It is the end of the Second World War and American soldiers are returning from Europe, satisfied that they have struck a resounding blow for liberty and right. Three of those soldiers are firm friends: Ted Riley (Gene Kelly), Doug Hallerton (Dan Dailey) and Angie Valentine (Michael Kidd), and as they pile into a New York bar they are coasting on a high, asking the barman to set up the drinks. But then it begins to sink in: they have no reason to see each other anymore, and must now return to civilian life; to make matters worse, Ted's girlfriend has sent him a letter telling him she's married someone else. But how about the three men meet again in ten years? What else could possibly change?
It's Always Fair Weather (and there's an ironic title for a start) marked the end of the heyday of fifties musicals: expected to be a Singin' in the Rain style hit, it underachieved at the box office and the genre never quite recovered its status as a consistent moneymaker with the public. The most obvious reason for its failure is plain from the first ten minutes, as the sunny, cheerful conventions of the musical were subverted into something more bitter, melancholy and even downright miserable. And it can't have helped that the number that everyone expected, reuniting Kelly and Cyd Charisse, was cut out before the film was released.
Of course, this might not have gone over too well with your ordinary moviegoer, but for cult film enthusiasts its a goldmine of fascinating attitudes and musings on society as it was in the mid-fifties, where the war was ten years over and there were some who felt that the meaning the conflict gave their lives was draining away as a drabber existence really made its presence felt. Look at the colours used here: they are mostly browns, greys, blacks, not the bright hues of Technicolor that you might expect directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, two men who knew precisely what they wanted, to apply.
And then there's the story, which obsesses over the characters not only letting down other people, but themselves as well. When Ted, Doug and Angie meet up again, they find they cannot stand each other and what life has done to them; worse, this brings out the self-loathing in their own hearts as well. Ted is now a habitual gambler who has won a prizefighter who he later discovers is to take a dive in his next fight or the gangsters organising the bout will not be happy, Doug's dreams of becoming an artist have been dashed as he is now working in advertising, and Angie's plans to be a cordon bleu chef now see him as a cook in a burger joint. Can they ever rekindle what made their friendship so special?
Well, it's not so much of a misery that there's no happy ending, yet it's the downer of what has gone before that you will remember. Along with the worries about the hard-won modern life actually not being all it's cracked up to be, there is another concern: television was encroaching unstoppably on the world of the cinema, and this film takes quite a few well-aimed potshots at the medium. TV is shown to be purveyor of cheap sentiment, embodied by showbiz monster Dolores Gray who presents a dreadful human interest show that also shows off her musical ability, the sort of thing that has come to pass on televisions across the globe.
Her production assistant Charisse wants to get the three old pals on the show to tell their story in a ratings-grabber, and the contrast between the unearned dazzle of the small screen and the purer, more sincere silver one is shown in Gray's "Thanks a Lot But No Thanks", an even more cynical "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" and Kelly's brilliant dance on rolerskates where he finally gets to like himself again. The songs are mediocre, the mood largely downbeat, but It's Always Fair Weather is fascinating for the chances it took. It's not exactly uplifting to see the three ex-servicemen regain their confidence after all we've seen, and they really needed a number to celebrate this rather than the brawl we get, but you can't say you have not been provoked here. Music by Andre Previn, with screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, whose earlier hit On the Town this had been intended as a sequel to, which only makes it more intriguing.