Leaving Me to Reflect on Changes in How We Connect
The first I became aware of this movie was also the first I became aware of the concept of pan-and-scan. I saw it many years ago, when [i]Siskel and Ebert[/i] did an episode about the concept of letterboxing. Remember, when I was a kid, all home movie release was in fullscreen. On TV, on VHS--if you saw a movie at home, you saw it filling your screen. And I was young enough so that I'd never really considered that it was a different ratio than appeared on movie screens. Of course, neither had a lot of people older than I. Occasionally, Roger and Gene would--presumably in weeks where not much interesting was coming out in the theatre--do special episodes where they talked about something important to them. They did colorization, and in this particular episode, they did pan-and-scan. This movie was used as an example of what you're missing when they cut off the sides of the picture, and it's true that I've seldom seen a movie where the sides of the picture were so important.
It is October of 1945. Three buddies have returned from Europe; they are Ted Riley (Gene Kelly), Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey), and Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd). They tell bartender Tim (David Burns) that they will always be friends, and they bet him a dollar each that they will come back ten years later, still friends. And those ten years go by. Doug becomes an ad man. Angie opens a hamburger stand. Ted sort of drifts, I think. Doug's wife wants a divorce, because he isn't the man he used to be. Angie and his wife have four kids. And Ted just kind of picks up girls. When they meet again, they have nothing in common. Doug's company does the ads for a product called Klenzrite, which sponsors a show starring a woman named Madeline Bradville (Dolores Gray). Her interesting guest, a recovering alcoholic, has gone off and gotten drunk. So executive Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse) suggests the story of three old Army buddies . . . .
I'm not sure I'd quite label this as satirical, though everyone else seems to. It's using the tools of its age--television is a major plot device, for example--but it takes it rather straight. Yes, Jackie gets an implausible dance number with a bunch of boxers, but that's just a staple of the genre, and it doesn't come across as tongue-in-cheek. I think the issue is more that most of the movie [i]doesn't[/i] happen in that sort of world. Yes, the boxing number. And the really exquisite dance Gene Kelly does on roller skates, which is alone reason enough to watch this movie. I mean, it just shouldn't be possible to tap dance on roller skates and then glide off. But the story actually relies on a certain amount of realism. After ten years, these guys don't have much to say to one another, because they've led incredibly different lives. The boxing game is full of shadowy and threatening characters. And doing what's expected of you can make you into a relatively unpleasant person.
Famously, this movie didn't do very well in the theatres, and it's generally considered to have been part of the death knell of the MGM musical. It's true that it is a darker movie than a lot of the others, and the story is not really about Gene Kelly wooing Cyd Charisse in song. Heck, they didn't even get a musical number together in this picture. Honestly, I think part of the popularity of Facebook is that it lets us deny that people can grow apart after years distant. It's true that I have a few friends with whom I may well have more in common now than I did in high school, but I know there's at least one I've substantially grown apart from. We like to believe that we can just walk back into our friends' lives, and this movie is based on the premise that we really can't. Yes, we know they'll be friends again somehow, because movies require happy endings, but they have to get back to who they'd been before they can be friends. The only reason the movie works is that they want to.
Oh, it's still not my favourite musical. Not even my favourite MGM musical. And my understanding is that Gene Kelly was such a pain to work with here that Stanley Donen, his codirector, never made another MGM musical--and basically stopped speaking to Gene Kelly. Kelly had Michael Kidd's musical number cut, because the whole "singing to kids" thing was his schtick. He also really wanted it clear that the movie was about him, so it's lucky (I guess; I don't like it much) that Dailey's "Saturation-Wise" number got left in. I will say that it's important character development which would have been lost, which Kidd's "Jack and the Beanstalk" (preserved now as an extra on the DVD and missing most of the lyrics) is not. However, it's worthwhile to see that musicals can be more than just lighthearted pursuit of a girl and not get into Sondheim territory. Sondheim wouldn't have let us have a happily-ever-after, of course.