Editor’s Note: Brigadoon was released on September 29, 2017 on Blu-ray by Warner Archive.
Once every hundred years, the enchanted village of Brigadoon appears in the heather-covered Scottish highlands, visible for the day to any people who happen upon it. This century, the happeners are two jaded men from New York City, Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson), hunting for the elusive grouse while trying to get their ultra-modern heads screwed on straight. Jeff is hilariously unappealing, constantly complaining about all of humanity and cynical in that performative way that nowadays would get him branded an edgelord. Tommy is less cynical than confused, with a fiancée back in the big city that he isn’t sure he wants to marry and a career he isn’t sure he wants to continue. When the pair stumble upon Brigadoon, the townsfolk are cold and suspicious, but Tommy falls hard for the first woman he sees, the lovely Fiona Campbell (Cyd Charisse). He spends the day with her as Tommy sulks, pouts, and is pursued by the perpetually horny Meg (Dodie Heath).
Based on the hit Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical of the same name, Brigadoon (1954) was originally intended as a lavish, no-holds-barred adaptation of the stage version that had delighted audiences for years, but the brains behind MGM quickly balked at director Vincente Minnelli’s proposed budget. Gene Kelly would later say in an interview that the studio suddenly had an “economy wave” which resulted in the film being shot on backlots rather than on location in Scotland, as well as in CinemaScope instead of Technicolor. It’s easy to see plenty of other corners were cut, most notably in shots that really needed another take or two. Kelly is not a bad actor in the least, but if you’ve only ever seen him in Brigadoon, you wouldn’t know it, because several scenes look like quickie rehearsals rather than a final take.
Minnelli recounted how Kelly was “curiously remote” after learning the film would be shot on sets, and that Minnelli had decided to approach it as more of a light operetta rather than the “Scottish western” Kelly had envisioned. In his autobiography I Remember It Well, Minnelli said, “I had many talks with him, trying to impress on him the need to show exuberance in the part,” hoping he could make his star understand that “he had to light up the sky.” He didn’t. “Gene delivered as much as he could,” wrote Minnelli, polite but resigned.
Van Johnson was a different story. In a role originally slated for Donald O’Connor, Johnson stood out as one of the few, if not perhaps the only, cast member willing to really put themselves into their role. Minnelli was delighted, and so were audiences and critics, though the director found himself having to control Johnson’s “mugger’s face” more than once.
The critics were astonishingly unkind to Minnelli at this point in his career. Kenneth Cavender in a 1959 Sight and Sound essay announced that Minnelli’s musicals of the 1950s could only be considered “hack-work,” while his non-musical films “have confirmed a suspicion that he is really incapable of anything more than a superficial and decorative treatment of non-musical subjects.” Audiences weren’t much nicer, as they were slowly tiring of what seemed like old-fashioned nonsense by the mid-1950s; in two years, Elvis Presley and rock ‘n’ roll would be the big movie draws.
Brigadoon isn’t strictly old-fashioned nonsense, but it is pretty light stuff, best taken in on a lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. Its attempt to invoke good-old-days morality isn’t convincing, as the people in Brigadoon aren’t particularly nicer than those in New York. They’re suspicious of visitors, rude, and have a litany of customs and laws and a fantasy backstory that gives them an excuse to be isolationist. It also makes them completely unlike anyone else on earth, though to be fair, so are the folks of mid-century New York. These modern Americans are represented by Jeff, a man so cynical and broken he’s practically a sociopath.
It’s all meant to be metaphor, a grown-up fairy tale, but it’s astonishingly unfair. And when Tommy and Jeff finally travel back to New York after a harrowing incident involving a Brigadoon local and the possibility of the town disappearing forever, New York doesn’t look that bad. It’s crowded, shallow, and fabulous, and for those few minutes before Brigadoon intrudes upon its own movie yet again, Minnelli seems in his own element, happy to be filming something he actually loves.
Brigadoon was recently released on a made-on-demand Blu-ray from Warner Archive in a beautiful print, using a new 2K scan and the same 5.1 audio mix used on the 2005 DVD release.