Hollywood's Darkest Dream
“Something seems wrong” says Tommy, barely characterised by Gene Kelly. He’s on a hunting trip in Scotland to get away from his noisy and unfulfilling life in the city, and seems as “curiously remote” and “down” as director Vincente Minelli described Kelly being on the set of their final collaboration. Only a few years from their Best Picture winning An American in Paris (1951), Brigadoon (1954) was described as “flat and out-of-joint […] seldom generating warmth or charm” by Bosley Crowther, which became enough the received wisdom that Minelli quoted it in his own biography. He added little to it; he seemed to agree. The songs are stodgy and much of the dialogue points only to its function, but when Tommy is expressing his seemingly bottomless melancholy, and perhaps only then, the movie really sings. The desire to escape from his life is something Minelli understands intimately as a self-conscious and extremely successful creator of escapist fantasies, as a worker in the so-called dream factory. But Brigadoon is the darkest of Hollywood dreams, nothing like the primary-coloured longings of An American In Paris, it’s a movie that has to build up to joy. When daylight pours into the town of Brigadoon, bringing it miraculously to life, its feels dark and heavy; the image is harmonised with the mournful hum of a choir.
Forming from the highland mist once every hundred years, Brigadoon is a truly bizarre evocation of a past Scotland. It has all the stereotypical imagery—bagpipes, kilts, tartan, etc—but it doesn’t feel precise even in those broad terms, as if foggily remembered by someone who had only heard of them second-hand. “Waitin’ For My Dearie”, the first full song, is both genuinely dream-like and quite hard to take seriously. Fiona (Cyd Charrise) sings this longing ballad for the “one certain laddie for me”, who of course turns out to be Tommy. She might be even more thinly rendered than he is, he at least gets to escape to this other world and find a beautiful girl symbolic of that, she’s just waiting for him. Maybe their romance is so deep, so elemental, that it doesn’t need any texture, or maybe she’s just a cypher for a cypher.
Brigadoon isn’t the orientalised kind of other-place, and it isn’t like the green worlds of Shakespeare where society dissipates and emotions are allowed to play out untamed; even if it seems to have been conjured by Tommy’s desires, it preceded him, it has rules he has to follow. It’s a far more homely fantasy; if America is the country of immigrants it claims to be, or if it simply believes it enough, then it’s a homesick people. Some are homesick for a literal homeland, but they seem to have harder to work in order to justify themselves as real Americans. Most are homesick for somewhere imagined, whether it’s a past America that never was, promised a second coming, or something more primal, a home never visited (and if England is the country’s most literal mother, then Scotland is a decent approximation of it imagined from such a distance). It’s like there’s no way to settle in a country that only exists as projection, a phantom version of itself; America is less than a place, it’s only an idea. Brigadoon is still in the year 1754, before America was even created, so more than a return home, it’s a return to the womb.
In many ways Brigadoon is the ultimate conservative fantasy, returning to an untouched past that for every hundred years of progress around it, takes but a single step. Lots of people are searching for Brigadoon, the schoolmaster Mr Lundie (Barry Jones) tells us, during the long nights of slumber their voices can be heard calling out, echoing faintly into the womb. But if they somehow did find it, they could only stay if they fell in love with someone who already lived there, it’s not enough to love the place itself, or even the idea. They are still a foreigner, and Brigadoon disappears around any foreigner who stays too long. It therefore makes marriage—the ritualised taming of emotion and desire, as many conservatives imagine it—of primary importance, it’s the only way you can change your status. But Minelli has often been suspicious of marriage, even in the lovely Father of the Bride (1950), where Spencer Tracey sits amongst the wreckage his daughter’s wedding has wrought, exhausted but fulfilled. What fills his heart isn’t the perfect beauty it was supposed to symbolise, but the warm humanity of the mess made trying to capture it. In The Clock (1945) marriage is a bureaucratic roadblock that just gets in the way of the pure and deep love between Judy Garland and Robert Walker, it’s a stupid piece of paper they have to get signed before Walker is sent back to war. Even the wedding in Brigadoon doesn’t feel like a beautiful transformation, it’s as heavy and dark as everything else. Maybe that’s the weight of seriousness, but it feels much more like it’s an obligation you have no choice but to submit yourself to.
Tommy is on the brink of a bad marriage, an engagement he has to break to be with Fiona, suggesting a certain level of fragility or maybe even flexibility to the ritual, that the people matter too. There’s still enough room for some American Individualism. But when someone from Brigadoon, Harry (Hugh Liang), wants to stop a wedding—the girl he loves is marrying someone else—it’s treated much more severely, it’s punished. He doesn’t realise he’s already living in paradise, trying to change it is a deep, carnal sin. Marriage still means something in Brigadoon, but where Tommy comes from it has all but eroded. Harry is crushed between the walls of society, the boundaries of Brigadoon are “the dimensions of [his] jail”, but still he’s ungrateful; he’s sentenced to death. It’s supposedly an accident, but what exactly Tommy’s friend Jeff (Van Johnson) could have been trying to shoot, or why he would have tried in such a moment, is exceedingly unclear. Minelli is nothing if he’s not a competent craftsman, so this intentional ambiguity takes the act of punishing out of the hands of the people of Brigadoon, but points to how irrational that is; they are guilty in their forced innocence. Brigadoon is so fragile a fantasy that if Harry had managed to escape, it would have broken the spell and sent it into the mist forever. The only way for it to survive is through violent enforcement.
When Tommy returns home, once Brigadoon is saved and has returned to the mist for the next hundred years, we see how powerful the film’s contempt for the real world is. Quite unlike the warmly conservative Father of the Bride or even The Long, Long Trailer (1954), the film Minelli made just before Brigadoon. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz star as a newly married couple with names as close as possible to their characters in the very popular I Love Lucy (1951-1957). The changes are openly transparent: Ricky becomes Nicky and Lucy becomes Tacy. Minelli shows the absurdity and frailty of middle-class life by setting it onboard a giant trailer; the precarity made physical. It brings destruction to the world around them, wrecking a family home not unlike the one from Meet Me in St Louis (1944)—actually, it’s the house next door, the set was still up in the MGM lot—but also to themselves. They’re thrown around the trailer and plates fly from the cupboard on every sharp turn, but also the responsibility of driving this unwieldy thing, like the weight of holding a family together through absurd expectations and inhospitable roads, makes Nicky so anxious that he erupts into screaming fits too intense to be comedic, if they were ever supposed to be. When all this pressure causes the expected second act break-up, their arguments are surprisingly sharp and vicious. Of course they end up back together, but the film offers so little justification for it that it’s hard not to imagine that they simply have no other choice; no other life is offered to them. They keep the trailer not because they’d prefer it to a house, but because there’s no difference, both represent the same precarious and absurd lifestyle.
But for Tommy the problem isn’t exactly societal, although he clearly resents the emptiness it has brought, it’s not the heat that bothers him, he says, it’s the humanity. He can’t help but think of Brigadoon, if a single word from one of its songs comes from his fiancée’s mouth the rest of the song erupts out and drowns out her endless, vacuous nagging about their future. It’s a melancholy and a funny scene, but it’s funny in a cruel way, maybe even a misogynistic one. When women aren’t empty vessels to be filled with love, they are something to fear, Brigadoon wished itself away in the first place to escape a supposedly on-coming horde of witches; women as a gender of foreigners. When Mr Lundie asks if they still have witches in modern times, Jeff says that they do, but they have a different name for them. Even though the studio era was ending by this point—distributor Loew’s was in the process of untangling itself from producer MGM—and Minelli’s films will only get darker from this point, I don’t remember ever hearing the word “bitch” invoked in a movie of this time, none the less in such a pointed way.
Tommy has to get back, there’s nothing for him in his world anymore. This time he really does conjure Brigadoon by will alone. Like The Long, Long Trailer, it’s a sudden and forced ending, though justified by a sense of religiousness; it’s explicitly a miracle. But Minelli has always played religion down. In Yolanda and the Thief (1945) the charming Fred Astaire is sacrilegious, pretending to be an Angel to trick a pure and innocent girl—raised in a nunnery, she’s even emptier than Fiona—into giving him her huge fortune. And in the end, he gets it, if in a slightly different way than he imagined: the two of them fall in love and marry. When a real Angel is suddenly and absurdly revealed at the very end of the film, he’s presented in an unadorned and almost bureaucratic way—which is even more the case in Cabin in the Sky (1943)—he’s been hiding amongst Astaire’s friends, indistinguishable in a group of criminals and hucksters. Maybe Minelli’s work as a constructor of fantasies has made him more suspicious, in Kismet (1955) we meet a poet who creates miracles through self-serving lies.
Maybe the heaviness of Brigadoon’s return doesn't come from the weight of God, but something darker, something closer to the ending of Two Weeks in Another Town (1962). An actor (Kirk Douglas) who once played his director (Edward G. Robinson) in a movie—shown with clips from Minelli and Douglas’ The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)—now has to play him in real life, taking over the direction on his latest film as his health ails. But an actor can only be someone else, and so when this role is taken from him, when Robinson (or really his manipulative wife) reasserts himself, tries to take his life back, Douglas turns manic and suicidal. He drives off into a black void of rear-screen project, we see his car being scratched, but not what scratched it. But in that void, in that nothingness, he finds himself. An individuality he expresses so joyfully in the final scene, cut to an excitably fast pace, he rushes through the airport and onto a plane. But when he flies off into the sky, it seems more like another kind of suicide; if individuality means being alone, then death is as alone, as individual, as he could possibly be. The long sleeps in Brigadoon are described as like “being carried on shadowy arms up to a distant cloud”, it seems that more than the love of a textureless girl, Tommy wants to disappear into the highland mist forever. He’s seen a perfect fantasy, one that’s too fragile to exist in the real world—an escapist dream, like Minelli has been creating for his whole career—and much like the titular game in eXistenZ (1999), leaving it makes the world outside seem less real, less whole. All you can do is wait to go back. In a way, Minelli has condemned his whole audience.