Brigadoon: Minnelli’s Collaborative Musical

After the success of An American in Paris, MGM’s Arthur Freed signed Alan J. Lerner to a three-picture writing contract. The first one of these was the 1954 film version of Brigadoon, with Gene Kelly and Van Johnson, to be directed by Minnelli. In the end, Lerner was vastly disappointed with the picture, which he found quite wooden, to use his words.

Lerner later recalled, That was unfortunate. Arthur Freed was the producer, and he was, and for all I know, is the best producer that ever was. But it was one of those mistakes, putting it on a sound stage instead of doing it in Scotland. I suppose, it takes genuinely talented people to do something really bad.

Band Wagon marked Minnelli’s tenth anniversary as Freed’s most valued director and a highlight for the Freed Unit, as one of the most celebrated production entities. In contrast, Brigadoon signaled the end of sustained creativity for Freed.

Up until now, the consistent success of Freeds musicals had withstood the changes that shook Hollywood during the post-War years. However, due to TVs increasing prominence, movie audiences declined rapidly, and many theaters were converted into supermarkets. Clearly, by 1953, the old studio system began to fade. Freed could no longer sign freely fresh talent from New York to long-term contracts.

At Metro, the production schedule shrank considerably, particularly in the number of musicals made. It was not just economics that led to the genres decline. Minnelli’s tragedy as a filmmaker was that he had arrived and matured in Hollywood rather late. Minnellis career would have benefited had he been there in the 1930s, like George Cukor, who made some of his best movies during that decade, including Little Women (with Katharine Hepburn), Camille, David Copperfield, and others.

The Freed Unit viewed itself as the last creator of classy musical entertainment. As such, it struggled against the rise of mass fare like rock n roll movies in the mid-1950s, with new stars like Elvis Presley. The style that made Minnelli’s musicals lavish began to fade in the wake of Metro’s new policy to play it safer. Trying to guess the tastes of the fickle public, Hollywood increasingly relied on the pre-sold Broadway hits rather than on the development of original musicals in house.

Goldwyn and Fox had already grabbed the rights to the most prestigious Broadway hits, Guys and Dolls, and the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein musicals. MGM followed the lead, picking up whatever was left. Of the six musicals Freed was yet to produce at Metro, four were adaptations of stage hits. Almost in vain, Minnelli would point out that, despite the safety of Broadway imports, three of MGMs most popular 1950s musicals were conceived directly for the screen, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, High Society, and his own Gigi, all Oscar-nominated or Oscar-winning pictures. The studio, however, countered with the argument that those were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Vulgar as it was, Long, Long Trailer made money, what cannot be said about Minnellis next film, Brigadoon, which turned out to be one of weakest film both artistically and commercially.

No one could have anticipated problems from the Production Code. However, in a memo dated November 2, 1953, Joseph I. Breen complained: This material seems unacceptable, as it deals with the effort of Meg to seduce Jeff, which is made to seem highly romantic and hence is completely in violation of Code requirements.

Then, in a February 2, 1954 memo, objection was raised to a line of dialogue by an incidental character in a New York bar: “Once you’ve driven a foreign car you’ll never drive anything else.” The Code was concerned about the hostile reaction of the American automobile industry and the “anti-patriotic” line was revised.

Iain F. Anderson broke down the script, scene by scene, with comments. Though pre-production began in late 1952, the actual shoot was pushed back to January and February of 1954. Brigadoon became another quick production for Minnelli, and the studio was able to conduct its first preview in the Encino Theatre on June 4, 1954.

Brigadoon, the third collaboration between Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, showed the first evidence of creative inertia. This operetta in kilts was a surprise hit of the 1946-7 Broadway season, when Celtic whimsy seemed to be in, as Finian’s Rainbow was also on the boards.

In March 1951, MGM announced that Gene Kelley and Kathryn Grayson would head the cast. But Kelly’s European plans stalled Brigadoon for two years, by which point MGM’s contract with Grayson had lapsed. The studio then decided to cast Moira Shearer, the dancer-actress of The Red Shoes fame. However, Brigadoon’s uncertain schedule made the Sadlers Wells Ballet nervous and unwilling to commit. Having lost Shearer as his ideal Fiona, Minnelli settled for Cyd Charisse.