In the wee hours of a summer morning, a mist and a dreamy song cover the Scottish Highlands as two weary hunters lose their way. Tommy (Gene Kelly) and Jeff (Van Johnson) are taking a break from the big city, but don’t seem to function too well outside it. They’re tired, hungry and despondent, until a village pops into view below them, swirling with dance, song, lads, lassies and a lot of plaid. They visit Brigadoon — a miraculous 17th century town that appears once every hundred years due to an enchantment — for a little breakfast and a little ale. Despite his buddy Jeff’s constant mocking of the town and its occupants, Tommy falls for the breathtaking Fiona (Cyd Charisse), even though he’s engaged to Jane back in New York City. But the only way he can have her is to give up everything he knows.
This Friday and Saturday, director Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954) hits the Redford Theatre’s screen. Adapted from Lerner and Loewe’s hit Broadway musical, the film (considered by some a kitsch-ridden failure) received far less acclaim than the stage show. It gets lost in the spotlit shadows of other Minnelli musicals like An American in Paris or Gigi. One of the reasons could be that the filmmakers boosted the dance numbers — choreographed by Gene Kelly — and cast Charisse and Kelly, who were primarily dancers, in the lead roles. In addition, because producer Arthur Freed didn’t think Scotland looked quite Scottish enough, Brigadoon was filmed entirely on sets at the MGM studios, enveloping the village in a concocted Technicolor plaid-clad Garden of Eden with a “puppet show” residue. But although the film may not have met the expectations of a 1950s lover of movie musicals, viewing this film today proves it to be a very strange creature indeed, with a freaky, intriguing clash of colloquialisms, clothing and sensibilities.
Somewhere within this fairy tale lies a disturbing element that’s working very hard, and very well, to keep you from believing in miracles. For one thing, the residents of Brigadoon look like the love children of Mother Goose and a Scotsman’s caricature. Then in comes NYC-savvy Kelly and Johnson in their gray suits dancing the soft shoe. Kelly could charm his way through any mishap; with his rolled pant cuffs, loafers and fightin’ Irishman physique, he embodies both a working-man demeanor and a light-footed dancing dreamer. Because he so easily sways from manly to class clown, he easily fits into both Brigadoon and NYC.
But the real fairy-foil is Jeff, a character completely out of place in a place that shouldn’t be there, magnified by casting Van Johnson, an actor usually found in black-and-white war flicks as a guy’s best friend or the uplifting buddy of color musicals. In Brigadoon, every line out of Jeff’s ale-saturated mouth is seething with a sarcasm that could choke the life out of Disneyland.
When Fiona asks the two men to speak to Brigadoon schoolmaster Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones), Jeff replies, “Is it informal, or should I wear my Napoleon hat?” It’s a meeting of extremes, but even the extremes are extreme in their own categories. Like when Mr. Lundie explains to the men how witches plagued the 17th-century Scottish countryside: “I don’t suppose you have such women in your country.” Johnson answers with, “Oh we have ’em. We pronounce it differently.” Even for a hard-edged comedy at the time, that’s tough language and attitude, but it’s especially biting next to song-belting, taffy-stretching, kilt-wearing, unnervingly happy folk who know nothing of sour cynicism.
According to Mr. Lundie, most folks don’t believe in miracles, but those who do are the ones who get them. Likewise, whatever you take with you from watching Brigadoon is totally dependent on what state of mind you bring into the theater.
Showing at the Redford Theatre (Lahser at Grand River, Detroit), Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. (organ overture at 7:30 p.m.), with a Saturday matinee at 2 p.m. (organ overture at 1:30 p.m.). Tickets: $3. Call 313-537-2560.
Anita Schmaltz writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].
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