really think of it as a flop,” Kidd suggested in 1999, “More a grand experiment that never quite got off the ground. It has its moments and a lot of it is very good. It just wasn’t what the public expected from an MGM musical. It just wasn’t the right time for it.”
Indeed, the popularity of movie musicals had already begun to cool by 1955. To be sure, the genre would outlive the decade and lumber through the better half of the sixties, occasionally producing a megahit like The Music Man, My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins or The Sound of Music. But by the mid-1950’s, MGM’s Tiffany-styled musicals were playing the part of the poor country cousin at the box office as studios like 2oth Century-Fox and Paramount readily outbid and out-produced Metro on a grander scale of opulence, and, with increasingly more innovation – a hallmark of MGM in its prime. One need only compare Oklahoma! (made the same year as It’s Always Fair Weather) to note the differences: the former, a bright, breezy and bucolic musical shot entirely on location, independently released for the Magna Corporation and utilizing the newly christened Todd A-O; the latter, shot entirely on obvious sets occasionally looking their age on the MGM back lot. Next to Oklahoma!, It’s Always Fair Weather is just another studio-bound and comparatively claustrophobic small entertainment tricked out in Cinemascope. To compensate, Arthur Freed put his best people on It’s Always Fair Weather; Metro’s showmanship expected to carry the load. There are, to be certain, some very fine moments in the picture; ‘The Binge’ – as example – is a magnificent drunken carouser with Kelly, Dailey and Kidd donning metal garbage pail lids on their feet for an ecstatic – if noisy – tap routine. Cyd Charisse’s ‘Baby, You Knock Me Out’ is a boxing match cum vigorous assault on the acoustic nerve; Kelly’s invigorating tap on roller skates, ‘I Like Myself’, and finally, Dolores Gray’s sultry and fickle ‘come hither’ invitational, ‘Thanks A Lot But No Thanks’ among the electrifying highlights. The unforgivable sin of It’s Always Fair Weather is it denies us the opportunity to see Kelly and Charisse locked in a passionate pas deux. Kelly would later reason, “There just wasn’t any room for it…we even had to cut stuff to make it work.”    
Still, It’s Always Fair Weather is a very odd duck, its premise dealing with soldiers and friendships, after each has ceased to exist, seems the very antithesis of other ship-to-shore musicals made popular at the studio; Anchors Aweigh (1945), On The Town (1949), and Hit The Deck (released the same year as It’s Always Fair Weather to even less acclaim). Whether It’s Always Fair Weather failed to live up to the memory of these past achievements is a moot point. Arguably, what affected the movie negatively, at least behind the scenes, was Gene Kelly’s self-indulgences to create a star vehicle for himself at the expense of his two male co-stars. Undeniably, Kelly’s Ted Riley is the most robust and fully fleshed out in the picture. Even so, Riley is, by far, the most unlikable cad Kelly has ever played in pictures; a gambler and a playboy without any moral fiber. He is severely jaded too, about life in general and women in particular, wholly unwilling to accept his old army buddies for who and what they are – or rather, have become since the war – mildly amused and condescending toward the uncouth layman, Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd), who has had the cheek to name his Schenectady hamburger joint, the ‘Cordon Bleu’ and all but frowning upon Doug Hallerton’s (Dan Dailey) flourish of success since the war as a glib – if peptic ulcer-ridden – Madison Avenue advertising exec, whose wartime aspirations to become a serious painter are distilled into two highly lucrative, though barely artistic achievements; ad campaigns for Julio the Gelatin Man and Miss Kleanse-rite; a stick-figure mop girl, used to promote the popular television program, Midnight with Madeline, starring the superficial platinum-bobbed hostess, Madeline Bradville (Dolores Gray).   
Almost every plot point hinges on Ted’s spurious dealings with Charles Z. Culloran (Jay C. Flippen), who fixes a boxing match set to feature Ted’s great white hope, Kid Mariacchi (Steve Mitchell). Learning of ‘the Kid’s secret payoff to throw the pending fight – and thus, deprive Ted of his already heavily betted winnings – Ted deliberately knocks his boy out cold; thus, ruining Culloran’s chances to collect instead. Culloran sends his goon squad to teach Ted a lesson; the manhunt culminating in a flawed second reunion between Doug, Angie and Ted0, orchestrated by TV exec, Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse) who brings them together for a shameless plug on Madeline’s show. Yet, this too ends badly – at least for the ratings – when these three transparently hostile ‘old friends’ openly admit during the live broadcast they cannot even recall what made them such inseparable buddies during the war. Seeing the broadcast, Culloran and his goons descend on the auditorium. An all-out brawl ensues, livening up the leaden proceedings. United in their testosterone-driven assault against another ‘common’ enemy, Angie and Doug rally to Ted’s aid; Culloran, caught in a confession on live TV, arrested on charges of racketeering.  
While Kelly was not at all impressed with the final results, Comden and Green were over the moon after reading the critic’s reviews. Variety called It’s Always Fair Weather, ‘the best of the Cinemascope musicals’; while the New York Times gave a resounding cheer for the score, Kelly’s technical prowess and Dolores Gray’s comedic charm. What was less impressive – to downright disappointing – was the public’s general disinterest in the movie. Arguably, submarined by Dore Schary’s shortsightedness and lack of press and promotion, It’s Always Fair Weather quickly faded into obscurity, its $2,062,256 budget offset by a meager worldwide gross of barely $2,485,000. Arguably, Schary needed no encouragement or convincing the Metro musical had had its day. He did not like musicals – though especially, when they failed to recoup their investment. Despite Schary’s best efforts to see less and less musicals made per annum at Metro, mercifully, Arthur Freed continued to pursue the ‘good fight’. Ironically, Freed would outlast Schary’s tenure at the studio; Schary, fired by Schenck after Raintree County (1957); erroneously billed as the Civil War epic to rival Gone With The Wind (1939), though actually little more – or better – than an overblown and tedious melodrama. The most expensive movie then produced at MGM, Raintree County ultimately succumbed to exactly the sort of elephantiasis Dore Schary accused Metro musicals of being guilty. As for Freed, he would go on to make more musicals. Increasingly, however, his heart was not in them. 1957’s sublime and sophisticated Silk Stockings and the multi-Oscar-winning Gigi (1958) aside, the real golden age of Arthur Freed unofficially ended in 1955. 
However, time does very strange things to movie art. Viewed today, It’s Always Fair Weather is much more varied and progressive than any critic of its day might have given it credit; the story, affecting without ever becoming maudlin or cloying. Yes, it’s still not your typical fare, what with Kelly, Kidd and Dailey spending the bulk of the run time absolutely hating their time spent together, while sinking to even greater depths of self-loathing apart. Emotionally, the picture is very bleak and, even in Eastman Color it derives a more drab realism as its visual style. Robert J. Bronner’s cinematography and Arthur Lonergan’s art direction mask the obvious MGM back lot sets; the studio’s New York Street cluttered in vintage automobiles and scores of extras milling about; a sort of scruffy illusion-on-an-illusion; Manhattan reincarnated in demure colors that vaguely convince us, if not of the location, then most definitely the concept as a distinct departure from the studio’s usual cotton-floss musical entertainments. Almost immediately after the main titles, the screen separates into tri-panels depicting the rigors of battle and these three friends; comrades in war, who will have to look a lot harder to find as much to buoy their friendship in peace time. 
Ted, Doug and Angie part company after some heavy drinking at their favorite local watering hole.  But before they separate, Ted tears a ten dollar bill into three equal portions, giving one piece to each man. The trio vows to reunite in ten years to see where life has taken them. Unfortunately, time alters their expectations, both of what life has in store for them and each other. Ted becomes a professional gambler and boxing manager; Doug, an uppity ad executive with chronic indigestion, and Angie, the loud-mouthed proprietor of a highway eatery affectionately named the Cordon Bleu. The three chums very quickly realize they have absolutely nothing in common and worse, they hate one another. However, as fate would have it, Doug’s campaign for TV’s human interest program, ‘Midnight with Madeline’ has fixed it so the boys will suffer another ‘surprise reunion’ on live television.
Ted immediately makes a play for the show’s producer, Jackie Leighton. She finds him obnoxious – at first, but predictably reassesses him as more bearable, even attractive, as time wears on. Furthermore, Jackie is sympathetic to Ted’s current bind; being forced to fix a fight. Seems a pack of gangsters headed by racketeer, Charlie Culloran are determined Ted’s pro throw his match. Ted intercedes, knocking his boy unconscious in the dressing room, thereby forfeiting the fight and losing Charlie a pile of money. Charlie and his boys tail Ted to the live broadcast of Midnight With Madeline, presided over by the superficial and unintentionally hilarious, Madeleine Bradville. The plan is to lure Ted outside where Chuck’s boys will use him as a human piñata. If Ted is lucky, he will live through the night, and, with proper care and therapy, be able to suck his meals through a straw for eight to ten months. Instead, Jackie turns the cameras on Charlie, who inadvertently confesses his involvement in the fix on live TV. Charlie and his men attack Ted. But Angie and Doug come to his aid. In the ensuing brawl, Doug, Ted and Angie re-establish their friendship and Charlie and his boys are carted off to jail. Angie, Doug and Ted, now with Jackie in tow, return to the bar for one final drink. They go their separate ways, only this time secure in the knowledge they will always remain life-long buddies.
At its core, It’s Always Fair Weather is a bittersweet melodrama bundled in the mélange of a typical splashy Hollywood musical. From these conflicted narrative styles derives some of the most exhilarating numbers ever conceived for the Cinemascope screen. Kelly, Dailey and Kidd’s ‘The Binge’ is an exuberant and playful celebration of ‘boys being boys’ under the influence. Kelly transforms the seemingly pompous, ‘I Like Myself’ into a tour de force on roller skates (albeit unoriginal, as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had previously conceived a similar routine for 1937’s Shall We Dance). Dolores Gray’s sultry lampoon, ‘Thanks A Lot But no Thanks’ is a scrumptious send up to the proverbial gold-digging vixen as she rejects jewels, furs and other sundry gifts from a hapless pack of male suitors. ‘Once I Had A Dream’ deftly re-conceives the Cinemascope screen as three independent panels where Kelly, Dailey and Kidd perform a soft shoe on separate sets, miraculously in perfect unison. Personally, I have always been a sucker for ‘Baby You Knock Me Out’, Cyd Charisse, with a male chorus of pug-nosed pugilists. Musically, there is much to recommend the movie, and such a shame to think of it as putting a period to co-directors, Kelly and Donen’s fruitful collaborations. They may not have been the best of friends by this time, but their alliance produced some of MGM’s most celebrated and fondly recalled musical moments.  In retrospect, It’s Always Fair Weather is trying a tad too hard to be ‘original’ – to break out from the time-honored conventions and be something the best examples in the genre never aspire to but often achieve; natural, uncompromising and honest character studies set against a pseudo-realism, more vice than virtue. Do not misunderstand. It’s Always Fair Weather is an innovative picture that falls just shy of being considered a masterpiece. But there is too much going on around its peripheries. Generally, it is better than good; arguably, the parts more impressive than its sum total. Occasionally, it’s even brilliant. But overall, It’s Always Fair Weather never attains that elusive legendary status for which far too few musicals, but proportionately, a good deal more made at Metro exceled, apparently as an afterthought.
Warner Archive (WAC) has remastered It’s Always Fair Weather for Blu-ray. Alas, it’s still a mixed bag. Okay, we knew going into this one it probably would not yield perfect results; two pivotal moments in particular plagued by an optical zoom; the image very fuzzy to downright out of focus in all its gloriously flawed 2.55:1 Cinemascope aspect ratio. We can sincerely overlook this, also the brief dupes inserted throughout that experiences a fairly obvious drop in both in overall image clarity and refinement, also, color balancing. Early Eastmancolor comes with its own assortment of shortcomings; as did Ansco, later preferred and used on MGM’s ‘scope’ product. Generally, herein the color is very good, leaning a bit unhealthily toward the cyan spectrum with some fairly pinkish flesh tones. But overall, the thing clings together with much resolved grain structure, some fairly impressive contrast, deeply saturated black levels and some very nice shadow detail.  A blu-ribbon winner? Hardly. Competently remastered for hi-def; but, of course. Remember, WAC has set a high standard. If this disc does not quite attain those heights, it is certainly not for their lack of trying. The best reason to enjoy It’s Always Fair Weather in 1080p: early six track Cinemascope stereo, lovingly reproduced in newly remastered 5.1 DTS here – ‘baby, it knocked me out!’ All of the extras featured on the old DVD have been directly ported over for this release, including the truncated, Going Out on a High Note: a thumbnail retrospective on the tumultuous gestation and production. There’s also snippets from the MGM Parade, a cartoon short, and two reeler, several outtakes of musical sequences cut before the picture’s release and a trailer. Bottom line: It’s Always Fair Weather is another treasure from the MGM vaults; not quite the Cartier of the studio’s offerings, though hardly the red-headed stepchild once considered. This Blu-ray, while not perfect, has been given the utmost attention and respect nobly paid. Like WAC, you’ll want it for your own archives as well.  
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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