It is 1955 and the indefatigable team of Comden and Green write what you have to see as a follow-up to On The Town. After the situation has been set up with the three pals’ return to New York at the end of the Second World War and their boisterous routine with dustbin lids, the action takes place in the space of a single day, ten years later. We are spared Jules Munshin: his place is taken by the much more assured and skilled Dan Dailey. Perhaps it had also got through to MGM that Gene Kelly was always better when paired with dancers, because the electric Michael Kidd is the third of the trio, rather than a singer such as Sinatra or a straight actor such as Van Johnson. It is a sour, alienating film. For none of the three has civilian life lived up to their hopes and dreams.
Gene Kelly almost always seemed to play an obnoxious guy in his movies – so annoying that, at times, you wonder why the women on whom he was forcing his attentions did not just ram a pencil up his nose. In this film, he has a motivation for his behaviour. He was jilted by his sweetheart before he got back from combat and has become a gambler rather than the lawyer or politician he seemed destined to become. Cyd Charisse had always had rather a spectral film career. Although in The Harvey Girls she had a few dialogue scenes, she was really there to do a graceful balletic dance to “Wait and See”. She appears in Singin’ in the Rain merely as the gangster’s moll in the “Broadway Rhythm” ballet. In The Band Wagon, her part fades away, although she does have the “Dancing in the Dark” and the “Manhunt” routines to imprint her on our minds. In It’s Always Fair Weather, she actually gets a substantial role as the TV producer. She also gets to perform a more vigorous routine than the ones she usually glided through – hurled round a boxing gym by a bunch of very physical men in “Baby You Knock Me Out”: the antithesis of “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” sung by Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
As was customary in so many films of this particular era, there is a ferocious attack on the television industry in the shape of the show Midnight with Madeline with its blend of glamour and emotional overload epitomised in the performance of Dolores Gray. The style lives on today in any show hosted by Graham Norton.
The fact that the film was shot in Cinemascope does not seem to have hampered Stanley Donen at all – he is still addicted to fluid, complex tracking shots. But because this would tend to show up a lot of empty set in a standard solo musical number, it is possible that he deliberately decided to get around this by making the solos either group numbers – such as Charisse’s “Baby You Knock Me Out” or Madeline’s “Thanks But No Thanks”, or by setting Kelly’s “I Like Myself” on a street teeming with people and cars who have to make way for him. Donen also uses some highly creative touches to vary the size of the frame, for example, in the restaurant where each of the three old buddies shows up in his own slice of the frame to reveal his thoughts about his former comrades to the strains of the “Blue Danube” waltz. Later on, the three dance in perfect synchronisation, in three separate locations, to “Once Upon a Time, I had A Friend” – a split-screen effect that recalls Abel Gance’s Napoleon.
The highpoint though is surely Gene Kelly’s finest dance routine on film – “I Like Myself”. André Previn’s music is bouncy and rhythmic enough to allow Kelly to take flight on roller-skates, alternating tap steps with long graceful glides. The effort required stops him from falling back onto his tired clichés – such as the big dopey grin. In fact, in this film, the skittle only appears for a split-second, in the opening number. His character is not the sort of smug, self-satisfied man who did this mugging in so many other films.
As with On The Town, the film ends as the opening sequence did, with the camera craning high above the subway bridge, showing the three pals going their separate ways: but this time, Kelly has a girl.