Send in the Clans

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Or, 2,000 McManiacs.

It was inevitable that, on my journey through Vincente Minnelli’s cinema — which is extremely rich and there’s more of it than you think — I would have to face BRIGADOON, a movie which seems to give Scots some trouble. In the same way as you’re unlikely to find anyone in Ireland with uncomplicated admiration for THE QUIET MAN. I guess that film is MORE embarrassing because Ford claimed Irishness, yet produced a gruesome slice of what is known as paddywhackery. The tartan tat of BRIGADOON is entirely the work of outsiders — Lerner & Lowe don’t sound too Scottish, neither does Minnelli, and it’s amusing to go through the cast list and check off the birthplaces of the actors. Elaine Stewart and Hugh Laing SOUND Scottish, but they’re from New Jersey and Barbados respectively. Other “highlanders” hail from Lancashire, Wales and Northern Ireland — it’s like they wanted a sampling of every distinctive accent they could find without ever touching upon the authentic.

Quite sensible, perhaps — anything authentic in this studio confection could prove fatal. Cyd Charisse sets the style, adopting a weird vowel (not necessarily the RIGHT weird vowel, but an alternative from her usual pronunciation) roughly every third word. It’s hilarious for five minutes, then we got used to it. I imagine it’s pretty amusing to most Brits, less obvious to Americans. Australians, Kiwis and Canadians probably see through it.

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(Cultural appropriation is GOOD, as a rule, and I feel flattered that Broadway and Hollywood found Scotland worthy of ingesting. It’s even more flattering in something like BRAVE where they made sure to get the accents right — or, if not right, at least Scottish [there are a score of distinct regional variations within this one tiny country]. BRAVE is pure BRIGADOON, but get the right voices and nobody here is embarrassed — I saw the film introduced by Alex Salmond.)

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What has to be admitted is the grandeur of the fakery — not the vocal stuff, but the scenery and photography. Every exterior is backed with heather-covered miniature hills. I prayed for Cyd, just once, to take the wrong turning and run up the mountain path so that the forced perspective would make a giantess of her within steps, before she smacked into the louring sky. It’s all really impressive, false in just the right way — except the two wide shots of the village, which for some reason look cheap and crappy. You’d think they’d be really important shots to get right, but because they don’t feature actors and dancing they seem to have been handed to the trainee.

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Shot in Anscocolor! I thought that was only used as a cheap alternative to Technicolor, but I think Minnelli must have liked the earth tones. It has a rich but sort of muted quality compared to most MGM musicals, and is probably the best preserved-example of the short-lived process.

The whole premise makes precious little sense — and the idea of the minister praying his village into a time-warp brings the church into it in a way that feels unnecessary. There ARE Scottish myths about lost time and waking up a hundred years later, but they’re decidedly not Christian — they concern the fairy folk, and have a lot in common with the “lost time” reported by UFO abductees.

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Subtextually, the story deals with a man petrified of marriage who is offered a magical alternative (not involving priests) in a subculture off the map — I can sort of see how Minnelli might have been intrigued. As with BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE there could be a gay subtext here. (At the Freed Unit? Surely not!)

What stops the film consistently reaching the heights of the best of Minnelli (or Lerner & Lowe) is the religiose solemnity permeating the Highland scenes — that’s why the most impressive stuff breaks free of this. When Hugh Laing, who hates everybody in his village, entirely justifiably seeing it as a hellish prison (all that weaving!) seeks to leave, thereby bringing out a local apocalypse, things get really exciting. It’s hard not to sympathise with the man hunted by a Frankensteinian mob with flaming firebrands. It also calls to mind similar torchlight parades in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and TEA AND SYMPATHY. Minnelli’s idyllic little communities sometimes have something scary¬†lurking underneath.

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Van Johnson: “I just shot a guy, and now I seem to have GUNS ON MY MIND.”

And then the best stuff of all is New York, envisioned as an overcrowded inferno (OK, maybe not a concept requiring vast resources of imagination), the background gabble turned up to 11 to the point where you really start to get a headache trying to hear the foreground dialogue. Minnelli became a huge success due to his ability to deliver musical uplift with high style and inhuman cinematic elegance, but his left-handed technique, which would have doomed him to minor cult status if it were all he had, is a mastery of acute discomfort, putting the audience through several different kinds of ringer, pulling in several different directions at once, (See THE LONG, LONG TRAILER if you don’t believe me!) This extra string to his bow makes me admire him even more, if that were possible.

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9 Responses to “Send in the Clans”

  1. Always had an affection for the play and, in slightly reduced form, the movie. Source note: BRIGADOON was based on a German story; L&L relocated it.

    Censorship note: The horny female comic Meg Brockie (a stock type in old Broadway shows), had two songs that I don’t think were even shot. In one, she cheerfully catalogs the men who, frankly, f***ed her and ran (one while she was sleeping afterwards). In another, she describes the fighting and “wooing” that made a shambles of her mother’s wedding; the punchline is that Meg speaks as an eyewitness.

    She also bedded the hero’s friend (who then had a line that the Scots are not stingy — “Their generosity is overwhelming!”). Not really stressed is that he promptly abandons her, like all his predecessors. But she’s just a girl who can’t say no, so good times! Now you wonder about her role in the community.

    In the film, Van Johnson reacts to her overtures with wisecracks and comic terror (gay subtext?). The moment in the play where the character realizes she’s made up her mind ends on that note. In the movie he sneaks away, hushing the sheep (other subtext?).

    We’re getting to a point where we can imagine a sequel, with the village reappearing in what must be a fully developed territory.

  2. When Brigadoon reappears in forty years, there will be little chance of it escaping the world’s attention: but given the still-small population of the highlands, it isn’t going to phase into existence in the middle of a shopping mall.

    I thought there was something missing with VJ’s character — never thought it was THAT!

  3. You “never thought it was THAT!”? You just lost 2000 points on “Gay Jeopardy.” Go forth and Google-up on Van Johnson, and Louis B. Mayer’s insistence that he marry the wife of his boyfriend Keenan Wynn. (This s all dealt with in Tracy Keenan Wynn’s “We Have Always Lived in Beverly Hills”) Van Johnson is a walking, talking, singing, dancing Gay Subtext.

    All questions regarding Scotland should be forwarded to its Queen — Tilda Swinton.

    As for Minnelli it’s perfectly obvious he’s a lot more at home in Manhattan with Elaine Stewart than the backlot “Highlands” with Gene and Cyd.

  4. It’s like Dante demonstrated: Paradise is boring compared to the Inferno. Minnelli sets out to make New York seem hellish, and succeeds — and the film springs to life!

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I think of Minnelli as, among other things, the Poet of Parties-Gone-Bad. See TWO WEEKS, see MADAME BOVARY, see the Elaine Stewart scene here. Wonder what a Minnelli VIRGINIA WOOLF would’ve involved … The sympathy for the Laing figure was always present, I believe, even in the stage version. Isn’t the creator of (musical) Henry Higgins full of examples of anti-social willfulness? But that won’t prevent me from likening Laing to John Kerr in TEA AND SYMPATHY. Or, for that matter, to the running boy in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

  6. Minnelli would have redecorated George and Martha’s home within an inch of its life. Probably adding drapes as in The Cobweb — which as you’ll recall made the neurotics more neurotic than ever.
    Having directed Taylor as the Ideal American Miss in Father of the Bride, Minnelli’s handling of her overripe bawdiness as Martha would have been great fun.

  7. If you want more Hollywood Scotland — albeit filmed in the neighborhood — check out Disney’s “Rob Roy the Highland Rogue”. Made in England during the 50s, when Disney was spending the money they couldn’t take out. Old school Disney Technicolor lush: Lots of mattes and soundstage exteriors, redheaded Glynis Johns, and an ending that seemed to promise Scotland and England never had a cross word thereafter.

    Particularly maddening: The film opens with a huge battle, the climax of a war that began when England imported a German king instead of crowning a Scottish claimant. The battle and the WTF (for an American audience) of importing a foreign king makes one with they filmed THAT story, instead of Rob Roy’s adventures after that ended.

  8. One of the few Scots in that one is Ian McNaughton, future director of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

    Once had the pleasure of directing the great Dudley Sutton, which meant unfortunately I was too busy directing to listen to all his stories, but I did walk in as he announced “…of course the BEST films for drugs were the Disney films…”

  9. La Faustin Says:

    “What has Gable got for me / Or Mrs. Johnson’s blond boy Van?” Take it away, Ann! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8Qb-Dxw9pMk

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