New Yorkers Tommy Albright (Gene Kelly, Xanadu) and Jeff Douglas (Van Johnson, Battleground) travel to Scotland to get away from it all. Tommy needs to sort out his feelings for his fiancé Jane (Elaine Stewart, The Bad and the Beautiful), while his boozy friend Jeff is along for the ride. While grouse hunting the pair get completely lost in a thick fog. When the mist clears they find themselves near a village not marked on the map, Brigadoon. Brigadoon is an extraordinarily happy community where people talk and act like it’s still the 17th century. While the village prepares for a wedding, Tommy meets and instantly fall in love with Fiona (Cyd Charisse, Singin’ in the Rain), the sister of the bride-to-be. There’s just one problem: Brigadoon only appears every hundred years, and if any local leaves the village, the town will disappear forever. Will Tommy give up his life in New York for a woman he’s known for mere hours?
Brigadoon is a strangely influential film considering it is not generally numbered among star Gene Kelly’s or director Vincente Minnelli’s (The Bad and the Beautiful) best work. The idea of a lost village that reappears every hundred years was reused in H. G. Lewis’s drive-in horror cheapie Two Thousand Maniacs as well as numerous episodes of Star Trek and other science fiction shows. It’s not terribly surprising that the idea would show up in horror and sci-fi, because the full ramifications of the “miracle” amount to a horrific curse. The inhabitants are completely isolated from the outside world, existing only for one day every hundred years, and no one can leave without dooming the entire town to oblivion. Adding to the “curse” overtones is the fact that the kindly preacher responsible enjoyed the privilege of escaping the town in death, while the villagers are forced into this situation against their will. The film incongruously expects us to accept that Brigadoon’s fate is a blessing rather than a curse. There are hints here and there that people are dissatisfied, but the only one who says so directly is Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing), the groom’s brother. Beaton attempts to leave Brigadoon during the wedding. The “happy” ending to this part of the tale? Jeff shoots Harry (or at least startles him out of the tree he’s hiding in resulting in him braining himself on a rock) by accident when he finally gets a shot at a grouse.
Many times while watching Brigadoon, it occurred to me that it would take only the tiniest push to turn the basic set up into what it undoubtedly be if it were a folk tale: a traveler stumbles upon a beautiful woman in a quaint village and stays with her, only to have her disappear, leaving him heartbroken, or to trap him into life in her cursed village. Many suggest that writer Alan Jay Lerner was inspired by the short story “Germelshausen“, by German author Friedrich Gerstacker, which features a cursed village that rises out of the Earth every hundred years. According to this theory, Lerner changed the location of the story to Scotland to avoid anything Germanic in the immediate post war era.
Lerner claimed he came up with the story himself, but it’s folkloric antecedents are obvious in either case. Brigadoon also recalls Lost Horizon. In both tales the lead character falls in love with the strange new land while his friend (or brother, in Lost Horizon‘s case) can’t wait to get back to the “real” world. The friend/brother fails to understand what the lead sees in the fantasy and disastrously convinces the lead to leave. Whatever the origin of the story, the musical’s unearned happy ending feel especially forced.
Brigadoon is the kind of musical that musical haters point to as the reason they hate musicals. Lightly written characters, songs that pop up out of nowhere and fail to move the story, cheesy brightly colored costumes, love at first sight, uncomplicated “happy” characters and situations, you can find them all in Brigadoon. Tommy’s friend Jeff, if anything, is more complex than he is, but if Tommy changes too easily, Jeff is an immovable rock of a character. He starts the film an alcoholic who feels no guilt about his latest broken relationship and he ends the film an alcoholic who forgets he’s guilty of manslaughter. We never do learn why Jeff is an alcoholic; his condition exists solely to provide (occasionally funny) jokes and one-liners. The village characters are sketchier even than Jeff and Tommy, and their costumes and accents are 100 percent Hollywood; one wonders if Mr. Scot didn’t manage to escape from Brigadoon to join Star Fleet.
Where it really matters (singing and dancing) Brigadoon is fun (I especially enjoyed watching Van Johnson shuffling through his one number), although the Kelly/Charisse numbers aren’t numbered among their best. Brigadoon, for all its faults, is a pleasant enough confection, light and forgettable as the cotton candy the lurid Technicolor heather resembles, and a good time if you enjoy Gene Kelly musicals, but far from required viewing.