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  • Writer's pictureDiana Balakirov

Hollywood on the Hill

When I think about musicals, my mind is immediately drawn to lavish production numbers characterized by stylish costumes, scores of iconic tunes and eye-catching scenery. Instantly, I am transported to an urban setting like Chicago or New York City that depicts the hustle and bustle of daily life in a sprawling metropolis. Once in a while, I land in a small town where all the characters seem to know each other and have a story to tell. And if I'm truly lucky, I might even find myself swept away to an exotic destination where anything is possible. In this regard, 1954's Brigadoon checks off all the right boxes as a musical of both the stage and the screen but also sets itself apart with unconventional storytelling that tugs at one's heartstrings to deliver a message of love, hope and courage.


Inspired by the innovative direction of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! (1943) and Carousel (1945), composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, who would eventually become famous for their own work on Gigi and My Fairy Lady, put their creative partnership to the test with 1946's theater production of Brigadoon. Shying away from the lukewarm formula employed during their previous collaborations, only two of which made it to the Broadway stage, the dynamic duo shifted gears to bring to life a powerful love story that takes place in a mystical village situated in the Scottish Highlands its name reminiscent of Brig O'Doon, a medieval bridge that draws tourists to Scotland's Ayrshire County south of Alloway. With the forward-thinking vision of Agnes de Mille, elements of traditional folk, ceremonial and funeral dances were interspersed throughout the stage show's choreography, adding a layer of authenticity that was both traditional and revolutionary. When paired with dialogue and used to advance the plot, as opposed to serving primarily as a vehicle for entertainment, Brigadoon's song-and-dance acts embraced the novel concept of an integrated musical.


Brigadoon premiered at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City in 1947 before making its global debut at Her Majesty's Theatre in London's West End district in 1949. Despite minor criticisms expressed by critics upon its release, the highly original and enchanting show seemed destined for international success, running for a total of 1,266 performances between the two productions. A film adaptation, produced with all the grandeur and style that the Golden Age of Hollywood demanded, was inevitable; only one major studio could do it justice.

 

Released the same year as the tremendously popular Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's (MGM's) Brigadoon failed to make a box-office splash when it hit movie theaters in 1954. While budget cuts may have led to the film's production having more limited means at its disposal, the cast and crew behind the should-be-masterpiece made do with the resources they had. Director Vincente Minnelli's insistence to shoot the musical on location had fallen on deaf ears, his dedication to the project diminishing as a result, even as the cost-saving decision to shoot the movie with Ansco Color instead of Technicolor was made by the powers that be. Under the regime of Dore Schary, who had, by that time, replaced Louis B. Mayer as MGM's president, musicals took a creative hit. But despite these particular setbacks, it's incredibly unfair to call the on-screen production of Brigadoon a failure.


Forget a triple threat - make it a quadruple!

The storybook-like landscapes surrounding Brigadoon are both whimsical drawing upon special effects such as fog to reveal the mist-hidden village and realistic, inviting actual birds, albeit unintentionally, to the set. Unlike the confines of the theater stage, which certainly has its limitations, the movie feels like an endless canvas that is unraveled to reveal hidden layers of artistry. The contribution of costume designer Irene Sharaff, a Hollywood legend in her own right, cannot be overstated enough as vibrant colors and Scottish clothing patterns worn by local villagers become a joy to behold against the backdrop of Joseph Ruttenberg's award-winning cinematography. Most importantly, the story's characters, who exist at the heart of the Brigadoon experience, are brought to life by a star-studded lineup of truly remarkable performers.


My admiration of Judy Garland, whom I consider to be one of the greatest popular entertainers of all time, is matched only by the fondness I hold for Gene Kelly. A man of many talents, Gene could act, sing, dance, produce and direct. You name it, he's literally done it all. The innovative dance sequences seen throughout his films were either his own or part of a collaborative effort; in Brigadoon, it is Gene's work as a choreographer that is a highlight of the picture. In a presentation that ultimately shifts the musical's focus from singing to dancing, adapting it from the stage to the screen, vocally trained artists Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell, all of whom were at one point considered for leading roles in the film, ended up making way for Gene and Cyd Charisse to shine in their niche areas of expertise.


Cyd launched her dancing career when she was just a teenager. After studying ballet at the age of 12, she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and received a formal education at the Hollywood Professional School. In the early 1940s, Cyd, living in Los Angeles, starred in minor movie roles at several motion-picture studios before being discovered by a prominent choreographer who referred her to MGM. Joining the infamous Freed Unit, which eventually propelled her to stardom, Cyd was finally given the opportunity to showcase her exquisite work as a ballerina on the silver screen. Her pairing with Gene Kelly in Brigadoon is neither her first nor as popular as, say, the "Broadway Melody" sequence in 1952's Singin' in the Rain, but it is deservingly noteworthy.



Rounding out the solid leading cast is Van Johnson, another prominent entertainer who has not only appeared in numerous Hollywood films but also on the stage, radio and television making guest appearances on popular shows such as I Love Lucy, Batman, The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote between the 1950s and the 1980s. Like Gene and Cyd, Van had an opportunity to hone his dancing skills while performing on Broadway at the start of his career, which certainly came in handy during Brigadoon, and work his way up the ranks as a top-billed actor and star recipient at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. A dramatic actor when he needed to be, a comedian more often than not and a singer when the occasion called for it, Van showed versatility in every regard. Brigadoon just happens to be a case in point.

 

*Contains spoilers*


The tale of the mysterious Brigadoon begins when two modern-day New Yorkers, Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson), travel to Scotland on a hunting trip, only to find themselves lost and in need of food and a place to stay. By a small miracle, they stumble upon a village that's not listed on their map and seems to emerge — as if by magic — out of the blue. In that rarest of places, we also meet the beautiful and captivating Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse) and get a glimpse into her deepest romantic desires. Even as her sister, Jean (Virginia Bosler), is preparing for her own wedding, Fiona is willing to wait as long as it takes for the right man to come along and refuses to settle for less than true love in "Waitin' For My Dearie," one of the first musical numbers to appear in the film. When Fiona stumbles upon Tommy and Jeff, directing them to the village square, she inadvertently takes one step closer to realizing her dream.


Upon arrival at the square, the two Americans find the Scottish villagers in good spirits. They are soon introduced to a young lad named Charlie Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson), Jean's fiancé, and witness him making a vow to leave bachelorhood behind in lieu of a fresh start with his bride. Although ballet dancer Michael Maule was initially slated to portray Charlie in MGM's motion picture, it is Jimmy's impassioned confession that paves Charlie's way to an upbeat number that's vocally supported by an all-male chorus and accented by the commendable footwork of Gene Kelly and Van Johnson. "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean" is a lengthy musical sequence, one of the longest I've seen, but it's full of infectious energy, truly irresistible and only one of several showstoppers that stand out in a film that received a lukewarm reception upon its release.


 

As much as Brigadoon feels like folklore, showcasing Scotland's rich history and distinct culture, it is, at its core, a powerful love story. Jean's wedding ceremony is certainly a highlight of the film, beginning with an impressive procession of clansmen playing bagpipes and ending with the joyous "Wedding Dance," flawlessly performed by Jimmy Thompson, Virginia Bosler and a tartan-clad supporting ensemble. But even with all the trimmings that accompany the unforgettable ceremonial scene, it is the blooming romance between Fiona and Tommy that captures the audience's imagination.


The extent of Tommy's feelings for Fiona is clear; thanks to Gene Kelly's stirring rendition of "Almost Like Being in Love" a popular song that has been covered outside of Brigadoon by legendary performers such as Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald there is absolutely no doubt that the charming New Yorker is elated, overjoyed and genuinely thrilled to have found the woman of his dreams. There is only one problem: if Fiona or any of the locals leave Brigadoon's confines, the boundaries of which are defined during a public gathering in the town square, the village that awakens only once every 100 years will disappear forever.


One of the most exquisite and intimate scenes shared by Tommy and Fiona during a moment of seclusion is "Heather on the Hill." A culmination of the great artistry I described earlier, with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse paving the way, this number brings nature to the forefront of a tale that's truly unlike any others. All cinematic elements — camera work, staging, choreography and orchestration — interplay with one another but remain distinctly their own, meant to be savored individually and as a part of the overall presentation. An all-sensory experience that is so simple and unadulterated, without special effects or graphics, is a rare privilege the likes of which we may never see again.



Three additional numbers, which are interesting to consider, were initially filmed but deleted prior to Brigadoon's theatrical release; a fourth number sung by Gene Kelly "There But For You I Go" — survives only in audio form. Among these outtakes is "From This Day On," a rendezvous that takes place between Tommy and Fiona as their day together draws to a close. Whereas "Heather on the Hill" feels more hopeful and joyous, marking the beginning of something new, its nighttime counterpart is bittersweet and filled with a sense of longing and uncertainty. Adding more depth to the storyline, the deleted scene tugs at one's heartstrings, and the two star-crossed lovers, separated by time and bound by circumstances beyond their control, cannot be together unless one of them makes the ultimate sacrifice. As explained by jovial schoolmaster Mr. Lundie, played by Barry Jones, only a love that is deep enough will allow an outsider to remain in Brigadoon forever.

 

As naive and far-fetched as this musical may seem, the symbolism behind the mystical village, saved from extinction by a miracle, is much more profound when it comes to the lives of its characters. Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing), a local villager, feels trapped. Frustrated by the fact that Jean, whom he loves but cannot have, is marrying another man, Harry makes an attempt to cross the bridge leading out of Brigadoon and threaten the very existence of the village and its inhabitants. The film takes on a darker overtone when a dramatic, fast-paced and emotional chase scene ends in tragedy, pulling Jeff out of his indifferent, noncommittal behavior and leading him to come to an important realization. The confession that Jeff makes to Tommy, altering the course of the latter's decision regarding Fiona, is one of Van Johnson's best and most memorable scenes.


For Tommy, Brigadoon represents something pure and innocent, an acceptance of a simpler state of being that is impossible for most individuals to achieve. The modern-day lifestyle to which Tommy is accustomed is pretentious and unforgiving; New York City with its daily grind is the opposite of Tommy's other-worldly experience in Scotland. Unable to separate reality from fantasy once he unwillingly returns back home, Tommy is reminded of Fiona everywhere he goes. Even a relationship with the fiercely independent Jane Ashton (Elaine Stewart), whom Tommy once considered marrying, lacks a genuine, meaningful connection.



Harry's so-called hell is Tommy's paradise, and the contrast the film makes between the two men's points of view — while reminding viewers that there is no such thing as a perfect life — is commendable.

 

It's hard to believe that 70 years have passed since Brigadoon premiered on the big screen, only to be lost in time just like the village after which it was named. In today's day and age, the story, at least the film version of it, is probably unfamiliar to general audiences; sadly, most people are unlikely to know anything about Vincente Minnelli's work on a major musical that drew upon some of the best and biggest talent of its time.


While ABC's 1966 television presentation of Brigadoon is certainly an oddity of a remake, disappearing from future broadcasts two years later, some modern viewers are more likely to be familiar with Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio's parodical retelling of the tale in Apple TV+'s 2021 series Schmigadoon! Fans of icon Bill Murray may have caught "Almost Like Being in Love" playing at the end of 1993's Groundhog Day, possibly hearing it for the first time without realizing that the beloved comedy's premise is based on a magical day that repeats over and over again. Whatever the chosen medium of expression may be, there is no doubt that Brigadoon has opened plenty of creative doors for decades since its release during the Golden Age of Hollywood. For me, that inspiration can be traced to one man.


Out of all the musical films I've seen and own, the ones that I particularly enjoying watching (besides Judy Garland's, of course) are the ones that feature Gene Kelly. My love of the legendary performer, whom I first discovered dancing with Olivia Newton-John as a 10-year-old in 1980's Xanadu, is no coincidence, and as I am a firm believer in everything happening for a reason, I can't help but think that there is a cosmic significance to all of the discoveries I've made since setting out on the Classics in Wonderland journey.


Last year, as I went to bed on the eve of my birthday, I had a vivid dream about Gene Kelly that I couldn't forget even when I woke up. The next day, my friends and I took a trip to a small town, not unlike Brigadoon, and visited an antique clock museum that was closed but made available to us by a special request. The proprietor, whose first name just happened to be Gene, offered to sing me "Happy Birthday." But while this elderly gentleman did not break into an extravagant dance routine, the universe had one more surprise in store for me. As my friends and I stepped inside a gourmet food market, which was quiet and empty, I heard the sound of Alexa turning on and making a request to play "Singin' in the Rain." As Gene Kelly's soothing voice took over the shop's speaker, throwing me completely off guard, the serendipitous message I received — what author Squire Rushnell refers to as a God wink — was loud and clear. That memory continues to reverberate to this day, even as I leave Brigadoon behind, guiding me down a mist-hidden path that has yet to reveal its final destination.

 

This installment of Classics in Wonderland's blog series is dedicated to my dear friend Teresa, an avid traveler who seeks adventures everywhere she goes and who, at the present moment, is in Scotland creating new memories in a Brigadoon of her own making.

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thethreemaries
May 23

I can't believe I haven't seen this! This is going on my priority list! You make it sound amazing!

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