Every Sunday Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before you were born and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
There’s an element about films that relocates the viewer, taking them wherever the camera is placed whether it’s a city block in Chicago or a distant planet unlike our own. All art has this property, but with the visuals, sounds and direct emotional connectivity, movies seem to have the upper hand, and a film like Brigadoon has an even strong upper hand because it transports not only the audience, but also its main characters to a mystic place tucked away in the highlands of Scotland. It’s a place not on any map, a place where life is as simple as it was two hundred years ago, a place where a day might be spent dancing and singing in the heather on the hill.
Tommy (Gene Kelly) and Jeff (Van Johnson) are grouse hunting in the hills when a fog lifts to reveal a sleepy little hamlet just a few hundred paces from where they’re hopelessly lost. They decide to visit, but when Tommy meets Fiona (Cyd Charisse), he wants to stay despite the strange behavior of the townsfolk and the secret that they seem to be hiding.
The plot, if taken a different way, could have ended up like a horror film. All it really needs is some creepy string music and a giant wooden man near the climax, and you’d have fear instead of love. However, the movie was an adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe play of the same name that had exploded onto the Broadway scene with the initial force of 581 performances starting in 1947. The play, of course, was based on the 19th century story “Germelshausen” by Friedrich Gerstacker. That story was, probably, inspired by the time Gerstacker accidentally stumbled upon a mythic town that could only appear once every hundred years and narrowly escaped before he was swallowed by the earth.
There’s no doubt that MGM had high hopes for the film considering that they spent a large sum to acquire the rights. It was a Broadway hit with one of the most bankable leading men of the day attached – a man who could dance and sing his way right through Scotland and on down to the box office. Gene Kelly had by this point already danced with Jerry the Mouse, earned an Academy Award nomination, become an American in Paris and danced his soaking wet ascot through the rain. Of course some of these roles came after the rights were acquired and the film was delayed.
Kelly was paired with his American in Paris director Vincent Minnelli, who had a stellar reputation for making great melodramas and musicals, and who you may remember as Judy Garland’s husband and the father of Liza Minnelli (who is famous for singing and dancing to “All The Single Ladies”). What the senior Minnelli added to the film was a fantastic sense of scope despite the crippling effect that working on sound stages had on the film. Instead of working on location, the tumultuous nature of the weather as well as some money problems forced everyone onto sets, but Minnelli and cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg overcame the problem by moving the camera near-constantly to create a sense of freedom and fresh, outdoor air.
The movie itself is bizarre even for a musical. On the one hand, the mysterious nature of the town of Brigadoon makes it seem more natural that men and women would break out into song and choreographed dance numbers (as opposed to the usual musical where otherwise-normal human beings turn into Danny Kaye at the drop of a hat and then return flippantly to talking and standing still when the unseen orchestra stops playing). On the other hand, it has story elements that make it feel jarring and a little uneasy. After all, the town is a paradise, but its miracle and purity can also seem like a curse or a prison. The darkness of that is hinted at until it shockingly slams into the ground from the high tree branch it was perching on. What at first seems like a standard love story between star cross’d dance partners becomes something slightly more elaborate.
This all culminates in the best scene of the entire film – a bustling New York City supper club where madness and sweat seems to be overflowing like whiskey and bitters from tightly gripped high ball glasses. It may seem like an odd stand out considering the rest of the film takes place in Brigadoon, but the contrast between those calmly rolling hills and the insanity of the rat race is striking to the point of being nauseating. You can’t help but want to get out of that awful place filled with people saying moronic things and smacking their lips with their mouths full and heads empty. You can’t help but want to get out and get back to Brigadoon.
Kelly is charming just as he always is, having enough left over in order to help out his leading lady who had appeared more as “Dancer” than in major roles at the time. On the other side of the balance beam is Van Johnson’s character who is more caustic than most modern characters have the guts to be. Not only is he pessimistic and mordant, he’s as loud and sharp as the gun slung on his shoulder. He doesn’t at all belong in the movie, but that doesn’t mean he’s not eyebrow-raisingly entertaining.
Over all, the film might scare away those who have an aversion to musicals in the first place, but as someone who counts himself amongst those ranks, I was won over by the preternatural magnetism of the whole thing. In that, the movie has a lot in common with the peculiar, titular town and its incomprehensible ability to grow on you. You stumble in confused, and pretty soon you’re looking at the real estate listings. Maybe it’s the ale or the friendly neighbors or the gorgeous brunette you shared that dance with, but there’s something special about Brigadoon that slaps a smile on your face that won’t leave it for the next hundred years.