Masculinity, Credibility, and Gene Kelly: A Scotsman’s Quandary

This entry is part 7 of 14 in the series Essays / Analyses.

Being a fan of Gene Kelly, and film musicals in general, has burdened me with two formidable dichotomies since my childhood: how to defend my masculinity as a heterosexual male and my credibility as a student of Scottish history.

The film musical genre, as I am told constantly, is the forte of gay men, a more potent defining characteristic, it would seem, than any lifestyle choice.  Stand-up comics and a host of poorly written situation and romantic comedies regularly endorse this understanding; I seem to remember a joke of this ilk in every other episode of Will & Grace (right; note the Judy Garland memorabilia on the wall).  That is quite enough to contend with.  However, it is a film musical, and a Gene Kelly film musical, that is held mostly, if not wholly, responsible for what is known as the ‘tartanification of Scotland:’ the cultural dismantling of the nation into the Highland jigging, kilted, and tartan clad land as portrayed on the front of shortbread tins around the world.

Unlike every other Gene fan I have encountered I can’t remember when I first saw him, I have absolutely no memory of the period B.G. (Before Gene).  He’s always just been there.  And I don’t mean in a spiritual sense; he hasn’t shone forth and bathed me in the ethereal light of his perpetual magnificence…

I cannot accept the current trend from some virtual devotees who attempt to portray Gene as some kind of beatific, infallible demigod, and easily dismiss as errant nonsense negative assessments of him like “tyrannical” (Debbie Reynolds) and “egotistical” (André Previn) simply because they contradict the preordained idolatrous image they have contrived to create.  Not for them the young, fiery hoofer who propelled himself into low-rent audiences to teach hecklers lessons in humility with his fists, or who retained a romanticised notion of Irish Republicanism late into his life, or who revelled in a bawdy, and sometimes cruel, sense of humour.  I don’t recognise their Gene Kelly and I doubt very much whether he ever existed at all.  It is his humanity, with all its flaws and contradictions, which makes his achievements all the more astonishing.

My love of Gene Kelly became common knowledge at school when I was 9 years old.  We were asked to name our favourite film stars; Steve McQueen was a popular choice for the boys, as were Sean Connery and Roger Moore (Bond was huge in the 70s), and I seem to remember that even Elvis Presley got a mention (he had just passed away and all of his films were shown on television).  As you have probably already anticipated my choice was met with particular derision.  Two things allowed me a modicum of redemption for this unforgivable betrayal of collective manliness: football and humour.  If you can play the national sport well and are also perceived as funny then the respect and freedom from your contemporaries can be invigorating.  Mostly.  It can also, however, engender resentment in those who feel that all the skill and comical flair in the world can’t, and shouldn’t, compensate for the pathetic admission of “poofyness” (his word) that a love of Gene Kelly musicals reveals.

Barry Floyd was his name, a tall, stocky bully with a huge mane of blonde curls: an anti-Harpo, if you will.  He made the next six months of my young life, a very long time to a nine year old, an absolute misery and would punch, kick, and spit on me with every opportunity that presented itself.  Despite a visit to the school by my mother and admonishment from teachers the bullying continued.  My father’s advice, doled out early on in the period of persecution, seemed to me like a last resort: “There’s only one way to deal with bullies, son… You hit them right back.”  I had never hit anybody in my life and the thought of any kind of violence abhorred me.

On the final day of school before the summer break my tormentor cornered me in the library and advised me that he was going to give me “something special that would get me through the summer.”  The experience of what had gone before allowed me to understand that something thoroughly unpleasant, not to mention extremely painful, was imminent.  I can only imagine that a combination of fear and the subconscious recognition of a breaking point are responsible for what happened next.

Barry Floyd had hardly advanced when I caught him square on the jaw with my right fist and sent him sprawling into a portable trolley of cheap paperback Westerns.  Fitting, I thought.  He stared up at me from the floor with an expression of pained incredulity, but said nothing more, while I turned and walked out of the library followed by, I like to think, the spirit of an athletic dancer in t-shirt and chinos who leapt into the air and triumphantly clicked the heels of his loafers.  Barry Floyd didn’t bother us again; he never laid another finger on me, nor did he ridicule Gene after that, well… not in front of me, at least.

In my teenage years my love of Gene is something I really only shared with those closest to me.  I found it easy to conceal that part of me from everyone else because I always had a love of contemporary music, films, and sport that identified me as ‘typical.’  However, with my family and my best friends I can lay claim to having spread the word of Gene with wonderful success: when I taped On the Town (1949) on betamax video in 1982 and played it constantly it had such a profound effect on my brother that years later when he began his career as a carpenter he would regularly walk onto building sites singing “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet;” when I taped Singin’ in the Rain (1952) a year later I caught my other brother watching the titular number (right) after, falsely, denouncing its merits, and after showing it to my friends for the first time they didn’t need much persuasion to literally dance around in puddles in the street afterwards.

With the women in my life it’s something I ensure to reveal as early as I possibly can, in fact the dvd of Gene’s AFI Tribute (below) was something I used in my courtship of a woman in the late 90s with whom I would soon embark on a nine year relationship; she had told me previously that she had never liked Gene Kelly, but admitted after watching it that she had found him funny, talented, and humble.  The next woman I was involved with in 2007 not only fell in love with Singin’ in the Rain after I showed it to her, but also bought it as a present for her little girl who similarly adored it and showed it to her friends.  And the woman I am currently seeing watched Singin’ in the Rain with me at Christmas and let’s just say she’s a work in progress…

In my adulthood I have never tried to conceal my love of Gene, on the contrary it is something I wear on my sleeve with pride — an adornment of muscular, joyous, and inventive brilliance.  Equipped with an extensive knowledge of his work, gleaned from a lifetime of admiration and love, and opinions formulated after years of viewing and reading, I will, and have, gone to figurative war in Gene’s defence.  I am more than aware, and the first to admit, that not everything he did was marked with brilliance and I recognise his limitations both as an actor and singer, but a handful of his films and a plethora of his numbers meet with no resistance.

However, it is an irony not lost on me that it should be one of Gene’s films that is regularly accused of perpetuating the myth and image of Scotland as a primitive country driven by an almost supernatural thirst for whimsy, legend, whisky, dancing, quaintness, outdated custom, and tartan… acres of tartan… swathes of tartan… huge, billowing, terrifying mounds of tartan.  If I am in the middle of a Gene rant to disbelievers, be they friends or otherwise, and they know that I am not only a fan of his, but a student of Scottish history at the nation’s oldest University, they simply bide their time before dropping into the debate a word that has as devastating an impact on my argument as an alien beaming in to a Christian pilgrimage: Brigadoon (1954).

Derision in Scotland, and the wider UK, for this hopelessly set bound travesty was instantaneous and the fact that it followed hard after Walt Disney’s equally ludicrous Rob Roy (1953) a year earlier, in which an Englishman (the ignominy) portrayed one of Scotland’s, and the world’s, most celebrated outlaws, compounded the resentment tenfold.  Some reports suggest that Gene came to Scotland to scout locations for the film in 1953, and there are photographs of him outside Glasgow Central Train Station and of him receiving an award in Edinburgh, but this seems rather implausible given that the film musical was on the wane and MGM no longer had faith in the genre.  Furthermore, if An American in Paris (1951) wasn’t shot on location during the genre’s zenith, then what would have compelled the studio to embark on a location shoot in a country notorious for intemperate weather and difficult terrain?

I’m not sure exactly where in the Gene pantheon I would place Brigadoon.  It doesn’t make my eyes and ears bleed like 1947’s Living in a Big Way (right) or Summer Stock (1950), easily the worst, in my opinion, of Gene’s musicals.  But then again, it doesn’t possess any flashes of individual brilliance that can be found, albeit fleetingly, in both of those films.  The soft shoe shuffle of Go Home wi’ Bonnie Jean” is almost endearing, but Gene’s rendition of the score’s most celebrated song, “Almost Like Being in Love,” is lacklustre and the routine as a whole somewhat under whelming.  The film’s most historically, and culturally, inaccurate sequence, the Highland wedding, is, paradoxically, my favourite scene and I only wish it went on for longer before Harry comes in and starts groping ‘Bonnie’ Jean; some ruthless editing of most, if not all, of Gene’s interminable pas de deuxs with Cyd Charisse would have provided the scope for that.  Cyd, a woman I have desired since the 80s, is woeful throughout and her Highland lilt almost rivals Dick Van Dyke’s Cock-er-ney chimney sweep from Mary Poppins (1964) for the worst accent in cinematic history: her execution of the line “the kindest man in Scotland” is beyond risible.

The removal of the finest song from the score, Come to Me, Bend to Me, is a bewildering decision – perhaps Gene and Vincente Minnelli thought that it slowed down the narrative, such as it is, but Brigadoon is not blessed with the kind of score that can survive without its best song.  Those of you who have watched the DVD extras will surely agree that Jimmy Thompson’s rendition of the song is delightful.  Van Johnson is excellent as the cynical Jeff Douglas and it is a mystery why he doesn’t have a song of his own; a funny and derogatory number denouncing Brigadoon and everything it represents would have gone down a treat… or maybe a song at the end about how his best friend has left him to disappear into the Highland mist forever and he has to return to New York and explain to his fiancée, and the police, why he’s coming back from Scotland alone, that he doesn’t know where the body is, that he didn’t kill Tommy he’s just asleep, that he didn’t mean to kill the guy he actually did kill, but it’s just as well he did because if he’d made it across the bridge all the Brigadonians would have disappeared into the Highland mist forever and Tommy’s love for Fiona wouldn’t have been able to wake them up this time…

I place myself firmly in the Jeff and ‘Hothead’ Harry camp.  Brigadoon’s insular and pointless little world is as attractive to me as Tasmania must have been to British convicts in the nineteenth century.  In his Film Guide Leslie Halliwell described Brigadoon as ‘Lost Horizonish.’  I can’t agree with that.  The lamasery of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s novel was a Utopian ideal of contentment, long life, perfect health, and cultural preservation, but the village of Brigadoon has none of that… just some sheep, a market, men walking around aimlessly with bales of hay, heather ale (what is that?), and candy… Sorry, ‘candy?’

Caledonian condemnation of Brigadoon is not unanimous, however: a popular Glasgow DJ of the seventies and eighties admitted that he “loved it” and I can remember my own grandmother insisting, when Gene and Cyd turn to face the Highland landscape after desecrating its majesty with their ghastly “Heather on the Hill” routine (right), that it must have been filmed in Scotland because of how beautiful the scenery was… Extraordinary – and this was a woman who had seen the real landscape in all its glory.  It remains a popular choice for amateur musicals and a multitude of examples are but a click away on You Tube; I saw one myself a few years ago and silently cheered as the American accents of the actors playing Tommy and Jeff ensured that the linguistic atrocities perpetrated by Cyd Charisse were finally avenged.

For most of us, however, Brigadoon is the watchword for the trite, whimsical, and patronising manner in which the country of my birth has been portrayed in popular culture; and, dismayingly, it is happening still as the recent execrable Made of Honour (2008) testifies.  When Simon Callow is met by the sight of kilted dancers at the Scottish wedding in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) he exclaims: “It’s Brigadoon, It’s bloody Brigadoon!”  This is perhaps the greatest example of Brigadoon’s impact; that people need not have seen the film, nor the Broadway original, to understand the reference.

I used to describe my own hometown, unfairly, as a cross between Brigadoon and Salem’s Lot, and people always got the joke.  And yet, despite all of its faults, what Brigadoon has been held responsible for is rather unfair, at least when compared to other interpretations of Scottish legends and myths; Brigadoon is a fictional tale of fantasy and claims to be nothing more than this, whereas Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) presented a woefully inaccurate account of the life of William Wallace and whipped the nation into a collective frenzy that even saw a political party adopt Gibson’s painted face on their literature and quote directly from the film in their parliamentary speeches.  Which is the greater crime?   

The biggest gripe I have with Brigadoon is one of missed opportunity.  A little more research would have provided Mr Forsyth with a more worthy excuse to ask God for a ‘miracle.’  In the story the year is 1754, only eight years after the annihilation of the forces of Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie, if you must) at Culloden.  A defeat so crushing in its one-sidedness and so devastating in its impact on the national psyche that Scotland not only saw her last chance of a governing monarch evaporate, but the resilience and defiance that had kept the English at bay since the Middle Ages quietly ebbed away and was eventually replaced by the intellectualism of the pro-Union Scottish Enlightenment.  As a patriot, I can think of no better reason to disappear into the Highland mist for centuries…

Sources:

  • Hirschorn, Clive, Gene Kelly, A Biography (W.H. Allen, London 1974).
  • McArthur, Colin, Brigadoon, Braveheart and the Scots – Distortions of Scotland in Hollywood Cinema (I.B. Taurus & Co Ltd, London 2003).
  • ‘Gene Kelly,’ The Hollywood Greats, BBC, 30 April 2001, Television.

About 

I am a 40-something-year-old Scotsman with an obsessive nostalgia for the past, particularly the films of Hollywood's Golden Age and American music from the '40s to the '60s. My appreciation and love for Gene and the field in which he worked is something I hope to instill in future generations -- I'm currently studying towards becoming a teacher and firmly believe it is a role in which I can flourish, once I overcome a small, but stubborn, obstacle: a pathological hatred of teenagers.

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