Underrated Movie #33: It’s Always Fair Weather

Title: It’s Always Fair Weather
Year: 1955
Director: Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (On the Town, Singing in the Rain)
Writers: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Stars: Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse (Tension), Dan Dailey, Michael Kidd, Dolores Gray

The Story: Three old war buddies show up for a reunion ten years later, only to discover that they’ve each abandoned their dreams. Only when their reunion is exploited by a smarmy live TV show does each confront his own failings.

How it Came to be Underrated: MGM musicals weren’t supposed to be cynical and satirical. Nobody knew what to make of this at the time, and they still don’t, but it keeps winning new fans every year.

Why It’s Great:

  1. In 1948, Donen, Kelly, Comden and Green had made the zany sailors-on-leave musical On the Town. Somehow they all found the guts to reunite seven years later for a semi-sequel that would reflect the disappointments of the postwar years. The triumph and camaraderie of wartime America had soured, dissolving into angst and acrimony. Things had soured at MGM, too. Dore Schary’s fabled musical unit was winding down. The Golden Age of Hollywood had come to an end and the dawning age of TV seemed to those left behind like a tacky little replacement. How on earth did they make such an entertaining movie out of this bleak material?
  2. The satirical touches are way ahead of their time. A Face in the Crowd’s attack on TV and The Apartment’s skewering of corporate-ese both seem a little less daring once you realize that a toe-tapping musical beat them to the punch.
  3. Some people think they don't like musicals because they hate the Pollyanna-ish view of life the genre seems to demand. But why can’t you make a dark musical? Popular songs and ballets express dark moods all the time. This movie is an eye-opener.
  4. One of the reasons that movies were hurting in 1955 was because the frame had just gotten too darn wide. Fritz Lang famously quipped that cinemascope was only good for shooting snakes and funerals. It was almost impossible to compose a dynamic frame or achieve any intimacy, but Donen knew how to make it work. For the musical numbers he could create massive tableaus that used every inch of the screen, but for quieter scenes he would arrange the characters so that they lopped off the sides of the image, shrinking the frame to a manageable size.

Underrated Compared To: Singing in the Rain. This is even better. Yeah, I said it.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Kelly’s only solo-directed musical, Invitation to the Dance, is odd but underrated.

How Available Is It?: It’s available on dvd along with deleted musical numbers and a good documentary on the troubled production.

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Underrated Movie #4: Two for the Road

Title: Two for the Road
Year: 1967
Director: Stanley Donen (Singing in the Rain, Charade)
Writer: Frederic Raphael (Darling, Eyes Wide Shut)
Stars: Audrey Hepburn (Roman Holiday), Albert Finney (Tom Jones), Eleanor Bron (Bedazzled), William Daniels (Dr. Craig on St. Elsewhere)

The Story: A quarrelling English couple, flying to Paris, are overwhelmed by jumbled-up memories of five previous trips across the continent, back when they were broke and happy.

How it Came to be Underrated: Donen’s musicals were so great, right out of the gate, that his later, more humanistic work was seen as a disappointment at the time. So many directors who had been ahead of their time in the '50s found themselves left behind by the '60s (think Hitchcock), but Donen had the opposite problem—he embraced the sixties too fully and alienated his audience. As a result, we are still belatedly realizing how ambitious and smart his non-musicals were.

Why It’s Great:

  1. Mark Harris recently published a fantastic book, “Pictures at a Revolution”, about the tumultuous film year of 1967, when daring young American directors, inspired by anarchic French directors like Jean-Luc Godard, started making films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde, which upset Hollywood’s fading aristocracy. Harris doesn’t mention Two for the Road, nor could he, without admitting that it’s the exception that proves the rule. Donen, though he epitomized old Hollywood class, also steals brazenly from Godard (a sped-up trip through a French landmark, jump cuts) and makes a film on par with those other, far more legendary breakthrough films.
  2. But the ambition of the direction was merely an attempt to do justice to an extremely modern, super-smart script. Raphael proves that you can take a tough, realistic look at modern relationships but still indulge yourself with some sparkling dialogue: “You were sniping. Just because you use a silencer, doesn’t mean you’re not a sniper” “When do we start? Yesterday? Yesterday I can’t do. I have things I have to do yesterday.”
  3. If nothing else, the movie would be worth a rental for one sequence alone. Anyone who has been driven insane by listening to parents who are over-indulgent of their children will be shocked to discover that this current archetype dates all the way back to 1967. The always wonderful Eleanor Bron and William Daniels get two of their best big-screen roles as maddeningly “modern” parents who drive Finney, Hepburn, and the whole audience into fits of rage.

  4. But the best thing this film is that it shows us so much more of Hepburn than we’d ever seen before, or would ever see again, as she was about to declare her early retirement. Throughout her career, she had been paired almost exclusively with much older men (Peck, Bogart, Cooper, Grant). Suddenly here she was kissing a man seven years her junior, no longer a supplicant, but a more-than-equal sparring partner. Also, she had finally parted ways with her longtime designer Givenchy, so we now get to see her as a dressed-down, modern woman. (She even wears a shiny vinyl suit! Meow!) This is the film that proves that underneath all that beauty was a genuinely great actress.

Underrated Compared To: It towers above such terrible late-Hepburn movies as Paris When it Sizzles and How to Steal a Million, but I would argue that it even stands up to Donen’s best, like Singing in the Rain and On the Town.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: All of Donen’s ‘60s films are well-worth seeing, especially Charade and Bedazzled.

How Available Is It?: It’s on Netflix on DVD and watch instantly, in its proper aspect ratio, I’m happy to say.

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