BRIGADOON: Blu-ray (MGM 1954) Warner Archive
Ah me, “once in the highlands…the highlands of Scotland”…or a reasonable facsimile. Director, Vincente Minnelli marked his 10th year anniversary as MGM producer Arthur Freed’s point man in movie musicals with Brigadoon (1954); an escapist fantasy, photographed in the then relatively new-fangled expanses of Cinemascope (and regrettably, ANSCO-Color). Based on the Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe Broadway smash, Brigadoon was a project begun with high hopes on Minnelli’s part and even higher expectations from the new studio brass. It quickly devolved into a headache for all concerned. Co-collaborator and star, Gene Kelly desperately wanted to shoot Brigadoon amidst the authentic mists and heather on a hill in Scotland. Denied such luxury, Minnelli was perfectly contented to give Brigadoon its due on locations somewhere in California. In the end, neither had his way; MGM’s newly appointed President, Dore Schary slashing both budget and schedule, forcing the entire production onto sound stages. Interestingly, we can see the merits (as well as the vices) to both sides of this argument; the artifice, while transparent, nevertheless expertly crafted by MGM’s art department to fill the cavernous interiors on Stage 15 with a breathtaking 360 degree cyclorama, its forced perspective of papier-mâché hills bedecked in miles of sumac (dressed as heather) and an assortment of quaint thatched roof cottages, neatly arranged along winding country paths.
To the untrained eye, it all looks rather moodily magnificent – fake, yet thoroughly in keeping within the confines and precepts of creating ‘Hollywood-styled’ musical movie-land magic of the highest order. As for Schary; his only concern was the budget. Never mind Scotland’s chronically inclement climate, certain to cause delays if cast and crew were to traipse off to Europe. By 1954, Schary had become acutely aware he had inherited not only MGM’s mantle of prestige from the prematurely ousted Louis B. Mayer on approval from Loew’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenk, but also the anticipated authority to turn the studio’s steadily declining fortunes around. Only in hindsight would Schary’s executive appointment to Metro, first as its VP in Charge of Production in 1948, then, after Mayer’s unceremonious heave-ho, set atop its lumbering edifice as overseer (though never monarch), prove an unwise business decision. Schary, who had thrived at RKO, reveling in the ‘smallness’ and ‘experimentation’ derived from being his own boss and making his beloved ‘message pictures’, had been courted to join Metro; given carte blanche at the biggest and then most profitable ‘dream factory’ in all of Hollywood. Yet, almost from the outset he seemed destined never to fit in; unappreciative of MGM’s star system (he would increasingly regard stars as ‘top heavy’ liabilities rather than assets) and Metro’s designation as the leader of the musical as a viable genre. Nevertheless, even Schary could see Metro had had a long, distinguished – and most of all – profitable track record with the Hollywood musical under Arthur Freed and Joseph Pasternak’s auspices.
During Mayer’s dominion Freed in particular had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy to pursue most any project he desired. Like Mayer, Freed loved musicals and made his twice yearly pilgrimage to New York to acquire new properties. Perhaps realizing he knew just enough to know he did not know everything, Schary allowed Freed to carry on as he might have after Mayer’s exit. However, by the mid-1950’s it was increasingly obvious to Freed this new exec was something of a wily ‘yes man’ for the New York front offices; also, a number cruncher who made sense of the movies through spread sheets and stock holder dividends. Schary had artistic ambitions too. But they conflicted with MGM’s motto of ‘ars gratia artis’ (art for art’s sake); a tug-o-war steadily creeping into the mix as Schary, testing his new authority, repeatedly trimmed Freed’s projected budgets, sometimes even while the Freed Unit was in the middle of shooting a movie, funneling this extra cash into his own passion projects (minor programmers with dark themes, usually lacking the star power associated with the usual glittery Metro product). The irony, of course, is that precisely at this juncture when the movies were getting ‘bigger’ (at least in their ever-expanding canvas of visual presentation – Cinemascope, Cinerama, VistaVision et al.) the industry, on the whole, was suffering from a sort of ‘loose stool’ chaos and its first real financial entrenchment since the early 1930s.
Once, in a long while, Schary would permit Freed his extravagances. Yet, more often than not, these were frowned upon as simply that – ‘extravagances’ Metro could not, or perhaps ‘should not’ afford. By the mid-fifties, Hollywood in general, and MGM in particular was fighting a two-fisted losing battle on the home front against television. With belt-tightening came the bitter acknowledgement the studio era as that all-pervasive national drug of choice in popular entertainments had suddenly and seemingly inexplicably come to an end. Mayer’s misguided logic had mirrored Hollywood’s initial reaction on a whole; pretend it’s not happening and it will eventually go away. But by 1954 it was impossible to ignore that ‘little black box’ in everyone’s living room. Local theater attendance had dried up; the once opulent movie palaces shuttered and/or converted to some other usage for which they were never originally intended. Schary’s approach was somewhat different; to challenge the audience with what he deemed as ‘more adult’ stories; leaving MGM’s expansive roster of musical talent to cool their heels. After all, why spend moneys to erect a Technicolored artifice for the musical/comedy star when one could get all this high-priced talent for free, warbling tunes or performing skits on any of the tube’s weekly variety shows? Oh sure, an Elvis musical could still draw in the crowds. And Bing Crosby too…maybe. But on the whole TV had killed the intimate movie musical, MGM’s bread-n’-butter throughout the 1940’s. Seen in this light, and additionally, with production costs skyrocketing, and furthermore, from a perspective of longevity rather than legacy, Schary’s re-imagining of Metro’s fortunes appeared, at least on the surface, to be all about sound economics: a trimming of the unnecessary fat meant to ensure the goose could continue to lay its golden eggs. In the long run however, Schary’s edicts would have a devastating effect on MGM, splintering the loyalties of its alumni as well as badly needed studio’s profits, and, ultimately be revealed as a matter of conflicting personal tastes; Schary hoping to reinvent Metro as merely a larger version of the studio he had left behind.
And into this grave uncertainty came Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly to pitch Brigadoon to Schary; exactly the sort of lavishly appointed ‘on location’ big budget musical extravaganza he deplored. Oh, what Brigadoon might have been if these three musketeers had their way. If only Mayer had stuck around to see the day. And yet, in acquiring the property wholesale, Freed had gone against even the grain of his own precepts. MGM’s outpouring of musical hits throughout the 1940’s owed very little to Broadway; Hollywood far more interested in putting on homegrown product to rival the ‘legitimate’ theater and, in many ways, even better its stagecraft. Alas, by 1950 the trims at MGM had cut so deep into its creative stock company of behind-the-scenes personnel it was easier for Freed to buy up a Broadway show than commission something original. The problem here too was money. Freed, basically afforded unprecedented autonomy by Mayer to buy whatever he wanted, now had to get approval from Schary to make his bid stick. While the haggling between Freed and Schary persisted other producers at other studios came along with deeper pockets to satisfy. Thus, Freed was to lose out on two huge deals from the decade; the first, to indie-producer, Samuel Goldwyn (ousted from partaking in the newly amalgamated MGM all the way back in 1927), buying the rights to Broadway’s zeitgeist, Guys and Dolls and making a colossally successful movie version in 1955. The second misfire involved 2oth Century-Fox and Michael Todd’s Magna Corp.; again, beating Freed to the finish line, acquiring the rights to co-produce the Rodgers and Hammerstein mega hits, Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and later, The King and I and Carousel. If Mayer had been in charge there is little doubt these shows would have come to MGM via Arthur Freed. Now, all Freed could do was stand by as the competition repeatedly took advantage of the artistic malaise increasingly enveloping Metro’s backlot.
In the shadow of these missed opportunities was Brigadoon; Lerner and Loewe’s melodic masterpiece; good for 581 stage performances along the Great White Way and another 685 at London’s West End during the 1946-47 seasons; no slouch in good press or solid box office – if correctly handled. And Freed, whose personal esteem for Lerner had made MGM’s acquisition of Brigadoon practically a foregone conclusion, equally neglected to pursue Finian’s Rainbow – the other big hit caught in this Celtic crossfire. On stage, Brigadoon had been an affecting bit of the blarney about a Scottish village materializing out of the highland mists once every hundred years; a curse or salvation (depending on one’s point of view) foisted upon its small community by a priest’s pact with God to spare his village from outside influences. Forevermore to afflict the inhabitants, who remain ageless in their suspended animation and thus impervious to the ever-advancing social ills of the world at large, the spell is challenged some 200 year into the future with the arrival of a pair of malcontents from the big city or, as the Lerner/Loewe score more eloquently puts it, just “two weary travelers who have lost their way” – both literally and figuratively. The culture clash is immediate and fraught with devastating consequences on both sides as jaded ad man, Johnny Albright (played in the movie by then forty-two year old Gene Kelly) and his even more jaundiced best friend, Jeff Douglas (deliciously cynical Van Johnson) stumble upon this ‘one in ninety-nine years’ fantasy land; the former becoming smitten and amiably pursuing an impossible romance with the luscious Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse); the latter, comically pursued by the boy-crazy Scots-tart, Meg Brockie (Dodie Heath). Fiona’s father, Andrew (Albert Sharpe) is about to marry off his youngest, Jean (Virginia Bosler) to the handsome and strapping Charles Chisholm Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson) in a ceremony planned for later that day. Alas, the serenity of Jean and Charles’ vows – and, in fact – the very certainty of the village of Brigadoon is threatened when spurned suitor, Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) resolves to flee beyond the ascribed boundaries of the ‘blessing’; thus, ending the village’s dreamlike state, presumably, with catastrophic repercussions for all.
Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel, Lerner and Loewe undertook to create a musical with a dramatic love story at its core. Almost immediately Lerner’s inspiration was brought into question when the New York Times politely suggested he had ‘borrowed’ the idea for his modern fairy tale from an ancient story by German author, Friedrich Gerstäcker, later translated into English by Charles Brandon Schaeffer. Incensed, Lerner publicly denied ever having any prior knowledge of the aforementioned literary work and subsequently stuck to his guns, suggesting any similarities between the two were pure ‘unconscious coincidence’. In reexamining the Gerstäcker text, obvious similarities are present. Nevertheless, Lerner managed to avoid a suit for copyright infringement. After all, it is possible for two geniuses to come up with similarly themed narratives. Lerner may have ‘invented’ the name Brigadoon as a riff on the well-known Scottish landmark Brig o' Doon, a.k.a. Bridge of Doon (the movie, in fact, opens with a shot of the dawn cresting over a modestly cobble-stoned footbridge, complete with babbling brook beneath it), or he might have been inspired by the Celtic derivative; ‘briga’ (meaning ‘town’) and Gaelic dùn (or ‘fort’).
Whatever the case, on stage, Brigadoon had followed the tried and true trajectory perfected by Rodger and Hammerstein; focusing on librettists to carry its pop-score and backed by an entourage of classically trained dancers to express its more balletic sentiments while the principles retired off stage to a quick change in preparation for the next scene. This structure proved problematic for the film version, primarily because Freed had cast Gene Kelly and (eventually) Cyd Charisse as his leads; par excellence dancers with limited vocal capabilities. While Freed and Kelly were conspiring to either shoot Brigadoon in Scotland or near California’s Big Sur, the initial contract Arthur Freed ironed out with Metro’s soprano, Kathryn Grayson elapsed. In her stead, Freed fought like hell to get ballet dancer, Moira Shearer to be his Fiona. Since her debut in Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 escapist fantasy/drama, The Red Shoes the red-headed Scot was in very high demand. However, the Sadler Wells Ballet Co. to which her contract belonged, fearing a lengthy movie shoot to interrupt its own pending season of live performances, absolutely refused to allow Shearer to partake of this exercise.
For prestige, Freed added the esteemed premiere danseur, Hugh Laing to the cast; a move to stick in Gene Kelly’s craw, as he was increasingly opposed to sharing the screen with male competition. Kelly’s clout would prove devastating to Laing’s performance; virtually emasculated, consigned to all but a handful of cutaways: Laing’s Harry Beaton dashing in and out of the penultimate and dramatically executed ‘chase’. Others in Freed’s hand-picked roster included Albert Sharpe (who had appeared in 1951’s Royal Wedding), and Finian’s own Welsh-born Barry Jones, as Brigadoon’s prolific sage, Mr. Lundie. While Freed mostly had his way with this ‘front of house’ talent, the backstage was largely entrusted to Minnelli’s forte – albeit, with Freed’s presiding approval; Irene Sharaff for the costumes, and, Preston Ames and George Gibson to visualize the sets. Even as their collaborative efforts pleased his own artistic sensibilities, what irked Minnelli considerably were the technological restrictions placed on the production beyond Freed’s control. Like it or not – and Minnelli decidedly did not – Brigadoon would be photographed in Cinemascope; the elongated 2.35:1 proportions of the screen reasoned by its director as only suitable for exhibiting funeral processions and snakes.
Worse for Minnelli’s creative spontaneity, he was required to shoot Brigadoon twice; in a process MGM dubbed ‘Wide Screen’ (roughly 1.75:1) to accommodate theaters that had yet to retool for the unique projection requirements of Cinemascope. It should be noted shooting in these competing formats could not be resolved simply by aligning both camera setups side by side to photograph the same scene at the same time. Rather, each scene had to be methodically laid out and uniquely staged to fill the vast expanses of Cinemascope; then, reconfigured to accommodate the other camera setup, achieved under alternate lighting conditions; the actors composited to fit within the decidedly more square parameters of the ‘Wide Screen’ format. At one point during this tedious back and forth co-star, Van Johnson reasoned he was making ‘two’ movies for the price of one and marched into Dore Schary’s office to protest his single salary for what amounted to twice his usual workload. Schary’s reply, “That’s right, Van. You’re making two movies and you’re getting one salary…and be very glad that you are,” sent Johnson away chagrined, never again to question this executive logic.
Two – or rather, three other misgivings evolved to quietly knock the wind out of Minnelli’s enthusiasm; first, the studio’s decision to shoot Brigadoon in the less expensive Ansco Color, producing muddier tones than Technicolor, mostly offset by cinematographer extraordinaire, Joseph Ruttenberg, who proved adaptable to the challenges, counteracting some with more extreme concentrations of light to illuminate the set and thus provide the visual richness one expects from an MGM musical. Brigadoon would also mark Minnelli’s debut in true stereophonic sound; not so much a hindrance as it added to the cost of the production, forcing Minnelli to cut corners elsewhere. For time constraints, two numbers already shot by Minnelli – both ballads – were eventually dropped from the final cut. The first, ‘There But For You Go I’ is a rather unprepossessing poem, suffering from Gene Kelly’s thin vocalization; Kelly, obviously straining to hit the high notes. But the second, ‘Come to Me, Bend to Me’ is a distinct loss; Jimmy Thompson, convincingly lip-syncing to John Gustefson’s immaculate countertenor as Charles Dalrymple pleads with his betrothed to allow him entry to her bridal chamber before the wedding; a permission repeatedly denied. Prior to these cuts, Minnelli and Freed had already made the decision to pare down the musical program, thus consolidating a two and a half hour stagecraft into a 108 minute movie. To some extent, the choices made were preordained by Hollywood’s self-governing body of censorship, disavowing two songs, ‘The Love of My Life’ and ‘My Mother’s Wedding Day’ (both sung by Meg Brockie – a character barely glimpsed in the movie) on the grounds the lyrics were ‘too provocative’. Furthering these trims was Minnelli’s decision to pass on ‘From This Day On’ (another ballad, its’ sentiments already expressed in the retained ‘The Heather on the Hill’) and finally, ‘The Sword Dance’ – a lengthier ensemble piece immediately to have followed the arrival of the clans. It too fell on the cutting room floor.
But the genuine disappointment for Minnelli on Brigadoon was Gene Kelly; intractable and virtually ignoring all of his subtler suggestions. Minnelli and Kelly had worked with such creative symbiosis on the Oscar-winning An American In Paris (1951) it never dawned on Minnelli anything but smooth sailing lay ahead of them this time out. Alas, in the interim, Kelly had ostensibly grown as an artiste – or rather, his ego had. Apart from making demands to pare down Hugh Laing’s performance (mostly to keep it from competing with his own) Kelly increasingly viewed Brigadoon as an off kilter hybrid of his performance in An American in Paris and something of a highland western in dance. Interestingly, there are moments in the picture to mimic this earlier success; most transparently in Kelly’s solo ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ staged almost verbatim to Paris’ ‘S’wonderful’. Minnelli preferred to think of Brigadoon as a Flemish fantasia, more visually understated and lyrical. However, as he quickly deduced he had lost his ability to influence Kelly to try things his way, within weeks into the shoot Minnelli simply gave up even trying to be persuasive; concentrating his efforts on performers more receptive to his ideas. The net result: Kelly’s Tommy Albright emerges from Brigadoon as a spurned sourpuss; Tommy’s inner innocence never revived, except perhaps in Kelly’s immaculate pas deux with the leggy Cyd Charisse. Not surprisingly, the two best sequences in Brigadoon – the village’s reawakening and the arrival of the clans – have absolutely nothing to do with Tommy and Fiona. Each of these numbers is an undiluted tour de force exalted to a distinct level as abstract tableaux by Minnelli’s keen camera eye.
Despite such moments, the elusive spark of true and intangible cinema magic eludes Brigadoon on the whole; the characters as fake as the backdrops; George Gibson’s dioramas cluttered and static instead of moodily magnificent with a few light and dewy touches lingering for effect. Hence, when the artificial ‘sun’ peers through the filtering mists, instead of reaching to the back of the house with its haunted, penetrating invitation meant to beckon the audience into this abyss unknown, striking instead against transparently cardboard facades; exposing the petrified trees and stiffening long grasses as carefully laid out as an anthropological exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. And the tone of the piece is further hampered by Minnelli’s placement of his actors to fill every inch of the Cinemascope frame for fear of the dreaded ‘dead space’ on either side of his principals. Occasionally, this ‘congestion’ of extras is effective; as in ‘I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean’; as Kelly and Johnson’s strangers in this highly stylized and very strange land are caught up in the ebullience of Jimmy Thompson’s declaration of love; locking arms with the locals as they toggle from right to left, back and forth across the screen. But the effect is stifling elsewhere. As example: Cyd Charisse (lip-syncing to India Adams for ‘Waiting For My Dearie’) sashays about the relative confinement of her quaint family cottage, forced to flit in and out of the furnishings as a female chorine artfully scurries to get out of her way.
To some extent, Brigadoon’s lithe spirit is as obscured by Vincente Minnelli’s incapacity to warm to the ‘mail slot’ proportions of the Cinemascope frame. For decades prior to its introduction, the movies had achieved what no stage show could; drawing their audiences into the screen with punctuated close-ups; the effect meant to be shared as a proletariat’s ‘front and center’ experience; the audience absorbed into their make-believe. Yet herein, Minnelli and Cinemascope conspire to accomplish the exact opposite; Brigadoon’s massive panoramas dwarfing the principals on every occasion while pushing the audience away from its spectacle. We never get to see the faces of our stars in anything more distinct than a medium two shot; the edges of the frame cramped in interesting bric-a-brac to draw our attention more to the milieu than the moment. This effect is only amplified by composer/conductor, Johnny Green’s bombastic six track stereo orchestrations of the vibrant Lerner and Loewe score, sweeping choral arrangements pouring in on all sides without ever achieving musicalized intimacy. In an effort to reassert Cinemascope’s claim the movies are bigger and better than ever, the effect herein is not so much complimentary as it frequently seems terribly at odds, particularly with the subtler material. Thanks to Joseph Ruttenberg we get exquisitely lit compositions. Alas, Minnelli has become too enraptured in his quest to evoke the Flemish masters. While Brigadoon frequently bears the hallmarks of a vintage Rembrandt, it lacks the cinematic precision of an iconic Minnellian fantasy, more reminiscent of Minnelli’s own Yolanda and the Thief (1945); another misfire for which more style than substance had been applied.
Beyond these artistic shortcomings, there remains something distinctly off-putting about Brigadoon’s fantastical suspension in disbelief. As with Frank Capra’s Lost Horizon, here too our protagonists are presented with a terrible contemplation: surrendering every last vestige of life as it is known in their own time for an uncertainty with few – if any - short-term redeemable virtues. Tommy’s love for Fiona affords him two unique opportunities to remain within Brigadoon’s boundaries forever – should he choose. He does, but is talked out of the first of these impromptu decisions at the last possible moment by Jeff, who angrily orders his usually level-headed friend to shake the daydreams and wishing wells from his reckless euphoria. To enter Brigadoon as a citizen is to abandon everything for perhaps only a chance. It behooves us to reconsider the inhabitants of Brigadoon have not been given eternal life in this magical pact with God; merely the natural progression of the aging process prolonged over centuries of time. However, since this suspension of time is spent mostly in slumber and thus imperceptible to those under its spell, not even the trajectory of time itself can be enjoyed; unlike the mythic boundaries of Shangri-La in Lost Horizon, that at least deliver on a promise of fossilization in the aging process, allowing inhabitants to live well beyond several hundred years in their otherwise natural allotment of earthly time. Conversely, to become a resident of Brigadoon is to purchase a one-way ticket to ‘forever’, as Jeff points out, in the longest running ‘forever’ on record. Once having crossed this threshold there can be no place for Tommy Albright in whatever world awaits to collide with Brigadoon’s one hundred year anniversary the next time.
In retrospect, a goodly number of fantasy films from the 1930s right on through the late 1950s are imbued with this undercurrent of ‘be careful what you wish for’ moralization. Consider that we really do not know what the future holds for Tommy Albright after he has consigned himself to the enveloping highland mystique of Brigadoon. Perhaps he has found nirvana on earth – or perhaps not. But he will not and cannot return from whatever state of consciousness has afflicted him once he leaves the only real world he has ever known far behind. Fantasy films of this particular vintage, from The Wizard of Oz (1939) to Lost Horizon, right on through to Brigadoon challenge their protagonists’ notions about the proverbial ‘grass’ being ‘greener on ‘the other side’ of their misaligned somewhere over the rainbows. Ultimately, in each of these ‘cautionary’ scenarios the decision is made, either a return to normalcy as per that life previously escaped (as in, say Kansas over Oz), nevertheless, now made sweetly familiar and edifying by the friendships cultivated along the way, or, contrariwise, to seek out the illusory catnip of these fantastical holidays into Pan’s purgatory, hoping for something better on the other side. This latter endeavor, it should be pointed out, is merely a ‘hope’ not a ‘promise’; particularly for the participant who knows too well the discrepancies between the world he/she has left behind without fully to comprehend the ramifications involved in the one about to become the newly adopted home.
If, as the old cliché suggests, ‘change is good’, can it also be of mutual benefit to the new arrival and to the indigenous peoples with whom daily interaction is now inevitable? Lastly, what if Tommy should change his mind a hundred years from now? Could he, without breaking the spell for all? Since Tommy Albright was not part of Mr. Forsythe’s master plan is he afforded a way out denied the others, and, to leave it for what, as most assuredly the fundamentals of that life he once knew have been vastly altered, neither to reflect his core values nor suit even his casual tastes. This pondering over eternity and fate is not immediately apparent when viewing Brigadoon for the first time. And yet, they linger, eventually to become unearthed in the mind later on, leaving the first-time viewer uniquely unsettled, perhaps more than those contemplations made at the end of Lost Horizon: Capra’s mythical Himalayan hybrid and sojourn into Shangri-La, as Brigadoon proper, currently God’s protectorate (or Eden without end) comes with the ramifications of defying His enlightenment its due course, quite possibly resulting in catastrophic returns.
The premise for Brigadoon’s salvation teeters on the absurd, but maintains an even more disquieting creepiness, steadily to pervade, misalign and finally severe Johnny and Jeff’s life-long friendship. Brigadoon is under a spell; an incantation yielding to an even more frail logic and maxims imposed upon all. For this, the kindly cleric, Mr. Forsythe (never seen for obvious reasons) sacrificed his own life. Yet, in his ‘benevolence’, having achieved this pact with God, Forsythe has doomed his congregation into a perpetual zombie-like stupor from which none can escape, in some ways, playing to the strengths of sci-fi and horror much more than lithe musical comedy. It also brings into question the conformity in faith. There is no ‘free will’ in Brigadoon; as exhibited in the scene where Fiona becomes paralyzed with trepidation when, during her euphoric gathering of fresh heather for her sister’s bridal bouquet, Tommy suddenly directs her attention to a more luscious outcropping of the prized blossoms on a nearby hill beyond these artificially spellbound boundaries. Again, one is immediately reminded of the moment in Capra’s Lost Horizon as the character of Maria (Margo), having disobeyed the High Lama and ventured beyond the relative safety of Shangri-La, is suddenly withered from her youthful bloom into a mummified corpse 200 plus years advanced in its decomposition. Might a similar fate befall the lovely Fiona?
Brigadoon opens with the village’s reawakening from its hundred-year slumber; a series of Flemish inspired tableaux; Minnelli’s use of light, shadow and color, a superb evocation of the old masters. We are introduced to Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas, two weary travelers who have lost their way amidst the flora and fauna of the misty Scottish highlands. Tommy is a realist. But Jeff is a cynic, believing only in what he can touch, smell, and taste. Faith, either ethereal or in his fellow man, is an intangible Jeff has absolutely no use for if, indeed, it exists at all. Much to their great salvation and surprise, the pair notice a village not far off that somehow each has overlooked only the moment earlier; a place, curiously, not on their map and populated by an interesting assortment of tartan and kilt-wearing locals, queerly out of step with the present – and, for good reason as Tommy and Jeff are soon to discover. Along the road they also meet Fiona Campbell who directs them into McConnachy Square – the hub of Brigadoon. Tommy offers to pay for food and drink with a few pieces of silver. But the inhabitants are dumbstruck by the date on the coins. Only Charles Dalrymple is forthcoming with immediate friendship; offering to buy these visitors some heather ale to celebrate his pending marriage. A bit of confusion over which Campbell sister is to be wed leads Tommy to regret his inexplicable stirrings of love at first sight for Fiona, though he entertains them with an impromptu trip to her cottage, and later, in a complete abandonment, falls madly for her while gathering heather for Jean’s wedding.
‘The Heather on the Hill’ is, in fact, one of the rare instances in Brigadoon where the screen wondrously comes alive; Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse pirouetting about the artificial landscape as though imbued with Hermes wing-footed stealth. Kelly and Charisse are magnificent together, her balletic gestures perfectly offset by his robust athleticism. The dancers race up and down these papier-mâché embankments, zig-zagging between plywood trees; suggestively, almost to collide – yet never – to completely embrace; the towering Charisse, in toe-shoe flats, raised up in Kelly’s strong arms to offset their difference in height. Nowhere else in Brigadoon do we get such a moment of passionate release; not in Kelly’s posthumous declaration of ‘Almost Like Being in Love’ nor in Charisse’s coy ‘Waiting for My Dearie’; each, a delayed reaction to an emotion neither completely understands; ‘The Heather on the Hill’ an exuberant release of these pent-up temptations.
Yet, this moment of elation is brutally cut short when Tommy suggests more abundant ripe heather is growing on a nearby hill beyond Brigadoon’s invisible boundaries. Fiona is stricken with a look of sheer fright, begging Tommy not to move beyond his present position either. Having already unearthed several unsettling anomalies about the village – as example, the date of Jean’s birth in the family Bible is listed as 1732 – Tommy reverts to his realist roots, abruptly shaken from his euphoria and demanding answers. Unable to provide them, Fiona directs his inquiries to the sage, Mr. Lundie. Accompanied by Fiona, Tommy and Jeff learn of the spell cast upon Brigadoon; a blessing to all except the sullen Harry Beaton who planned to go away to university in Edenborough and pursue Jean as his wife; both ambitions denied him now and seemingly for all time. As the sun sets, the various clans gather for Jean and Charles’ wedding; another tour de force for Minnelli, who uses the artifice of a cathedral’s ruins to create a stunning, yet moody torch-lit procession. But the couple’s terpsichorean bliss is intruded upon by Harry Beaton who first tries to take advantage of the bride; then, threatens Charles with his dagger. Harry is subdued by various clansmen before escaping to the top of one of the turrets, declaring he intends to leave Brigadoon immediately; henceforth dooming the entire village to a fate worse than the purgatory thus far endured.
The clan begins its manhunt for Harry Beaton; Tommy stirred to partake by the prospect of losing Fiona forever. Given the relatively limited parameters of the village, and the enormity of the army set to apprehend Harry, it is more than a little ironic no one except Tommy is able to unearth his secret hiding locations in the underbrush. The men spar for a moment or two on the footbridge before Tommy is beaten unconscious by Harry, who now climbs into a nearby tree to avoid capture. Jeff, who has been indulging in strong drink all afternoon, and pursuing wild grouse with his rifle, fires the accidentally fatal shot into the branches. Harry’s body plummets to the earth, recovered by his grieving father and carried back to the village by several clansmen. The murder, however unintentional, instantly sobers Jeff. Unaware, Tommy confesses to Jeff he loves Fiona and will not be leaving Brigadoon. Full of venom and contempt, Jeff orders Tommy to give his head a good shake. Brigadoon is an anomaly rather than a way of life. It was fun while it lasted. But now the midnight hour is drawing near and with it, the village’s exile into the highland fog for another hundred years; plenty of time for Tommy to forget Fiona Campbell and return to the snowy streets of Manhattan. Conflicted, Tommy retreats. Fiona and Brigadoon are vanquished in the encroaching mists and Tommy returns to Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart) the horridly superficial fiancé he left behind in New York.
Knowing nothing of his experiences abroad, and frankly, disinterested in anything but herself, Jane begins to outline the details of their future together. Unbeknownst to Jane, her plans are constantly intruded upon by Tommy’s daydreams of Fiona. Breaking off his engagement, Tommy orders Jeff to accompany him back to Scotland. He has to see for himself if Brigadoon is still there waiting for him. Alas, no – the pair quietly poised near the same precipice from which they first observed the small gathering of thatched roof cottages, now replaced by a lonely wilderness of trees. Disillusioned and full of despair, Tommy prepares to leave when he suddenly hears the faint reprise of Lerner and Lowe’s melodic title tune; the mist suddenly lifted to reveal the sleepy village beneath its veil. Jeff is thoroughly haunted by the illusion, but Tommy is rapidly drawn into its sway. Awakened from their slumber, Fiona and Mr. Lundie hurry to McConnachy Square, startled to discover Tommy waiting there, reaffirming a rather appallingly simple-minded edict put forth by Mr. Lundie earlier; that when one is in love “anything is possible.” Thus, Brigadoon’s spell has claimed its first inhabitant from the outside world.
While Brigadoon’s cinematic debut was met with considerable indifference, an irrefutable asset of the production is its surviving score; one of Lerner and Loewe’s most melodic, dramatic and varied. Indeed, the cast album in true stereo is a sumptuous aural feast. If only the pleasantly concocted plaid-clad visuals had managed to triumph on equal footing, Brigadoon might have readily achieved its dreamlike suspension of disbelief. Periodically it does precisely this, the staginess set aside, the fairy-tale-esque quality of love eternal sustained, though never entirely without Minnelli’s puppet-like plying of the strings; gingerly tugging at a moment of realization here or a bit of deliciously cynical dialogue over there. The most enjoyable performance in the picture is owed to Van Johnson whose rank cynicism is cause for some razor-bitten romantic comedy opposite the exuberant Dodie Heath as Meg Brockie, overtly woos Jeff as “a right winning lad” and can feel “wee tadpoles leapin’ in her spine” at the mere sight of him; a metaphor Jeff finds thoroughly repulsive, inquiring why a stranger in a strange land might ever be even remotely attracted to “a mighty strange woman” like Meg. In paring down the plot of the stage show Alan Jay Lerner relegates Heath’s performance to this one exuberantly funny exchange of dialogue; a genuine loss of a throughout charming secondary character that might have counterpoised Brigadoon’s steadily advancing ennui. Alas, the magic here is muted to grievously gloomy levels.
In the end, Brigadoon’s worldwide gross of $3,275,000 narrowly recovered its hefty $2,352,625 investment; proof positive for Dore Schary of two things; first, Arthur Freed’s autonomy at MGM would have to be reevaluated, and second, that musicals in general were no longer the robust profit center they had once been for the studio a decade earlier. Schary might have first considered how his own insistence to confine an outdoorsy musical to the claustrophobic interiors of artificially lit sound stages had impacted the production. And yet, Schary could also point to MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, considered a relatively ‘minor’ musical put into production on an even more restrictive schedule and budget, at roughly the same interval, and released to unanimous critical claim and respectable box office the same year as Brigadoon. Despite his meddling, ‘Brides’ managed to succeed under similar circumstances where Brigadoon had ostensibly failed. But then Schary would have had to admit the Hollywood musical was not yet ready to fade completely into obscurity. And Schary, despite his thorough disinterest in the genre, was nevertheless a bean counter at heart, trying to make sense of the vast assortment of Metro’s physical assets over which he now presided by juggling the figures. Seven Brides balanced the books against Brigadoon’s more costly outlay and tepid returns. So, the MGM musical would live on – alas, with more restrictions imposed, and only the occasional triumph to be had; High Society (1956), Silk Stockings (1957) and Gigi (1958), the silver-star winners of what was, in retrospect, the very sad decline of Metro’s unimpeachable reign as Hollywood’s ‘king of features’.
The Warner Archive (WAC) has at long last resurrected Brigadoon on Blu-ray. Were that we could also have them work a little magic on High Society and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Warner Home Video’s DVD was a middling effort. The Blu-ray is decidedly a cause for celebration, looking far more vibrant and subtly nuanced than vintage Ansco Color as a right to. Top to bottom then, Brigadoon has been given the TLC it deserves. We are still denied the ‘wide screen’ version of this movie. What’s here is, of course, the Cinemascope edition, in 2.35:1 and lovingly preserved. Despite its shortcomings, the Ansco Color hues are vibrant. Reds, while lacking the true and velvety blood red quality of a movie shot in Technicolor, are nevertheless intense if slightly leaning towards an orange bias. Flesh tones are very natural looking. The image favors earthy browns, beige and cornflower yellows. Check out the lemon shawl Cyd Charisse wears. Wow! Contrast is markedly improved over the DVD. There is absolutely nothing to complain about. The 5.1 remastered DTS audio is gorgeous. Extras have been ported over from the DVD and include a brief featurette hosted by Cyd Charisse, musical outtakes and the original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Brigadoon in 1080p is wonderful. A blind purchase, if you ask me. Now, can we please get WAC to give us the rest of MGM’s musical gems: Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, High Society, The Student Prince, Holiday in Mexico, Cabin in the Sky, For Me and My Gal, Royal Wedding, That Midnight Kiss, Showboat, Nancy Goes to Rio, The Toast of New Orleans, The Great Caruso, Million Dollar Mermaid, Bathing Beauty, Easy to Love, etc. et al. Too many great movie musicals still MIA.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)