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Film Friday: «Brigadoon» (1954)

This week on «Film Friday,» I have decided to celebrate both Gene Kelly's 104th and Van Johnson's 100th birthdays by telling you about one of the only two pictures they made together. Incidentally, this was the first Van Johnson film I ever saw.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli, Brigadoon (1954) begins when New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson) become lost in the highlands of Scotland while on a hunting trip. Upon the clearing of the mists, they discover Brigadoon, a village that only materializes once every century for only a day. If any villager ever leaves, the enchantment will be broken for all and the whole town will vanish forever. If, in contrast, an outsider wishes to stay, then they must prove to love someone in the village strongly enough. Cynic Jeff finds himself increasingly bored with the town's peculiarities, while dreamer Tommy falls in love with both Brigadoon and village lass Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse), whose younger sister Jean (Virginia Bosler) is about to marry Charlie Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson).
Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Van Johnson and Barry Jones in Brigadoon.

That evening, Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), the village schoolmaster, officiates at Jean and Charlie's wedding, which Tommy and Fiona attend. Interrupting the festivities, the jealous Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) announces that he is leaving Brigadoon to make everything disappear, since the girl he loves, Jean, is marrying another man. Harry's words create mass chaos among the townspeople, who all rush to stop him. Harry fights off his pursuers, including Tommy, but while hiding in a tree, he is accidentally shot to death by Jeff, who skipped the wedding to hunt. Afterwards, Tommy and Fiona confess their love to each other and decide to marry, thus allowing him to stay in Brigadoon. When Tommy tells his plan to his friend, however, a drunk and remorseful Jeff admits that he killed Harry. Shaken by Jeff's words, Tommy apologetically changes his mind and bids Fiona farewell just before Brigadoon disappears.
Four months later, in a New York bar, Tommy tells Jeff that he is still in love with Fiona and had been avoiding his fiancé, Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart). At dinner that evening, Tommy abruptly calls off his engagement and calls Jeff, instructing him to get the first flight back to Scotland. He and Jeff return to same place where Brigadoon once stood and suddenly see the village reappearing. As Tommy finally reunites with Fiona, Brigadoon fades back into the mist.

Mr. Lundie: It's the hardest thing in the world to give everything. Though it's usually the only way to get everything. 

Lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner first met Austrian composer Frederick Loewe in 1942 at the Lamb's Club, a theatrical organization based in New York City. Since Loewe was looking for a partner, he and Lerner soon collaborated on a musical adaptation of Barry Conners's farce The Patsy called The Life of the Party for a Detroit stock company. Although the show ran for only nine weeks, Lerner and Loewe decided to continue acting as a team for the foreseeable future.
Back in New York, the duo got to work on What's Up? with Arthur Pierson, who co-wrote the musical with Lerner. Opening at the National Theatre on Broadway in November 1943, What's Up? received negative reviews from critics and closed after 63 performances. Undeterred by a second disappointment, Lerner and Loewe set about writing their next piece, The Day Before Spring, which debuted at the National Theatre in 1945. In spite of the mixed reception, the show ran for 165 performances and finally brought Lerner and Loewe some attention.
Composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner.

Inspired by Rodgers and Hammerstein's successful collaborations Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), Lerner and Loewe next created Brigadoon, a romantic fantasy set in a mystical village in the Scottish Highlands. Directed by Robert Lewis, Brigadoon opened at Ziegfeld Theatre on Broadway in March 1947 to excellent critical reviews. Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times called it a «beautiful orchestrated Scotch idyll,» while Ward Morehouse of the New York Sun declared it to be «by far the best musical play this season has produced.» The production, which ran for 581 performances, starred David Brooks as Tommy Albright, George Keane as Jeff Douglas, Marion Bell as Fiona MacLaren, Virginia Bosler as her sister Jean, James Mitchell as Harry Beaton and William Hansen as Mr. Lundie. A West End production of Brigadoon premiered at Her Majesty's Theatre in London in April 1949 and lasted 685 performances. It featured Philip Hanna as Tommy and Patricia Hughes as Fiona. 
Scenes from the original Broadway production of Brigadoon.

In February 1951, British producer J. Arthur Rank acquired the rights to Brigadoon, but sold them a month later to MGM's Arthur Freed, who «paid a fortune» for the property. Soon, the studio announced that Gene Kelly and Kathryn Grayson, the stars of Thousands Cheer (1943) and Anchors Aweigh (1945), would play the lead roles of Tommy and Fiona in the film version of Brigadoon. However, Kelly's other commitments stalled the production for almost two years, by which point the studio's contract with Grayson had lapsed. 

MGM then decided to cast Moira Shearer, who had come to international attention for her first screen role as a ballerina in the British film The Red Shoes (1948). Whereas Grayson hailed from North Carolina, Shearer was an authentic Scottish lass and thus perfect for the part. But, as fate would have it, Sadlers Wells Ballet, of which Shearer was a member, refused to release her for the length of the picture's shooting schedule. Having lost Shearer as their ideal Fiona, Metro finally settled on contract player and Freed Unit favourite Cyd Charisse, who had risen to fame as Kelly's sexy dancing partner in Singin' in the Rain (1951).
Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse as Tommy and Fiona in Brigadoon.

For the role of Jeff Douglas, the protagonist's best friend, MGM initially considered British actor Alec Guinness and Singin' in the Rain co-star Donald O'Connor, but eventually assigned the role to Van Johnson, who had appeared with Kelly in the propaganda war film Pilot #5 (1943). 
Known as MGM's «Golden Boy,» Johnson began his show business career in 1935, singing and dancing in an off-Broadway production called Entre Nous. The following year, noted producer Leonard Sillman cast him in New Faces of 1936, which was a huge hit among audiences and critics alike. That led to small featured parts in Rodgers and Hart's Too Many Girls (1939) and Pal Joey (1940), wherein he also served as Kelly's understudy. In 1942, Johnson signed a long-term contract with MGM and became one of the studio's most popular leading men during and right after World War II, appearing in such successful pictures as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), and Battleground (1949). Brigadoon ended up being Johnson's penultimate film for MGM; he was dropped from his contract following the release of The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).

Gene Kelly and Van Johnson as Tommy and Jeff in Brigadoon.

To helm Brigadoon, the studio selected Vincente Minnelli, who had previously worked with Kelly in The Pirate (1948) and the Best Picture winner An American in Paris (1951). The son of a musical conductor, Minnelli started out as a costume and set designer at the Chicago Theatre, before transitioning to stage director at Radio City Musical Hall in New York. The first play he directed was the hit musical revue At Home Abroad, which opened in October 1935 and featured future Hollywood stars Eleanor Powell and John Payne. Minnelli continued to enjoy great success on Broadway until Freed brought him to MGM in 1940. His other credits include Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Father of the Bride (1950) and The Band Wagon (1953), the latter of which gave Charisse her first leading role. Lerner described Minnelli as «the greatest director of motion picture musicals the screen has ever seen
Vincente Minnelli, Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse during the making of Brigadoon.

Kelly and Minnelli originally planned to shoot Brigadoon on location in Scotland, where the story is set. However, the country's unpredictable climate and the high cost of overseas production made this unfeasible. According to Kelly, he and Freed actually travelled to Scotland to scout locations, but found that «the weather was so bad that we had to agree with the studio. So we came back to the United States and started looking for locations here. We found some highlands above Monterey [in Northern California's Big Sur] that looked like Scotland. But then the studio had an economy wave, and they clamped the lid on that idea
To the disappointment of the cast and crew — and the delight of newly-appointed studio head Dore Schary, who disliked musicals and always pushed for films to be produced on a low budget — Brigadoon was filmed on the soundstages at the MGM facilities in Culver City. Art director Preston Ames, who had won an Oscar for An American in Paris, devised a way to build the village of Brigadoon, as well as the surrounding heathered hills, on a single, gigantic stage, in order to allow the camera to move through it more easily and shoot in a full 360-degree angle.

The ensemble cast of Brigadoon. The entire village was built on a soundstage.

Principal photography on Brigadoon took place between early December 1953 and late March 1954. From the beginning, Minnelli and Kelly disagreed on how the film should be shot. «Vincente and I were never in sync, I must confess,» Kelly admitted. Minnelli envisioned the film as «'more of an operetta' — the type of 'theatrical artifice' that was less like An American in Paris and more like The Pirate.» Kelly, however, saw Brigadoon as a «'Scottish Western' — Arthur Freed meets John Ford.» When the entire production veered more in Minnelli's direction, Kelly was not shy about voicing his unhappiness. Minnelli later said that he «had many talks with [Kelly], trying to impress on him the need to show exuberance in the part.» Nevertheless, Kelly remained remote and grim-looking throughout filming.

Adding to the already palpable tension on the set was the fact that once the performers finally managed to produce whatever effect their exacting, non-verbal director was looking for, they were obliged to do it all over again. As Johnson recalled,
«They were going from Widescreen to CinemaScope, so when we got a take, Vincent would say, 'Now we're going to do one for CinemaScope.' So I watched him. It took another 45 minutes to put his big camera on and relight and widen the thing. So, finally, I said, 'I'm shooting two pictures!' I went to see Dore Schary and I said, 'I'm shooting two movies. I should have two salaries,' but Dore said, 'Yes, you're shooting two versions. That's right. And you're getting one salary, Van, and be glad that you're getting it,' and I walked out very meekly. I never did that again

Cyd Charisse, Gene Kelly and Van Johnson during the making of Brigadoon.

Brigadoon premiered on September 8, 1954 and was moderately successful at the box-office. Critical reviews, however, were not as favorable, with many complaining about the film's stagy quality. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, for instance, described the film as «curiously flat and out-of-joint, rambling all over creation and seldom generating warmth or charm.» Crowther admired the costumes, sets and decor, but deplored the omission of several musical numbers. He also found fault with the film's two stars and its director: «the personable Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse have the lead dancing roles. Even so, their several individual numbers are done too slickly, too mechanistically. What should be wistful and lyric smack strongly of trickery and style [...] Mr. Kelly's [performance] is as thin and metallic as a nail; Miss Charisse's is solemn and posey [...] Vincente Minnelli's direction lacks his usual vitality and flow.» He concluded his review by noting that the film was «pretty weak synthetic Scotch

Original theatrical release posters for Brigadoon.

If my memory serves me right, Brigadoon was one of the first classic films I ever saw. At that point, I was still very much obsessed with Gene Kelly and tried to watch as many of his films as I could possibly find. When I read the plot synopsis of Brigadoon, I thought it sounded really interesting — a kind of story I never really seen before. As I started watching it, however, I was immediately put off by the blatant artificiality of the settings and ended up not enjoying the film as much as I thought I would. I truly wish the film had been shot on location in Scotland or at least in Big Sur, as Kelly suggested. In my opinion, real «live» surroundings would made Brigadoon an excellent film instead of just an okay one. Brigadoon was also the first Van Johnson picture I ever saw, although I barely noticed him at the time. It was only several months later when I watched Thrill of a Romance (1945) and Easy to Wed (1946) that I realized that Esther Williams's adorable leading man and Gene Kelly's sardonic sidekick were the same person. At that point, I went back and re-watched Van's scenes in Brigadoon and that made me like the film a little bit more. My favourite sequence is definitely «I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean,» which he performs with Gene. Van was actually a really good dancer and it is a shame that MGM did not give him more opportunities to showcase his dancing skills.

A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli by Mark Griffin (Da Capo Press, 2010)
Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (St. Martin's Press, 2009) 


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