A major criticism of “Brigadoon” (1954) is it was shot on the M-G-M soundstages and not on location in Scotland. If there was ever a musical that should have been shot outdoors, some say, it is “Brigadoon.”
I never really bought that argument because the Scottish village and hillside created for the movie are so gorgeous to look at. While the idea of shooting on location in Scotland does sound appealing, the often unpredictable nature of Scottish weather could have seen costs soar. The fact that M-G-M used AnscoColor instead of Technicolor means they were definitely watching the bottom line.
Plus, because so many theaters were still unequipped to show movies in the new Cinemascope format, “Brigadoon” was shot twice, once in the standard wide-screen format and again in Cinemascope. Shooting in Scottish weather once would have been daunting enough, but shooting twice would have been tempting fate.
“Brigadoon” is a fantasy along the lines of “Lost Horizon” and a most beguiling one at that. Brigadoon is a magical Scottish village that appears only 100 years. It is discovered by accident by two American hunters who find themselves lost in the Scottish highlands.
Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) is something of a lost soul, someone who knows his life is missing something, but he can’t put a finger on it. His best friend is Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson), who has a drinking problem and has no faith in anything he can’t see, taste, smell or touch.
They see the village through the morning mist and are perplexed at its quaint costumes and customs of the inhabitants. Tommy meets Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse) and begins to fall in love with her. Fiona’s sister Jean (Virginia Bosler, re-creating her role from the Broadway production) is getting married that day to Charles Dalrymple (Jimmy Thompson). It promises to be a merry day in Brigadoon except for the dark cloud known as Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing), who is in love with Jean and does not want to see her married to another man.
“Brigadoon” opened on Broadway on March 13, 1947 and was an immediate success. It was the first big hit for composer Frederick Loewe and lyricist and book writer Alan Jay Lerner.
Based on a German fairy tale called “Germelshausen”, about a German town which appears every 100 years, “Brigadoon” retained the idea but transferred it to Scotland.
The show ran 581 performances on Broadway and its London engagement played 685 times.( Other musicals playing on Broadway that season included: “Oklahoma!”; “Carousel”; “Call Me Mister”; Annie Get Your Gun”; “Beggar’s Holiday”; “Street Scene” and “Finian’s Rainbow.”)
It took famed producer Arthur Freed several years to bring “Brigadoon” to the screen. It was first announced in 1951, and was to have re-teamed Gene Kelly with his “Anchors Aweigh” (1945) co-star Kathryn Grayson. That fell through, though Kelly remained as part of the deal. With that in mind, it was decided to make the movie more dance-oriented. Kelly wanted Moira Shearer for the Fiona role, but her commitments to the Sadler Wells Ballet Company prevented that. Finally, M-G-M contract player Cyd Charisse was given the assignment.
For the role of Jeff, producer Arthur Freed wanted to re-team Kelly with Donald O’Connor from “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), but O’Connor was no longer under contract to M-G-M, so Van Johnson was cast. A good choice, and Johnson had started his career as a dancer in the chorus.
Harry Beaton makes vague threats about leaving Brigadoon, even though it would spell disaster to the whole town. Tommy is puzzled by the village but finds himself falling in love more and more in love with Fiona, especially after singing and dancing to the haunting “The Heather on the Hill”. Eventually he learns the secret of the village from the village schoolmaster, Mr. Lundie (Barry Jones). Thanks to a covenant with God, Brigadoon materializes only every 100 years and none of its inhabitants can ever leave its boundaries. Mr. Lundie tells Tommy an outsider can remain in the village only if they love someone in Brigadoon, not the village itself.
By all accounts, “Brigadoon” was not a happy set. Vincente Minnelli was always on board to direct, and even though he initially wanted to film on location in Scotland, he quickly realized how much more control he would have in Hollywood. He and Gene Kelly had worked well together on “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946), “The Pirate” (1948) and “An American in Paris” (1951) and appreciated each other’s talents.
But Kelly was bitterly disappointed at not shooting on location and stayed morose throughout the shooting.
Kelly is quoted in “A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli” by Mark Griffin (DeCapo Press, 2010) and admits he and Minnelli were never in synch on this production.
Griffin writes: “Minnelli envisioned the movie as ‘more of an operetta’ – the type of ‘theatrical artifice’ that was like an “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, the star-choreographer was unhappy, and it showed. Minnelli later said he ‘had many talks with [Kelly], trying to impress on him the need to show exuberance in the part.’ But the star remained remote and grim-looking.”
Kelly and Minnelli also took to re-writing the script on the set, which infuriated screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner when he heard about it. He complained to Freed, who immediately sent a cease and desist order to Kelly and Minnelli. They complied.
The wedding between Charlie and Jean takes place at night, lit by torches and attended by the entire village in their most colorful finery. The entire village joins in the dancing, including Harry. He makes his way to Jean and violently kisses her. He is attacked by Charlie and they two have to be restrained. Harry breaks free and announces he is leaving Brigadoon and the miracle is over.
The men search the surrounding countryside for Harry to no avail. He almost makes good his escape until, hiding in a tree, he is accidentally shot by an inebriated Jeff, who has left the wedding ceremony to go grouse hunting.
Charlie Dalrymple was played by Jimmy Thompson, who had appeared as the singer/narrator in the “Beautiful Girl” number in “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). Thompson could not handle the vocal demands of the role, so was dubbed by John Gustafson. He was not the only one to be dubbed, as Cyd Charisse was dubbed by Carol Richards.
Jeff convinces Tommy that Brigadoon isn’t for them, and they return to a very noisy New York City. Tommy is distant from his fiancée Jane (Elaine Stewart) and everything reminds him of Brigadoon. The two return to Scotland. Tommy is desperate to return to the village’s site, even though the village won’t appear for another 100 years and he knows he’ll never see Fiona again. The village does appear before them as does Mr. Lundie. He tells Tommy he must really love her, because he woke him up. Tommy runs to the village and meets Fiona coming out of her house. They walk slowly towards each other as the camera pulls back and the chorus swells.
I think “Brigadoon” is an absolutely gorgeous film to look at and listen to. With that score how could it not be ambrosia for the ears? But thanks to the remarkable behind the scenes musical talents at M-G-M, a beautiful score is made even more ravishing, and the art direction and set design are some of the most impressive for any M-G-M musical.
Musical director was the great Johnny Green with the arrangements made by the legendary Conrad Salinger. One of the reasons why M-G-M musicals are so good is because of Salinger’s contributions.
In the notes accompanying a Chandos CD celebrating songs and production numbers from MGM musicals, the late and eminent film music historian Christopher Palmer wrote of Salinger:
“Salinger’s was actually a complex musical personality, narcissistic and perfectionist (everything sounds fresh and spontaneous, but I have a feeling the wastepaper basket overflowed many times with rejected drafts). Ravel described his own orchestration as ‘complex, but not complicated’ and much the same could be said of Salinger’s. His scores are studded with detail, with incidental subtleties and small felicities of all kinds, but they are never cluttered, never made-up to the point whereby glamour becomes overkill. The perfume is exclusive – and expensive – but Salinger knows exactly how much to put on, and where. Pop songs are like people in that if they are to be dressed up a basic simplicity must always obtain. That Salinger understood that was part of his genius.
“…But the real Salinger was the de luxe quality of orchestral texture exemplified by “Dancing in the Dark”, “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The Heather on the Hill” – a quality born of his feeling for beauty of timbre, for mood, for atmosphere, for nuance, above all for line, for the give and take of melody and countermelody. His vocal accomplishments are object lessons in subtlety, sensitivity and understatement.”
Choral arranger for the film was Robert Tucker, and I think the choral work in this film is equal to the work choral arranger Ken Darby was doing at Twentieth Century Fox. In fact I’ll go out on a limb and say this is probably the finest choral work in any M-G-M musical.
The choral work is amazingly acute and precise in “The Chase”, the sequence where the men of the village hunt for Harry. The hushed opening chorus as the camera pans also the highland countryside as the village emerges from the mist sounds like something from a dream. Naturally, there’s a lot of good choral work in M-G-M musicals, but the chorus truly surpassed themselves here.
Vincente Minnelli’s sense of design and space is also well on display here. The film’s opening number, “Down on MacConnachy Square” is a riot of color and excitement as the village awakens to live another day. The group dancing in the “Go Home to Bonnie Jean” shows Minnelli’s understanding of the wide Cinemascope image and how to use it to maximum advantage. .
The wedding sequence is also a marvel of sight and sound as the different clans gather, with bagpipes playing and the villagers turned out in their best attire. Lit by torches it’s an evocative sequence that’s a marvel to behold. This is immediately followed by the aforementioned “The Chase” which looks like it was shot in almost one take, or at least one or two long, continuous takes. The planning and preparation must have been enormous, but Minnelli had a huge canvas to stage the sequence on and he makes every bit of it count.
How big was the “Brigadoon” stage? Hugh Fordin’s invaluable look at the Freed Unit, M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit” (First De Capo Press Edition, 1996) tells us:
“According to the script, the story would take place on two main sites: the hills of Scotland and the village of Brigadoon. These were to be constructed on three separate sound stages, until (Art Director Preston) Ames came up with the ingenious idea of combining everything on one stage, creating a vast panorama. He presented his idea to Minnelli. ‘I think you’re crazy,’ said Minnelli, ‘but do it! But remember, I want lots of heather!
“To execute this enormous undertaking, the construction department built hillsides and valleys, a village with many cottages and a bridge spanning a brook; there were livestock and all the trappings of the outdoors. One man was responsible for creating the visual illusion of the Scottish countryside: George Gibson, the same man who so masterfully executed the backdrops for the “American in Paris” ballet. His backing for the “Brigadoon” set was 600 feet wide and 60 feet high. Gibson’s painting was so realistic that even the birds were attracted by ‘their natural habitat’ and flew through the open stage doors straight into the backdrop.”
In transferring the show to the screen, some compromises had to be made and some songs dropped. The man-hungry Meg Brockie character lost her songs and was relegated to only two scenes with Van Johnson. As played by Dodie Heath, she’s a delight, but the Hays Office nixed the mildly risqué lyrics in her two songs, “The Love of My Life” and “My Mother’s Wedding Day.” It’s too bad because she’s such a delight. (Ironically, the role was played on Broadway by Pamela Britton, who played Frank Sinatra’s girlfriend in “Anchors Aweigh” (1945). There’s another Gene Kelly connection right there).
Other songs filmed but edited out of the final print were “Come to Me, Bend to Me” (sung by Charlie to Jean); “There But For You, Go I” (sung by Fiona to Tommy) and “The Sword Dance” (performed by Harry Beaton and dancers at the wedding ceremony).
The DVD of “Brigadoon” offers these deleted numbers as an extra, and I was particularly intrigued by the “There But For You, Go I” number. While the song was excised from the final print, the dance remains but is re-scored by a more expansive orchestral treatment of “The Heather on the Hill. The sequence occurs after the chase and death of Harry Beaton, and as gorgeous as the song is, it does slow the action.
Since Fiona and Tommy began to fall in love as they sang and danced to “The Heather on the Hill” earlier in the movie, I liked the reprise here as it seems to strengthen the character’s love into a deeper and more affecting relationship.
“Brigadoon” opened to fairly tepid reviews. Griffin quotes two. “The whimsical dream world it creates holds no compelling attractions,.” said Penelope Huston of the London Times. Newsweek said, “Hollywood can still put its worst foot forward in the classic manner.”
Audiences liked it though, and it grossed more than $3 million. It’s a film that seems to get better with age. It still has its detractors, but Minnelli’s direction, and the incomparable dancing of Kelly and Charisee and that classic Lerner and Loewe score, make this a film to be enjoyed over and over. And with the current economy and the seemingly never-ending streak of bad news, who wouldn’t want to find a place like Brigadoon in their own lives?
How Brigadoon made the elite 70:
Greg Ferrara’s #32 choice
Marilyn Ferdinand’s #37 choice
Dennis Polifroni’s #66 choice