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Stanley Donen came to the rescue of good friend and frequent collaborator Gene Kelly during the making of the 1947 romantic comedy, Living in a Big Way, Kelly's first picture since serving in World War II. Before he pitched in, Living in a Big Way was a pleasant comedy about a veteran who returns from war to discover the woman he wed on leave is a) an heiress and b) a snob. With his help, the film became a semi-musical, with innovative numbers that pointed to such later Kelly-Donen collaborations as On the Town (1949) and Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Kelly didn't really want to make Living in a Big Way. Since his release from the Navy, MGM had had little for him to do. The studio was focusing on bigger male stars who had been kept off the screen longer by military duty. In addition, executives weren't sure if the brash persona he had already developed in films like his debut, For Me and My Gal (1942), and Anchors Aweigh (1945) would play well in peacetime. Still, he had enough of a fan following that his presence could bolster beauty queen Marie McDonald, whom MGM was trying to turn into a star to rival Lana Turner. Kelly didn't like the colorless role the script offered or the fact that he'd be teamed with an actress best known by the nickname her press agents had created, "The Body." Finally, studio executive Benny Thau appealed to his loyalty by reminding him that the studio had given him a boost by pairing him with Judy Garland in his first film. Now he could return the favor by agreeing to co-star with McDonald.
Fortunately for Kelly, the film's director was far from the usual studio hack. Gregory La Cava had built a reputation for himself with a series of stylish comedies that showed actors to their best advantage. After a string of '30s hits, including My Man Godfrey (1936) and Stage Door (1937), La Cava had directed only sporadically in the '40s, mainly because of his heavy drinking. He also tended to alienate studio executives with his seemingly chaotic working methods. He rarely followed shooting scripts, preferring to use improvisation and inspiration as a source of new material while shooting. Although this usually led to extended shooting schedules, the results could be stunningly creative. Even though he had written the story for Living in a Big Way, he refused to nail down the script, working with Irving Ravetch to re-write scenes as the film was shooting. Producer Pandro S. Berman, who had fought to keep La Cava on Stage Door when studio executives were in a panic, gave La Cava his head.
La Cava's improvisatory approach was a boon to Kelly. When the dancing star suggested adding some musical numbers to the film, La Cava was all too willing. Kelly and Donen staged a romantic duet for the courtship scenes with McDonald, a comic dance with a dog who, like Kelly, has been rejected by the leading lady, and a lengthy sequence in which Kelly seemingly improvises an athletic dance to entertain some children while he's building a house. The dog dance gave Kelly a chance to choreograph around the character's persona, something he and Donen would explore further in the "Day in New York" ballet for On the Town. The improvisatory feel of the house-building routine would become a Kelly staple in films like Summer Stock (1950), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain.
Shooting on Living in a Big Way dragged on for nine months, partly because the studio gave Kelly, an officer in the Screen Actors Guild, time off to help negotiate an end to a strike against the studios by the Carpenter's Union. When the film was finally finished, it did poorly at the box office. Later critics have noted that La Cava's directions revealed a comic dimension to Kelly's acting that had not been exploited well before and that the film fits well with the director's other comic treatments of class warfare. But contemporary audiences didn't take to a musical with just three numbers and were even less enthusiastic about McDonald. The studio later gave up plans to make her a star, and her career petered out. Eventually she would be more famous for a series of scandals, including seven marriages (two to shoe magnate Harry Karl, later Debbie Reynolds' second husband), drug arrests, nervous breakdowns and a mysterious death at the age of 42.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Gregory La Cava
Screenplay: Gregory La Cava, Irving Ravetch
Based on a story by La Cava
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari
Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Gene Kelly (Leo Gogarty), Marie McDonald (Margaud Morgan), Charles Winninger (D. Rutherford Morgan), Phyllis Thaxter (Peggy Randall), Spring Byington (Mrs. Morgan), Jean Adair (Abigail Morgan), Clinton Sundberg (Everett Hanover Smythe), Barbara Billingsley (G.I. Bill's Wife), Ellen Corby (Broken Arms' Sailors Wife), Charles Lane (Hawkins), Marie Windsor, Shelley Winters (Junior League Girls).
by Frank Miller