According to a post on the imdb page for “It’s Always Fair Weather”, Gene Kelly had been offered the lead in “Guys And Dolls” (presumably Sky Masterson) but MGM nixed it, refusing to loan him out to Samuel Goldwyn. As a result, they had an unhappy star to placate and so let Kelly make whatever musical he wanted too–maybe our friends at GeneScene, a very good Gene Kelly blog, can vouch for the veracity of this tale. If that was indeed the case, losing out on “Guys And Dolls” was a blessing in disguise not only for Kelly but for the American musical canon. For “It’s Always Fair Weather” turned out to be a far better film than Joseph Mankiewicz’s unhappy, ponderous and never convincing adaptation of Frank Loesser’s great hit show. Indeed, IAFW may well be–after “Singin’ In The Rain” and “The Bandwagon”–the best of the fifties musicals… at least it ties for third with (fill in your choice–mine would be “Silk Stockings”). Dark, quirky and never quite the plate of comfort food that musicals were supposed to be, Kelly and Stanley Donen’s film–from an original script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green who wrote the score with Andre Previn–stands out from the pack as a true original, a musical noir about disaffected dreams and lost youth with a decidedly skeptical view of the “good life” in post-war America. Since the film is about the long looked-forward too reunion of three army buddies ten years after the war who, it turns out, now have nothing in common, it can be read as a kind of bookend to “On The Town” (also by Comden and Green), a dark, decade-later answer to that earlier show’s optimistic belief that the world the sailor’s were fighting for was a righteous one, filled with optimistic views of the national future. Instead, in IAFW, it seems that life in post-war America has deposited three vets at an emotional dead-end in a society to which they all feel alienated. Their reunion is also an excuse for some trenchant observations on the increasingly manipulative role of television in the national consciousness. This is an idea for a musical? In peacetime America? Perverse and weirdly ahead of its time, IAFW, shot in the heart of the Eisenhower era, clearly saw an America that was turning more mechanized, more impersonal, more hypocritical and more dependent on consumerism and commericialism than ever before. I wonder what the powers that be at MGM though of their decision not to loan Kelly out when the “production draft” of the script first arrived on their desks?

Below are two clips. The first is Kelly’s famous “tap-dancing on roller skates” number, “I Like Myself”. (This is one of those routines–like Nicholas Brothers dances–that never fails to fascinate because of the simple fact that NOBODY CAN REALLY DO WHAT HE’S DOING). Second is the hilarious number “Thanks A Lot But No Thanks”, as sung by Dolores Grey (recently Audra MacDonald revived this song in concert to great effect). Dolores Grey was a theater and cabaret star with only a few film appearances to her credit–part of the Comden and Green New York smarty-pants clique (a couple of years before this she starred in a Broadway review by Comden/Green and Jule Styne called “Two On The Aisle”. Her co-star was Bert Lahr).

In spite of his enduring popularity and a body of work any filmmaker would be proud of, I’ve always grouped Kelly the filmmaker along with a select number of auteurs who were denied the full chance to demonstrate their abilities by a film industry that didn’t always feel comfortable with work that was too…original. Like Orson Welles and Erich Von Stroheim, Kelly was given the full services of the Hollywood machine and–like those men as well–used it to create boldly original work. (And unlike the other two, the work Kelly created was, for the most part, commercially viable as well). Still, Kelly was clearly groping toward something more ambitious–with IAFW as well as with his all-dance labor of love “Invitation To The Dance” (shelved for a good long time by a reluctant MGM). Unfortunately for him and us, these films, while broadening the cinematic language of the musical, were also washing him out to sea as a popular entertainer. Though the American musical film survived through the sixties, it did so in an increasingly stagebound, “only hits need apply” way–those monster-sized roadshow musicals from already proven hit Broadway properties. Kelly even directed one of them–“Hello Dolly” (you should pardon the expression). Kelly went on after the end of his MGM career–acting in straight roles, directing a handful of films. But professional as his later work as a director was, there was something missing. He was a functionary now, not an expressive force. Like other auteurs, Kelly was onto something special that was snatched away from him just as it was coming into being. The mix of naturalism and fantasy, the idea that a cynic could be the main character at the heart of a musical, the idea of a musical as a vehicle for studying the world around us…oh well. In “It’s Always Fair Weather” he got to do it precisely once. Why bemoan the unmade, the unborn? Still, one wonders where the American musical might have gone if Kelly had been allowed to continue on his increasingly experimental path…


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