Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Victor Heermann | Animal Crackers


George S. Kaufman, Morrie Ryskind, Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (screenplay), Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby (music and lyrics), Victor Heermann (director) Animal Crackers / 1930

Looking back now on Groucho Marx's dance near the end of "Hello, I Must Be Going," we recognize just how physical the Brothers were. In many of their films, Groucho danced, in Duck Soup with two women at a time, alternating between a waltz, a rumba, a mad tango, and, finally, something like a Charleston—all of them containing dozens of other smaller steps that seem almost impossible to negotiate within the larger whole, including darting through the crowds from the arms of Margaret Dumont to the other woman.

In Animal Crackers, however, the dance is pure Groucho as the rubber-legged comedian first does a Michael Jackson-like "Moonwalk," moving laterally across the floor in two directions without lifting his feet. A moment later he kicks, his riding boots set against his white safari pants, in an up and backward movement as if he had no joints. From there he simply joyously sets out on a series of leaping kicks, sideways and forward that add fun to the ridiculous lyrics:

Hello, I must be going,
I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going.
I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going.
La La.

(Mrs. Rittenhouse)
For my sake you must stay.
If you should go away,
You’d spoil this party I am throwing.

I’ll stay a week or two,
I’ll stay the summer thru,
But I am telling you,
I must be going.

Groucho is a kind of naif dancer, a bit like the role Grandma Moses played in the world of art—except, of course, Marx is completely in the know, spoofing the very gracefulness of dance.

Los Angeles, March 11, 2011

Irwyn Franklin | Harlem Is Heaven


Edgar Dorwell, Porter Grainger, and Joe Jordon (original music), Irwyn Franklin (writer and director) Harlem is Heaven / 1932

Franklin’s all Black 1932 movie Harlem is Heaven is a disaster of story and acting, with an absolutely remarkable cast, nonetheless, of musicians and dancers, including Bill “Bojangels” Robinson and Eubie Blake and his Orchestra. Robinson is the center of this piece and does numerous numbers throughout, all of them brilliant. But the best of most famous dance, the “Step Dance” stands out as one of his most memorable dances of all time.

In some respects Robinson repeated this dance, or at least elements of it, three years later, as he strutted up and down a set of stairs with Shirley Temple in The Little Coronel, but in the original the simple set consisting of a small staircase of five steps up and five steps down better reveals his amazing footwork, and stunningly points up his simple but graceful dancing. And unlike the second “Step Dance,” he does not have to play an old “darky” to get the opportunity to strut his stuff.

The dance begins with a simple multiple tap as he learns forward, exploring the steps as if he were perhaps afraid of undertaking the moves he is about to make. Then up the first step upon which he gently taps out a rhythm, before moving to the second and so, until he reaches the fifth, retreating back down the five stairs. But soon he is at the top again, this time moving rhythmically down the other side, and, with a renewed every, moving up and down, (skipping one going down by twos, etc) back and forth in an incredible pattern of taps that surprise us with its simple variety of ascent and descent.

Robinson displays little of the athleticism of the marvelous Nicohlas brothers, but his grace and lithe moves cannot be matched. It’s as if this energized movement where a simple warm-up for something else—a leap across drums as he performs in the “Drum Dance” or the slip and slides of the marvelous sand dance of Stormy Weather. But there is something so abstract and pure about his “Step Dance,” that, in my estimation, it can’t be matched.

Los Angeles, April 2, 2011

Thornton Freeland | Flying Down to Rio


Erwin S. Gelsey, H. W. Hanemann and Cyril Hume (writers) based on a story by Lou Brock and a play by Anne Caldwell, Thornton Freeland (director) Flying Down to Rio / 1933

This film, Astaire's and Rogers' first pairing, would be hardly worth writing about were it not for some of the brilliant dance numbers by the famed duo, particularly in one of their first encounters in the Brazilian capitol, Rio de Janeiro. At a hotel nightclub the couple experience, for the first time, the local dance craze, the Carioca, "not a fox trot or a polka," where the couples dance forehead to forehead while rhythmically moving their feet in time to the nine note line, repeated before ending with eight off beats. Of course, after watching for a while, the American couple, both dressed elegantly in black, have to give it a try. The floor is cleared for their wonderful variations, at times—with foreheads locked—catching the off beats of music while, at other times, dancing stunningly in sync with the rhythm before Rogers spins off into a circle around her partner.

It's all lovely to watch until the couple, banging foreheads together, stagger off in opposite directions as they comically mock the dizziness they suffer (a trick Astaire would use brilliantly as a drunk years later in Holiday Inn). As they make their ways back to their table, a whole chorus of dancers, choreographed by dance director Dave Gould and his assistant Hermes Pan, follow in the style of Busby Berkeley, uniformly dancing in identical costumes and movements up and down the stairway while Etta Moten warbles out the song's lyrics: "I'll dance the Carioca 'til the break of day."

Los Angles, February 28, 2011

Mark Sandrich | Top Hat


Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor (screenplay, based on a play by Sándor Faragó, Alada Laszlo, and Károly Nóti), Irving Berlin and Max Steiner (music), Mark Sandrich (director) Top Hat / 1935

With great song and dance numbers such as "Isn't This a Lovely Day," "Fancy Free," "The Piccolino" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," it seems almost impossible to select just one dance! But of all Astaire's and Rogers' performances throughout their years as a duo, the most memorable of all may be their brilliant "Cheek to Cheek."

In terms of the plot, the number might never have happened. Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) is furious with Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire), whom she believes to be her good friend Madge Hardwick's husband, Horace. Travers has flirted with Tremont, but Madge seemingly doesn't care, for, in reality, she is trying to marry off Travers, suggesting Tremont as the perfect match. It is with due hesitation, accordingly, that Tremont accepts his offer to dance. As he begins the love song, moreover, she turns several times to Madge, pondering what to do, but Madge merely motions that they should get closer together.

The dance begins as a simple waltz, with Travers (Astaire) stopping several times to sing the famous lyrics ("Heaven, I'm in Heaven / And my heart beats so loudly I can hardly speak / And I seem to find the happiness I seek / When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek"). After each stop they dance for a while, until suddenly, at the music's crescendo, they swing upstairs, she spinning before laterally jumping, Astaire moving into a soft tap. Both leap, moving backwards, then forward, until in a final pas de deau, Rogers being gently lifted before Astaire lets her down, the two spin, returning to the quiet waltz.

Perhaps the most notable thing about this dance is Roger's beautiful white feathered dress (at least it appears white on the screen; the lining, so I have read, in reality was blue) that is so absolutely breathtaking a costume that we might forgive them, he in his tuxedo and she in the gown, if they merely stood there talking. Yet their graceful dancing on top, equally transports us into "Heaven."

Astaire and the director had tried to dissuade Rogers from wearing the dress, and as she began to dance, just as they feared, the feathers flew off every time she made a move. Astaire described it as something akin to "a chicken being attacked by a coyote." You can still see some few feathers floating through the air at scene's end. And after this event, Rogers' nickname became "feathers."

Los Angeles, April 16, 2011

Roy Del Ruth | Broadway Melody of 1936 / Norman Taurog | Broadway Melody of 1940


Moss Hart (story), Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers (screenplay), Harry W. Conn (additional dialogue), Roy Del Ruth (director) Broadway Melody of 1936 / 1935
Jack McGowan and Dore Schary (story), Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer (screenplay), with undredited writing by Walter DeLeon, Vincaent Lawrence, Albert Mannheimer, Eddie Moran, Thomas Phipps, Sid Silvers and Preston Sturges, Norman Taurog (director) Broadway Melody of 1940 / 1940

Watching Eleanor Powell's last number in her first starring film role, Broadway Melody of 1936, it is difficult to not be completely dazzled by her movements, while in the same instant perceiving those movements as somehow a bit clunky or, at least, executed with too much intention and force. It's partly her body—she appears taller and lankier than most dancers—and partly her costume—dressed as she is in long stripped satin pants and shirt with rhinestone coat whose tails come down seemingly lower than her knees, all topped with a rhinestone-covered hat. The Yankee Doddle Dandy look gives her a sense of being even taller than she probably was, which helps to make her hips even more central to her physique. Yet, moving through Got to Dance, how she can tap, bend her body backwards nearly to the floor, and spin and spin and spin as she were on ice instead of a gravity-pulling stage. If she hits each tap a little too forcefully, we are still stunned by their impact. It is little wonder that Ann Miller describes Powell as being the major influence upon her entering that career.

Fred Astaire perhaps said it best: "She 'put 'em down like a man', no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself." There is something almost manly about her technique, and that is perhaps what makes her taps seem, at times, so emphatic.

Yet when she dances Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, we see another, slightly softer side of her. This time dressed in a flowing thin white skirt and a halter trimmed with spangles, Powell seems completely to move with the flow of the Latin rhythm that is often used contrapuntally against the song's tune. Dancing across a black marble floor against a black backspace upon which small pin lights reflect what appear to be stars, Powell matches Astaire nearly perfectly step by step with a grace that seemed to elude her in that earlier number. Together they seem the perfect match.

Los Angeles, July 19, 2011

Victor Fleming, George Cukor, and Mervyn LeRoy | The Wizard of Oz


Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Wolf (screenplay, based on the book by L. Frank Baum), Irving Breacher, Willliam H. Cannon, Herbert Fields, Arthur Freed, Jack Haley, E. Y. Harburg, Samuel Hoffenstein, Bert Lahr, John Lee Mahin, Herman J. Mankewicz, Jack Mintz, Ogden Nash, Robert Pirosh, George Seaton, and Sid Silvers (credited and uncredited dialogue), Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg (songs), Victor Fleming, George Cukor [uncredited] and Mervyn LeRoy [uncredited] (directors) The Wizard Of Oz / 1939

It seems as if everyone in Hollywood was, in one way or another, involved in the writing and directing of the great film classic The Wizard of Oz. But the enduring song "If I Only Had a Brain" had only a composer and a lyricist, the incomparable Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg. Originally written for the 1937 Broadway musical, Horray for What!, it was cut from that production. Writing new lyrics, Harburg featured it in his great score as a perfect song for the movie's talking, dancing scarecrow.

Dancing as if he were a straw-stuffed puppet whose strings were pulled from somewhere on high, Bolger, always an entertaining and comical dancer, outdoes himself with the lightness of his feet. At times his entire body seems almost to float, as if he really were stuffed with hay instead bones and gristle. Yet, as a straw man, each attempt to fly off into dance ends, sadly, with gravity's pull, and his body's collapse.

The song he sings also seems to float in its comicality, making his poignant desire to "have a brain" even more magical, since we realize immediately that anyone who can think of what to do with a brain like he can, is near to genius:

I could wile away the hours
Conferrin' with the flowers
Consultin' with the rain
And my head I'd be scratchin'
While my thoughts were busy hatchin'
If I only had a brain.

He and Dorothy (Judy Garland) end this wonderful dance number in their memorable skip-to-my-lou down the yellow brick road, which also demonstrates the dancing talents of the young Garland. Garland, while not a great dancer has certainly shone in several dance numbers. Her pairing with Fred Astaire in "We're a Couple of Swells" in Easter Parade and her memorable struts in "Get Happy" in the musical film Summertime immediately come to mind. But in her gingham dress and red ruby shoes, she is unforgettable. Even the dog, Toto, trots along on cue.

Los Angeles, March 1, 2011

Michael Curtiz | Yankee Doddle Dandy


Robert Buckner and Edmund Joseph (screenplay, based on a story by Robert Buckner), Julius J. Epstein and Philip G. Epstein (writers, uncredited), George M. Cohan (songs), Michael Curtiz (director) Yankee Doddle Dandy / 1942

For those who have only seen Cagney in his gangster films such as Little Ceasar, The Public Enemy, and G Men, it will come as a surprise, I am sure, that he was also—if almost accidentally—one of Hollywood's greatest dancers. Playing George M. Cohan performing in one of his musicals as a jockey who has been accused of fixing a race, Cagney awaits a signal from a nearby ship to tell him of the decision of the jury: he has been acquited and his dance to the tune of "Yankee Doddle Dandy" is a joyfully nervous tapping out of joy that is so original in its combinations of straight tap, turns, spins, and occasional leaps that it is clearly something that he has created himself, outside of the more conventional dance numbers of the film choreographed by Seymour Felix and LeRoy Prinz.

Cagney's whole body is so naturally jumpy that he seems like a marionette on strings, as others have described him; but unlike Ray Bolger's puppet-like Straw Man, described above, Cagney's legs, hands, and shoulders appear never to come to rest, as they dangle at the very moment his torso seems to rise. Instead of being pulled back to earth by gravity, Cagney seems unable to come to rest, his feet nervously tapping away something like the horses this jockey might have raced. Given the heaviness of most of his verbal roles, we are understandably stunned by his lightness of foot. And he can even sing!

Los Angeles, March 2, 2011

Andrew L. Stone | Stormy Weather


Frederick J. Jackson and Ted Koehler (screenplay, based on a story by Jerry Horwin, and adapted by H. S. Kraft and Seymour B. Robinson), Harold Arlen (music), Andrew L. Stone (director) Stormy Weather / 1943

One of two major studio movies with all Black casts (the other being Vicente Minelli's Cabin in the Sky) Stormy Weather was packed with great performances by Lena Horne, Dooley Wilson, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the great dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. But nothing in this heady concoction of music and dance can quite match the leg work of Fayard and Harold Nicholas. The two not only tap dance up and down stairs in near-perfect unison, but work as a linked duo, mirroring each other's movements in reverse, before jumping into the orchestra to leap from oval to oval (which recalls Robinson's "Drum Dance" elsewhere in the film), seemingly some of kind of gigantic music stands for the musicians.

Soon the tuxedoed duo hoist themselves up upon a piano, looking perfectly at home there, before they tap up a double staircase, and, in a series of leapfrogs over one another that land them each time in perfect leg splits, they again reach the bottom, coming together only to tap up the staircase once more, this time taking a slide down to the floor. The audience can only be wowed, and wonder how their torsos have endured their acrobatic maneuvers.

Fred Astaire has been quoted as describing this performance as "the greatest dance number ever filmed." Enough said.

Although Lena Horne's sultry rendition of the song "Stormy Weather" is at the center of this film, Katherine Dunham's dance with her company to the same song is worth viewing again and again. The dance begins in a rainy street scene where couples soon begin to jive; Dunham, however, seeming to be somewhere between a streetwalker and sleepwalker conjures up a balletic version, wherein she is quickly joined, in her dreamy imagination, by a whole company of men who lift the women in raptuous grasps before laterally holding their partners and returning them to the floor. The most notable aspect of this dance is the constant flow of the wind machine, which makes the silky costumes seem to be in eternal motion, which Dunham reflects time and again through the movement of her hands and fingers.

There is something a bit ridiculous with this, reminding one a little of the song "They're Doing Choreography" in White Christmas, but Dunham manages to take some Martha Graham-like gestures into the realm of sensuality.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2011

Busby Berkeley | The Gang's All Here


Nancy Winter, George Root, Jr., and Tom Bridges (story), Walter Bullock (screenplay), Leo Robin and Harry Warren (music and lyrics), Busby Berkeley (choreographer and director) The Gang’s All Here / 1943

At first glance, it may be hard to even imagine Carmen Miranda’s performance of “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” as being described as a dance. Although Miranda had long before proven that she can dance—or at least smartly wave her hips—in pieces such as “Chica Chica Book Chic” from A Night in Rio, in The Gang’s All Here’s “Tutti Frutti Hat” we see her mostly from the knees up, and the movements she makes are almost all in her hands and eyes. The piece might best be described as a kind of choreographed performance, yet that doesn’t really do justice to Busby Berkeley’s giddily absurd number, which TV Guide once described as “a male hairdresser’s acid trip.” And, in the end, I feel that if this isn’t dance—which the Random House Abridged Dictionary defines, in its first definition, as “to move one’s feet or hands, or both, rhythmically in time to music”—I don’t know what we might call it. As ridiculous, moreover, as this particular dance may be, it is certainly one of the most strange and original of dances ever performed on the screen.

Berkeley has always defined his choeography as being made up of numerous of the same things, usually beautiful chorus girls, moving in visual patterns, which this piece demonstrates fully. Supposedly performed on a nightclub stage, “Tutti Frutti” begins with the arrival of an organ grinder and monkey, who pass through the audience of the club (representing the audience as well in the movie theater), allowing his monkey to jump to the top of a banana tree, whereupon we discover several other matching monkeys and banana trees. Beyond the trees lies an island strewn with the bodies of chorus girls lying, again in a vague pattern of banana-like curves. A cart approaches upon which Dorita (Carmen Miranda) sits singing about her propensity to wear high hats, which she will not remove for anyone, including the many men whom she meets. The hat, made up of bananas and other fruits is truly “tutti frutti” in all the meanings of that word, and, as if to carry the metaphor into its fullest realization, the women bring forth a series of other banana and fruit-laced “things,” including a xylophone made up of bananas, upon which Dorita performs, along with, obviously, outsized bananas, which they wave up in down in patterns that suggest not just the ocean but, you guessed it, sex itself.

In case the audience misses this obvious reference, the girls put their own bodies, shot from Berkeley’s famed crane shots, on the line, linking them below the camera’s gaze into kaleidoscopic patterns of delicious flesh and fruits. As Dorita turns to go, the girls again run to the edge of the island to wave their monstrous bananas (censors insisted they could hold their bananas only from the waist, not from the hip) in slow motion imagery.

Panning away, the camera returns us to the audience wherein a long row of organ grinders now retrieve the several monkeys, disappearing from sight.

The whole event is so hilariously gay, in all senses of that word (part of Miranda’s song reads, “Some people say I dress too gay, But ev'ry day, I feel so gay; And when I'm gay, I dress that way, Is something wrong with that?”) that it clearly defined the “camp” sensibility long before Susan Sontag even began to write.

Los Angeles, June 8, 2011

Charles Walters | Easter Parade


Sidney Sheldon, Frances Goodrich, and Albert Hackett (screenplay), Irving Berlin (songs and music), Charles Walters (director), Easter Parade / 1948

Clad in a yellow dress cutaway in front—so that all can keep their eyes peeled on her long, shapely legs—with a longer, knee-high train in back, Ann Miller, hands in air, smile frozen upon her face, is kept busy “Shaking the Blues Away” in Easter Parade. The cascades of her coiled hear on the top of her head echoes her frilly black bustier and the drapes behind her, all intimating something so close to kitsch that it is hard to take her seriously. Yet how she can dance, tapping her feet out as fast as a speed typist. Reputedly, the taps were fabricated by the sound man in most of her films, but she moves her gams so well that we are certain that her toes perfectly match those clicks.

Throughout the film she is mad at Don Hewes (Fred Astaire) and jealous of his attentions to his new partner, Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). So that jackhammer of a performance might almost be interpreted as nails driven into his coffin (Hewes sits in the audience), or, at least, a kind of passionate dance of revenge. But then, Miller always seems to be giving her all, if a little ungainly at times, stirring a storm up to the rafters.

Los Angeles, February 28, 2011

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger | The Red Shoes


Michael Powell, Emeric Prewssburger, and Keith Winter (script, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (directors) The Red Shoes / 1948

When I first conceived of this series of short essays, I determined that, since I was most interested in how dance was used in film, I would not include cinematic representations of ballet. It would be as if I were to explore singing in film, and choose to include the many operas that have been committed to screen. Ballet transcription to film may be an interesting topic, but is not the one at hand.

The more I wrote about the subject, however, I realized that I could not exclude Powell's and Pressburger's masterful The Red Shoes simply because it included real ballet dancers and had, at its center, a "real" ballet. The ballet, in this case, is completely integrated into the film, and the dancers are credible actors as well.

Moreover, even though the great "Red Shoes Ballet" is a theatrical work that might just as easily have been performed on stage, so too is the whole a masterful piece of filmmaking, as Powell and Pressburger conjure up their highly artificed cinematic style, filled with lush and vibrant colors that parallel, at times, the works of Nicolas Ray and Douglas Sirk. Like those later films, The Red Shoes most definitely suggests what one has to admit is an exaggerated cinematic aesthetic that may or may not be related to ballet. In any case, The Red Shoes works as a piece of cinematic art before it serves to represent anything about dance.

Having said that, the ballet, choreographed by Robert Helpmann and danced by three professional ballet dancers, Shearer, Helpmann and Massine, is surely the most balletic of my selections. But who can dismiss a work based on a tale in which, once the dancer has put her slippers on, she must dance in a frenzy unto death? The theme of the ballet is the same as that of the movie: despite her desire to live a normal life with composer Julian Craster (Marius Goring), Vicky Page (Shearer) cannot escape the imprisonment of Boris Lermontov's ballet except through death.

At times sentimental, overly melodramatic, and fraught with a desire to mean more than it does, The Red Shoes is filled with brilliant dancing costumes and sets.

Los Angeles, September 9, 2011

Stanley Donen | Royal Wedding

by Douglas Messerli

Alan Jay Lerner (story and screenplay), Stanley Donen (director) Royal Wedding / 1951

Perhaps the most famous of all film dances, the so-called "Ceiling Dance" of Royal Wedding, is less a spectacular feat of dancing—although Astaire performs with his usual panache—than it is a technical wonder, so well it is achieved by both dancer and designers that it is, at first, difficult to even conceive how the overjoyed Tom Bowen (Astaire), could move from the flat floor of his hotel room up the wall and onto the ceiling, to gradually dance back down again, and up once more, balancing his body on paintings, wall-hangings, and even the chandeliers.

In reality what we are seeing is a room enclosed in a framed wheel that is gradually turned, with the dancer timing his leaps within the slow movement of the rectangular room. The furniture and other trappings are clearly attached into position and, accordingly, are unable to move, allowing Astaire to pretend to balance his head on the back of a chair, climb the desk up the wall, etc.

Some claim the idea was Lerner's, others insist it was Astaire's. But the fact is that it could not have been achieved without Donen's near flawless direction and Astaire's perfect timing, appearing to leap as brilliantly as Spider Man might today. But Spider Man, after all, has his webs to help him, ropes and pulleys. Astaire had only a machine which created a delusion within which he tapped, twirled, jumped, and turned upon his legs.

Los Angeles, September 7, 2011

Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly | Singing in the Rain


Betty Comden and Adolph Green (writers), Nacio Herb Brown (music), Arthur Freed (lyrics), Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (directors) Singing in the Rain / 1952

I have to admit that, perhaps because of the fact I saw so many Francis and the mule movies in the early 1950s, I had never given Donald O'Connor, the actor in these silly caprices, a thought until as a college student I saw a tape of Singing in the Rain. His burlesque-like humor still, from time to time, makes me cringe, but what a remarkable dancer he was, particularly in comic numbers such as "Make Em Laugh!" Based on Cole Porter's "Be a Clown!" Nacio Herb Brown's and Arthur Freed's joyful anthem to humor is perfect for the rubber-faced O'Connor, who uses everything in the room as a prop. With his bright blue eyes, hat on head, O'Connor dances across couches, chairs, walls and, after fighting a battle with a headless dummy that might remind some viewers of the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer's dolls, O'Connor spins in a circle upon the floor like a Samuel Beckett figure, unable to stand. His final series of backward leaps off walls painted to look like vast perspectives and his last dive into a thin veneer of wood truly does bring smiles to all faces, both out of wonder for his rhythmic energy and his ability just to survive.

Little need be said of one the greatest of all film dances, "Singing in the Rain," by the matchless Gene Kelly. With a broad smile upon his face, Kelly doddles down the street in a rain storm before embracing a light post from which he hangs in midair, spinning his umbrella like a top, and, in a blue, rain-soaked suit and red shoes, splashing his way through the puddles as a joyful child might. The lively tap number quite literally plays out its lyrics in his body movements, revealing physically that despite the natural elements and all they symbolize, everything can be conquered through the inner joy of love.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2011

George Sidney | Kiss Me, Kate


Dorothy Kingsley (screenplay, based on the book by Sam and Bella Spewack), Cole Porter (music and lyrics), George Sidney (director) Kiss Me, Kate / 1953

I have always felt that the film version of Kiss Me, Kate was a sort of mixed bag. The introduction of Cole Porter into the film as he tries out a couple numbers in Fred Grahm’s living room, and the abandonment of the great show opener, “Another Op’nin’ of Another Show,” framed the work like too many other film musicals, and missed the opportunity to display the open theatricality of the original. But then, there is something contradictory in the original as well, where the on stage personalities of the leads (in this case Katherine Grayson and Howard Keel) seem in their operatic style of singing and action in opposition to the other figures . Porter’s songs for them, as well, songs like “Wunderbar” and “So in Love” appear to be worlds away from the more sprightly numbers such as “Why Can’t You Behave” and “From This Moment On.”

Accordingly, the musical and film both seem almost divided in two, with a Shakespeare-coated operetta at one end, and a jazzy series of dances choreographed by Hermes Pan and Bob Fosse at the other. Although most of the songs are wonderful, the story and its structure, seems almost to break the piece in two.

But the dances are all so good that I might have chosen four great dance moments from this film instead of the two I’ve selected, the other two being Miller’s tap performance of “Too Darn Hot” and Miller’s and the chorus’ rendition of “Tom, Dick, and Harry.”

However, it is hard to match the dancing wonder of Ann Miller’s and Tommy Rall’s “Why Can’t You Behave?” in which she lovingly chastises him for his reckless behavior, while all the while he jokingly mocks her. The rooftop location of this scene, which literally flirts with “a loss of gravity,” is perfect, for the character clearly has no sense of gravitas. Indeed, when Miller reaches the roof she cannot, at first, locate her lover until he slides in from above down a pole which he has evidently previously shimmied up. It is the first of his gravity defying feats, as, the moment she finishes singing, he skips away, her tapping along, as he, spins like an ice skater, before somersaulting and cartwheeling off. A short rhumba between the two in which she plays out her frustrations in mock punches, butt kicks, and feet stomping, only sets him into a more irresponsible state as Rall dizzily dances at the very edge of the roof, imitating a near deathly fall before he leaps back to safety, catapulting himself up again and again (presumably with the help of a hidden trampoline) spreading his legs, and returning to the floor on his knees. Given Rall’s amazing acrobatic leaps one might almost be able to believe that he is propelling himself with his own leg power, instead of a piece of stretched fabric to help him spring back, except that had he truly fallen back to earth from the heights he reaches, he would surely have broken his knees. As it is, he makes a final leap onto another small construction before closing the piece in a balletic spin that seems for a few seconds it may never cease.

If the first dance belongs to Rall, the second, “From this Moment On” belongs to Fosse, who choreographed part of it. The dance is a celebratory one after the news of Kate’s marriage, which means her younger sister Bianca can now pick between one of her three suitors. Together with two other women (danced by Carol Haney and Jeanne Coyle) the male dancers don’t seem to care as much about the pairings of women, as they do in the joy of the occasion. Using the roman arches repeated throughout the set, the couples dance out separately or together several times, moving in lateral parallel patterns before shifting from front to back. After several of these arrivals and exits, however, Carol Haney dances out as the song changes rhythm from a zippy, upbeat song of new beginnings to a jazz-infused rhythm that works perfectly for Fosse’s moves.

After a few seconds of Haney moving across the stage, Fosse suddenly leaps out through the arch seemingly from the sky instead of the floor. As he catches up with the surprised Haney, he leaps to the small ledge of a post, allowing his face and arms to go limp in what would become a signature Fosse pose. Haney crawls toward him in a prone position before they join up again alternating between leaps and sweeps upon their knees as they move forward to close the piece.

Pan is a great choreographer, but by allowing Fosse to direct his first dance in film, he truly makes the piece fresh, and we absolutely do believe something has changed in all the characters’ lives.

Los Angeles, April 12, 2011

Vicente Minnelli | Brigadoon

by Douglas Messerli

Alan Jay Lerner (screenplay and lyrics), Frederick Loewe (music), Vicente Minnelli (director) Brigadoon / 1954

Although Cyd Charisse was brilliant as the gambler's dancing moll in the long "I've Got to Dance" routine in Kelly's Singing in the Rain, she is even more exciting as the restrained Scottish elder sister in Minnelli's Brigadoon, where she again pairs up with Gene Kelly.

Particularly in "The Heather on the Hill," where Kelly first sings the song's lyrics before the two break out into dance, we can sense Fiona's growing sexuality in the gracefulness of the long-legged Charisse's moves. The couple begin their duet as a tease, pulling on the basket in which she gathers heather (which in actuality was purple spray-painted sumac) and spinning like innocents before she begins her gentle run higher and higher up the hill.

We perceive even through their costumes—Kelly's beautiful ensemble of a emerald green silk shirt underneath which he wears a orange tea shirt, matched by his stockings and Charisse's pearl-white dress with an underlining of orange—that they are a perfect match. The dance itself soon tells us that as he seemingly effortlessly lifts her time and again, and after running forward and backward in reversing patterns, each gracefully lifts their entire bodies, one after the other, into the bough of a nearby tree.

There is a shyness about Charisse's balletic movements that perfectly fits her character and allows us to take in the scenery, loch and heather-covered hills, below where they dance. Minnelli and others wanted to film the scene on location in Scotland, but the studio insisted they do the entire shoot on the lot, which led some critics to later criticize it for its slightly staged, artificial look. Yet, so film-lore goes, the set was so realistically painted that several birds attempted to fly into it. Certainly the dance is magical enough that viewers may want to join them, leaping through the screen.

Los Angeles, February 27, 2011

Michael Curtiz | White Christmas

by Douglas Messerli

Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank (writers), Irving Berlin (music and lyrics), Michael Curtiz (director) White Christmas /1954

I am a particular fan of Vera-Ellen, in part because she worked in some of the best musicals of film over just two decades before withdrawing from public life. But in the second major song of White Christmas, "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing," it's Danny Kaye, dressed in a blue-slate suit and matching slate suede shoes, who truly shines.

The dance begins just as another ends. Leaving the dance floor for the outside, the couple gradually move from the waltz to the fox trot as Kaye finishes the song's lyrics, and, crossing a small bridge whipped up, obviously, just for this piece, they use its metal posts for acrobatic swings, she moving out and around while he swoops higher over her petite body. An upside down canoe is the perfect place for the couple to tap out the fox trot beat, a short tap-dance version of the jazzy rhythms, before they execute—the music accelerating—a series of spins, lifts, and falls, Vera Ellen (playing Judy Haynes) ending with her body draped across Kaye's lap just as sister Betty Haynes (Rosemary Clooney), wondering where they have gotten to, exits the inside dance floor to discover them.

If Danny Kaye is usually goofy, his whole body awkwardly lurching forward and backward like a heap of jello, in this dance he is expertly solid and graceful, a romeo who has moved suddenly from the comic to romance. As he sings, "Even guys with two left feet come out all right if the girl is sweet."* He seldom got other chances to so clearly display his dancing talents.

*Unintentionally, those lyrics seem to be a strange comment on Kaye's personal life, wherein his loving and dedicated wife, Sylvia Fine Kaye, apparently permitted Kaye's reputed homosexual flings with actor Lawrence Olivier and others. Sylvia, who managed Kaye's career, was clearly for him a "sweet" woman.

Los Angeles, February 28, 2011

Richard Quine | My Sister Eileen

by Douglas Messerli

Blake Edwards and Richard Quine (screenplay), based on a play by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov and stories by Ruth McKenney, Jule Styne and Leo Robin (songs and lyrics), George Duning (original music), Richard Quine (director) My Sister Eileen / 1955

It is hard to imagine a more endearing dance couple than Bob Fosse and Tommy Rall. In My Sister Eileen—overall a weak film when compared with Leonard Bernstein's theatrical version of the same materials in Wonderful Town—the two become rivals, each trying to outdo the other in an attempt to woo Eileen (Janet Leigh). Fosse, playing Frank Lippincott is the counterman at the local Walgreen's diner, while Rall plays Chick Clark, a newspaper journalist. Their short dance together is an all-male ritual to see who's the fittest, like two rams butting heads or gorillas thumping chests.

The compact and lean Fosse has the edge, simply because of his ability to deliver sharp spins and turns, moving along an arc like a sliver of moon, hat in hand, a movement for which he has become well known.

Rall, a taller and just as lean dancer, occasionally appears a bit gangly in comparison, but for my taste his dancing, even more athletic because of his height, is more brilliant. His spins are perfect, with more rotation than Fosse gets. And his huge outstretched legs in his leap from one of the boxes in the alley where they wait for Eileen to return from an audition, is absolutely stunning.

There is no winner, of course, in this dance rivalry. Both are simply brilliant in their competitive moves. But while Fosse, mostly through his role as a choreographer, has become internationally famous, Rall has crept, undeservedly, into the background, despite his appearances in Kiss Me, Kate (along with Fosse), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Pennies from Heaven, and, on stage, Milk and Honey. Strangely, he is not even listed as a character in the credits for the DVD of My Sister Eileen, as if his role was played by a ghost. My film guides have repeated the error, wiping his name from the production. But one only need watch this scene to see how brilliant of a dancer he was.

Los Angeles, February 23, 2011

Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly | It's Always Fair Weather

by Douglas Messerli

Betty Comden and Adolph Green (screenplay, music and lyrics), André Previn (music), Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly (directors) It's Always Fair Weather / 1955

One of the most under estimated film musicals of all time, It's Always Fair Weather concerns the return home of three soldiers, their last night on the town in New York, and their reunion ten years later in the same city. Predictably they have grown apart in the interim, having taken on vastly different careers, with Ted (Gene Kelly) ending up as a down-on-his-luck boxing promoter, Doug (Dan Dailey) as an ulcer-ridden advertising man, and Angie (Michael Kidd) as the owner of a hamburger stand. Like Sondheim's Follies' showgirls they now all seem to live diminished lives from what they had imagined might be facing them that joyous night a decade earlier.

When Ted meets a girl, Jackie (Cyd Charisse), he falls in love, and behind his back she arranges for the three to appear on a television show together.

Audiences of 1955, many then fixated each night on their television sets, also did not like the bleak message of the script. But today the film seems to have a depth of meaning that many successes of the era do not. The film is also helped by several great song and dance numbers, two of which I believe are among the best of film dances.

The first, "The Binge," danced by Kelly, the often overlooked Dan Dailey, and Michael Kidd (known best as a choreographer, in films of Guys and Dolls and The Band Wagon) is an explosion of athletic movement, as the three soldiers, having left a bar drunk, take to the street. At first they are all so drunk they can hardly stand, as Dailey, in particular, manipulates his legs into a series of positions that makes him look more like a rubber Gumby than a man with ball-sockets. Kelly kicks Dailey, Dailey momentarily steps upon Kelly's ass, before Kidd is swept up upon Dailey's shoulders as Dailey-Kidd dance a quick rumba with Kelly and take to the street.

Stopping a taxi, the three move in an out, through doors, windows, and ceiling, joining up each time before returning to the endless intricacies of taxi hopping. No sooner do they finish that breathless scenario than they leap down the street, each attaching a trash can lid to his left foot, the three performing a seemingly impossible tap with metal lid, a stunning terpsichorean feat!

Finally, the three dance off down the street once more, reentering the dive to dance across tables and onto the bar itself before ordering up two more drinks.

Later, discovering that his new girlfriend, Jackie, likes him, Ted decides that he "likes himself" ("I Like Myself"), and decked out with a pair of roller skates (he has just exited a skating parlor), he skates through the streets as he croons the song. Before long, a crowd has gathered, as he begins to tap, gradually with greater and greater ferocity, alternating between curb and gutter, before closing with higher leaps in the center of the street until posing with Kelly's usual smiling face, hands out for the cheers of the audience. Pure hokum, brilliantly done.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2011

H. C. Potter | Three for the Show

by Douglas Messerli

Edward Hope and Leonard Stern (screenplay, based on W. Somerset Maughm's Two Many Husbands, George Duning (music), H. C. Potter (director) Three for the Show / 1955

Only musical fanatics like myself would ever remember this mediocre musical, a film made to bring Betty Grable, through the choreography of Jack Cole, more into the musical mainstream, hoping to give her the kind of boost Cole did by teaching Marilyn Monroe her moves in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Some Like It Hot. I'm not, however, convinced of Grable's dancing skills.

Far more interesting to me is Marge and Gower Champions more ballroom dancing style in the lovely, almost non-musical performance of George and Ira Gershwin's, "Someone to Watch Over Me." It begins as a practice session, in which Marge is talking about a date she has that night, and wondering what color of a dress to wear. The two patter back and forth as they make the notable spins, parallel parts, and lifts that might be said to define the Champions' dancing style.

One lift, however, seems to be different, as the couples' lips come close to each other, and, still talking up a blue-storm, they try it again. Gower proclaims "It is different!" as we perceive that, for the first time he has noticed her as someone more than just a dancing partner.

Marge continues the conversation and the two carry out the requisite turns, lifts, and balletic runs—that is until suddenly they reach the staircase, the song which has quietly begun in the background, crescendoing while the two take off in a beautifully realized dance that basically defines their work. Evidently Jack Cole choreographed the number, even though Gower would serve that position in most of their pieces before and after.

I might have also chosen their wonderful, more jazzy, "Casbah" piece in Everything I Have Is Yours of 1952, if it weren't that the movie is so awful that I wouldn't dare send anyone to see it just for the sake of that dance, even if they could find it.

Los Angeles, April 14, 2011

Fred Zinnemann | Oklahoma!

by Douglas Messerli

Sony Levien and William Ludwig (screenplay, adapted from the musical by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and based on the play Lynn Riggs), Fred Zinnemann (director) Oklahoma! / 1955

One of my favorite childhood musical memories is the exuberant "Everything's Up to Date in Kansas City" early on in Oklahoma! What begins merely as a comic number, with Will Parker (Gene Nelson) recounting his small town hick reactions to the big city, Kansas City, gradually is transformed into a statement of joy, camaraderie, and community through Nelson's and Greenwood's great dancing and Agnes de Milles' skill as a choreographer.

Much of the "action" of the scene lies dormant in its hunkering cowboys, Will among them to begin. But as he recounts the wonders of Kansas City, it is clear that he cannot for long remain still, particularly when they've built a building seven stories high and a dancing girl who has revealed that everything she had was absolutely real. The actual dance begins, innocently enough, with Will executing a two-step that has taken his world by surprise, supplanting the waltz! Although Eller (the long-legged, high-kicking Charlotte Greenwood) joins in for a few minutes, the cowboys don't like it.

When a few minutes later, Will taps out the first few steps of Ragtime, they like it even less. But the women are smitten, particularly two younger girls, and before you know it, they are cautiously attempting to join in. His cowboy friends, however, are still not convinced, and Will, accordingly, returns to the hunker, before, one by one, the men pick up the rhythms and try out the dance. Suddenly everyone is up and dancing, moving forward and away, backs to the camera, as Aunt Eller holds out her hands, in an iconic DeMille movement, that suggests that the community sensibility has prevailed. Soon there is a whole chorus of rag-timing, tap-dancing cowboys, which so thrills Will that he takes out his lasso skillfully stepping in and out of the symbolic circle it creates. In his ecstasy of the shared experience, he leaps upon a railroad car just as the train takes off. As in any good western, his horse comes to his rescue whereupon he is returned to his comrades and friends.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2011

Walter Lang | The King and I

by Douglas Messerli

Ernest Lehman (screenplay, based on the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers, based on the book by Margaret Langdon), Walter Lang (director) The King and I / 1956

I’ve seen the film musical The King and I dozens of times, and I still don’t know whether Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr can actually dance, but in the case of “Shall We Dance?” does it matter? If this isn’t a great dance number, I have no way of defining the genre.

Dressed absolutely beautifully, he in a royal red open coat and matching jodhpur-like pants, all woven through with gold braids, she in a beautiful silk gown with many underlayers of bustle and skirts, the two began the dance with what has almost become a subgenre of dance numbers: one teaching the other how to do it (think of Barbara Streisand in Hello, Dolly! or the lesson in how to Cha-cha-cha given by July Holiday’s two friends in Bells Are Ringing). But it quickly shifts, as Brynner recognizes there is something different in their positions from the other waltzers he observed.

With that shift the couple spin away on an exhilarating “1-2-3 and” rhythm that takes them around the huge palace room again and again until they literally run out breath, only to have the King announce: again!

Over the years in amateur and professional productions of this work, I have seen dresses slip to the floor and the dancers nearly stumble, but never did I think it ridiculous or have I ever laughed. The joyful sense of liberation this performance gives to both the dancers and viewers is at the heart of why dance is such a profound experience.

Los Angeles, April 16, 2011

George Abbott and Stanley Donen | The Pajama Game

by Douglas Messerli

George Abbott and Richard Bissell (screenplay), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics), George Abbott and Stanley Donen (directors) The Pajama Game / 1957

Although Carol Haney worked with Gene Kelly on the dance numbers in both of his great films Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris, and danced in the chorus of Kiss, Me Kate, her only starring role on film, as a dancer and actor, was in The Pajama Game. Sadly, her early death at the age of 39 did not permit her to show her skills in other roles.

In The Pajama Game’s “This Is My Once a Year Day” and, particularly, in “Steam Heat,” we recognize Haney’s immense talents. Dancing with two male dancers, Haney performs the latter number of hissing s’s with the controlled lateral slide and cool frenzy that parallels the lyrics.

Fingers spread and shaking somewhat like a tambourine—a familiar Bob Fosse trope—the three reveal that “steam heat,” even when they pour more cools on the boiler, is not enough to keep them hot. In their jerky motions they uniformly suggest their shivering desperation for love. Lifting their hats up and down, the trio gives the sense of moving train constantly changing in perspective as they slip to right and left. Near the end of this almost jittery dance, the two men collapse, skittering across the floor toward Haney as if they have finally blown their tops or boiled over.

Los Angeles, April 11, 2011

George Abbott and Stanley Donen | Damn Yankees

by Douglas Messerli

George Abbott (screenplay, based on a novel by Douglas Wallop), Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (music and lyrics), George Abbott and Stanley Donen (directors) Damn Yankees / 1958

It is sad that the extremely gifted Gwen Verdon did not get to show her dancing talents in more films. On Broadway, she performed in some of the best dancing roles of her time, including Can-Can, Damn Yankees, Redhead, Sweet Charity, and, later in her life, Chicago. But the former wife of choreographer and dancer Bob Fosse, is absolutely memorable in her role as Lola in the film version of Damn Yankees, even if the film often leaves one with the feeling that something is missing. And her memorable “Whatever Lola Wants” dance and song has to be recognized as one of the great sexual numbers of film history.

There is something absolutely ridiculous about Lola, formerly the ugliest woman in Providence, Rhode Island, whom the Devil has transformed into a Cuban-like trollop, determined to get what she wants from every man she (and the Devil) desires to corrupt. Mock striping, as she dances, Lola writhes over the stolid body of ball player Joe Hardy (hilariously rendered by gay actor Tab Hunter), using his persevering figure as something close to a pole bar against, through, and across which she transverses, attacking him like a bull, waving her black negligee and clicking fanny, to negotiate what she presumes is the inevitable—his abandonment of moral values into absolute lust. The dance is almost an old-fashioned hoochie-coochie, but so sparklingly satiric in its conception that we can only watch in wonderment.

Of course, it doesn’t work: Hardy is in love with his wife, and the actor in love with men. But if ever anyone might have shaken up the opposite sex, it should have been Verdon as Lola; and later, in the lovely song and dance number, “Two Lost Souls”—almost as good as Verdon’s siren song— she nearly succeeds in unfreezing him.

Los Angeles, April 4, 2011

Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise | West Side Story

by Douglas Messerli

Ernest Lehman (screenplay, based on the libretto by Arthur Laurents, conceived by Jerome Robbins), Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise (directors) West Side Story / 1961

I might argue that West Side Story is the best film musical ever made. It's far tougher and thematically more challenging than two other favorites, Singing in the Rain or An American in Paris, and its music, singing, and dancing is at a level that is near impossible to compare.

When I say this, however, I always flinch a bit because the three major actors (Nathalie Wood, Richard Beymer, and Russ Tamblyn) are not up the quality of film overall. Wood is a brittle Maria, even with Marni Nixon's golden voice to back her up; and at moments it is entirely impossible to believe she has even heard of Puerto Rico. Richard Beymer (later an acquaintance of mine) is a handsome lead, but there's something slightly gangly about his performance, and, although he seems, at times, to be a fresh and energetic force, his overall acting is somewhat lethargic and even a bit effeminate. Russ Tamblyn, despite his dancing pedigree, is a tumbler, not a dancer; and his acting is difficult to endure.

For all that, the film is something of a miracle—what with two directors, the imperious Jerome Robbins and the far more accommodating Robert Wise. What tensions there must have been on the set do now show up in the film, from the brilliant opening sequence as we move from a seemingly abstract set of lines to a helicopter-pan of city of Manhattan, before settling down in the deteriorated streets (actually the location of what is now Lincoln Center, which waited its beginning construction until the film had finished shooting), to reveal a neighborhood basketball court, through which the finger-clicking Jets pass on their way to the street where Tony Mordante (Action)—in has to have been one of the most difficult dance maneuvers of all time—releases some of his pent-up energy in a dance move that ultimately effects the entire gang. That sudden transformation from a realistic series of actions to a group of dancing men signifies the powerful pulls of this film between utter realism and theatrical fantasy, which propels this "musical" into a new dimension. Even street-hardened young boys had to admit that Robbins' dancers were different from any other kind of screen-dancing of the day.

West Side Story has a multitude of such wonderful dance moments, but two numbers, in particular, are unforgettable. The first might not have even happened, it appears, if Stephen Sondheim had not been able to convince Robbins to restore the song to its original intentions in the story. Laurents, Bernstein, and Sondheim had originally intended "America" to be what it appears on film, an argument between Bernardo and Anita, between the male dancers and the female, in order to establish relationships that had not been explored in the libretto. In the stage version, however, Robbins saw it as an opportunity for a female dance number, so it was performed by women only, a new character, Rosalia being invented to take over Bernardo's role. A couple of years ago, in Laurents' Broadway revival of the musical, I saw it performed as it had been originally, and it had little of the dynamism and magic of the film version.

"America" spins out of a argument between Anita and Bernardo, quickly moving, with the haunting rhythms of Bernstein's huapango and through Sondheim's witty dialogue, into a battle between the five shark males and their five women. Suddenly Chakiris and two other males switch from their mock-battling antics, into a hand clapping fandago-like movement straight toward the camera, a few minutes later followed by Moreno and her five friends. Shooting from below foot level, the camera watches them on the move horizontally toward it, as if in their kicks and whoops they were a descending oppositional army—and they are! as again and again the two sides move toward one another, before the other breaks up and runs. It is a game, but it also a real war, not only between ideas—a commitment to America and a nostalgic longing for what has been lost—but between presence and absence, faith and defeat, reiterated in the final four last lines of the lyrics:

Bernardo: I think I go back to San Juan.
Anita: I know a boat you can get on. (The women jeer, "bye, bye!")
Bernardo: Everyone there will give big cheer!
Anita: Everyone there will have moved here.

Although Anita and her female companions win out in the battle of wit and dance, absence and defeat will be the substance of the events of the rest of the musical.

The second dance number, "Cool," strangely enough, had a similar transformation from stage to film as "America." In the stage version, the song was almost lost, as it was sung near the end of the first act in the back of Doc's drugstore, as a way to for Riff to defuse the rising tensions of the Jets. Once again, on stage, the dance is unimpressive and almost meaningless, coming so early before the actual battles. Sondheim, so he reports in his voluminous Finishing the Hat, suggested that it be moved to the second act, after the rumble, replacing the more comic post-rumble number, "Gee, Officer Krupke." Robbins declared that he had no time to restage it, particularly since the sets had been determined. Fortunately (although Sondheim still has doubts about his own suggestion), in the film Robbins took the lyricist's advice. Sung, as it is, in a darkened garage with metal-lined low ceiling, the entire number takes on a completely different character, the set and location reinforcing the pent-up emotions of the gang.

Since Riff is now dead in the story, Robbins was able to feature the brilliant dancer Tucker Smith (Ice) as the lead. Tall and rugged, Smith literally towers over the other figures as he pulls them into the garage, demanding that they "get cool." The bright lights of the truck and car headlights against the dark make for a perfect backdrop to the series of leaps, spins, punches, floor crawls, and pirouettes that the Jets perform to the jazz refrains of the saxophone, trumpet, xylophone combo. Mordante and Feld are particularly excellent, but all, including the three female dancers, create a near frenzy of motion before settling into the "cool" frieze at dance's end.

Both of these dance numbers are spectacular, and show what a great choreographer like Robbins can do for a filmed musical. Just as importantly, both numbers still appear fresh and innovative today.

Los Angeles, July 27, 2011

Morton DaCosta | The Music Man

by Douglas Messerli

Meredith Willson and Franklin Lacey (book), Marion Hargrove (screenplay), Morton DaCosta (director) The Music Man / 1962

When I first began this project, I determined I would only include exceptional dancers, and not concern myself with actors carefully trained to make the right moves. But in four films I’ve chosen, although the actors are not natural dancers, the final pieces are so joyful that it would be unfair, and perhaps, unrepresentative not to include them.

The third of these beautifully choreographed works is Oona White’s stunningly performed dance sung to “Marian, the Librarian” by the leads Robert Preston, Shirley Jones, and the chorus in the small River City Library in Iowa.

The moment Preston, as the charming con-man Professor Harold Hill, enters the hallowed space, where “talking out loud” is not allowed, we are utterly entranced by his tender assault on the beautiful librarian. But the question remains, how to get Marian to participate in the event. He threatens to drop a bag of marbles upon the floor, gradually wooing her by his moaning lament with the cleverly outlandish rhymes of “Marian,” “librarian,” and “carrion.”

White’s choreography sweeps up the librarian into dance by employing the entire male chorus as her partner in a long lateral traipse up and down the winding staircase, through the stacks, and into the central reading room, Harold Hill in chase. Peevishness alternates with joy, as little by little, the community envelops Marian into the dance that at its apogee includes a whole library of moving bodies, pandemonium truly breaking loose in the city’s major sanctuary to silence. Whatever lack of dancing skills Preston and Jones may have is totally unapparent given the choruses’ acrobatic prances and taps. Even the film’s marvelous dance number “Shipoopi,” a more standard set dance piece, cannot match the brilliance of this achievement.

Los Angeles, April 12, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Carol Reed | Oliver


Vernon Harris (screenplay, based on the musical by Lionel Bart, loosely adapted from Charles Dickens), Carol Reed (director) Oliver / 1968

The dancing in Oliver, like that of The Music Man, is an example of the coming together of a talented chorus and a gifted choreographer, again Oona White. The almost frenetic dance number, "Consider Yourself," centered upon the youthful talents of Jack Wild playing The Artful Dodger, is something to be remembered in the dance world. But, for me, the far better piece is "You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two," where the young boys, strutting in the awkward poses of White's choreography work together with the light-legged and quick moving Ron Moody as Fagin.

Perhaps, except for Wild, none of these are great dancers, but together their antics create a kind of comic mayhem that relates back to my comments on Groucho Marx, and Mark Lester's seemingly uninhibited laughter is one of the few times that Oliver, the character, comes alive.

Los Angeles, September 9, 2011

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Allan Dwan | Robin Hood

by Douglas Messerli

Douglas Fairbanks (as Elton Thomas) (story), Kenneth Davenport, Edward Knoblock, Alan Dwan, and Lotta Woods (uncredited writers), Alan Dwan (director) Robin Hood / 1922

Far different from the enjoyable 1938 spectacular, The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn, Allan Dwan’s 1922 silent film begins on the eve of Richard’s departure for the Crusades, and establishes a close relationship with the Earl of Huntingdon, later known as Robin Hood, and Richard before King John’s evil attempt at usurping the crown. In the later film, the Earl of Locksley (Robin Hood) has already established his Sherwood Forest group before the film begins, but in the earlier version, a larger portion of the film is devoted to the Earl’s development, including his sexual education. Huntingdon (Douglas Fairbanks) reports that he is “afeared of women,” as they chase the handsome knight, particularly when he out-joust’s Guy of Gisbourne (Paul Dickey). Indeed to escape the flock of pleading women, all desperate to award him their scarves, Huntingdon dives into the castle moat.

Richard (Wallace Beery), in this version is presented as a far more sensual being than is Ian Hunter’s more religious and monkish King in the 1938 version. We witness Richard’s hearty appetite at the very beginning as he launches into a mutton hock; and as the night’s celebrations progress he orders Huntingdon to find himself a woman, an unthinkable command in the later film. Again Huntingdon is bashful, modestly rejecting the women’s attentions until he glimpses Gisbourne stalking Maid Marian Fitzwalter. Springing into action, Huntingdon blocks Gisbourne’s path to her bedroom chamber, and when lauded by Marian (Enid Bennett) for his deed, suddenly finds himself falling in love.

So too is Marian a very different woman in the silent version from the damsel in constant distress in the Michael Curtiz and William Keighley swashbuckler. Here Marian is a stronger being: an artist her draws Huntingdon’s portrait from a silhouette the sun creates against a wall, she is also an outspoken figure, who will later report John’s evil doings to Huntingdon, and even speak out in support of the people of England to John. For her outspokenness John does not simply threaten to imprison her or marry her to Gisbourne, but condemns her to death. With her servant, Marian escapes on horseback, John’s men running in hot pursuit. But when they reach a small cottage, Marian’s companion calls their attention to a cliff, from which, she claims, Marian has fallen to her death. The trick works, and for much of the rest of the film Marian is free, hiding in a nearby nunnery.

Again, unlike the later film, in Dwan’s version Huntingdon joins Richard’s forces en route to the Crusades, and for a long while proves himself as one of the most capable of the King’s soldiers. But when he receives a message from Marian explaining that John has taken over and is brutally taxing and torturing the people, he comprehends that he must return to England, while keeping the facts from his King so that Richard can proceed in his “holy” task.

Huntingdon begs for permission to return, but Richard perceives it to be a cowardly desire, based on Huntingdon’s love. As a traitor, he is locked up in prison, and as Richard moves on, it becomes likely that we will lose our hero before he can accomplish anything, since John has sent along Sir Guy, whose orders are to murder both Richard and Huntingdon. Gisbourne sees to it that Huntingdon is fed nothing and left to starve. Fortunately, our hero is saved by his companion, and can proceed to England, transforming himself into the Sherwood Forest bandit, Robin Hood.

The 1938 film spent a great deal of time establishing the figures of Robin’s merry band of men, but here a multitude of men and women have already retreated to the forest before Robin’s return, and the relationship with him and each other is left vague. Indeed we see only a couple of their encounters with the Sherriff of Nottingham and with John. Dwan and his writer (Douglas Fairbanks himself) focus more intensely upon the two major figures, as Marian is discovered and forcibly returned to the castle for punishment, Robin rushing to her rescue.

Although Robin is a forceful battler, he is not the great swordsman or acrobatic escape-artist that Errol Flynn plays, and for a few minutes it appears that both he and his lover may be trapped. To the rescue, finally, come the army of Robin’s men, including, hidden behind a helmet, the returned Richard himself. John’s evil kingdom has finally come to an end.
I love the 1938 adventure film, but the silent version, in my thinking, is far more intelligent and believable. Despite the silent work’s early claim that it will depict a scene of “legend and chronicle,” its whole method of telling comes down more on the side of history (chronicle) instead of the legend. Certainly the marvelous castle scenes are something whipped up by the Pickford-Fairbanks studio in Hollywood, but the first time we enter the fortress we observe the chain bridge as it opens, falling toward our heads. And with that we recognize instinctually that despite its fantastical beauty, within its vast halls lurks real danger. Indeed, upon witnessing the vastness of the castle, Fairbanks himself must have sensed something fearful, since he was on the verge of cancelling the production. Between that castle and the realistic 12th century village of Nottingham, much of the set designed by Lloyd Wright, lies another version of the truth.

This movie, the first motion picture to have a Hollywood premier, held at Graumann’s Egyptian Theatre on October 18, 1922, was the apogee of Dwan’s notable career, which extended into the late 1950s.

Los Angeles, July 20, 2011