Gene and Cyd miraculously meet in... Brigadoon (1954)
If you asked me to name my top twenty list of the most romantic films I've seen, I could say a few of them right off the bat: Notorious, An Affair to Remember, The Thin Man (seriously!), Love Letters, Casablanca... and Brigadoon. I have a feeling most of you would disagree with me on that last one. Poor Brigadoon is used to it -- the film has been battered around ever since it was first released in 1954. Actually, Brigadoon's troubles began from the very start of production.
Anyway, with the cast finalized in 1953 and Kelly's schedule clear, the battles began. First of all, by this time, musicals were slowly falling out of favor. To make matters worse, MGM was in a bit of turmoil when long-time studio head L.B. Mayer got pushed out and was replaced by Dore Schary, a man who favored cutting costs over artistic vision. Director Vincente Minnelli and Kelly were all for shooting the film in Scotland, but Schary was completely against it. As a compromise, Minnelli and Kelly settled for some highlands in Big Sur in California, but the studio nixed that idea as well. Everything had to be filmed on the lot, which a lot of people count as one of the movie's hindrances.
To me, though, Brigadoon is a shining example of the craftmanship of old Hollywood. Good golly, just look at the backdrops that were painted, not to mention the softly blowing wind, the meticulously decorated landscapes, and the construction of the village of Brigadoon. Can you tell that it's all on a soundstage? I have to say yes. However, Minnelli honestly tried his hardest to create this fairy tale of a location and we have to give him credit for that. I would even go so far as to say that the fact that you can tell Brigadoon isn't real adds to the fantasy of it. You literally can't go there. You can't wander the streets like you could in San Francisco after seeing Vertigo; you can't sit at the fountain in the center of town like I did at Place de la Concorde because of An American in Paris.
While I can see the bright side of the situation, Gene Kelly couldn't. Reportedly he was annoyed and frustrated all through production. Having become a director himself (I think there had been some movie about rain...?), and knowing how much control Kelly liked to exert on his sets, I'm sure the loss over the location shooting didn't make the actor very happy -- after all, he was one of the people who pushed for shooting scenes in New York for On the Town. I've heard some say that you can tell on the screen how disillusioned with the film Gene became, but I just don't see it. Actually, his acting is part of the reason why I would claim this as a supremely romantic film. The way he looks at and embraces Cyd Charisse is seriously sensual stuff. You know what? Let's finally dig into the movie so you can see what I mean!
We're taken across Scottish highlands until we settle upon a cobblestone bridge over a flowing stream. A choir begins to sing of the magical town of Brigadoon as sunshine slowly banishes the mist. The villagers begin to wake up and soon the whole place is filled with people busily going to work and joyously singing.
At a cottage, Jeannie Campbell is eagerly looking out of the window to catch a glimpse of Charlie, the man she is going to marry that night. Her sister Fiona (Charisse) pulls her away from the window and along with their other sisters, they prepare for the wedding. The girls ask Fiona when she will get married, leading her into "Waitin' for My Dearie." Charisse never did use
This number reminds me of "June Bride" from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, except they aren't doing ballet in bloomers and corsets. Instead, one of the sisters dresses up as a man and "flirts" with
In the town square, Fiona is buying her father's waistcoat for the wedding and talks with Archie Beaton. Jeannie had chosen Charlie over his son Harry and the poor lad still hasn't gotten over it. Fiona's father arrives and has everyone gather as he puts up a map of the town boundaries, reminding the townspeople that no one can leave Brigadoon or "night shall fall upon us forever." That's not odd at all. Looking at the map forlornly, Harry sighs to Fiona that Charlie has everything -- university schooling, Jeannie -- while he has nothing. Now he is stuck in Brigadoon forever. Harry is basically this film's wet blanket, but you do feel sorry for him.
As they enter the hub of the town, they once again meet stony silence and wide-eyed stares. When Tommy tries to buy some milk, the shilling he offers confuses the vendor and he is refused service. Luckily, Charlie comes by and offers to buy the strangers breakfast since it's his wedding day and he's feeling generous,
"I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean." This song is a total earworm for me. The Scotsmen do a little traditional Scottish jig, but when Jeff and Tommy break into some good ol' American tap dancing, the group is dumbfounded and eagerly watch.
I love the pairing of Gene Kelly and Van Johnson so much, and their dance here is simple but fun. Kelly and Johnson had known each for years, actually. When Kelly had his breakout role in 1940 as the titular Pal Joey on Broadway, Johnson was in the chorus (along with Stanley Donen). I think people often forget that
Back to the film! At the Campbell cottage, Jeannie asks Fiona if she has heard about the strangers. With a dreamy look on her face, Fiona is able to describe Tommy but struggles to remember what Jeff looks like (as a lover of everything Van Johnson, I'm offended). Wanting to get her own glimpse of the men, Jeannie says she'll pick up the bread they need, but Fiona orders her to stay home, claiming that Charlie can't see his bride just yet. We all know the truth here, Fi.
"The Heather on the Hill."
The dancing is just sublime, with the film's choreography done by Gene Kelly. There are leg extensions, twirls, and sweeping movements that carry the viewer into the romance of the moment. Kelly often holds Charisse's body to his, creating a tension between
Back on the hill, Fiona and Tommy are happily running around and collecting heather. However, when Tommy says he sees more heather beyond the bridge, Fiona becomes frightened. Tommy finally starts to ask her questions about Brigadoon, such as what Charlie meant when he mentioned "the miracle," but Fiona refuses
Tommy goes after her, but he winds up tumbling down the hill and bumping into Jeff. Unsurprisingly, Jeff is all ready to leave Brigadoon while Tommy too dazzled by Fiona. "Almost Like Being in Love" is Gene Kelly’s only solo in the film, and while it doesn’t rank as one of his best, it’s still freaking Gene Kelly.
The guys walk to the Campbell cottage as Tommy tries to convince Jeff that they should stick around a while. He then finds the family bible open on the table outside where Charlie had left it after signing it earlier as part of the family’s tradition before a marriage. Reading the dates and names, Tommy notices that Charlie dated his marriage to Jeannie as occurring in 1754. Confused, Tommy knocks on the door and wants Fiona to finally explain what’s going on. She takes him to the schoolmaster, Mr. Lundie, for the story behind Brigadoon.
After introductions, Mr. Lundie has them sit down and says that 200 years ago, the highlands were overcome by witches, “horrible, destructive women. I don’t suppose you have such women in your country?” “Oh, we have them,” Jeff replies. “We just pronounce it differently.” Ha! Anyway, Lundie goes on to explain that the village priest, Mr. Forsythe, knew that the witches would soon be coming to Brigadoon so to save his town, he asked God for a miracle that would make Brigadoon vanish into the mist. However, the town would return as it was for one day every 100 years; when the people go to sleep, they wake up the next day to find it is 100 years later. (It’s a nutty story, but just go with it.) If one of the villagers left Brigadoon, the spell would be broken for everyone and the place would disappear forever. If a stranger wanted to stay, though, they would have to love one of the villagers so much that they would be willing to give up everything to be with that person. Foreshadowing!
Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when Jeff appears. Tipsy and attempting to hunt grouse, Jeff stumbles into the chase. Taking aim at a bird that suddenly flies into the air, Jeff shoots and accidentally kills Harry instead. The men find his body and think that he died from hitting his head on a rock. Poor Harry.
As the men go back home, Fiona and Tommy search for one another and both wind up at the now-empty grounds where the wedding had taken place. Fiona admits she thought he left, but he says he couldn't have done that without telling her goodbye. Unable to stand it anymore, they rush into each other's arms and do a reprise of "Heather on the Hill." It's definitely a continuation of their previous dance, but this time it's become more sensuous as the couple swirls around the ruins of a building in the darkness of nightfall. Rather than end the moment with chaste hand-holding, Tommy and Fiona share a passionate kiss. Realizing that he can't leave her, Tommy goes to find Mr. Lundie.
At the square, Jeff is sitting and drinking all by himself. Tommy comes across him and breaks the news that he is staying: "I feel more a part of her and all this than I ever felt about Jane [his fiancée] or anybody or anything back home. ... I belong here, I know it!" Jeff has had enough of this town and reveals in a
As the mist starts creeping in, the couple kiss one last time and Tommy slowly turns his back on the town and walks away with a look of anguish on his face, all while Fiona's cries of "I love you" echo behind him.
When Tommy arrives, we see that he's not much better off. He admits that he has been dodging Jane for the past month because he is still in love with Fiona and because he can't have Fiona, he doesn't want to have anyone. On top of that, Tommy can barely focus on anything. One word is enough to remind him of something from Brigadoon, causing him to tune out
When they start to leave, they see Brigadoon appearing from the fog. The guys run down and meet Mr. Lundie on the bridge. "You shouldn't be too surprised," he says. "I told you if you loved someone deeply enough, anything is possible. Even miracles."
Meanwhile, the door to the Campbell cottage opens and Fiona comes out. Grasping what this interruption of her sleep means, she gets to the square at the same time as Tommy. Once their eyes meet, they slowly walk towards one another as the film fades to black.
As if the inability to shoot on location wasn't enough, Minnelli was forced to work with CinemaScope, the wide-screen process that was created to combat the popularity of TV. Oddly enough, Minnelli got CinemaScope but not Technicolor. Instead, he was given AnscoColor, which didn't give off the brightness that Technicolor did. The finished product, however, isn't exactly hopeless. Minnelli was a master of color, as you can tell from all of his color films. (Supposedly red and yellow were his favorites.) Although AnscoColor is a little muddy, Minnelli and his crew did a wondrous job in trying to bring color and lightness to the film. Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, costume designer Irene, and art director Preston Ames deserve shout-outs in particular. I especially love Irene's costumes for Cyd. The unique collars and full skirts are simply magnificent.
It wouldn't be right to finish this review without mentioning the music penned by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Lowe. (Lerner also did the screenplay.) You may know the duo from My Fair Lady, Camelot, or another one of Minnelli's great musicals, Gigi. Many songs were cut from the original musical, mainly because of time limits. Part of the reason why Meg Brockie's role was downsized so much was because her two songs were deemed too risqué by the Breen office. Gene Kelly had two additional songs, "There But for You Go I" (say that five times fast) and "From This Day On," but supposedly the filmmakers thought Kelly's voice didn't sound the best so they tabled them.
I agree that Brigadoon's songs stretch the limits of Kelly's singing, but that's kind of why I like them so much -- it shows you a different facet of what he could do. You can listen to Kelly's audio recordings of the cut material here and here. Another great number that got the ax was "Come to Me, Bend to Me," a song that Charlie sings to Jeannie to try and see her before their wedding. (Jimmy Thompson, the actor who played Charlie, was dubbed by John Gustafson.) My DVD version includes the filmed number as part of its bonus features, but you can hear the audio version of it here. For an added treat, you can also listen to Adam Lambert's rendition here.
Brigadoon is a lovely and sweetly romantic film that I wish received more appreciation. It was created by people at the height of their talent, adorning the movie with gorgeous dancing, sincere acting, beautiful sets and costumes, superb music, and strong direction.
This post is part of my first blogathon, a celebration of the extremely talented Vincente Minnelli. You can read the full roster here.