‘It’s Always Fair Weather,’ Except When It’s Not: The Musical Gets Cynical

Welcome readers to Movie Mania Madness and thanks to the Classic Movie History Projects hosts Aurora of Once Upon A Screen, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Fritzi of Movies, Silently for this event. Flicker Alley is also sponsoring it, so check them out (and buy their awesome Chaplin Mutual set). This is my first contribution to a blogathon, so thanks to everyone for welcoming me to the fold and a chance to write about one of my favorite musicals and one that certainly has historical importance.

Three war buddies arrive home after World War II and since they each lead very different lives, they probably won’t see each other for years. So, they commit to meeting again in 10 years, only to discover that their 1955 selves are much different from their 1945 versions. It’s a story of disappointment and the importance of coming to terms with yourself. But it certainly doesn’t sound like the idea for a musical, which makes It’s Always Fair Weather one of the most unique musicals ever to come out of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit.

On its face, It’s Always Fair Weather should have just been a sequel to On The Town, with writer Betty Comden and Adolph Green looking at how the lives of their three sailors turned out. They even had Gene Kelly starring and co-directing with Stanley Donen. But something happened along the way. Their script and songs became cynical, embracing the idea that youthful dreams don’t always become reality. A subplot mocking television creeped in, which only seemed fair because it was being made in Cinemascope, a process that only existed to keep television down. Kelly went along with it all, probably because of his sour mood at the time. Things were getting worse for him before they could get better in the mid-1950s, so why not make a movie that encapsulated that.

Kelly stars as Ted, who served in the army with Doug (Dan Dailey) and Angie (Michael Kidd). They all have big dreams after coming home from the war. Ted wants to be a lawyer, Doug dreams of studying painting in Paris and Angie wants to become a gourmet chef. In a traditional musical, things may have gone like they dreamed, but It’s Always Fair Weather goes in the opposite direction. Ted became a boxing promoter with gambling problems. Doug went into advertising, dealing with stress at work and at home. Angie is stuck owning a burger joint in Schenectady and has a large family.

Even though their lives have changed, they still meet up at their favorite bar 10 years after the war ended. Not only do they learn that nothing went right, but they also learn that they hate what they all became. Still, it is not the disappointment that interests Jackie (Cyd Charise), who works at Doug’s ad firm. Looking like she popped out of the more beloved MGM musicals, Jackie falls in love with the romantic idea about the reunion of three “friends” and insists that they appear on television for another reunion.

It’s Always Fair Weather came out at such a unique point in American history. It’s 1955, the heart of the Eisenhower age and the Cold War is just getting started. The Korean War ended two years ago and McCarthyism hadn’t quite died down yet. In this environment, musicals were already dying out, as manifested by the fact that MGM wouldn’t let Kelly film Brigadoon in Scotland the year before. But musicals were still supposed to be escapism from all this. If moviegoers wanted to face reality, they saw films with Marlon Brando (who coincidentally, only appeared in Guys and Dolls in 1955) or James Dean or Westerns with John Wayne. You don’t go to a musical starring Gene Kelly for a dose of realism.

It also comes in the face of the idea that American men came home from wars to lead happy lives. Today, the reality of post-war life is more publicized, as we hear about issues at VA hospitals or rising veteran homelessness. But in the post-World War II society, the fact that not all men had a family to come home to right after the war and a job that made them happy wasn’t talked about. And if it was – again – it wasn’t expected to be the subject in a musical.

Kelly was forced to make the film in CinemaScope. While he’d already starred in Brigadoon, that was directed by Vincente Minelli. Donen had also previously worked in CinemaScope on Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. But Kelly began to embrace the wide frame, playing with what they could show. Cinematographer Robert J. Bonner, Kelly and Donen often show the audience three scenes in one shot to give us the simultaneous feelings of the men. There’s even the fantastic “I Shouldn’t Have Come” scene, when they squash and stretch the frame into corners of the full image.

There’s one truly glorious, classic MGM music moment in the whole film – “I Live Myself,” but even this reveals something different in the songwriting from Comden & Green. Kelly’s character doesn’t sing about how beautiful and lovely Cyd Charise is. Instead, he sings about himself. This is an “all about me” musical even in its brightest moments. Cynicism while still sweet. And just after that, we have Dan Dailey’s showstopping “Situation-wise,” another self-centered song about how his character is tired of the life he leads. (Michael Kidd’s solo song – about how hard it is to raise a full brood of children – was cut from the final film and appears on the DVD.)

Even in the end, It’s Always Fair Weather refuses to end in the way old MGM musicals used to. Sure, Kelly’s character gets the girl, but everyone still has to move on and live their lives. It’s a happy ending in the sense that at least no one died. But it ends with three guys realizing that you don’t have to be best friends to love each other. It was also proof that the “musical” is not a genre, but a medium to use to tell a story, even a serious and cynical one.

#NoirSummer: ‘Woman on the Run’ with Ann Sheridan

Woman on the Run, directed by Journey Into Fear‘s Norman Foster, had its TCM debut on the first night of “Summer of Darkness,” following Nora Prentiss. Both starred Ann Sheridan and was a wake up call for me – I need to see more Ann Sheridan.

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In his introduction, noir expert Eddie Muller said that Sheridan hoped that Woman on the Run would revive her career. Even though she was only 35 at the time, her career was practically over when Warner Bros. dropped her. Even though the San Francisco-set Woman on the Run is actually a forgotten noir gem, I have no idea how she thought this movie would help her. It’s practically a B-movie, running 75 minutes and featuring no big stars. Sure, Dennis O’Keefe was a workhorse, but he isn’t exactly a major star. And the film’s plot isn’t exactly something to be proud of. But it does highlight her acting skills. She spends about 90 percent of the movie in a trenchcoat, so we don’t get distracted by the body that made her the “oomph girl.” However, she looks a lot like Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai.

The story – written by Foster and Alan Campbell – begins with a random guy witnessing a murder. When police arrive, Frank (Ross Elliott) learns that he saw a witness who could have put a gangster in jail. Nervous for his own life, Frank runs off. The police hope to enlist his wife, Eleanor (Sheridan) to find him, but she’s uncooperative. Instead, she would rather help reporter Daniel (O’Keefe) find her husband because he’s going to pay her. Along the way, Daniel tries to woo Eleanor, but she’s falling back in love with Frank as she solves the clues he’s left for her. It’s a good thing that she didn’t fall in love with Daniel though… but I won’t spoil it.

Even though Sheridan wanted this to be a showcase for her, the best part of it is Robert Keith’s hilarious performance as Inspector Ferris, who is on the case. His back-and-forth with Sheridan is often priceless and his scenes with Eleanor’s dog provide the movie with some much-needed comic relief. I’d have rather seen a movie where Eleanor was forced to work with Ferris the whole time.

Like the best of film noir, Woman features a really interesting finale. Everyone in the film gets together at an amusement park, with a horrific roller coaster ride as the climax. Sadly, in an effort to get this movie over with as soon as possible we don’t get to see Ferris’ ultimate victory.

Again, I can’t say for certain why Sheridan thought this incredibly unglamorous role would revive her career. Perhaps she thought it would do for her what Mildred Pierce did for Joan Crawford and what Double Indemnity did for Barbara Stanwyck. Sadly it didn’t work. She only lived until 1967, dying after a battle with cancer and appeared in very few films after Woman on the Run.

Hopefully the film will now be part of TCM’s regular noir days outside the “Summer of Darkness.” You can watch the full film below:

#NoirSummer: ‘Stranger on the Third Floor’

As anyone who follows me on Twitter knows, I am participating in TCM and Ball State University’s #NoirSummer course. Of course, since I also have a job (which requires writing about movies anyway, but I digress…), I can’t actually sit and watch all 24 hours of films noir that are being shown every Friday on TCM in June and July. Sunday morning is my usual “DVR Theater” period, when I catch up on a movie or two that I recorded during the week. This morning, I went with the 1940 RKO classic Stranger on the Third Floor, directed by Boris Ingster.

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Since the film itself is insanely brief, running at just 64 minutes, I’ll keep this post brief. Although Peter Lorre is top billed, the real stars of the film are John McGuire and Margaret Tallichet.

McGuire plays Mike, a reporter whose testimony convicted Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) for a murder he didn’t commit. When Mike realizes that his neighbor was killed, he lets his guilty conscious consume him. However, he did see a mysterious man (Lorre), who might have been the killer. His girlfriend Jane (Tallichet) convinces him to go to the police instead of running away and she goes off to find the mysterious man.

Most of the film is rather mundane, but the trip through Mike’s mind as he is overtaken by guilt looks like something out of a German expressionist film. And Lorre’s demented turn as the stranger keeps you engrossed, especially seeing how he torments Jane at the end.

Made in 1940, this is a very early example of film noir (remember, the U.S. hadn’t even entered World War II yet). It doesn’t have some key elements and it’s easy to see that there’s no femme fetale. Its ending might also seem a little too rosy. Had this been made a few years later, Joe probably would have actually been executed (like Dan Duryea’s character in Scarlet Street) and the Stranger part probably would have been built up. But when you’ve got to get the story done in an hour, extra fluff has to get cut. It does help a bit that the Stranger is so mysterious that we too might think that he only exists in Mike’s mind.

Stranger on the Third Floor aired on June 5. You can get it on DVD through the Warner Archive Collection.

TCM Vault Collection: Boris Karloff – Criminal Kind

As everyone knows, most Hollywood stars aren’t born overnight. They had to work really hard for several years before finally getting that breakout role. For Boris Karloff, it was over a decade of hard work before 1931 changed his life. He had been making movies since 1919 (just look at his insane IMDb profile) before Universal Studios cast him as Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein. From that point onward, Karloff became a horror icon until his death in 1969.

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Before 1931, Karloff was typecast as the random bad guy, thanks to his gaunt looks and quirky British accent. During the early 1930s, he had a contract at Columbia and the movies he made during that period provide the well for the 2013 TCM Vault box set Karloff: Criminal Kind. With just three movies in it and only one movie worth revisiting, it is a mixed bag.

Anyone buying the set should do so mostly to see The Criminal Code, a 1931 Howard Hawks film that stars Walter Huston. It was based on a Martin Flavin stage play that Karloff had performed in, and he reprises his role in the film. The film is an exciting indictment on the prison system and politics, with poor Robert Graham (Phillips Holmes) stuck in the middle. Huston plays the prison warden, stuck with that job after losing in the election for Governor. Huston was always underrated – it seemed like talkies came in too late for him to be seen as a romantic hero, but he always found interesting roles. (He’s really great in the early Frank Capra movie American Madness.)

At least in The Criminal Code, Karloff has a major supporting role. But in the next two films in the set – Rowland V. Lee’s The Guilty Generation (1931) and John Francis Dillon’s Behind The Mask (1932) – Karloff is probably on screen for a combined 10 minutes, if that. So are these films still worth watching? Well, if you bought the set, you might as well check them out.

The Guilty Generation is a nice curiosity as a punchy, 80-minute gangster epic that wasn’t made at Warner Bros. Leo Carrillo is really the standout as the patriarch of the Palmero family. Karloff has a bit part as the patriarch of the Ricco family and a super young Robert Young is incredibly miscast as Karloff’s son.

However, Behind The Mask is a weird movie that you’ll watch once and never again. At least it’s only 68 minutes. This one finds Karloff teamed up with Edward Van Sloan (who was in Frankenstein, too) in a narcotics ring. It actually has a faint hint of early noir, with double-crosses left and right, but the story (written by future Capra collaborator Jo Swerling of all people) moves too fast to be effective or memorable.

While Karloff’s name is on the cover, I found the set to be a better presentation for Constance Cummings, who would go on to star in David Lean’s Blithe Spirit. She stars in all three of these films and is not only gorgeous, but surprisingly good. If only her leading men were better.

The only bonus feature on the set is an overall introduction by Robert Osbourne on The Criminal Code‘s disc. There aren’t even individual TCMdb articles for the other films. There are galleries, but nothing too exciting.

You really have to be into Karloff to want this set. If you are a Hawks fan though, I would recommend getting it cheap for The Criminal Code. It’s an important and good look at his early sound career, around the time he made Scarface (which included Karloff).

Henry Hathaway’s ‘Garden Of Evil’ starring Gary Cooper

It’s easy for great Westerns from the 1950s to get lost, mostly because Hollywood made so many of them. Even some great directors made so many that they have their own hidden gems. While Henry Hathaway can never be considered a “great” director in the same league as John Ford, William A. Wellman, Howard Hawks or even Henry King, he still turned out some great Westerns that you probably never heard of. One of those is Garden of Evil, a film I hadn’t really heard of myself until I picked up a Fox DVD set with Gregory Peck’s The Gunfighter.

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Garden of Evil was made in 1954 and, as such, is a very early CinemaScope movie. Its plot, written by Fred Frieberger, Frank Fenton and William Turnberg, is about as simple as it gets. Three Americans – Hooker (Gary Cooper), Fiske (Richard Widmark) and Luke (Cameron Mitchell) get stuck in a squalid Mexican town, so they take up an offer from an Leah (Susan Hayward) to help save her husband John (Hugh Marlowe), who is trapped in a goldmine. Along with the native Vincente (Victor Manuel Mendoza), they travel along dangerous terrain and try to avoid Apaches as they travel though the heart of Mexico. Quickly, they learn that they are not traveling through a Garden of Eden, but a Garden of Evil (hence the title).

This actually sounds like a pretty boring story since they just have a simple journey and that’s pretty much all that happens. They eventually reach their destination, only to find out that John is a total jerk, and then have to head home. But what makes it far more interesting is the performances from the three leads. Gary Cooper gives a very different kind of performance here as the mysterious Hooker, who seems to have an answer for everything. Even though he probably could have phoned it in here, Cooper always took everything he did seriously, so he’s excellent.

Richard Widmark probably has the more interesting character though. You always know that Cooper’s characters are always going to be the hero anyway, so that makes watching Widmark take Fiske from a money-hungry gambler to a caring hero much more intriguing. At the beginning of the film, Fiske and Hooker know nothing about each other, but their mutual respect grows over the course of the film and end up becoming good friends. It’s almost a reverse Hawks movie. In Hawks’ films like El Dorado and Rio Bravo, characters are already friends or have turbulent pasts. In Garden of Evil, the audience gets to see a relationship blossom over 100 minutes.

Susan Hayward always seems like – well, to me anyway – an underrated Hollywood vixen. She’s a firebrand in this film, which she has to be as its driving force. Ironically, she made it incredibly difficult on the set for Hathaway and she manages to bring that out when the cameras rolled. You can tell that there is a pent-up frustration boiling in her, but she’s so good that you think it’s her character. It makes it really easy to swallow when her husband tells Hooker the truth about her personality.

The fifth key player in this film (with Hathaway as the fourth) is Bernard Hermann. Amazingly, this is the only Western feature that Hermann – best known for the scores of Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and too many Hitchcocks to list – ever composed a score for. His music might seem intrusive for those more used to quieter scores for Westerns, but he’s really raising the film’s stature and reminding us of the danger that awaits our heroes.

Garden of Evil works as kind of a poor man’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, breaking down that film’s story of greed to its simplicity. Men go on a dangerous journey and put their lives on the line just for money, but here, there’s a woman to throw it out of balance. It’s an excellent Western, one that certainly deserves a few more fans.

Announcement: The Classic Movie History Project (2015)

Daniel S Levine:

I’ll be participating in my first blogathon and I’m certainly excited. I do love history and its connection to film. My topic is “It’s Always Fair Weather,” which is the most cynical musical ever made.

Originally posted on Once upon a screen...:

One of my favorite blogging events of 2014 was the Classic Movie History Project, which was the brainchild of Fritzi Kramer at Movies, Silently.  I, along with Ruth of Silver Screenings, co-hosted the event with Fritzi and we’re all back for a bigger and better second edition.

Following is the official announcement, which was written by Fritzi.  Included throughout this post are the gorgeous event banners – designed by Fritzi.  Ruth has done lots of behind-the-scenes work already and I’ve…uh…been sitting on the sidelines looking pretty.  Or…looking in any case.  But really, I couldn’t be more honored to be a part of this and will promote the heck out of it in hopes you’ll join us.  So, without further ado…

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The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon (2015)

We are tickled to announce the second edition of the Classic Movie History Project. I am once again joined by my wonderful co-hosts, Fritzi…

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‘The Belle of New York’ with Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen

It’s hard to see your favorite stars stumble through a bad movie, especially when it has so many good names attached. That’s the case with The Belle of New York, a seemingly tossed-off Arthur Freed production from 1952. It stars Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen and was directed by Charles Walters. There’s even lyrics by Oscar winner Johnny Mercer. Despite all these names, there’s a sense of boredom throughout, even when Astaire is literally dancing on air.

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The plot is brain-numbingly simple. Playboy Charlie Hill (Astaire) falls head over heels in love with Salvation Army member Angela (Vera-Ellen) and, despite their differences, she ends up falling in love with him. And… that’s it. Oh, there’s some funny business with Charlie first having to prove he’s a responsible man and then missing their wedding, but all that just seems to be business to set up musical numbers.

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And the musical numbers are just as dull. “Seeing’s Believing” has Astaire doing a Harold Lloyd-inspired bit on the Washington Square Arch, as he floats up into the air. But the dancing he does while up there isn’t that adventurous. “Oops” feels like it was rehashed from the Astaire/Rogers movies and “A Bride’s Wedding Day” song is a bit routine. (Although the ice skating dancing is pretty neat.)

The best number in the film – and the only logical excuse for watching it – is Astaire’s last solo number, “I Wanna Be A Dancin’ Man.”

In one of the That’s Entertainment films, they showed an alternate take with the one that landed in the movie. It gives you an idea of how well rehearsed Astaire was.

Another highlight of the film is the performances from character actors. Keenan Wynn and Majorie Main pop in to provide Astaire with some friends and excuses to push the plot forward.

The Belle of New York has some interesting ideas in it, but was poorly executed. Process photography had just not reached a point where it could be used so heavily in a cheap film like this. I will say this though, Vera-Ellen is not only gorgeous, but was an undervalued dancer. The choreography in this film might not have showed off her skills (or Astaire’s) well, but she sure is great in Three Little Works and White Christmas.