Jan 5, 2009

Its Always Fair Weather

The lovely, long-legged, talented, gorgeous Cyd Charisse stars in this 1955 musical with Gene Kelly, Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd. The story, which is one of faded friendships and ideals forsaken has some similarity to another film of unfulfilled ideals, It’s a Wonderful Life. So first some words about the earlier movie.

It’s a Wonderful Life got some flack this year from the NY Times, and from Kathy Shaidie. The consensus was that it was about a guy who was beaten down by life, and rather than rising up and achieving his dreams, his ideals, he is forced into a placid acceptance. This is totally unacceptable because it doesn’t take into account how values really work in a person’s life.

We won’t go into something like Maslow’s idea about the hierarchy of needs, largely because my knowledge of Maslow is limited, but it seems to me that if there is a hierarchy of needs, there is also a hierarchy of values. Now this is fairly slippery, but the basic idea is that each of us has some value or set of values that at any given time will outrank another value or set of values.

In It’s a Wonderful Life George Bailey has an announced set of values, travel, adventure, creativity, building things. His implicit values are love of family, friends, neighbor. We see this acted out in an early part of the film when he goes to see his father about the bad drug in Mr. Gower’s order. He confronts Potter, and tells him that his father is a better man than Potter. We see it again when he is about to go to college. Here he is forced to make a choice between his publicly proclaimed values, and his private values, and he chooses family and neighbors over self.

Now it’s easy enough to say that he gave up his dream, but did he, or is the real dream that private ideal of community and family?

I don’t know anybody who has ever lived out their dreams fully. I know I haven’t, and George Bailey certainly didn’t. The movie isn’t about success and dreams though, it’s about what Clarence says, friendship.

George doesn’t reflect on it, but he has found his ideal, he just thought it was something else.

When I watched It’s Always Fair Weather, I thought of this aphorism from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil,Wer den Weg zu seinem Ideale nicht zu finden weiss, lebt leichtsinniger und frecher, als der Mensch ohne Ideal. Yeah, I know that’s easy for me to say, and it rolls right off the tongue. Actually I thought of this translation, “He who cannot find the way to HIS ideal, lives more frivolously and shamelessly than the man without an ideal.” (BGaE, aphorism 133).

The situation in the movie is that three war buddies are discharged at the end of WW II and agree to meet at a bar 10 years later. Ted Riley (Kelly), Doug Hallerton (Dailey), and Angie Valentine (Kidd) have dreams of being a lawyer/politician, painter, and restaurant chef. Ted suffers a romantic disappointment, and becomes a womanizer, a gambler, and general disappointment. Doug goes into advertising, is married, has ulcers, and is on the brink of divorce. Angie opens a hamburger joint, and is married with kids.

Ted’s broken romance serves as a justification for him to abandon that idealized life, and he promptly proceeds to live his life leichtsinniger und frecher. Doug forgoes living la vie Boheme in Paris, and develops trivial advertising campaigns while still recognizing the claims of high art. Angie is more worried about how he seems to the others than in his own failure to achieve success as a chef.

What catalyzes the plot of the movie is that they no longer have anything in common. So the friendship is flat and hollow. When Cyd Charisse appears and becomes Ted’s love interest she sets in motion a chain of events in which Ted comes to the realization that he has been living an empty, frivolous life, and in which Doug gets drunk, and tries to get himself fired. Doug goes so far as to tell his boss that he doesn’t deserve to have the Picassos and the Braques that are in his house because he doesn’t really understand them.

There is a fight scene in which the three friends unite against a common foe. They then go to the bar where they met at the beginning, and relive some of their army days. What united them was the presence of a common foe (Germans in the war, a mobster in 1955). In the process Ted is able to fall in love with and hold Jackie (Cyd Charisse), Doug goes back to his wife, and Angie, who never had the problem of frivolity and carelessness, at least as far as I can tell, sees himself in a better light.

Do Ted and Doug get to fulfill their dreams? Maybe not to the extent that they thought they would, but I think they stop living frivolously.