Sometimes I keep myself awake at night imagining Gene Kelly on one side, asking me to run away to Paris where he will perform numerous dances around various fountains, begging for my eternal devotion, on on the other, gruff and mustachoied Sam Elliott, promising to take me away on his Harley to his ranch in the Western mountains where I will bring him coffee on the porch as we watch the sunset over the Sierras or wherever. Gene? Sam? Gene? Sam? Who will I choose? Thank God I have never had to make that choice. No seriously, thanks God. That's awesome.
I watched this more in order to deepen my knowledge of the classic American musical film, the fact that Gene Kelly plays a more openly sexual character and dances in tiny little black shorts literally the furthest thing from my mind. We see from the credits that this is directed by Vincente Minnelli, dance sequences directed by Kelly, and has songs by Cole Porter. We open with a song about Macoco, this fearsome pirate who ruled the Carribbean, and who Judy Garland, as Manuela, worships and dreams of. We first see her in this Hollywood approximation of lush Carribbean dress of the 1700s, with huge colorful dresses and massive hats and you, like me, might have a moment of: "Wait a minute, are they serious?" Turns out they are. Manuela is informed by her Aunt Inez [Gladys Cooper of Rebecca and Now, Voyager] that she has been promised in marriage to the mayor of the town, Don Pedro, which will assure her prosperity but preclude her happiness. She wants to travel and see the world, but fat buffoon Don Pedro informs her that his travels are through and they'll be staying home watching reality shows most of the time. By the way, Manuela is supposed to be 19, although Garland was 26 at the time of filming, which is somewhat apparent. She agrees to the marriage, but begs her Aunt Inez to take her to the coast so she can see the Carribbean just once.
Well who should have happened just to have come to town but a bunch of players, led by Gene Kelly as Serafin. Regular readers of this site may be surprised to learn that I am not ALWAYS pro-mustache, and in fact I would advise Kelly against the little pencil number he has here. He has an introductory song and dance that skews the film by being the best one in the entire movie. He sings a song about how all women are "Nina" to him, i.e. he loves them all without really engaging with who they are, and the camera, in one continuous shot, follows him as he climbs up to a balcony, then all around the balconies and windows of the second floor, then finally back down. Then he performs what may be the most overtly sexual dance of Kelly's ouvre, where the hips are flexed and the pants are tight. It is, as usual per Kelly, astounding. Then he sees Manuela, and you can see him obviously checking out her body. He throws himself at her hard, insisting that she respond. There's a funny moment when you can see this string attached to her hat through an entire shot, until it's time for her hat to "blow off." He tells her outright that she's too young and beautiful to marry that oaf Don Pedro, and that he loves her. She is horrified to discover that he is an actor.
Nevertheless, she sneaks out and goes to the show that night. Sarafin picks her out and hypnotizes her, wanting her to admit who she really loves--and she says Macoco! In fact, she suddenly bursts into a huge song about him. By now there are so many layers of artificiality it can be difficult to tell whether she's really hypnotized [she is] or whether she's really singing, or just musical-type talking in song. Turns out she's really singing, and everyone is blown away by her voice, but she's horrified when she awakes, and rushes home. By the way, during the song she sings the hilarious line "Throughout the Carribbean and vicinity, Macoco leaves a flaming trail of masculinity."
Now here comes the big twist, which I would still consider set-up, but you may consider a spoiler, so feel free to skip to the next paragraph in you don't want to know. Turns out: Don Pedro IS Macoco, who has gone into hiding as the mayor of this town. The amusing irony is that Manuela, who worships this image of Macoco as dashing and hot, is actually about to marry him, now fat and schlubby. But! Sarafin recognizes him, and blackmails him: they will "reveal" that SARAFIN is Macoco, and HE will demand that Manula become his bride. There's an amusing scene as Manula dresses in black and acts all mournful that she is to be forcibly married, while we know shes secretly thrilled inside. A woman runs up to her in tears and "generously" offers to take Manula's place, causing Manula to snap: "He asked for ME."
So it's a complex and clever misunderstanding worthy of Shakespeare. Unfortunately, it's also the best thing about the movie, and the rest of it just can't hold up. So between this and Kelly's dance earlier, the best parts of the movie are over and there's still about half left to go.
Then happens something you're unlikely to see in a movie today: Manuela watches as Sarafin dances around a seated donkey [just go with it] in the town square. Then we transition to a fantasy scene in which SHE is the donkey--complete with huge ears--and Sarafin dances around HER. He wears these tight little black shorts, but unfortunately this dance number is de-sexed in proportion to the sexiness of his outfit. Nevertheless, it's pretty clear: Manuela is the "dumb ass" that Macoco is going to tame. And this is HER fantasy, by the way. I'll leave it to you to interpret as you may.
So it all comes down to a busy but unexciting, unsuspenseful climax, then you have to sit through "Be a Clown" not once but TWICE, when to me it's not appropriate to the tone of the thing thus far, not appropriate to end on, and not my favorite song by any stretch of the imagination. Then that's it!
Yeah. It has a lot of recommend it, but ultimately it's a bit of a miss. There's a lot of complication, but the best parts, as noted, happen before the halfway point. Aside from Kelly's opening dance, none of the musical or dance sequences are that special. And the last half just seems to meander. It's too bad, because Kelly and Garland have great chemistry, but overall the movie is just pretty good and never really takes off.
If you're a fan of either or both, you're unlikely to be disappointed, and it's definitely worth seeing, but I doubt it's going to be anyone's favorite movie. Just kind of--as it was for me--something to see as you're filling out the filmography of Garland or Kelly. And there we go, task accomplished. Now I never have to see it again.
If you want to see everything with Kelly and / or Garland, or have seen everything else and are content to explore the second-tier.