Sometimes you can’t go home again. In 1952 movie-goers around the world fell in love with Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s vibrant, toe-tapping musical Singin’ in the Rain. They embraced it with such enthusiasm that it remains one of the all-time great Hollywood productions today. Three years later Kelly and Donen reunited with Singin’ in the Rain’s writers on an all-new music, It’s Always Fair Weather. It failed at the box office, destroyed friendships, and almost immediately slipped into obscurity.
Films generally fail for two reasons: either they are bad films, or they are simply the wrong films released at the wrong time. It’s Always Fair Weather is absolutely the second kind of film: a semi-obscure but wholly worthwhile gem of a movie.
Betty Comden and Adolph Green remain of the most successful and acclaimed writing partnerships in the history of American musical theatre. They met as aspiring actors in New York, and when their attempts to break into the industry failed they changed tack and approached the theatre as writers. They scored a massive hit in 1944 with the stage musical On the Town, about three American sailors on shore leave. That play’s Broadway success brought them to the attention of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio and its musical film producer Arthur Freed. After writing the screenplays to Good News (1947) and The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Comden and Green adapted their own playscript for a film of On the Town.
On the Town was a big hit for MGM in 1949. The film starred Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly and Jules Munshin, boasted a string of popular songs – notably “New York, New York” – and acted as the directorial debut of choreographer Stanley Donen, who co-directed the film with Kelly. On the Town was not only popular but ground-breaking: Donen defied industry convention by shooting part of the film on location in New York rather than entirely on soundstages and the backlot at the studio. He also pushed the film in terms of its photography, including the use of jump-cuts, 360-degree pans, and the use of non-actors in the backgrounds of shots.
Three years later Kelly and Donen reunited to co-direct Singin’ in the Rain, which was based on a new Comden and Green screenplay. This second collaboration was even more successful than the first, and has since become widely and rightly considered one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.
After completing Singin’ in the Rain Comden and Green turned to an idea for a sequel to On the Town. This sequel, envisaged as a new Broadway musical, would see the three protagonists of the original play reunite ten years after World War II ended. The reunion would spur all three men on to realise that the promises they’d made to themselves as younger men had not been kept. They would fall apart as friends, only to grow closer together by the climax and finish the play determined to live their lives more fully in the future.
When the writers told Gene Kelly of their idea, he persuaded them to abandon the idea of a Broadway musical and to pitch it as a sequel to the film instead. Producer Arthur Freed was amenable to the idea however Stanley Donen proved somewhat difficult to convince. Since Singin’ in the Rain he had moved on to direct his own high-profile musicals without Kelly’s assistance – notably Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – and was reluctant to return to their former creative partnership in which Kelly supervised the performances and the dancing while Donen concentrated on the photography and technical aspects.
After a short period of indecision Donen ultimately agreed to partner with Kelly again. It was a decision both men came to regret.
The next hurdle that the film faced was new MGM head of production Dore Schary. Schary was reluctant to move ahead with a sequel to On the Town, particularly as it would involve reuniting Kelly with co-stars Jules Munshin and Frank Sinatra. Munshin had not become the major star that the studio had hoped him to be, while Sinatra’s reputation as a difficult character and his alleged Mafia ties made Schary leery of working with him.
Without Sinatra and Munshin’s involvement the idea of an On the Town sequel understandably collapsed. In its place, Comden and Green redeveloped the idea to focus on three entirely new reunited servicemen in a film titled It’s Always Fair Weather.
The film focuses upon three army buddies: Ted Riley, Doug Hallerton and Angie Valentine. At the end of World War II they share a drink and go their separate ways, but not before making a pact to meet up again in the same bar ten years later. Jump forward to 1955, and all three men are surprised to discover they all kept the pact. They do meet together, but soon discover they do not actually like each other anymore. Furthermore, when realising that none of them are living the sorts of lives they had intended since the war, they begin to hate themselves.
Ted (Kelly) left the army with plans to become a lawyer. Instead he became a corrupt fight promoter and compulsive gambler, and begins the film already in trouble with local mobsters. Doug (Dan Dailey) wanted to be a painter, but instead became trapped in middle management at an appalling advertising agency. Angie (Michael Kidd) aspired to be a gourmet chef, but only ever got as far as owning a hamburger stand.
With all three men ready to go their separate ways for good, an advertiser named Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse) learns of their story and conspires to reunite them live on television on the talk show Midnight with Madeline. She works hard to draw the men back together over the course of the film, and sparks off a romance with Ted on the way.
With Sinatra and Munshin out of the picture, Kelly and Donen went about finding two new male co-stars. They settled on Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd. Dan Dailey was a former vaudeville performer that had been signed up by MGM in 1940. His initial acting career was cut short by World War II, in which he served in the United States Army. Upon the war’s end he returned to acting, including an Oscar-nominated performance in When My Baby Smiles in Me (1948) opposite Betty Grable – a regular co-star.
Dailey came to It’s Always Fair Weather off the back of There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), in which he played opposite Ethel Merman and Donald O’Connor. He was any easy sell to Dore Schary, who could see a lot of potential in building up Dailey’s image and profile with the studio.
Michael Kidd made his screen acting debut with It’s Always Fair Weather, having previously worked as a choreographer. He had made an enormous impression on both Stanley Donen and Arthur Freed with his work on The Band Wagon (1953) and particularly Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) where his barn-raising sequence was rightfully praised as one of the best dance scenes ever filmed.
Cyd Charisse was cast as Kelly’s romantic partner for the film. Charisse and Kelly had already worked together very successfully in the lengthy ballet sequence on Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather offered them a chance to extend and develop that working relationship. Since Singin’ in the Rain Charisse had scored a big success with Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon, opposite Fred Astaire. While the film was not commercially successful it was very popular with the critics.
Almost as soon as shooting commenced on It’s Always Fair Weather there was tension between Donen and Kelly. In all likelihood both men had moved on too far in their careers to return to the sort of partnership that had generated On the Town or Singin’ in the Rain. Neither director needed the other any more, and all that was left were disagreements over how to stage, frame and perform the scenes.
As part of his role Michael Kidd received his own solo dance number, “Jack and the Space Giants”, a ten-minute sequence in which he told three children the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk” with a science fiction twist, all while making them a meal. Kidd was understandably possessive of the scene, and was incensed when Gene Kelly insisted the entire scene be cut during post-production. Kelly claimed the scene was too long and unnecessary. Kidd believed it was a case of professional jealousy: Kelly not wanting any other performer to properly showcase their dance abilities. Donen, already chafing against Kelly’s attempts to control the production, sided with Kidd. Andre Previn, who had composed the score to the scene, was vocally resistant to seeing it removed. In the end it was up to Arthur Freed to make the final decision, and he sided with Kelly and had the scene removed.
Conflicts such as this broke up not only Donen and Kelly’s professional relationship, but their personal friendship as well. Following the release of It’s Always Fair Weather Donen would become furious whenever he read an interview where Kelly would refer to him as his former assistant, or generally devalue his contribution to their films. It seems Kelly never quite understood Donen’s unhappiness with him. Even later in life he continued to simultaneously praise his talents while downplaying his influence on their works.
It has sometimes been suggested that Donen and Kelly’s friendship was already on rocky territory after Donen divorced Jeanne Coyne, Kelly’s long-time choreographic assistant. It was pretty much an open secret that Coyne had always harboured romantic feelings for Kelly: indeed they married in 1960 and remained together until her death in 1973.
It was not only Kidd’s number that Kelly had tossed from the picture. Kelly’s own romantic duet with Cyd Charisse was cut from the film as well, leaving Charisse with just one song – the hugely enjoyable “Baby You Knock Me Out” – to showcase her dancing talents. Charisse’s voice was dubbed over for that song by Carol Richards: she was a dancer, not a singer.
The most striking aspect of It’s Always Fair Weather is just how cynical it all is. Despite coming only a few years after Singin’ in the Rain and sharing much of its key creative figures, it lacks the joyfulness and sense of play of that film. Instead it makes constant sharp little jabs at its characters and their lives. Most musical focus on characters following some form of idealistic dream; It’s Always Fair Weather follows three protagonists who have already failed to follow theirs. Where other films would conclude with its characters realising their aspirations, It’s Always Fair Weather ends with the characters reaffirming their desire to achieve them in the future.
The crux of this entire approach is Gene Kelly’s solo number “I Like Myself”. Inspired by his romance with Jackie, Ted takes a stand against a mobster and refuses to fix a boxing match. Once they realise he has screwed them over, the mobster’s heavies set off in chase. He successfully evades them in a roller-staking rink and, roller-stakes still attached to his feet, proceeds to sing and dance about it.
The scene is a remarkable one. It boasts some of the most impressive dancing Gene Kelly ever performed onscreen, and is so well executed that on its own it makes the film worth tracking down and watching. It also features a quite unexpected subject matter: a man realising he has been a terrible person, that he does not have to be a terrible person, and giving himself permission to love himself again. In terms of emotional complexity it’s a world away from “Singin’ in the Rain”.
Of course popular audiences did not ordinarily head out to watch musicals for nuance and introspective moments of character, and it seems likely that It’s Always Fair Weather set itself up for failure from the get-go with its dark tones and morally fallible protagonists.
This is all a shame, as like Donen and Kelly’s earlier collaborations, the film is remarkably inventive in terms of photography and choreography. One early dance sequence sees Kelly, Dailey and Kidd tap-dancing in the streets with garbage can lids jammed onto their feet. They later dance around and over cars. It is all shot in Cinemascope, an extremely wide film format with a screen ratio of 2.35 to one. The format allowed all three men to be seen together as they danced. For a more quiet intimate number like the comedic “I Shouldn’t Have Come” – which used the melody of Strauss’ “The Blue Danube” – Donen split the screen into three, allowing him to combine the widescreen ratio with the more intimate close-ups allowed by the traditional Academy ratio of four by three.
It is fascinating to observe how the film treats television. It is superficially easy to assume the film lampoons the TV industry in the same manner in which Singin’ in the Rain lampooned Hollywood. That comparison ignores just how mean-spirited Comden and Green’s take on television really is. Midnight with Madeline is a savage satirical representation of real-life television variety shows like Queen for a Day, with an insincere and cloying host as its star and a cringe-worthy exploitation of its guests. Singin’ in the Rain presented vain, insecure people making entertaining products. It’s Always Fair Weather seems to present similarly vain, insecure people making unwanted and unpleasant trash. There is an almost palpable fear of the technology coming from the film, as if Hollywood as an industry knew its days of dominating popular entertainment were numbered and this film was an uncharacteristically bleak admission of the fact. Certainly its attack on television displays the sort of dismissive savagery you generally see when the attacker knows it has already lost the fight.
And lose it did, with the film grossing a little over two million dollars worldwide and leaving MGM with a net loss of US$1.7 million. By the time the film was released to cinemas, Arthur Freed’s celebrated musical unit was already on its way out. The change in management at MGM from Louis B. Mayer to Dore Schary brought with it a feeling that the traditional Hollywood musical had exhausted its appeal. Freed produced four more musicals for the studio, culminating in Bells Are Ringing in 1960, starring Judy Holliday and Dean Martin. Like It’s Always Fair Weather, it was a box office failure.
In many respects the plot of It’s Always Fair Weather reflected the circumstances of the film’s creation. Like the film’s characters Donen and Kelly reunited after several years apart, and made something rather wonderful, and then separated – never to reunite again. Both the film and its making seem particularly bittersweet.
Stanley Donen continued his directorial career with numerous successes, including Funny Face (1957), The Pyjama Game (1957), Charade (1963), Two for the Road (1967), Bedazzled (1967) and The Little Prince (1974). His final directorial work was the 1999 made-for-television film Love Letters, after which he retired. At the time of writing he is still alive, aged 91 and living with long-time partner Elaine May.
By the time of It’s Always Fair Weather Gene Kelly’s career had already peaked. MGM finally released Invitation to the Dance in 1956, resulting in a financial loss of more than two-and-a-half million dollars. Kelly’s 1957 musical Les Girls also lost money. Kelly made occasional films in later decades, including Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind in 1960 and Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort in 1967, but audiences had moved on from his brand of show-stopping dance. In 1969 he directing the musical Hello Dolly!, which starred Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Like the later musicals in which Kelly performed, it lost the studio money. Kelly’s final on-screen role was in the 1980 Robert Greenwald musical Xanadu. He died 16 years later, aged 83.
Dan Dailey reunited with Cyd Charisse in the 1956 musical comedy Meet Me in Las Vegas. He subsequently divided his career between film, theatre and television. He died in 1978 following complications during hip surgery. As for Charisse, she continued to perform in musical films before shifting to television variety shows and theatre. Her final on-screen performance was in the 1978 adventure film Warlords of Atlantis. She died from a heart attack in 2008, two years after receiving the National Medal of the Arts and Humanities.
Michael Kidd went on to direct Danny Kaye in the 1958 musical film Merry Andrew, however with Hollywood interest in the musical waning Kidd moved back to Broadway to continue working as a choreographer. He reunited with Gene Kelly in 1969, supervising the choreography of Hello Dolly. In 1996 he received an honorary Academy Award for advancing dance in film. Kidd died in 2007, aged 92.
‘It was an unusual picture, a dark picture,’ Betty Comden later recalled. ‘It’s a movie that got wonderful notices. But it came out at a time when the musical era was fading away, and although it got great press, it didn’t get the kind of treatment that the other movies had gotten.’
Critics have slowly embraced It’s Always Fair Weather, and certainly in recent years it has become something of a cult favourite among fans of MGM’s mid-20th century musicals. It is a slightly strange, difficult sort of a picture: oddly disappointed and miserable. Whether it was the tense production process, Comden and Green’s unusual script, or simply a sense that the Hollywood musical was falling out of favour, there really is not another musical like it.
 Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and his movies, Knopf, New York, 1996.
 Patrick McGilligan, Backstory 2: Interviews with screenwriters of the 1940s and 1950s, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1991.