Saturday, 25 February, 19:30, St Andrews in the Square – Brigadoon (1954) | Gene Kelly Ceilidh
Finally! This is the event I’ve been waiting for all year since I first learned of the GFT’s Gene retrospective. What on earth would a Gene Kelly Ceilidh comprise of? A Ceilidh (caley), for those of you who may be unfamiliar with this uniquely Caledonian pastime, is an evening of traditional Scottish dancing, a social gathering to renew old acquaintances, make some new ones, and hoot and holler long into the night. Think of the structured dances you may have seen in Jane Austen adaptations and then imagine them with decent music, real contact, and people who are actually alive.
However, before all that… Brigadoon. As I accepted the ‘wee dram’ (shot of whisky) that welcomed us into the venue, I was fortunate enough to have a minute or two with Allan Hunter — who, when I suggested that watching this musical for the second time in as many days should be marked with some kind of endurance award (Brigadoon was also screened at the GFT yesterday morning) — admitted excitedly that he wasn’t staying for the film and had the same expression on his face that Tim Robbins had in The Shawshank Redemption (1994) after he had crawled through a sewer pipe of ‘shit-smelling foulness’ to his escape. Publicly, however, Hunter was less inclined to be flippant, and in his introduction tonight suggested that we as Scots should endeavour to reclaim Brigadoon for ourselves, and accept and embrace it for what it is, but warned with his closing salvo that “some accents were harmed in the making of this film.”
To coincide with the Gene Kelly Festival, the Herald newspaper has arranged a small photography exhibition at the Royal Concert Hall, featuring various Hollywood alumni who had visited the city in the mid-twentieth century like Judy, Frank, Sammy Davis Jr, Irving Berlin, Cary Grant, Roy Rogers and Trigger, Marlene Dietrich and Danny Kaye. Gene was there too, of course, in the photo of him taken outside Glasgow Central Train Station in 1953 as he prepared to embark on a location scout for the ‘Scottish musical’ (above). The following photo is also included in the exhibition and one I was unaware even existed – Gene and a certain Arthur Freed planning possible routes around the old country.
I won’t spend any time reviewing the film itself as I have already devoted an entire essay to it on this very site, but I must comment on audience reaction to it. I recommend everybody to watch Brigadoon with a crowd of Scots ready for a Hooley (party) and with easy access to a bar. It is the only way to watch the film. There were howls of derisive laughter throughout, mainly at the wedding authenticated by the ‘ancient laws of Scotland,’ Mr Lundy’s description of what it feels like when he goes to sleep, and pretty much everything Cyd Charisse says. There were also guffaws of appreciative laughter at the superb Van Johnson and the Manhattan scene where a haunted Gene tries to cope with the mini-Brigadoon musicals that are sounding off in his head.
Kudos must also go to the solitary woman who applauded defiantly after the second of Gene and Cyd’s numbers, in a Brigadoon-hostile environment that took a special kind of devotion, misguided thought it may have been. A huge roar greeted the end of the film and I’m not entirely sure that was just determined by alcohol and the opportunity to finally lift posteriors from the most uncomfortable seats in Scotland, because I detected a smudge of affection — the kind of affection, admittedly, that you might have for a disintegrating childhood family toy that is barely hanging together by your grandmother’s pre-war stitching, but affection nevertheless.
Even though I didn’t have to use the bar, during the screening I felt comforted, safe and secure in the knowledge that it was there. It burned steadily in the corner of my eye with an ethereal glow… I imagine when I get round to watching Summer Stock again I will need not only access to a bar, but also an analyst constantly whispering reassurances in my ear as well as a device attached to my arm steadily pumping valium into my bloodstream and those two huge animated Middle-Eastern chaps Gene dances with in Invitation to the Dance (1956) standing on either side of me who, when given the nod, will beat me slowly to death using large socks filled with horse manure.
So, to the dancing, well not quite yet, there was another uniquely Scottish flourish – stovies. Stovies recipes vary, but essentially it’s a meat and potato stew with onions, beef, dough, and whatever happens to be leftover from Sunday dinner… ‘Yum,’ I hear you say. Not the best preparation for a period of exertion, you might think, but you’d be surprised. And the meal pleasantly passed the time as the room was transformed from cinema to dancehall by the staff of St Andrews in the Square who maintain this beautiful, renovated Church towards the east of the city. After spending so much time with Gene this week I warned my dance partner for the evening, current best friend and former girlfriend, that I was powerless to stop some of his athletic masculinity seeping into my pores and that she may find herself under siege by a testosterone bombardment she won’t be able to cope with (hint: to pull that kind of comment off, you really need to choose someone who doesn’t know you intimately).
The great thing about ceilidhs is that any ceilidh band worth its salt will walk you slowly through the steps prior to each dance. Tonight’s band was worth several pillars of salt, so eternal thanks to them for guiding us through The Gay Gordons, The Dashing White Sergeant, The Canadian Barn Dance, The Progressive Canadian Barn Dance (where you changed partners constantly and got to talk about Gene with strangers), Strip the Willow (a nightmare of intricate spinning and cross-group reeling) and, in honour of the man we were celebrating, The Pride of Erin Waltz, which I felt I excelled at, if I do say so myself (I’m replacing aptitude with eagerness here). There were other dances, but alas I was too tired to remember them and my feet too sore to get me from the couch to the computer to google them.
So, how does a Gene Kelly Ceilidh differ from any other ceilidh? Well, not at all as it turned out, but it was no less enjoyable for that. The abiding memory of the evening is the number of people who made comments about Gene’s ability to bring people together, which he did at his home in Rodeo Drive and continues to do even in death, be it a gathering of Scots in a small venue in Glasgow or thousands across the world connected virtually and emotionally by their love of this extraordinary artist. This week, I have smiled, laughed, and danced more than I have in almost twenty years. I have walked with a spring in my step and attended job interviews by metaphorically entering the room by sliding across the floor in my knees and screaming at prospective employers: “Gotta dance!” I have adored every rain soaked, artistic, naval, piratical, shortstopping, and Grouse-hunting moment of the Gene Kelly Festival at the GFT. I leave with a deeper affection and greater appreciation for the man I have carried with me in my heart since I was four years old.
Oh, I got the job. Thank you, Mr Kelly.
You’ve made it to the final part of this series. To read all reviews, visit Glasgow Film Festival.