The Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen Musicals
By Mark DuPré
Table of Contents
The Early Films
For Me and My Gal
Living in a Big Way
Take Me Out to the Ball Game
Influence of The Red Shoes
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Words and Music
The Trilogy Years (1949-1955)
On the Town
An American in Paris
Singin’ in the Rain
Invitation to the Dance
Give a Girl a Break
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
Deep in My Heart
It’s Always Fair Weather
The Pajama Game
The Little Prince
Singin’ in the Rain, co-directed by dancer/singer/choreographer/actor/director Gene Kelly and performer/director Stanley Donen, has often been called the greatest of all Hollywood musicals. Usually words such as exuberant, joyful, inventive and smart end up following this appraisal. Yet the judgment is usually expressed as an assessment of its constituent parts, a common approach to both understanding and evaluating musicals.
My perspective is that behind its visual treats is the true reason for its greatness: its integration of song and dance not just into the plot, but into the very fabric of the story and into the film’s structure itself, taking it far beyond any standard exemplification of the integrated musical and bringing the musical into new creative heights.
But Singin’ is not a standalone musical, though it’s often placed, isolated, in chronological lists of the greatest musicals, usually situated directly between An American in Paris and The Band Wagon. While that kind of placement is both necessary and helpful in understanding the film in certain historical contexts, it robs Singin’ of one of its prime identities: that of the high point of the Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen trilogy of On the Town (1949), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and It’s Always Fair Weather (1955).
Looking at these three films together helps us understand the middle film more accurately. But it also opens up new perspectives on what these three films and two directors were wrestling with during this creative period. For one, the concept of the integrated musical may reach its height among the three films in Singin’ in the Rain, but watching the development of integration in all three is fruitful in unexpected ways, including noting the handoff of the Broadway integrated musical of the 1940s into the musical film world, the integrated Broadway musical’s true heir.
On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, and It’s Always Fair Weather also offer a new take on the role of song and dance within the musical. Song and dance in these three films do double- if not triple-duty in their films, and they create resonances that simply don’t exist in most other musicals. It is not just the songs and dances—as delightful as they often are—that set these musicals apart; it is the way the films use song and dance that sets them apart. Dance in particular is elevated and redefined in these musicals, moving from spectacle to power source to an artistic dance partner with film form.
There are other aspects of these films that set them apart. Singin’ in the Rain comes in the middle—and at the artistic apogee–of a trio of films from one of the most complicated and creative directorial teams in film history. These three films are a treasure trove for those viewing cinema through an auteurist lens, as the differing paths the directors took after their last film together is worthy of serious study.
As a reflection of the state of the Union, they grant us a peek into the rise and fall of confidence in post-war America. Perhaps no three “related” films offer such a glimpse into America’s descent into from supreme confidence to self-doubt and cynicism, and perhaps few others reflect that change more in how their songs and dances function.
The Kelly-Donen films are also performers’ films, as the directors were singers (Kelly) and Broadway dancers (both) before coming to Hollywood. The element of performance in these films is markedly different from that found in other musicals, and is a powerful unifying principle that has remained, critically, nearly invisible.
The artistic and historical success of Singin’ in the Rain has provided generations of filmgoers with enjoyment and musical theorists with fodder for every kind of analysis. The downside of all that attention has been a denigration of its predecessor and its successor. These two other films deserve attention on their own, but especially within the context of this time in America’s history, this era of the grand Hollywood musical, and as the fruitful and troubled intersection of the careers of two artists who were similar on paper only.
The three Gene Kelly-Stanley Donen films came at the peak and continued through to the end of the golden age of the Hollywood musical. They represent America at its most self-assured (On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain) as well as reflect its turn toward the ossified and cynical (It’s Always Fair Weather). They were all products of the Freed Unit within M-G-M, the group that produced the most innovative and creative musicals within a studio that majored in musicals. To fully understand their distinctiveness and how they should be understood within the context of the Great American Musicals of the studio era, they must be seen within the context of the other musicals of their time.
The concept of the integrated musical—where the songs and dances advance the storyline or express the emotions of the characters, flowing naturally from the dialogue—had taken hold in film musicals by the time the film version of On the Town arrived in 1949, and was considered the way to a new and better expression of the musical. The concept was first expressed, of course, on the stage. In the U.S., tradition or misunderstanding has it that the stage musical Oklahoma in 1943 was the first modern integrated musical. If we define the integrated musical here loosely as a musical where the songs and dances advance the plot, then we must look much earlier for both film and stage integrated musicals.
For the stage, we can see a high level of integration in Show Boat (1927), or Rose Marie (1924), or even all the way back in 1866 for The Black Crook. In film, we just need to go back four years before Oklahoma for the arguably integrated The Wizard of Oz (the first Freed production, as he was the uncredited associate producer of the film, having a much greater role than that title suggests). Or we could go back even two years before that for Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, which deserves inclusion in the discussion of integrated musicals at the same time as its importance as a full-length animated cartoon is discussed.
Why Oklahoma seems to bear the standard for first integrated musical may have less to do with the high degree of song and dance integration into the plotline as with the unprecedented degree of musical expressions—song and dance—into a new holistic expression. The Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein songs wrapped themselves tightly around the plotline, but the Agnes DeMille choreography was as fully “integrated” as the songs. So the integration had much more to do with the creative elements of the musical–song and dance–than with the simple advancement of plot or character development through lyrics and melody. There was a new synchronous whole here, one that laid down both a template and a gauntlet for subsequent musicals.
Perhaps the first Broadway production to follow closely in Oklahoma’s footsteps was 1944’s On the Town, which also combined song, dance and plot, but with a greater emphasis on dance than perhaps any Broadway musical. Based on 1944’s ballet Fancy Free, created by Jerome Robbins with music by Leonard Bernstein, On the Town brought in director George Abbott and writers Adolf Comden and Betty Green to write the book and song lyrics. Robbins provided the choreography. Noting the resemblance of On the Town to Oklahoma, critic Lewis Nichols in The New York Times wrote:
There can be no mistake about it: On the Town is the freshest and most engaging musical show to come this way since the golden day of Oklahoma! Everything about it is right. It is fast and it is gay, it takes neither itself nor the world too seriously, it has wit. Its dances are well-paced, its players are a pleasure to see, and its music and backgrounds are both fitting and excellent . . . . On the Town is a perfect example of what a well-knit fusion of the respectable arts can provide for the theatre. (Nichols 113)
If the baton was passed from Oklahoma to the 1944 On the Town in terms of its high degree of song/dance/plot integration, it can be argued that it was then passed to Kelly and Donen with their film version of On the Town five years later. Song-and-plot integration continued on the stage with Annie Get Your Gun, The Taming of the Shrew, Finian’s Rainbow and Brigadoon, but it would be left to film, specifically the trio of Kelly-Donen films, to not just continue but intensify and redefine the trend toward integration. (On the stage, the next step of integration of elements would have to wait until 1957’s West Side Story.)
The Kelly-Donen trilogy also offer a look into the development of a kind of dance musical where dance is more than spectacle. Beyond the simple pleasures of enjoying an Ann Miller or Eleanor Powell, dance in the Kelly/Donen films offers more than esthetic gratification. It becomes increasingly interwoven into the progression of the story itself, takes center stage in creating the central couple (ultimately replacing the role of song in performing that constructive duty), and even makes its way into film structure and language. Extending the romantic and sexual connotations of dance in the Astaire/Rogers series, where the push-and-pull of Fred and Ginger’s fine romances found expression in the choreography, the Kelly/Donen films go one better. Dance in these films is power. The trilogy give dance the power to create communities and couples, the power to cover “impossible” spaces and blocks of time, and the power to overcome personal, internal restrictions and challenges. Dance even becomes a kind of song-and-dance partner with the cinematic language of the films, creating a new gestalt that is at least the film equivalent of theater’s groundbreaking artistic fusion in Oklahoma.
Lastly, the Kelly/Donen trilogy is unique in that the two directors were musical performers, a significant factor often overlooked or underappreciated. Until the work of Barbra Streisand (Yentl), and to a degree, Rob Marshall (Chicago, Into the Woods, Mary Poppins Returns), Kelly was the only song-and-dance performer of his stature to direct his own films, and only Bob Fosse (Cabaret, All That Jazz) came closest to inheriting Kelly’s mantle in the dance musical (though the young Fosse was more successful as a choreographer and stage performer than a film dancer). Even musical resurrectionist Damien Chazelle (La La Land, Whiplash, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), was a performer–a jazz drummer–though his most public musical expression was as part of a band and not as an individual. The Kelly/Donen films are, to a great and important extent, performers’ films. A performer’s sensibility permeates the films, adding the joy of their participation to our joy of observation. It is this element that helps unite couples as much if not more than simply having the actors sing harmonies or share dance steps.
The Kelly-Donen films didn’t arrive in a vacuum, of course. While there are certain uniquely shared traits among the three films, they are also a culmination of a number of trends within the American musical, including the rise of the integrated musical and the changing role of dance within the genre. The films were also the result of an unprecedented musical partnership that combined a performer/director at the peak of his creative powers with a young director with a performing history that went on to a respected and successful career of his own. It could be stated that in some respects, the collaboration included one man with a past and another with a future. Both the musical trends leading up to these films and the varied roles played by the two directors need defining to properly understand the musical trilogy and its distinctive place in musical film history.
As we’ll see in more detail later, the two dancer/directors worked on both the numbers and the “straight” scenes, an important component of their films together. The performer mentality in the films is not limited to the musical numbers, but permeates every part of each film. The joy of performing saturates Kelly’s acting performances, and helps to explain Kelly’s specific kind of energy—the energy of an excited performer; what is often called Kelly’s joie-de-vivre is really more of a joie-de-danse-et-chanson. Performance is also at the heart of the two leads’ romantic union, with the call of performer to performer serving as a part of the mating ritual.
Closely related to the question of performance is the use of the musical numbers in the films. There is, at least from On the Town to Singin’ in the Rain, an increasing flexibility toward the interpretations of the numbers. This is due in part to a developing sense of character as performer, and the songs are sometimes used less for what they say than for how they can be performed. Yet that flexibility of interpretation is also due to the three different ways in which each film’s music made its way into the final film.
On the Town was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was based on Fancy Free. Singin’ was based on the song catalog of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, the latter being the head of the legendary Freed Unit at MGM and the producer of the three Kelly/Donen films, the Minnelli films mentioned earlier and other landmark musicals such as Babes in Arms, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, Show Boat and Gigi. It’s Always Fair Weather had music written at the same time as the script, with lyrics by the Singin’ scriptwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Those are three very different pathways to a completed musical, and the distinct origins of each yield a difference in how each film uses music. How the music and dance are used in these films—rather than the greatness of the songs/dances or the quality of the performances—is the under-explored reason for their success and the focus of this book.
For far too long, musicals have been judged according to their constituent parts. Films with good music, or for a season, films that yielded good cast recordings, were determined to be better than ones with inferior music. Or the film with superior dance performances was considered better than the one with less skilled dancers. The Kelly/Donen films demonstrate that the musical can be a gestalt, a geometric mélange of song, film, and dance.
Finally, the three films are not esthetic equals, and understanding why raises a number of issues. These have to do with Kelly himself, the rise of Donen as a “more equal” partner, and perhaps most importantly for the study of the musical, a loss of confidence in certain musical forms combined with an inability to discover newer, more pertinent ones.
In spite of their artistic inequalities, the Kelly/Donen films possess a great unity. Besides the co-directors, the three films also have screenplays by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Because of these similarities of directors and script, dance’s growing power and then loss of it in these films stands out all the more. Watching the evolving role of song and dance sheds light on the understanding of these three collaborations, of course. They can also lead us to a greater knowledge of the development of the musical in the early fifties, shedding new light on the inner workings of the musical in general.
THE EARLY FILMS
For Me and My Gal (1942)
Kelly, even with the constraints of not directing, was already influencing the American musical in a dance direction before his and Donen’s first co-directed film. Kelly, alone and with Donen, had been experimenting with the role of dance in film, carrying it beyond the merely passive, entertaining, or expressive. As far back as his Hollywood debut in For Me and My Gal in 1942, dance was pushed beyond its function as a couple creator, though the singing/dancing pairing of Garland and Kelly may well be the strongest combination in film musical history and is used classically to show the viewer the complete suitability of them as partners.
Even in the title song, the role of performer as added to the dance. Halfway through the number, which could easily have limited itself to being simply enjoyable in its exquisite harmonies and shared dance moves, Kelly’s character changes the dynamic of the number. He moves the two out of the musical conceit of normal folks who happen to sing and dance beautifully and moves his hand in a circular motion, suggesting by the move that he and Garland’s character click into performer mode. After a few steps, he stops her and says, “Remember this one?”, performing a common dance step. She responds, “And this…” and answers him with her own steps. Nearly the entire rest of the number is two performers enjoying performing with one another, including temporarily slowing down the dancing to put over a corny vaudeville joke. They then move back into dance as performance until the last few bars, where the musical harmonies dominate again, and the number is concluded. This kind of dance moves far past the one-dimensional couple creation of an Astaire-Rogers dance to a new level–that of a unity of performers who happen to be moving toward a romantic relationship at the same time, and are experience performance as part of the mating ritual.
Thousands Cheer (1943)
In Thousands Cheer (1943), a wartime M-G-M revue released just one year after his debut in For Me and My Gal, Kelly was developing dance as a more active force. In the “Mop Dance,” Kelly uses an ordinary mop, a couple of brooms, and the diverse elements of a soda fountain as props in his number. Nothing new here; Astaire often did the same thing. Yet where Kelly ended up taking dance in his films indicates that using everyday, familiar props reflected more than his ingenuity as a choreographer; it signaled the beginnings of a relationship between his dance numbers and the world around him.
In her book The Hollywood Musical, Jane Feuer describes the kind of number that uses apparently “handy” items as the bricolage number–using Levi Strauss’ term, meaning “tinkering,” to describe the tendency of pre-scientific cultures to use any easily obtained object for the purpose at hand (Feuer 4). She also refers to this as “environment choreography,” dance that makes use of the elements belonging to the space in which the dance takes place. Yet that description is primarily centripetal and overlooks the centrifugal force that was beginning to be a key characteristic of a Kelly dance lacking a human partner.
Feuer describes such dances in other Kelly films such as Living in a Big Way, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather and Summer Stock, making a keen distinction between his and Astaire’s use of props. Astaire, she says, “appeared to use the prop dance out of a kind of despair—no partner of flesh could match his grace. Kelly made of it a peculiarly American institution, giving bricolage the stamp of good old American inventiveness” (6). The “Americanism” of Kelly will be discussed later.
Feuer is correct that there is a difference between the two kinds of “prop dances,” but what she terms “good old American inventiveness” is actually the conquest of Kelly’s environment through dance. More than just demonstrating a new and inventive way of creating a solo dance, Kelly in Thousands Cheer gives the mops, brooms, and the parts of the soda fountain new functions, with Kelly transforming his setting. Everything is grist for his dancing mill. He doesn’t decide to simply use something at his disposal, but he dominates spaces and items, bursting forth with creative power in the routine. A broom becomes a gun (even one able to kill Hitler). Brooms and soda fountain spigots exist to add appropriate rhythmic sounds to his routine. Kelly doesn’t absorb the space and its contents, as Astaire tended to do; Kelly conquers them, overtaking every corner of the performance area. The energy is not inward, drawing in props to function as a kind of partner, but outward, bringing Kelly’s choreographic energy to bear upon his physical space and all the items within it.
Cover Girl (1944)
Previews of the upcoming Kelly/Donen trilogy begin to arise with 1944’s Cover Girl, a Columbia film directed by King Vidor. This was Kelly’s one and only loan-out, as his creativity in the film made his home studio look at him in a new light and give him more creative freedom. The most famous number historically is the first Kelly/Donen film number, “Alter Ego,” where Kelly’s character Danny dances with himself. It’s also where the Kelly/Donen template begins to form.
Some quick historical background is needed here. Donen was a 16-year-old chorus dancer when he met Kelly in 1940 in Pal Joey, the Broadway musical that made Kelly a star. Donen’s next spot was in Broadway’s Best Foot Forward, which lost its first choreographer, who was replaced by Kelly, still performing in Pal Joey. As Kelly knew Donen from the show in which he was still starring, he asked Donen to be his assistant. While it’s well known that Kelly moved from Pal Joey to Hollywood, it’s less known that Donen got an M-G-M contract of his own, first appearing as a dancer in the film version of Best Foot Forward (1943). He also became assistant to the film’s choreographer, the future director Charles Walters (Good News, Easter Parade, High Society). After small appearances in other films, Donen was approached by Kelly to help with the choreography in Cover Girl.
Because of Kelly’s previous experience as choreographer and Donen’s subsequent career as director, it’s often assumed that Kelly handled the musical numbers and Donen the dialogue scenes. That is apparently not the case. In interviews, neither director indicates that the workload was anything other than completely shared. Kelly describes the process in Singin’ in the Rain: “Stanley Donen and I did the whole movie, the direction and the choreography” (Fordin 309). In another interview, he clarifies his stance:
As a choreographer, Stanley actually did not make up any steps, or enchainments, a dancer’s word for a dance phrase. But his value was just as great as if he had made up half the steps….I thought we complemented each other very well. On the last picture we had together—It’s Always Fair Weather—we were so used to each other, that we didn’t need each other. It was almost dull doing it together . . . But on the other pictures we did—On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain—we were a good team. We were one mind working toward an end (Dialogue 37).
A Donen interview on the same subjects provides a similar response:
We really worked as a team. We didn’t say, ‘I do this and you do that.’ No, not a bit. Even through rehearsing the numbers, when everything would really get complicated, I would be with him. When there was really pressure to get a lot done in terms of rehearsal, I would rehearse in one hall and he would rehearse another number, but then we would switch and I would go supervise his number and he would come and do mine. So it was really a collaboration. There was no question about it (Harvey 5).
Even as late as their last film together, Donen comments that “Gene was in all the numbers, practically, so they were filmed in such a way that we could collaborate on all the dancing” (Johnson 50).
Somewhat like the ballet sequences to come in On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain, the “Alter Ego” number is something of a standalone, not being completely integrated into the storyline. Plot-wise, Danny’s internal struggle about his love Rusty (Rita Hayworth) is logical narratively, but the treatment of the internal conflict, as dazzling and cutting-edge as it is technically, tears at the fabric of the film both in mood and style. With its self-conscious trick photography, it functions more like the “Bojangles of Harlem” number created by Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan for Swing Time (1936), providing a spectacular feat of technical virtuosity for a film while simultaneously isolating that number from the rest of the film.
As would become more and more evident over time, a number’s relative isolation from the rest of the film allowed Kelly to explore aspects of dance that more traditional dance numbers denied him. Perhaps taking a cue from the Astaire/Rogers “hypnotic dance” from the Astaire/Rogers film Carefree (1938), Danny’s alter ego begins the terpsichorean “dialogue” with Danny by mesmerizing him after declaring that “you can’t run away from yourself,” the thinnest of narrative threads on which to hang the number. Unlike with Carefree, the hypnotism isn’t subsumed into the typical musical role of creating the couple, forcing a dance union in spite of one member of the couple’s (Rogers’) resistance. Hypnotism is used to draw out the internal dialogue, the mental and emotional struggle Danny is having about his relationship with Rusty. It forces him to face his conflicting thoughts and externalize them, thereby facing them more directly.
As in the title song of Singin’ in the Rain and several other Kelly-Donen numbers, the set here is a city street late at night. The number begins with Danny’s alter ego (encased in a glass-covered store window) arguing that Danny, if he truly loves Rusty, should let her be with someone with better prospects. Then the alter ego “leaps through” the glass onto the sidewalk, and with a force of power far more dynamic and dangerous than anything Astaire exerted in Carefree, begins to catch the “real” Danny in his grip. Danny’s doppelganger “makes” him repeat a variety of dance steps after him, and even whirls him around like a well-trained puppet on a string. Eventually the two begin to become a pair, enjoying the dance and beginning to conquer space as Kelly did in the mop dance the year before. They leap up on barrels and garbage cans (a precursor to It’s Always Fair Weather?) to extend the performing space. They make it to the top of a staircase leading up to a brownstone apartment, make their way down the stairs, and cross the street (twirling around a lamppost in anticipation of “Singin’ the Rain”). They make their way up a fire escape and their way down via a firepole.
About halfway through the number, in front of the brownstone doorway, the alter ego “re-institutes” the hypnotism with a few waves of his hands, as if to keep the ruse going by reminding the viewer that Danny is still being mesmerized. But at this point, the attempt is pointless and useless, as the two Dannys have become such strong and equal partners that the effect isn’t one of dominance of one character over another, but their dual dominance over their physical space. The street and its buildings are theirs.
To bring the number to a close and reconnect Danny to the main plotline, the real Danny puts the alter ego back behind the glass, and finally “destroys” him by shattering the glass with a garbage can, thereby obliterating the reflection that started things off. The power of dance can apparently be more than expressive of struggle; it can be downright destructive if released and not contained. Dance manifested an intense emotional issue, but the genie wasn’t put back in the bottle without damage, and at the end, Danny walks away, still troubled and as far away from resolution as he was at the beginning of the number.
“Alter Ego” is a remarkably dark one for a musical romance. Filmed as it was in the middle of the Second World War (Cover Girl was released in March 1944), perhaps it reflected the effect of wartime violence on the American psyche, as well as the fear at that time in the war that the victory was nowhere near assured, a feeling that only slowly began to grow after the film came out.
The number also allowed Donen his first cinematic opportunity to explore a more creative and experimental use of the camera, which would become a signature of his future style as a director. Donen claims the idea for the number was his and that director Vidor considered it technically impossible (Silverman 58-60.) Not complicated in concept, but a technical challenge for both dancer and cameraman, the sequence had Kelly dance twice to a prerecorded soundtrack, with the camera hitting the same marks twice as well. Kelly was up to the dancing accuracy, and Donen made sure the camera functioned precisely as Kelly’s invisible dance partner. That partnership continued in much the same way throughout their subsequent films.
Cover Girl also contains another number that looks forward in several ways to all three Kelly/Donen films, “Make Way for Tomorrow.” As in all three films, we have a trio–this time of Danny, Rusty and the asexual Phil Silvers as mutual friend Genius. This looks forward to the trios of all three Kelly-Donen films: the sailors in On the Town (doubled with a trio of women), the three ex-Army buddies of It’s Always Fair Weather, and of course, the Gene Kelly/Donald O’Connor/Debbie Reynolds trio of Singin’ in the Rain. We also have a deli owner serving the three in Cover Girl as a kind of framing device, who is transformed into the bartender who performs the same function in It’s Always Fair Weather.
In some ways, “Make Way for Tomorrow” is a virtual mirror of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. We have a romantic couple and their friend expressing optimism and hope for tomorrow in song and dance. Beginning at the counter of a deli, the Cover Girl trio quickly moves out to the street, again extending control over physical space. Hayworth grabs a breadstick and turns it into a flute, while Kelly snags a small basket and Silvers, a small garbage can, for percussion. Hayworth and Kelly grab oars while Silvers stands on bags, and they simulate rowing a boat. As they continue their celebration, in firm anticipation of the end of “Singin’ in the Rain,” a policeman enters the frame, temporarily putting a halt to the merriment as the trio slinks off and around the corner, as if doing something wrong.
As they resume the singing and dancing while out of sight of the police officer, they continue to dominate their space by climbing up and down a brownstone staircase and by stopping a couple from making out, forcing them into the brownstone door. There’s a quick stop along the way to explore a different style of dance, as the men use a mailbox for percussion and Hayworth begins a dance nod to “Native American movement” that is joined by the two men. As they continue, dance finally influences a human, as they come upon a milkman, who upon seeing them joins them in a well-executed dance. The trio even stops for a moment to give him a solo turn for a few seconds, then releases him as he dances out of frame. The dance curb that figures so prominently in “Singin’ in the Rain” is presaged here as the three move up and down a curb before refocusing their attention on buildings and steps. They help prevent a drunk from falling, and he gets incorporated as the audience surrogate at the end, which provides a segue out of the scene back into the non-performing world of the film. But just when it seems as if the number were completed, Danny notices the policeman, somehow forcing them to quit the revelry and enter the brownstone on whose staircase they ended their dance.
As in “Singin’ in the Rain,” a policeman is given the role of bringing back a harsh reality to a dance, first temporarily halting it, and then ultimately ending it. But coming a full eight years before that number, the arrival of a policeman in Cover Girl can’t be interpreted as a kind of post-war imposition of the kind of civil authority that began to reach its height in the 1950s. It may well be that to Kelly and Donen, the classic authority figure is a classic kill-joy. The milkman is drawn into the dance, coming under the influence of the trio; the policeman isn’t, falling outside the influence of dance. If his actions can’t be interpreted in quite the same light as the policeman from 1952, the policeman at least represents the cold, hard truth that well-intentioned, even exuberant, dance can’t always spread its influence over everyone.
As with “Good Morning” in Singin’ in the Rain, the trio and their performance in “Make Way for Tomorrow” is a team-creation exercise, a solidifying action. With their joy, their energy, their chutzpah, and their confidence, they are poised, if not sure, to succeed in whatever endeavor they choose, much like the Kelly-Donen trios they anticipate. The connections among the three sailors in On the Town, for example, is what holds the first film together emotionally. The Singin’ team is created to overcome every main villain in that film, from Lina Lamont to weak studio producers to the arrival of sound. In It’s Always Fair Weather, it’s the threat to the unity of the three leads that forms the crux of the film’s narrative, and is the main obstacle to overcome.
Clearly, the team concept central to the Kelly/Donen oeuvre is seen in its early stages here in Cover Girl. Danny’s internal struggle and his romantic relationship with Rusty form a great deal of the narrative thrust of the film, yet the basis of our confidence that things will turn out right arises from the strength of the team of Danny, Rusty and Genius. They perform in the same group, yes. They eat together, hoping for pearls in their oysters, yes. But the highest expression of their unity is their performance of “Make Way for Tomorrow,” an expression of unbounded optimism demonstrated not so much by the buoyant lyrics as by their complete conquering of space. Their enthusiastic assurance can’t be contained in the diner, but breaks out onto the street, and then down the street, putting the sidewalks, staircases and apartment building–as well as almost all the people they meet–under their joyous power.
“Put Me to the Test” is an unexceptional dance duet with Kelly and Hayworth, but for two elements. It opens with a fashion show that will repeat in Singin’ in the Rain’s “Beautiful Girl” sequence, though the music of “Put Me to the Test” is a catchy, more modern song than the Singin’ in the Rain sequence, which harkens back (anachronistically) to the early 1930s work of Busby Berkeley. The song takes place within the confines of a clear proscenium arch, tightly containing the movement within the film. (Within the diegesis, the number is a performance before a paying audience). Yet dance still extends its power at the end, where the two dancers seem to possess the power to extinguish the lights one by one on the stage, as if it were in their power to exert this kind of control over their environment.
While hardly unique to the Kelly/Donen canon, the demonstration of artifice in the “shooting of the magazine cover” scene is a precursor to both “You Were Meant for Me” and “Would You?” in Singin’ in the Rain. In Cover Girl, the painstaking and uncomfortable process of making up Rusty’s face and hair is followed by a display of the equipment necessary to create the final cover image: lights, light meters, cameras, filters, plus directions on how to pose. Rusty even ends the sequence with a sighing exhale, indicating the work involved. “You Were Meant for Me” takes the photographic equipment of this scene and replaces it with movie cameras, lighting, and wind machines, while “Would You?” demonstrates the process of dubbing a song, which requires rehearsal, recording, lip-synching and filming.
The technical and creative partnership of Kelly and Donen, first exhibited in the “Alter Ego” number, is clearly one of the reasons for the close relationship between dance and camera in all the films on which they worked together. Donen, always interested in what the camera could do, was still a performer like Kelly, and could track with him, literally and figuratively. Kelly, who became increasingly invested in how his dances were filmed, was stretching toward the technical aspects of filmmaking at this point in his career while Donen was able to integrate his musicality into the photographing of a musical number in a way perhaps unimaginable to an unmusical cinematographer. “Alter Ego”’s number was photographed to enable the hitherto impossible: a man dancing with this superimposed self. The camerawork is completely at the service of creating this see-through doppelganger; in some way, the camera, so closely related to the alter ego’s creation, becomes, for the first time, Kelly’s dance partner.
Cover Girl also marks another step toward Kelly’s development of a new post-Astaire dance-oriented musical. His addition to the film (after it had begun filming) accounts for the energy, life, and highlights of the film. Two Hayworth numbers were filmed before Kelly and Donen arrived. “Sure Thing” is a Gay Nineties number with Hayworth playing her grandmother, also a stage performer. It’s lackadaisical, and looks the type of number that would be lampooned if Singin’ had placed itself 30 years before its time frame. “Poor John” is also a “Hayworth’s grandmother” song, performed with expression by Hayworth but awkwardly choreographed and rather sloppily danced by the male quartet, who appear inexplicably near the end of the number wearing inexplicably odd costumes. Both numbers cry out for Kelly’s energy and precision. Lacking them, they slow the film down considerably and only show by contrast what a refreshing presence he was becoming.
Cover Girl is pushed into the direction of a dance musical by more reasons than Kelly’s exuberant presence and choreography. The vocal end of the film is by far the weaker aspect of the song-and-dance film. Never possessing a strong voice, Kelly was disadvantaged by the absence in this film of M-G-M’s Roger Edens, who knew how to bring out of the best in the studio’s singers, and most certainly would have vocally directed Kelly’s singing in the film. Kelly’s singing is serviceable, but lacks Edens’ sensitive, expressive touch. Hayworth was dubbed throughout by Martha Mears, a radio and film singer who gave singing voices to many a non-singing actress. Mears is a good enough singer to help us believe that Rusty is a singer, but the voice is hardly distinguished. While there are vocal solos for her (“Sure Thing” and “Poor John”), they are the weakest parts of the film. The only other solo performance is a showcase for Silvers called “Who’s Complaining?” which features a barely-there vocal performance by someone whose primarily skills are comedic. What viewers noticed and what we remember from Cover Girl are the dances and the dancers. The Kelly dance musical was becoming defined.
Anchors Aweigh (1945)
The next Kelly/Donen collaboration came with Kelly’s next film, Anchors Aweigh. After Cover Girl, Kelly went back to M-G-M, but Donen’s M-G-M contract expired. Donen was picked up by Columbia, where he had been working on several lesser pictures after Cover Girl, functioning as a musical director and choreographer. Kelly’s next assignment was not with the Freed Unit, but with the other major musical production unit at M-G-M, under Joe Pasternak, a producer of overblown, overstuffed musicals. Quick overviews of the collaboration between Kelly and Donen tend to focus on the famous “Worry Song” sequence in the film, where Kelly danced with an animated Jerry Mouse of Tom and Jerry fame. While that sequence is an example of what their creative and technical partnership would point to, the issues they investigate and express in this part of the film would soon become key concerns for the two and would ultimately come to a full flowering in their trilogy.
Kelly was the choreographer for Anchors Aweigh as well as the co-star (with Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson). At this point, Donen was back at M-G-M, performing a varieties of duties as needed, which generally put him with the Pasternak Unit. Kelly asked Donen to assist him in creating a follow-up to their successful “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl. According to Donen, “The Worry Song” was his idea, inspired by Donen’s memories of Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell films, a silent-film series that pioneered the integration of live action and animation (Silverman 70).
The context of the number is what is most telling for the understanding of how dance is beginning to operate in the Kelly/Donen films. In the story-within-the-film, Kelly plays a sailor who magically stumbles upon a cartoon kingdom where singing and dancing are disallowed because the king (Jerry) believes that he cannot do either. Kelly, still in character as the sailor, says, “You can so sing and dance. Anybody can. Well, not anybody that’s cranky and gloomy and grumpy. But anybody whose heart is big and warm and happy–they can!” With that, Kelly sings a short song of encouragement and teaches the king a few steps, which quickly leads into a two-“man” dance number. The result: the king rescinds his order and music is once again permitted.
The number was Kelly’s and Donen’s to develop, as was the storyline, and reveals a faith and hope in the power of dance that we find throughout most of their collaboration. Not bound by any ties to the film’s story, the tale of music’s release in the cartoon kingdom seems to spring directly from their convictions. A value judgment is given to dance: it’s done wherever people are “big-hearted, warm, and happy.” As an explanation for how dance operates in Kelly’s and Donen’s films, no statement was ever so explicit and precise.
The sequence also demonstrates the pair’s preference for dance over song. The king protests that he can do neither. Kelly insists that he can, and continues his encouragement in song–but just for a moment. Kelly’s miniature song is something like an introduction to many a thirties and forties song that moved into a set of verses, a chorus and perhaps a bridge. Instead, the “song” becomes a dance. “The Worry Song” in actuality becomes “The Worry Dance”–anticipating the song/dance “Singin’ in the Rain” by seven years.
In future films, with Kelly alone or with Donen, dance will release a unifying power that encompasses rooms, town squares, neighborhoods, and even whole cities. It’s in the early stages here, with Kelly simply connecting with and releasing an animated character. But the character is a king, and will, after his time with Kelly, clearly go back to his magical kingdom and release song and dance among his subjects. So music–particularly dance–has released an entire kingdom. In their subsequent films, the same basic story is played out, but dance is broadened in scope and over time is brought into the rest of the world of the film.
The number was a technical triumph, pairing a live Kelly inserted into an animated sequence of Jerry and Kelly dancing. Its technical success and popularity has proven to be a mixed blessing. It solidified the partnership of the two future directors, but that very success has tended to emphasize the technical achievements of the two. Placing a live dancer in an animated sequence and getting the two to dance in synch was admittedly a groundbreaking advance for feature films. But that same advance distracts us critically from their developing musical themes, especially the role of dance.
Kelly’s joy of performing and conquering of space comes to the fore several times in the film outside of “The Worry Song.” In the “Las Chiapanecas,” a dance duet with a dour and subdued child actress, Sharon McManus, Kelly seats his partner down after a few steps together and makes her an audience as he throws down his sailor’s hat and performs around it joyfully. He then approaches an “outdoor” market–this is clearly a studio set–and dominates its space and contents, grabbing pottery and using candles as drumsticks in a manner that seems to set the template for Astaire’s “Shine on Your Shoes” number from The Band Wagon eight years later. Then he and his young partner expand their choreographic dominance to the rest of the town square in moves that look ahead to Kelly’s similar activities in the town square in The Pirate. Once he conquers space and affections, he transforms his partner back to an audience member and performs his goodbye as he exits the scene.
Kelly continues to conquer space and affections with “La Cumparsita,” the tango-inflected solo dance in the dream sequence where he is the Flamenco dancer working to win the heart of Kathryn Grayson’s elegant Spanish señorita. Though most of the number is a combination of Flamenco-like movements combined with more traditional Kelly choreography, the opening and closing of the number has Kelly entering a deliberately artificial town square in what is also a clear homage to Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. in Zorro (1920).
Kelly moves easily within the square, but in a matter of seconds is connected with Grayson, who then becomes his audience for his Spanish-style dancing. Kelly generally stays on the “street” level of the square while performing for Grayson, but eventually begins to make his moves on the entire space. He leaps up on a short wall, almost as if to anticipate his subsequent larger leaps. Three quarters of the way through the number, Kelly realizes he can’t get to Grayson from where he was dancing. He returns to the wall he leapt on earlier, which leads him to a tree, which leads him to a higher wall of the square. He dramatically bounds from one turret to another, mastering the space and erasing any doubt that the spatial barrier between him and the object of his affection can be overcome. He quickly climbs a staircase to the highest part of the wall, grabs a long curtain, and makes a daring leap across the square to the roof on the other side, where he slides–first down the roof, then down a pole, and then into the arms of his love. Dance conquers all–space and resistance to love. Couple creation combines with spatial dominance.
The sequence is perhaps best known for its tribute to Fairbanks, but contains two strong elements that ultimately find their place in the Kelly/Donen oeuvre. Physically, Kelly completely dominates whatever space he steps (or dances, or jumps) on. But this is also a dream sequence, one where Kelly gets to take on the role of who he is internally–a dashing, lusty dancer/swordsman/athlete who in this fantasy can express his deepest affections while demonstrating his worthiness of having those affections returned. This number looks ahead to On the Town’s “A Day in New York” and Singin’ in the Rain’s “You Were Meant for Me,” both of which created a kind of artificial dream or dream-like environment in which to express the most poignant sentiments that Kelly’s cynical characters had trouble expressing in his films’ diegeses.
There are other running Kelly-Donen themes that originate here. Kelly disqualified his character from the military in his first film, For Me and My Gal, and his role as someone who deliberately disqualified himself from service was so unpopular that new scenes had to be inserted to soften his character and make him more patriotic. Kelly’s character is in the Army in Thousands Cheer the next year. Kelly then appears as a sailor in Anchors Aweigh, which will repeat itself in On the Town, and was the intended first identity for his character in It’s Always Fair Weather.
Anchors Aweigh also has a behind-the-scenes sequence that prefigures the “technology revelation” of Singin’ in the Rain’s “You Were Meant for Me.” Susan Abbott (Grayson) is shown in a relative close-up at the beginning of the scene when she performs Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz Serenade.” At first, she could be almost anywhere singing for almost anyone; there is little to no context. Then she visually connects with famed pianist/conductor Jose Iturbi, who plays himself in the film, and there is a cut to him conducting an orchestra. We realize only that this is something of a professional performance, and then the camera begins a reverse tracking shot. It reveals more of the set, but quickly continues moving back to show the film camera and crew recording her. It keeps retreating, this time showing extras, lighting equipment, ladders, and other observers. The next shot is Grayson in a medium shot, performing with the camera following her movements. The listener/viewer is not allowed even an uninterrupted enjoyment of the song, as one of Grayson’s earliest vocal runs ends with a cut to the view from the cinematographer’s perspective, encasing her image in the apparatus. The rest of the sequence is a series of cuts from Grayson to Iturbi conducting to the money men in the sound engineers booth nodding their approval to crewmen having lunch and appreciating the performance high above the set on their scaffolding. We as viewers are never allowed to forget that this is a movie being filmed. Narratively, we see that Susan finally achieves her dream of working with Iturbi, and we assume her film success. The sequence contains little resonance compared to the revelation of technology we find in “You Were Meant for Me.” But as an idea of performance within the revelation of artifice, “Waltz Serenade” may well be the precursor to Kelly’s future work in Singin’ in the Rain.
Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and Living in a Big Way (1947)
Kelly had a small role in the omnibus film Ziegfeld Follies, which paired him with Astaire in “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” a George and Ira Gershwin number chosen to fit the divergent styles of the two dancers. The two were allegedly cautious and courteous with one another, and worked to find a way to align their styles. In a blog called “Musings,” author Sheri Leblanc has an entry entitled “The Great Dance Debate: Fred Astaire vs. Gene Kelly.” In it, she sums up the value of this number, which in spite of the efforts to find a happy choreographic medium, instead finally works to define the two by their differences:
They are thesis and antithesis. Fred Astaire defies gravity; Gene Kelly is earth[bo]und. Astaire is spirit; Kelly flesh. Astaire is the embodiment of grace, Kelly of athleticism. For Astaire, dance is the vertical expression of horizontal feelings for another; for Kelly, it is the expression of self. Astaire made dancing look easy; Kelly made it look like a workout (Leblanc).
Ultimately, the number underscores the completely different styles and goals of the dancers. As a study of the two and their differences, the dance is valuable. As an indicator of what was to come for Kelly, the number is meaningless.
Living in a Big Way was Kelly’s next film, and is a forgettable black-and-white film unremarkable apart from the dances. Something of a bookend to For Me and My Gal, this strained cinematic attempt to combine too many disparate elements finds Kelly as a returning WWII veteran who impulsively marries ‘The Body” Marie McDonald (as Margaud Morgan) before going off to war and even before consummating the marriage. He faces the usual re-entry challenges back into society after the war, but this time with a boorish, nouveau-riche wife expecting a divorce and a quick remarriage to her new fiancé.
According to Donen, he and Kelly were asked to add some musical numbers to a “terrible” movie (Silverman 85). Three sequences were added, and all repeat, vary, or continue to advance their developing themes. As with “The Worry Song” in Anchors Aweigh, Kelly and Donen were free to develop the numbers. Unlike that number, which was unrelated to the plot line, the numbers in Living in a Big Way at least made the attempt to add some value by integrating themselves into the completed film.
The first is a dance duet to “It Had to be You,” whose lyrics gamely try to fight the uphill battle that the two central figures are meant for each other, a central problem with the film. The number is a typical Astaire-Rogers kind of couple creation dance, with more of a ballroom feel than anything athletic. There is nothing new here except perhaps an appreciation for the limited but lovely dancing of McDonald, who has been historically derided for her looks, limited acting skills, and physique, while her singing and dancing skills are barely remembered. In this number at least, she is more graceful with Kelly than the more energetic Hayworth was in Cover Girl. For a film that needs to convince the viewer of the suitability of its two leads to one another, the dance provides a much-needed service by showing their smooth dancing compatibility. As the number was an add-on after the fact, that compatibility has no chance of being developed throughout the rest of the film. It stands alone as a kind of unfulfilled promise upon which the film doesn’t deliver.
There is a certain degree of spatial dominance in the number, as Kelly brings McDonald outdoors, and then makes the most of a multi-tiered patio, extending the dance space to the short walls, stairs and different levels of the ostensible outdoor space. When given the chance, Kelly always seems to be working to exert ownership over his space, and this number, while hewing closer to the duties of couple creation in this number, hints at the other two numbers Kelly and Donen were to add to the film, numbers that use space more dramatically and powerfully.
The next number in the film, “Fido and Me,” is a canine variation on the “Worry Song” dance. This time, Jerry is replaced by a terrier, who as Kelly’s partner is distractingly skilled at staying still, jumping and prancing along with Kelly. Kelly’s work is easy-going and as simple as the “Worry Song”; Kelly was always able to accommodate the limits of his dancing partners, whether human, animal, or animated. As in “The Worry Song,” Kelly begins with a song. His character, in the backyard, is singing to Margaud up in the second floor window. The song is second-rate at best, and Kelly’s vocal performance matches. The sequence comes alive when he leaves the song behind, and his interactions with the dog advance beyond the “come” and “stay” movements of the vocal introduction. The dog stands on his hind legs, jumps over Kelly’s legs and over Kelly himself (with Kelly bending down to allow for the stunt), and even leaps through the circle created by Kelly’s arms.
Instead of appearing primarily as a release of dance power that affects his environment and creates a new dance partner in the process–which the sequence technically does–the sequence is more notable for the skills of the terrier than anything else. Unlike his partnership with Jerry, Kelly has little joyful connection with the dog, and the number is disconnected from (and therefore not influential upon) the non-musical part of the film. It is clearly an afterthought, and an imitative one that pales in comparison to “The Worry Song.” Yet it takes the dominance of space that Kelly and McDonald began in “It Had to be You” and takes it further. The garden is filled with statuary, walls, and various patches of grass and flowers, all completely ruled by Kelly. Now dancing solo, his steps are larger and more energetic than in his earlier duet. The garden is his.
The number changes gear–and loses its supposed audience of Margaud–when Kelly begins to “dance” with a statue. At this point, he has finished his conquering of physical space and seems to direct his dancing powers to bringing the statue to some kind of life through his choreographic interactions. Through sheer drive and vitality, Kelly (at this point completely out of character and in his own mode as performer) makes the statue his partner. He also uses the opportunity to showcase the variety of dancing expressions he can do. One moment, he’s French; the next, Spanish. It’s an independent, expressive solo meant to display the different styles that he can accommodate. Though the sequence closes with a brief acknowledgement that his wife has stopped watching a short time before, the number’s switch from Fido to the statue was the film’s break from being a performance within the diegesis to one for the viewer. We’re not watching the character; we’re enjoying the dancer. It shows Kelly’s interest in synthesizing dance styles, which will find its fullest expression in the trilogy, but contributes little else to the film.
The third number leaves novelty and couple creation behind, and has Kelly conquering space, creating a community of children, and demonstrating the athletic prowess that was such a part of his dance style. Often called the “barnpole” dance, it is the figurative mountain that Kelly conquers spatially in the film. There is a huge half-completed barn, with beams, ladders, flimsy plank walkways, and for an unknown reason, a hula hoop. Kelly leaps, swirls, bounces, taps and even recreates traditional gymnastic moves on the “parallel bars” provided by the half-finished roof. He echoes the leap with the curtain in the dream courtyard sequence in Anchors Aweigh as he bounds from one rooftop to another atop a high ladder over an open space below.
With all this movement, Kelly makes the space his own. No possible hazard, including height, open spaces, dangerous planks and sawhorses, can hold back the power of his dance to conquer the space, horizontally and vertically. As he unifies the space, he also unifies his diegetic audience. This time it’s enthusiastic children, cheering and clapping for him throughout. Unlike his earlier dance with the dog and statue, Kelly makes it clear throughout the number that this is a performance for an audience, and he never loses his connection with them. Once he’s done, they all rush forward in appreciation and a seeming desire to connect with him. Without the rushing crowds, Kelly will repeat this in An American in Paris in “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and with adults in “I Like Myself” in It’s Always Fair Weather.
The Pirate (1948)
Even with the vocal powerhouse (and strong film presence) of a Judy Garland, The Pirate is remembered now more for its robust dance moves than its vocal numbers. Directed by Vincente Minnelli and made a year before On the Town, The Pirate, though a critical and financial failure, allowed Kelly to move dramatically into further exploring the role of dance. Dance becomes an integral element in the creation of the central couple, of course. It is also used here to subdue, unite, and entertain a community of people. And lastly, performance—now including both dance and song—becomes a major aspect of the numbers in two ways. The numbers in The Pirate are performances within the world of the film, and not just for the eyes of the film viewer. One performer relates to another by performing, and it’s all integrated into the plotline. Performance, like dance in Anchors Aweigh, is the dormant force awaiting Kelly’s releasing touch.
“Niña” is Kelly’s first dance in The Pirate, and it establishes the element of performance in the film as well as the role of dance. Kelly plays Serafin, a magician and entertainer, and “Niña” marks his entrance into the Caribbean community. It also serves as a display of his—Serafin’s, not just Kelly’s—abilities as an entertainer. He leaps from balcony to balcony in a style that, like Kelly’s work in Anchors Aweigh, deliberately evokes Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.’s athletic grace and power. As Serafin defies the laws of gravity with his leaps and stunts, he is also taking the town by storm—the storm of dance.
His potential partner in the dance is every “niña,” or little girl, and by the time his dance is over, he has choreographically seduced all the young and beautiful women who have spilled into the town square and onto the balconies. By drawing in the onlookers and “niñas” into his dance, Serafin has ignited the choreographic potential under the town’s surface. It is as if the town had been waiting for someone like him to come along to conjure up its performing spirit.
A number of precedents are established here. Kelly is presented as a performer, an underlying characteristic in many other roles, even those where his character is not a performer. An element of power is also introduced here; through dance, Serafin has been able to put the town under his spell. A connection with magic is made, too–the magic not of illusion, but of persuasion and power. Dance begins to dominate and envelop, and the arena of its power has moved from the detached cartoon world in Anchors Aweigh to the world of the film’s main story itself.
It turns out, however, that there is a person in the town who has not succumbed to the magic. It is Mañuela (Garland). The film’s plot concerns Mañuela’s impending marriage to the fat, older town mayor (Walter Slezak) and the true identity of a pirate called Macoco. But there is a strong subtext concerning Manuela’s resistance to Serafin’s power, and her inability to release her own power. Before being released, she confesses three times, in the beginning moments of her hypnotic trance, that “Underneath this prim exterior, there are depths of emotions and romantic longings.” Mañuela begins “Mack the Black,” releasing her emotions and longing in a nearly frenetic ode to her romantic idol.
But Mañuela’s emotional/romantic release is only part of the story. She is also released as a performer, and a dynamic one. As is often the case with Kelly’s dancing, and is mostly greatly demonstrated in the trilogy, Garland’s dancing draws in those around her, releasing their energy, their lust, and their own role as performers. She takes over space as fully as Kelly has done in his career up to this point. But she creates a community as well–an admiring one, to be sure, but also one drawn into her paean of praise for the hero of her imagination. They don’t just support the main singer/dancer as in other musicals. They get caught in the orgy of emotion and liberation she is experiencing. Dance has created a temporary community, and created a bevy of performers caught up in the same fury as Mañuela. Once longing and emotion have been expressed in song and dance, Mañuela comes out of the trance, and both she and her temporary community return to their normal states. Her inner performer is repressed after she comes out of the trance, but her imagination has been fired.
“Niña” was clearly a demonstration of Seraphin’s/Kelly’s talents, and also sets up Seraphin/Kelly as Mañuela’s/Garland’s musical and complementary equal. As first shown in For Me and My Gal, Kelly and Garland were the ideal musical pair. The Pirate takes that one step further, as the two characters they play here are equals as performers within the diegesis. Seraphin’s power is on the conscious level at this point in the film; Mañuela’s, on the subconscious level. But each, when performing, not only expresses whatever inward dynamic needs expressing (dominant seduction, fierce romantic yearning), but they release a power to pull together a community of fellow performers (at least temporary ones). Other films might have dance draw in a crowd of admirers. Here dance draws in a crowd of participants, all under the spell of the dancer. That forges a unity between Seraphin and Mañnuela that goes far beyond mere mutual romantic interest, or even complementarity in the talents of the actors playing them. Even before we see these two perform together, their shared musical talents and ability to release the power of dance marks them as destined for one another.
That unity is kept even in the most individualistic dance expression in the film, “The Pirate Ballet.” The number is Kelly’s and Minnelli’s most lavish, violent and sexually charged number in the film. Kelly leaps, bounds, twirls, and is even hoisted high atop a masthead. He frees, claims, and releases a woman in a matter of seconds, and uses swords and guns to keep order and render justice. It’s set against a backdrop of Minnelli red, and has the kinds and amount of fires and explosions that Minnelli himself would satirize five years later in The Band Wagon. There is a framing device around the number, however, that at least to some degree continues to connect Seraphin with Mañuela. This entire number is ostensibly a product of Mañuela’s sublimated imagination, and is released in a way that “transforms” Serafin into the coveted pirate Macoco. The number’s colors, camerawork, underlying eroticism, and especially, Kelly’s energetic and often wild performance, serve to pull the sequence out of the film in its strong, singular impact. But the film insists, not quite successfully, that this entire display is part of Mañuela’s subconscious. The viewer is left with a much stronger impression of Seraphin than of Mañuela here, but the film at least attempts to have us see this dream pirate not just as a romantic partner, but a stimulating, performing romantic partner.
According to Clive Hirschhorn in his biography of Kelly, this number was an advancement in his use of space for a dance scene. As he did in the next year’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number in Words and Music, Kelly wanted a low angle shot for “The Pirate Ballet” that was technically impossible because of the size of the camera, which prevented the lens from getting low enough for the angle Kelly apparently wanted. There are low angles throughout the number, but nothing approaching the extreme angles used in “Slaughter.” Perhaps Kelly wanted to keep his whole body in the frame while using a low angle shot without pulling back so far that the dancer got lost in the frame. Kelly apparently worked with the M-G-M camera department to develop a mechanism that extended from the camera and allowed it to shoot down into a mirror and get the angle he was looking for (Hirschhorn 170, 1985). If true, it’s another step on Kelly’s part to find the spatial relationship between dancer and environment that he kept exploring for the next several years.
Hirschhorn also addresses Kelly’s challenges in translating dance from stage to screen. Moving from three dimensions to two created a stasis that Kelly was eager to overcome. According to Hirschhorn, “[W]hat he did in his panning shots, was to place vertical props in the background or even the foreground–the equivalent of, say, telegraph poles…. So, as the camera panned, and the props shots past, one did at least get some feeling of speed and movement (Hirschhorn 169)
The issues of subconscious, sexual longings and imagination aside, this number works to again match Kelly and Garland as a romantic performing couple, even more than “Niña” had. Garland’s freneticism in “Mack the Black” is matched by Kelly’s intense energy in “The Pirate Ballet,” and his dancing skill is on par with Garland’s vocal abilities–the quintessential song-and-dance match. The connection is made even stronger by the orchestral number against which all this feverish choreography is performed: “Mack the Black”.
Finally faced with the reality that Macoco is the fat mayor, Mañuela willingly becomes a partner with Serafin. Released as a performer outside the realms of hypnosis and imagination, Mañuela finally joins him as performer, cementing their unity. Her decision to do so in turn affects the quality of the power he had wielded. Once used for purposes of domination and conquest (“Niña”), that power, joined with Manuela’s power of song, is used to unite and entertain, as exemplified in “Be a Clown,” the final number in which Serafin and Mañuela sing and dance.
Some critics have scratched their heads at such an “odd” ending to a film. But musically and in terms of performance, it is the logical climax. Seraphin/Kelly and Mañuela/Garland had never performed together up until this point. In their only “shared number,” “You Can Do No Wrong,” Seraphin is unconscious. After performing solo, releasing power to perform, and imagining performance, the two, finally and climatically, perform together. Where other similar musicals end with a kiss, an engagement or a marriage, The Pirate ends with a performance. Performance, not romance, is the highest expression of these two characters’ unity.
On one hand, the subtext in the film is the release of imagination, a subtext common to many of Minnelli’s films (Yolanda and the Thief, Ziegfeld Follies, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Yet it is also the story of the dance-power held by Serafin/Kelly, which he summoned choreographically in the “niñas” and invoked vocally from Mañuela. Clearly, Kelly’s performances in this film are more than just contagious; they are provocative. His dancing impacts both the object of his affections and the world around him.
Other associations are made with dance as well in the course of the film. The connections with being “big-hearted, warm and happy” expressed in Anchors Aweigh continue. Those on the side of the protagonist either cooperate with dance (e.g., the “niñas”), are dancers themselves (e.g., the Nicholas Brothers, who team with the protagonist in the first rendition of “Be a Clown”), or complement dance with song (Mañuela). The enemy of the film is the real Macoco (Walter Slezak), the mayor. He is a rotund, lumbering man incapable of graceful or athletic movement. Neither he nor any of his associates ever participate in a dance. The division between protagonist and antagonist is the same one that separates performer from non-performer.
The Pirate gave Kelly unprecedented expressions of dance within a film. Dance releases imagination and emotion, and conjures up performing communities. Performance itself unites the lovers in a bond stronger than simple romantic interest or complementary talents. Mañuela is released and revealed as a partner for Serafin at the same time she is released as a vocal dynamo. Indeed, her ability to perform firmly establishes her as the ultimate partner for Seraphin, and Garland again as the ultimate partner for Kelly. The consummation of the couple’s relationship is also seen in terms of performance. “Be a Clown” is their only performance together, and is as much of a marriage ceremony in the form of song and dance as any scene of the two before the local priest. Dance was taking on a larger role in Kelly’s films, not only comparatively vis-à-vis song, but also in its power and reach.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1948)
In some respects, Take Me Out to the Ball Game is the first Kelly-Donen film. It can easily be seen as a prequel of sorts to their first full collaboration, On the Town. Kelly and Donen hoped to co-direct it, but Kelly’s first director, Busby Berkeley, was given the assignment. Ironically, considering Berkeley’s work on classic and often gargantuan musical numbers at Warners in the early 1930s (42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade), he was hired to only direct the book portion of the film, leaving the many musical numbers to Kelly and Donen.
Yet even his contribution here is questioned. One source said he “took care of the dialogue scenes, finished his job and left” (Fordin 242). Donen’s biography says that Berkeley, “departed Ball Game, which was to mark his final credit as a director, before the picture’s completion, leaving in an almost symbolic passing of the torch, the body of the work to Donen and Kelly” (Silverman 92). Donen has little positive to say of Berkeley’s contributions: “Berkeley turned out to be impossible on the picture. He didn’t know what he was doing. He couldn’t remember anyone’s name . . . . He had no talent by then. It was sad” (Silverman 92). No matter what the details are, it seems clear there was a directing vacuum that Kelly and Donen were only too eager to fill.
Take Me Out to the Ball Game is perhaps best viewed as a trial run for On the Town. Like that film, Ball Game stars Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Jules Munshin, the three leads of On the Town. Sinatra, as he does in On the Town, plays against reality as naïve, old-fashioned and afraid of girls. Like his character in On the Town, his main interest in his travels is to see museums and art shows. In both films, Betty Garrett plays a strong, sexually aggressive woman with her sights set on Sinatra’s character. In both films, Jules Munshin plays the funny third wheel (or fifth, depending on where the film is with couple creation). Kelly, as usual, plays the worldly cynic in both films. Behind the scenes, the lyrics and music were by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Roger Edens, the team that wrote songs (all three writers), scripts (Comden and Green) and associate produced (Edens) all three Kelly-Donen films.
One can notice several future trilogy elements in the first number, the title song, which has been turned from a song into a dance number with Sinatra and Kelly–the first of many songs transformed into dances. It establishes the friendship and performing compatibility of the two, as would “Fit as a Fiddle,” the first dance duet in Singin’ in the Rain with Kelly and Donald O’Connor. As in the latter film, this opening number brings in an element of satire, both vocally and in terms of dance. The deliberate corniness we find in Singin’ in the Rain can be heard here as Kelly soars into a high tenor harmony on the last three words of the chorus: “. . . old ball game.” It’s exaggerated and it leaves “legitimate” musical performance to make a satiric comment on old-time harmonies of the early 20th century. In the same way, the number devolves into a satire of vaudeville with a gently comic increase in tempo (which moves the music from joyful to silly and galloping) and the shift from legitimate hoofing dance steps to broader, more exaggerated moves: kicking one’s partner in the derriere to simply walking back and forth energetically across stage to leaning on one’s arm while kicking one’s legs. The end of the number is over the top, with exaggerated facial expressions and a stage exit that is more razzamatazz than any real choreography. The directors/choreographers and Kelly himself were stretching dance from legitimate to satiric, which would become a minor but consistent element of their future films.
Sinatra and Kelly’s next number, in lyrics and action, is an embarrassment of insensitivity and sexism. “Yes, Indeedy” tells a tale of broken hearts by men proud of the fact, and even gets dark enough to sing about one of those victims so distraught that she commits suicide and is now in “the cold, cold ground.” But as Kelly often demonstrates in the second half of his song-and-dance numbers, he uses the opportunity to incorporate other dances styles into the mix. Halfway through the number, the tempo and tone change drastically as the bouncy song becomes something closely resembling the blues. Kelly continues his satiric approach to song to an exaggerated degree, rasping on the low notes and squealing on the upper tones. The mockery has racist overtones that might be the most uncomfortable part of the song but for the fact that the failed love interest he sings about, being from the South (another insult), is found to be just 11 years old.
Kelly and Sinatra then move into a send-up of spirituals as they begin to close the number. The final lines has them exposed, comically, as liars, which lightens the number to a degree. But the crudeness of the number shows where Kelly et al. might have have gone with their future independence. Edens, Comden and Green weren’t in the league of the Gershwins or Jerome Kern, of course, but in other places showed themselves to be witty and creative with words and lyrics. Here, they embarrass themselves, Kelly, Sinatra, and the entire art form. But brushing away the insulting nature of the words and performances, we still see Kelly working to expand his terpsichorean repertoire. Here he moves into clowning and offensiveness with his departures from a straight performance of hoofing. In this later films, he will move toward more graceful, balletic forms that add elegance and eroticism where there once was buffoonery and crassness. Perhaps they grew up, perhaps there were internal pressures to move away from such silliness, perhaps the presence of Donen as a directing partner made the key difference, or perhaps we have a British ballet film to thank.
The Kelly-Sinatra-Munshin song-and-dance, “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg,” shows a less offensive move into other sounds and dance expressions. Based on a popular poem referring to the Chicago Cubs infield of 1903-1910 (the timeframe of the film) called “Tinkers to Evers to Chance,” the song and its nationalities afford Kelly the opportunity to explore other sounds and rhythms, specifically those Irish and Jewish. The three, but primarily Kelly in front, do a version of an Irish jig while they honor O’Brien (Kelly) and Ryan (Kelly). They shift into a minor key for their tribute to Goldberg (Munshin), and the dance turns into something of a melding of Russian dance and the Horah. Unlike “Yes, Indeedy,” the moves away from classic hoofing or even virtuosic dance are closer to homages to these other forms than to mockery, and are done in good humor and something close to good taste. Kelly, with Donen, will continue to explore the incorporation of other dance forms into their numbers. “Yes, Indeedy,” and to some extent, the rest of Take Me Out to the Ball Game, demonstrates the starting, low point of such incorporation.
Two songs involving Sinatra demonstrate a problem arising from the plot of Ball Game that will be corrected in On the Town. Sinatra, as the “voice” of this musical, gets his romantic solo with the wrong woman. The script has him falling for the Esther Williams character, when every viewer knows from the beginning that she will end up with Kelly. His lovely rendition of “The Right Girl for Me” is beautifully sung, but directed to a unfeeling Williams, and this misdirection makes the song fall flat narratively.
The highlight of the film is the song that gets its couple right: It’s “Fate, Baby, It’s Fate,” sung by Betty Garrett’s aggressive Shirley to a reluctant Ryan (Sinatra). In his biography, Donen claims to have directed this sequence by himself (Silverman 95), which if true demonstrates the maturing of his talents. The movements are appropriate to the words and the scope of the number, and the acting is the strongest within any of the musical numbers. While not a dancer, Garrett moves well, and while not possessing a beautiful voice, is nonetheless an exceptional performer, interpreting and expressing the lyrics with a combination of longing, humor, and insistence. On the Town corrects Ball Game’s mistake by giving Garrett-Sinatra “Come Up to My Place,” a song with essentially the same message as “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate,” but also, importantly, “You’re Awful,” the lovely Sinatra ballad sung to and with Garrett’s character.
“It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” also demonstrates the dominance of dance over physical space that will come to full flower in the trilogy. Garrett chases Sinatra over a great deal of the seating area of their baseball stadium, running up and down steps and owning the space in a way that Donen’s similar number in Damn Yankees! (“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal , M0”) didn’t ten years later. Aside from previewing the conquering of space that we find in On the Town, “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” can also be read as love finally conquering baseball, an underlying theme in the narrative.
The only number that comes close to uniting communities is the Irish-tinted “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day.” It’s the one dance spectacle number in the film. Kelly uses bits and pieces of Irish dance to spice up the number, and even pays terpsichorean tribute to George M. Cohan’s dance style (or James Cagney’s version of Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, or both). But the number exists ultimately as a showcase for Kelly’s talent. The community is “created” only to view, admire, and applaud. There is no attempt to link the dance to anything in the diegesis, and Kelly in truth plays himself here, not the character. It’s a hermetically sealed number, meant only to display the talent of the leading man. In his next three films, Kelly wouldn’t let that happen again; if he wanted to display his talents, he would do so in character or with another dancer.
“Strictly USA” is a huge production number that seems more at home in a Pasternak production at M-G-M than something from the Freed Studio. The lyrics continue the “all-inclusive” aspect of “Yes, Indeedy” and “O’Brien and Ryan to Goldberg” with its references to different geographical parts of America as well as how different cultures say hello. But it almost bears Berkeley’s stamp of great numbers of people moving through a set rather than a choreographed dance. The crowd was the star of those Warners musicals that Berkeley directed, and it’s notable that Kelly never repeated such a group number in the trilogy. Essentially a solo or duet dancer, Kelly was limited enough in his duets with Sinatra, someone who visibly strained to produce a pale imitation of what Kelly was doing when they danced together. Kelly was that much more limited when Munshin, Garrett and especially Williams were added; the best he could do was move them in unison.
The number differs from other group numbers in that the space–a wharf–is not entered and conquered by anyone, but the number opens with everyone already singing and moving around. The melody line moves from person to person and small group to small group in the style of the title sequence in the first minutes of Meet Me in St. Louis five years before where the song moved from one family member to another.
The “dance” in “Strictly USA” consists of little more than easy square dance and hoofing steps. Yet there is an energy here that comes not from the dancing, but from the camerawork. Perhaps significantly, both Meet Me in St. Louis and Take Me Ou to the Ball Game were photographed by George Folsey, and that may account for the tight relationship between movement and camera. Without being frenetic, the camera moves right and left, tracks in and out, and swoops throughout the number. It’s completely wedded to the music, sometimes leading, sometimes responding. “Strictly USA” is unimaginative in terms of its choreography, generic in its message, and only mildly entertaining in its lyrics, but the camera becomes a partner with the dance, and for the first time in a Kelly film, does more than simply record. This, more than any other aspect of Ball Game, was the sign of things to come in creating a unity between dance and camera.
As a finished product, Ball Game functions as more of a rough draft of a Kelly-Donen film than one that bears their stamp. A few facts around the production, however, do add to an understanding of Kelly’s and Donen’s future goals in the trilogy, and to a proper understanding of Kelly’s partners.
The role of performance, so key to understanding The Pirate, is also at the heart of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. According to the short treatment created by Kelly and Donen, “although [the three leads] are the greatest shortstop and second base combination in the major leagues, the guys don’t want to play ball, they want to be entertainers (emphasis mine)” (Fordin 240-241). At its conception, the force uniting the main trio in the film is performance, even more than athletics. The film lacks a Minnelli and a Garland to draw out and demonstrate the deep performing connections found in The Pirate, but the conception of performance as unifier remains alive with Kelly here, develops in On the Town, and reaches its peak in Singin’ in the Rain.
It’s often been noted, often as a criticism, that while Astaire had one main dance partner, Kelly had many, as if he had a stronger individual streak than Astaire. Altman says, “One fact seems immediately striking: unlike other male dancers, Gene Kelly never had a stable female partner with whom he could establish a standard duet style, as Astaire did with Ginger Rogers” (Altman 54). That’s true, but a closer look belies or at least softens that judgment. Yes, Astaire had Rogers for 10 films. But in that time, he also had dozens of solo numbers in those films, including “I Won’t Dance,” “Slap that Bass,” “No Strings, “White Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” and “Shoes with Wings On”. He also danced with Joan Fontaine, Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Petula Clark, Virginia Dale, Vera-Ellen, Lucille Bremer, Rita Hayworth, Nanette Fabray, Paulette Goddard, Betty Hutton, Leslie Caron, Cyd Charisse, Ann Miller, Eleanor Powell, Jane Powell, and of course, Joan Crawford in her early days; and those are just some of the female partners. He had a longer film dancing career than did Kelly (1933-1968), and the 10 films he did with Rogers contained a relatively small percentage of his output. Even his last film with Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway, featured his old dance partner only because Garland wasn’t available.
Kelly, on the other hand, had fewer dance films, and was essentially limited to the 1940s and most of the ‘50s (we’ll consider 1980’s Xanadu a statistical outlier). He began his film career with Judy Garland as a partner in For Me and My Gal, and they made two other films together afterward: The Pirate and Summer Stock. Yet had it not been for Garland’s precarious health or her unreliability, and Kelly’s insistence on playing rough athletic games, the two would have paired up more often. Garland was scheduled for the female lead in Take Me Out to the Ball Game before Esther Williams was cast. Garland and Kelly were scheduled to do Give a Girl a Break (1953), a Stanley Donen film that was eventually cast with Marge and Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds, and Bob Fosse. It was Kelly’s injury that kept him out of another Garland film, Easter Parade, which brought Astaire out of retirement. (They were both in Words and Music (1948), essentially a compendium of Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart numbers, but were never on screen together in the film.) As the ideal musical team of a singer who dances paired with a dancer who sings–and whose voices blend well because of her mezzo-soprano range and power and his tenor range and sweetness (Hirschhorn accurately refers to Kelly’s “light, high, slightly grainy tones”) (192, 1985)–they might easily have been paired more often had Garland possessed Rogers’ stamina, health, and drive.
The possibilities of a larger Garland-Kelly oeuvre must fall into the “we’ll never know” category, but Kelly didn’t eschew a partnership with the leading musical star of the Freed Unit, and it may well have become something of an M-G-M version of Astaire-Rogers. It would have been a different musical animal, of course. Garland couldn’t dance like Rogers, but Rogers couldn’t sing like Garland. The stylistic differences between Astaire and Kelly are significant, too, and a long-standing partnership with Kelly would have looked quite different from the continental grace and charm of Astaire and Rogers. History shows that the intent was there to work together more often, and the fine work of Kelly and Garland in their films together suggests a rich partnership full of undeveloped possibilities. Of course, with Kelly’s move away from song and toward dance as the main musical expression of his films, the partnership might well have disintegrated as a matter of course. Either scenario is conjecture.
Influence of The Red Shoes (1948)
Some of the strongest but least known influences on the Kelly-Donen trilogy seem to have come from 1948’s The Red Shoes, the Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger “high art” film on loving, living for, and dying for ballet. It’s not known exactly when Kelly first viewed the film, which didn’t go into wide release in the U.S. until 1951 (though it had a short release in New York City in October 1948). Producer Arthur Freed, clearly well before the December 1949 release of On the Town, is reputed to have sent a memo to Kelly saying, “I just ran the cut musical numbers of On the Town, and they were the greatest and most inspiring works I have seen since I have been making moving pictures. Pressburger and Powell can’t shine your shoes – red, white or blue. Much love from your proud producer” (Fordin 262).
In Music in the Shadows: Noir Musical Films, author Sheri Chinen Biesen describes the success and initial influence of The Red Shoes, saying, “Not surprisingly, over at Hollywood’s MGM studio, famed musical producer Arthur Freed aimed to surpass The Red Shoes in elaborate musicals such as The Pirate (1948), Words and Music (1948), On the Town (1949), An American in Paris (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), and The Band Wagon (1953)” (Biesen 88). It can’t be determined when Freed first screened The Red Shoes, and it seems speculative to believe its influence was quite that early. While The Pirate was released in mid-1948, it was filmed the year before, finishing production in the fall. Words and Music was released at the end of 1948, but its one “ballet number,” Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” was completed in the summer of 1948, before it had a chance to be influenced by The Red Shoes. Of course, Freed, Kelly and Donen might have either heard about the British film’s production and perhaps had seen an early print, but most of the evidence points to its greatest influence being on first, An American in Paris, secondly, on a few elements of Singin’ in the Rain, and thirdly, in a few early, small ways in On the Town.
It’s a matter of record that Kelly used the success of The Red Shoes to persuade M-G-M to include the closing ballet number in An American in Paris (Connelly 87). But in comparing and contrasting what Kelly and Donen did with their freedom in Take Me Out to the Ball Game with what they accomplished in On the Town, there may well have been a much greater if less specific effect of The Red Shoes on the team. Their freedom with the music numbers in Ball Game resulted in an energetic and rousing, if choreographically unimaginative number in “Strictly USA”; an energetic and athletic non-dance number with “O’Brien to Ryan to Goldberg”; an energetic movement duo in “It’s Fate”; a showcase number for each the two male leads–“The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore upon St. Patrick’s Day” for Kelly and “The Right Girl for Me” for Sinatra–plus the energetic, crude, silly, embarrassing “Yes, Indeedy,” which may have provided a clue to the future direction of their musical numbers.
Whether or not Kelly and Donen saw The Red Shoes or just heard about it before On the Town was filmed, On the Town begins a more serious approach to dance in their partnership. There are moments of playful silliness in On the Town, but they don’t come near the base level of “Yes, Indeedy,” and truth, there are moments of balletic beauty that are new to the partnership. Of course, the sources of On the Town (the Broadway music and its balletic predecessor Fancy Free) provide the framework for those moments, but Kelly and Donen take full advantage of the opportunity to bring the slow and aching beauty of ballet into the film, without compromise or satire. But perhaps the British film’s greatest effect on Kelly and Donen was to direct their concerns and energies away from their own tendencies (or Kelly’s in particular) toward the foolish and instead toward their more serious artistic instincts. Or perhaps the bending toward the serious came from Kelly’s singular work in Words and Music.
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” from Words and Music (1948)
“Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” was one of the nearly two dozen numbers piled onto the whitewashed biography of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, Words and Music (1948). The number was completely divorced from the film’s thin plot, and stands as a supposed stage number in the Berkeley tradition, ostensibly beginning on a stage and developing into a cinematic space within a short time. Originally part of the 1936 stage musical On Your Toes, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” had combined classical ballet with jazz, certainly an attractive synthesis for Kelly. According to Hugh Fordin, Robert Alton choreographed Vera-Ellen while Kelly did his own (Fordin 237) though it’s impossible to imagine there wasn’t a great deal of creative cross-fertilization. As Fordin describes it, the original unusual comedy/serious ballet number was transformed by the Freed Unit’s Roger Edens into “a raw, exciting and sexy dramatic scenario” (237).
Since the number was simply one of many in the film that didn’t need to be connected to the storyline, Kelly was free to explore his interests without the constriction of narrative demands. The choreography is an amalgam of styles that Kelly had been developing over the years. Referring to “Words and Music” and his collaboration with Alton, Kelly said, “My form of dancing? I wouldn’t know what to call it; it’s certainly hybrid, and if you allow the term, it’s bastardized. I’ve borrowed from the modern dance, from the classical, and certainly from the American folk dance–tap dancing, jitterbugging . . .” (238).
It was also the most blatantly sexual number that Kelly had done, including anything in The Pirate. Vera-Ellen gyrates her hips in the beginning as a streetwalker, almost to a comic effect as viewed from today’s perspective. Her skirt is slit to her waist, and she adjusts her stockings and waist in an obviously provocative way. We’re then introduced to Kelly on a bed, dressed in tight pants and shirt, and is presented as her choreographic and sexual equal. The imagery is often blatant, as Vera-Ellen rides up and down a pole against her back, with her hand on the pole itself. They flirt through their dancing with her kicking a bare leg high while Kelly splays his legs, emphasizing his legs and torso. He draws her into his jazz steps while she draws him into her hip swirls, and they become a pair.
In the second part of the number, they enter a dive as a couple, and begin to display their newly aligned styles on the dance floor, exuding sexuality and abandon, anticipating the ballet in Singin’ in the Rain. An old boyfriend tries to steal her away, and Kelly kicks him away, which is where the number gains another similarity to the trilogy. According to Fordin, Freed’s approach to the numbers was to have them performed in a theatrical space, and “the camera would be the eye of the audience” (235).
The number up to this point has been filmed from that perspective, but also from a generic mid-shot distance that showcased the two individuals and then the couple. But when Kelly kicks the boyfriend, the camera comes close to the ground in a way that energizes the movement of the man across the floor and puts his head close to the camera. At this point, we hear a whistle and anticipate the arrival of the police, who enter shortly thereafter. The shot of their entrance is a slight low-angle shot that becomes more pronounced as it moves to a tighter shot of Kelly looking up at both him and the staircase they came in on.
Once the police leave, the riotous dancing resumes, and we think that the previous shots have been as formalistic as the number is going to get. But Kelly was apparently leading up to a visual as well as choreographic climax. Per Fordin:
After conferring with his brilliant cameraman Harry Stradling, [Kelly] went to Freed. “I asked Arthur to let us use a 28-millimeter lens and place the camera into a pit on the bottom of the staircase as Vera-Ellen falls down, hit by a bullet, landing very close to the camera, which would distort her face” (238).
The gun goes off when the two dancers finish a time of joyous dancing together and make their way to the top of the stairs. The former boyfriend aims his gun at Kelly, but Vera-Ellen steps in the way and takes the hit, falling down the stairs and ending up with her head close to the camera, out of focus and at the bottom of the frame. The rest of her body, especially her knee, lay on the ascending stairs, pushing into the middle of the frame. For its time, it’s a strikingly oblique shot more associated with film noir than a musical.
It’s the shot most remembered from the number, and is by far the most unusual in the sequence, but it was not a stand-alone shot. The low angle shots done earlier prepared the viewer visually, and the filmmakers continued using it after the dramatic staircase shot. When Kelly and the old boyfriend spar, Kelly throws a chair towards the camera in a shot that’s nearly identical to the shot where Kelly had kicked the boyfriend toward the camera, an angle that remains through the rest of the fight until Kelly is shot. As the wounded Kelly carries Vera-Ellen to the top of the staircase and their mutual demise, the camera rises above them and the sequence concludes with a reverse tracking shot that restores the theatrical setting and perspective. It’s clear that that famous oblique shot was not isolated, but was part of a cinematographic plan to capture the movement and add energy.
Like “Strictly USA” in Take Me Out to the Ball Game, there is a kind of marriage in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” between camera and choreography. In the earlier number, the camera partnered with, rather than simply recorded, the movements and lyrics of the various performers who shared a line or two. In “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” the cinematography went one further, providing energy and depth (low angle shots) as well as the drama of the oblique angle of Vera-Ellen’s death on the staircase. Donen, with his technical assistance to Kelly in the 1940s (e.g., Anchors Aweigh, Cover Girl) and his later solo work in mind, is often considered the innovator of the two in capturing dance on film in more imaginative ways. But here, Kelly is the innovator, experimenting with perspective and adding power, depth and drama to his dance. In his next film, his first as co-director with Donen, Kelly had to place his dances and their cinematic treatment within a narrative context. But “Slaughter” seems to have freed his imagination in terms of dance and camera, and he brought some of those ideas into his and Donen’s version of On the Town
THE TRILOGY YEARS (1949-1955)
On the Town (1949)
On the Town began life as Fancy Free in 1944, a Jerome Robbins ballet with music by Leonard Bernstein. Its success led to its reincarnation as a standard Broadway musical. Betty Comden and Adolph Green supplied the book and Bernstein the score for the Broadway musical On the Town, which debuted in December 1944. Robbins choreographed the show and kept the balletic heart of the original Fancy Free. By the time the play was filmed in 1949 by Kelly and Donen, the pattern had been established: dance first, songs added later. With that in place, two other elements entered at the filmmaking stage that more specifically defined the role of dance in these three films.
The first element was casting. The original sailors in the ballet and play had been innocents. According to Green, “With Gene as the leading character and the star of the picture, the angle of the story had to be changed. He couldn’t be a helpless, naïve type. The whole structure of the story had to be changed to suit the people who were going to play the characters” (Fordin 259) Kelly’s character, Gabey, was thus changed from a passive one to an active one—a watershed moment.
The other element was the switch from stage to film, from the proscenium to the great outdoors. In the two stage versions of the piece, dance was spatially contained by the proscenium arch, creating a world defined choreographically. In this world, everyone danced, and meaning and story were expressed through movement. When the musical was “opened up” in the film version, more changed than moving the action outdoors or to a sound stage; the role of dance changed as well.
On the Town is usually best remembered as one of the first musicals to use real locations, though only some of the exteriors were shot in New York City. Yet that move from stage to city did far more than open up the stage-bound activities. It freed the piece from the conventions of ballet, where everyone—or nearly so—was a dancer. Dance was reinterpreted, with new values and specific associations, even new responsibilities.
Considered dynamically, dance normally undergoes one of two different transformations on its way to the screen. The more common occurrence is that the stage choreography implodes into discrete bits called musical numbers, the “spectacle” portion of a musical. But dance can also be treated differently. It can be rearranged, parceled out to some and not to others, and given values not possible in a stage world. Kelly and Donen took dance in this latter direction.
The scope of the influence of dance is enlarged with On the Town in as much the same way that The Pirate enlarged it over its role in Anchors Aweigh. The setting has moved from a Caribbean port to New York City, where three sailors (Kelly, Sinatra and Munshin) are on a 24-hour leave from the Navy. The conflicts in the plot also serve to increase the scope of dance’s power. In The Pirate, the primary conflict pitted the dancing Serafin against the fat, slow-moving mayor. The subtext involved Manuela’s resistance to Serafin’s power of performance, her gradual release in the imagination, and her eventual submission to that power, catalyzing her release as a performer.
On the Town places the sailors in New York for one day, and pits them against the limits of time (24 hours), space (How much ground can they cover in that short period of time?) and energy (Can they race from here to there, find companions, form meaningful relationships, see all the sights, help Gabey find his dream girl Miss Turnstiles, and still have enough get-up-and-go to face the next day’s work on ship?) The power play changes from the domination of a small, Caribbean city and a woman to the conquest of the country’s largest city and the limits of time and space. And it’s all done through dance.
The film opens with a set of long shots of New York, placing the film in the real world. After the establishing shots, the film stays outdoors at the dock, finally settling on a medium long shot of a longshoreman singing the song snippet, “I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet.” This places the number in both traditional and nontraditional settings. The basic musical conceit of ever-ready song and dance (with unseen accompaniment) had been a staple since the arrival of sound. But where other films may have begun the music after placing the performer in a studio version of the setting, On the Town keeps the realistic setting and places performance inside the real world–and not a “realistic” set, but the very familiar setting of the country’s largest city. From the first scene, the filmmakers are placing musical performance against the backdrop of the real world, in effect placing the as yet unseen power of song and dance inside the viewer’s reality. That power is released in its fullness in the next number.
“New York, New York” is the first number performed by the sailors, musically exploding as they spring off their ship in eager anticipation of a free 24 hours in Manhattan. The number has much the same function as “Niña” in The Pirate. Instead of conquering every corner of the town square, “New York, New York” takes the sailors all over the city, from atop the Woolworth Building to Chinatown to Grant’s Tomb to Central Park and more. Anyone even remotely acquainted with the city would be able to see the physical impossibility of visiting all these places in the time allotted. It is the number that allows them to cover the area. Through their song and dance the men are able to “take the city.” The words encompass the city geographically (“The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down . . . from Yonkers on down to the bay . . .”), but the song, the sailor’s movement (the equivalent of dance), and the quick cutting from place to place demonstrate a kind of domination of the entire space–even one as large as New York. The music has a strong, galloping beat, and the sailors are almost never still, moving in and out of frame quickly on their own power or other means, such as cabs, subways, boats and even horses. The film has Chip (Sinatra) insisting on spending all their time at the usual tourist venues, but the film has them seeing more in a few hours than dedicated tourists can manage in a week.
The reality of the setting puts dance in a slightly different context than it was in The Pirate, however. While “Niña” was performed in the town square, the square was obviously a set. In the hands of Minnelli, a former stage designer, it became a highly designed and theatrical setting. Kelly and Donen’s interest took another direction. The world that dance conquers in On the Town would be as close to the real world of the spectator as possible. Their intention before filming was to shoot everything on location. That request was denied by M-G-M, but in the short time they were allowed to shoot in New York, they were able to capture enough footage to create a number in which the real city was shown. Their vision was dance and its effect on the real world.
Rick Altman notes the energy and connection between dance and environment. He notes that “throughout [the film] the camera dances, making New York obey its rhythm rather than vice-versa. The camera does not record New York, it animates it” (Altman 280). We could take this a few steps further. What Altman refers to as the camera is more accurately the duo of camera and dance/movement. That expressive partnership would grow in power and depths of meaning here and especially in Singin’ in the Rain.
Richard Dyer had a similar observation. He saw a distinction between On the Town and what Kelly had done in The Pirate:
In most musicals, the narrative represents things as they are, to be escaped from. But most of the narrative of On the Town is about the transformation [emphasis mine] of New York into utopia. The sailors release the social frustrations of the women—a tired taxi driver just coming off shift, a hard-up dancer reduced to belly-dancing to pay for ballet lessons, a woman with a sexual appetite that is deemed improper—not so much through love and sex as through energy (28).
This transformation of the city begins with the conquering of space in this first number. After that first step of dominance, it’s simply an extension of that power from the great outdoors into the lives of the city’s residents.
That first number and “Come Up to My Place” were the only numbers (apart from the the few sung lines that opened the film) retained from the original Broadway production. Edens and Comden and Green were tasked with writing more commercial, less “high-brow” numbers for the film. This provided a serious weakening of the score from a perspective of the quality of each song. But these lesser songs provided a great deal more flexibility than a Bernstein score could have provided, giving the directors and performers more leeway in how they interpreted those songs. Instead of the songs standing alone in their beauty, complexity, or sophistication, as would have been the case with “Carried Away” or “I Can Cook Too,” the new numbers could be more easily used as vehicles for the growing emphasis on dance over song. There would have been given no thought to reinterpreting a Bernstein score, but an Edens score could be melded into a new song/dance/film unity. (Ironically, the change to a more can-do personality for Kelly’s character from a more passive–and thoughtful, sensitive one–may well have been one of the reasons for dropping “Lonely Town” and “Lucky to Be Me.” Combined into one song, it might have become something akin to “I Like Myself,” which fit the sad and brittle Kelly character in It’s Always Fair Weather. America’s turn toward a certain cynicism and the slight souring of the Kelly persona by 1955 might have made those two songs from On the Town a good fit six years after they were dropped for the film version.)
Once the city as a single entity has been conquered in the first number, the sailors go down into it as the three meet their partners, releasing the choreographic potential onto some of the city’s constituent parts. The legal injunctions of the cartoon kingdom (Anchors Aweigh) and Mañuela’s personal inhibitions (The Pirate) are replaced here by a variety of individual and social restrictions. Claire (Ann Miller) is a scientist and is temporarily repressed. Ivy (Vera Ellen) is shy and attempting to cover a socially embarrassing employment predicament; studying ballet, she is forced to make a living as an exotic dancer. Brunhilde (Betty Garrett) is the exception to the rule: she has no apparent problem except an unrestrained id, and spends the entire film pursuing Chip.
Dyer notes the particular way the men affect the women in the film: “The sailors release the social frustrations of the women…not so much through love and sex as through energy” (28). The energy that Dyer and other critics point to in Kelly’s work (and which is often credited with being the active force in so many of his films) is not so much energy per se as it is the gusto with which he attempts to change the world around him through performance, most often expressed in dance. Kelly is not trying to bring simple energy to bear upon his circumstances and those of others; he is working hard at conjuring up a spirit of dance, both in himself and from beneath the surface of the world around him.
Martin Sutton comes close to expressing this in “Patterns of Meaning in the Musical”:
Open space in the musical is the most expressive of media–it gives the body room to move and, through this, the mind to expand. Neutral space is charged with vital meaning by the dancer’s movement, it is encompassed by the individual or couple and becomes transformed into another world (their world)…(emphasis mine.) The transmutation of objects, of the quotidian, is achieved by sheer force of imagination in the protagonists (192-193).
Perhaps better substitutions for the word “imagination” here would be “the power of dance” or even “performance.” The world that Kelly’s dancing creates is a world of performance, and more specifically with On the Town, a dancer’s world. Kelly is certainly one of the most energetic dancers ever to appear in cinema, especially in comparison to Astaire’s more contained and elegant style. Comparisons between the two are simultaneously unfair to the two of them and helpful to the rest of us.
Leo Braudy, the writer most associated with the concept of energy in the musical, moves beyond the difference in style to focus on the all-important difference in intention:
The energy that Astaire defines within a theatrical and socially formal framework Kelly takes outside, into a world somewhat more “real” (that is, similar to the world of the audience) and therefore more recalcitrant…. Astaire may mock social forms for their rigidity, but Kelly tries to explode them… Kelly dances on streets, on the roofs of cars, on tables, in general bringing the power of dance to bear on a world that would ordinarily seem to exclude it…. far from taking refuge in theater, [Kelly] wants to make theater take over daily life …[he] wants to galvanize a community of nondancers as well . . . . Kelly and his partners are often amateurs, but everyone they meet knows the steps to their dances and the words to their songs” (Braudy 148-149).
Such classical musical personalities as Mickey Rooney, Eleanor Powell, James Cagney (especially in Yankee Doodle Dandy) and Betty Hutton are tremendously energetic, but it’s only Kelly who consistently draws out the dance in the world around him. On the Town is no exception in using song and dance to create couples, but the film’s emphasis is specifically focused on the power of dance to bring about love and connection. Yet this isn’t an M-G-M/Kelly version of Astaire and Rogers; On the Town doesn’t simply feature couples falling into well-rehearsed dances that forge relationships and entertain the film viewers. Dance is drawn to the surface and released in the partners, and as in Mañuela’s “Mack the Black,” the element of shared performance expresses an even stronger suitability as partners. This is particularly evident in the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” and “Prehistoric Man.”
The “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” does not occur in the diegesis, but in Gabey’s imagination. The sailors note a poster of the “Miss Turnstiles” of the month displayed in a subway car. Ivy Smith is described on the poster in terms that demonstrate her talents and varied interests. As Gabey gazes longingly at Ivy’s picture, moans, “She’s wonderful,” and begins to read about her, the film switches to a world of imagination. As he continues to read, Ivy is seen in an undefined space, performing routines that demonstrate those qualities and characteristics that Gabey is listing, foreshadowing Lise Bouvier’s (Leslie Caron) introduction two years later in An American in Paris.
The woman does everything: she appreciates the Armed Forces (“She goes out with the Army, but her heart belongs to the Navy”), is a home-loving girl who is just as comfortable in “high society’s world,” studies painting and dance at Symphonic Hall, and is a frail, flowerlike girl, but “Oh, boy, what an athlete!” Ivy is seen in ballet attire, formal dress, casual clothing and athletic outfits. The last part of the number consists of a sports-inspired set of routines with Ivy dancing out games of football and boxing.
While the number demonstrates Ivy’s breadth of talent, it just as obviously demonstrates Vera-Ellen’s skills. Ivy is already shown as a partner for Gabey through his evident interest in her poster. But the Kelly persona demands a partner with a range and energy to match his. By going outside of the diegetic world, Kelly and Donen can exhibit a range of different dance styles that demonstrate the performer’s skill in a way nearly impossible to show in a number in the diegesis. Through a display of her varied skills, especially in athletic choreography, the directors are able to pair Vera-Ellen the performer with Kelly the performer. Having their characters hail from the same hometown (which they discover later) is one happy thing; being choreographic equals seals the deal. The central couple is thus created in part through allusions to the persona of the performer playing the lead.
This is a sea change. Earlier compatibilities were demonstrated by complementing Kelly, not mirroring him. Garland’s demonstration came vocally, which made for a more complete musical balance. Both Kelly and Garland could sing and dance, but their strengths obviously lay in different areas. “Be a Clown,” their one number together in The Pirate, showed the strengths and limitations of each. The number was both a song and a dance, but the steps were limited and simple compared to those in a typical Kelly number. Vocally, however, Garland carries the number; even though both are singing, Kelly’s voice is weaker and softer. Once Kelly assumed the mantle of director, however, his dance partners became more like him. They were dancers, not singers, and their talents encompassed a wide range of dance styles, from ballet to Kelly’s own brand of athletic dance.
Once established as a suitable partner for Gabey, Ivy continues to be defined in terms of dance as her relationship with him progresses. Their one dance in the diegetic world of the film is “Main Street,” which occurs after Gabey has scoured New York and located Ivy in Symphonic Hall. In the course of their conversation, Ivy discovers that Gabey is from her hometown of Meadowville, Indiana. Maintaining the illusion that she is a New York sophisticate, Ivy conceals her own origins, but still accepts a date with Gabey. “Main Street” confirms and strengthens the budding relationship. Lyrically, the song evokes scenes from daily life in Meadowville, where life is slower, friendlier and simpler. Musically, the number reflects the lyrics with its own gentle lines and shuffling rhythms. The choreography is generally slow and easy, with no daring leaps, no long and expressive balletic lines, no agitated short steps—a dance equivalent to the gentleness of their shared Midwest memories.
Yet there is a telling moment in the dance when the two share just a few steps of tap, look at one another with a quick smile, and then resume the slower dance. It’s if the two had suddenly taken a step back, noticed what they were doing (the taps), mutually taken enjoyment from it, and then just as quickly gone “back to work.” In the context of the dance and the status of the new relationship, the smile seems out of place; it is the smile of two familiar performers rather than two characters. That moment of intimacy has no foundation in the narrative, but can only be understood as the joy shared by performers. It’s not so abrupt as to break the characterizations, but it adds a dimension of performance to the relationship, as well as a dimension of performer to the characters. The joy of performance continues throughout the number, especially as they move into the broader steps of the second half of the number. Even though they separate physically to execute the moves, their shared and evident joy is in their performing. It’s this joy more than any other aspect of their growing unity, even the fact that they are from the same hometown, that unites the two and creates the couple.
Performance plays an even larger role in creating the Claire-Ozzie (Miller-Munshin) couple. Claire is initially presented as a lovely but repressed woman whose wild libido is sublimated through anthropological studies. Her number, “Prehistoric Man,” functions on several levels (while simultaneously satisfying musical comedy tradition by showcasing Miller’s prodigious talents as the second dancing lead in the film).
The number functions narratively and as a performance—and the points are related. The number is a dazzling display of Miller’s skills for the spectator, but is played as an equally dazzling display of Claire’s talent for the other characters. Beginning as a solo, the number eventually draws in the others as back-up dancers. When the dance is finished, there is an enthusiastic response of appreciation from the others, with Brunhilde (Garrett) giving her a hearty, congratulatory shake. Brunhilde had been suspicious of Claire and her motivations, especially vis-à-vis Ozzie, and the handshake expresses both acceptance and respect for her performance.
In terms of plot, the pause for appreciation is short-lived. Ozzie reacts to her performance with the others, and in his excitement, accidentally knocks down the dinosaur skeleton behind him, sending it to the ground and setting up the grand chase that figures in the rest of the film. It’s a good example of integrating dance into the narrative, but a curious one given that dance had previously been presented as a creative force. A dinosaur skeleton could stand for history, antiquity, outmoded actions or thinking, or even the status quo. Its demolition turns dance into a force inciting revolution, albeit accidental, involved as much in tearing down as in building up. The number could also be interpreted as representing the darker side of dance, with free expression that is effectively destructive, echoing . Or as a cigar is sometimes just a cigar, this plot point may be no more than that.
By contrast, this kind of performance plays no part in the creation of the third couple, Chip and Brunhilde. Brunhilde has few inhibitions, and is the aggressor in the relationship; she doesn’t need a release—by the hand of dance or anything else. Their relationship is expressed and advanced in two sequences. Brunhilde from the outset has been attempting to lure Chip to her apartment. “Come Up to My Place” is a comic duet, almost more screeched than sung, and finally seduces Chip away from his sightseeing agenda. Later, after realizing that his insistence on playing the tourist is threatening his relationship with Brunhilde, Chip throws away his guidebook and sings the ironic love song, “You’re Awful (Nice to Be With).” Both numbers are completely integrated into the narrative, with the singing presented as naturally as speech. There is no recognition of either of the songs as performance outside the world of the film. Song apparently has the traditional musical powers of couple creation, but has no influence beyond that.
Once the three couples are created, dance again sends them down into the city in the same way that “New York, New York” had dispatched the three sailors. The musical number “On the Town” begins on top of the Empire State Building, providing a similar overview of the city provided by “New York, New York.” It’s sung and danced by all six main characters, and sends them down the elevator to the street level, and out into the city night. In terms of story, the number launches them upon a new round of adventures. In terms of couple development, the number establishes the group as three sets of partners for the evening, and the partners as a united group; a small community has been built.
Like the earlier numbers that helped create the couples—”Main Street” and “Prehistoric Man,” “On the Town” furthers the characters as performers for one another. Much of the number consists of the men performing for the women, and then the women responding by performing themselves. The sailors do a mock tribute to Navy life, followed by a mock song of sympathy from the women. Each group uses the other as audience before the final group chorus.
The next number, the “Day in New York Ballet,” has several tasks in the film. Couple creation continues, though it’s not developed as the plot of the ballet is essentially a recapitulation of the narrative up to that point. Performance becomes more explicit and actually overrides narrative. It also functions as well as a kind of repository for the kinds of expressive dance that Kelly and Donen would only put in a non-diegetic sequence at this point in their collaboration. It’s this last point that must be understood to see how the ballet communicates the situation of the central couple, and how performance is favored over plot. The ballet is a wordless dance with long, slow movements, with a substitution of all the main players, except for Kelly and Vera-Ellen, with trained classical dancers. This had occurred on the stage with Oklahoma!, but was first done on film here. (The film version of Oklahoma! was released in 1955.).
The number recounts the basic plot points, but spends a disproportionate amount of time expressing the love relationship between Gabey and Ivy. If “Main Street” began to unite Gabey and Ivy through experience and geography, “A Day in New York” solidifies their relationship through performance. Whether dancing slowly and classically by themselves, or energetically with the other four dancers, Gabey and Ivy are a perfect chorographic match. The number especially stands in strong contrast to the previous comic number, “You Can Count on Me,” which pairs Gabey and Lucy so awkwardly they could never conceivably be a couple. Gabey and Ivy, however, are a near-perfect match no matter what the style.
The expressions of deeply felt love and passion that were never part of the diegetic world are contained in the romantic pas de deux of the ballet. While Gabey was disappointed when Ivy had to leave him in the diegetic world of the film, that moment was lighter in tone. Here in the ballet, with near slow motion movements and a wailing instrumental in the background, that moment is played close to grand tragedy, with the yearning and longing of Gabey set in relief. The sequence contains the more rarified, exquisite emotions not expressed in the film’s storyline. Narratively, the number adds nothing new; emotionally, it paints a rainbow.
Donen was apparently not in favor of either this ballet or the subsequent one in Singin’ in the Rain. He later expressed strong opinions about them both:
They (the ballet sequences) were never an integral part; that’s their problem. I don’t think they are even now—I never thought they were. I’d like to take them out of the pictures. I wish they weren’t there. The one in Singin’ in the Rain is actually less objectional (sic) because it has less phoney pretension about it than the one in On the Town. They both feel like something added to me, but the one in Singin’ in the Rain is less sort of horseshit. And it’s helped by the fact that it’s done with some humour. We always knew we were going to have to do something and we never knew quite what. It’s true of every sequence; some of them just came out better. First of all, if they had been shorter they would have been less of an intrusion. It’s because they are so heavy, in length, that they feel something of a wart” (Hillier 32).
According to Hirschhorn, “Gene regard[ed] the substitution of the two dancers as the least successful element in the film” (79-80). While Donen seems more concerned here with structure (a trait particularly recognizable in his solo work, especially Two for the Road), Kelly was seeing something entirely different in these ballet sequences. What Kelly was concerned with appears to have had to do with his being a performer, plus a specific aspect of his personality that manifested itself in dance. As a performer, Kelly was aware of the myriad of expressions available to him. If as a director Kelly could not put these expressions in the diegetic world of his films, then he could at least create a world in which these expressions could be presented. Kelly’s cynical persona may have worked against the expression of such sensitive emotions in the narrative, and may well have been out of place in the equally cynical screenplays of Comden and Green. The movement out of the story’s space and time was Kelly’s choice.
Kelly also seems to have had a synthesizing aspect to his personality that endeavored to incorporate as many kinds of dance as possible; he wanted to explore all the possibilities, a long-term trait. As early as the summer of 1939, when Kelly was working with Comden and Green in their act “The Revuers,” Kelly was finding ways in which to include all forms of dance. His act with them has been described as follows:
… [It consisted of] a series of satirical take-offs on how various types of dancers would negotiate a tap-dance. He demonstrated how, for example, a ballet dancer might approach some basic hoofing; or how a ‘flash’ dancer might cope with an elementary time step; or how the “personality” girls would handle a single tap-dance . . . The big finish to his act was a highly effective combination of dance and acrobatics as he sprang across the floor bouncing on the palms of his hands, with his legs stretched out behind him (Hirschhorn 79-80).
Seeing the potential of ballet expressively, he may have incorporated it simply because “it was there.”
A similar expression of ballet, though on a much smaller scale, occurs in “Prehistoric Man.” Claire/Miller does a tap en pointe for a few seconds. She also has a moment in the number where she sits and executes a rapid series of steps on tiptoe, simulating en pointe. Here there are no emotional attachments to a prospective partner. These are a choreographic reference to another dance style. The steps are saying that the dancer is capable of a broader and more elegant range than is currently being demonstrated; she is merely choosing not to show it. It is Miller’s equivalent of Kelly’s dance with “The Revuers,” and indicates that Kelly, as the choreographer, was still very much the synthesizing spirit.
“Main Street,” “Prehistoric Man,” and “On the Town” involve characters dancing before other characters. In numbers favoring the vocals, we find the same sense of performance, which also affects how those numbers are interpreted. Except for “Come Up to My Place,” a holdover from the Broadway show, the numbers emphasizing vocals were written by Roger Edens (with lyrics by Comden and Green). Edens’ contributions to On the Town were numbers featuring voice over dance, with the one exception of “Prehistoric Man,” which would obviously feature Miller’s dancing more than her voice. His other songs in the film include “On the Town,” “You’re Awful,” “You Can Count on Me,” “That’s All There is, Folks,” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea.”
“You’re Awful” is the love song uniting Chip and Brunhilde. It is technically a duet, but Sinatra, possessing the stronger voice, sings melody to Garrett’s soft harmony, not unlike Grace Kelly with Bing Crosby’s more well known True Love in High Society. As stated before, the element of performance before the other character isn’t here. The sequence provides Sinatra his showcase as “Prehistoric Man” gave Miller hers.
Once they have moved away from the vocal showcase for Sinatra, however, the directors begin to express some flexibility toward the music in the numbers favoring vocals. Performance now takes on the form of comic interpretation, both in song and dance. In “You Can Count on Me,” for example, the characters—including Lucy Schmeeler (Alice Pearce), Gabey’s unattractive substitute for Ivy—are trying to cheer up Gabey after Ivy leaves him. The lyrics themselves are sufficient to get the point across. They consistently reiterate the group’s support of Gabey and their loyalty to him. Gabey is also invited into the clowning dance routines that accompany the song—another example of the creation, or here, the re-establishment, of the community through dance. But it is neither the words nor the dance that finally brings Gabey back into the fold. It’s Lucy Schmeeler’s performance.
All the other characters have sung before Lucy, and while the words are humorous, the singers stick to the melody line and allow the quality of their voices to come through. Lucy clearly has a comic role in the film, and Pearce possesses a definite comic talent. Yet in theatrical circles she’d be called a comic actress who sings and moves well; she can carry a tune and move expressively, but could not legitimately be called either a singer or dancer. When Lucy performs, she makes no pretense at being able to sing or dance as well as the others. She energetically tears into the vocal line with full throated timbre breaks, the kind of catch-in-the-throat sound marking internal vocal changes that any singer would otherwise work hard to cover over. Pearce’s trademark, a screaming, almost witch-like “Ha-HA,” is made part of the interpretation, doing violence to any semblance of continuity in the vocal line. The dance also turns parodic, with Lucy grabbing Gabey and leading him in an exaggerated tango. It is her performance rather than her words that finally brings Gabey out of his mood and back into the group. As Claire’s performance of “Prehistoric Man” was integrated into the plot by demonstrating Claire’s acceptability to the group and indirectly causing the downfall of the dinosaur, so it’s Lucy’s performance that drives the narrative forward here.
So far in the film, dancing before other characters has been expressed skillfully, demonstrating the range of the performers’ talents. The performance element of song has not yet existed up to this number, aside from the straightforward (and traditional) delivery by Sinatra and Garrett in “You’re Awful.” When it finally appears, it displays an extremely flexible attitude toward the structure of the vocal line and the traditional rules of good vocalization. “You Can Count on Me” also provides the film’s first example of parodic dancing, with exaggerated gestures and a near-total lack of technique. Kelly and Donen apparently allow satiric choreography, but only within the context of a comically sung number. Two other numbers reflect the same treatment.
“That’s All There Is, Folks” is sung three times in the film, each time by a different chorus line in the various nightclubs the three couples attend. Each time, it provides the exit line and is sung as the chorus girls, out of sync with one another and grinding their heels in the most awkward way possible, conclude the evening’s performance. The vocals are done with little enthusiasm, and the last lines end with an abrupt instrumental “sting,” indicating a flippant attitude toward the entire endeavor. The couples also demonstrate a marked decrease in their own appreciation of the performances, as they applaud less with each subsequent viewing as their level of boredom increases.
The performances are a running gag on the similarity among all second-rate musical performances; hence the sloppiness of song and dance. The three-part musical parody here also foreshadows its similar use in the “Broadway Rhythm” ballet of Singin’ in the Rain, where the crudeness of the Columbia Burlesque number (only a snippet, “When I hear that happy beat, feel like dancin’ down the street . . .” is heard) develops into the relatively more sophisticated Palace Vaudeville presentation and ultimately to its final, supposedly elegant, Ziegfeld Follies expression–all three of which are presented as equally foolish.
The most dramatic example of flexibility toward song structure and good choreography comes with “Pearl of the Persian Sea,” the number Ivy performs on Coney Island where she is discovered by the sailors and the two other women. Ivy has presented her work as a kind of necessary evil; she continually attempts to cover up her job, and pleads with her dance teacher not to tell her parents about it. The film makes it clear we are not supposed to endorse or enjoy Ivy’s predicament. The music she is dancing to has a thin and pallid arrangement, and it is dragging its tempo mercilessly. Her dance is equally as ludicrous; she is bent over almost completely backwards when Gabey discovers her.
When lyrics are finally put to the music, they don’t come from the so-called “professionals,” but from the mouths of the three sailors in harem outfits. The sense of comedy obliterates all attempts to understand the lyrics, the pinched falsetto voices of the singers rendering the words all but incomprehensible. Finally, the wild chase scene going on around them reduces the song to little more than a melody and set of words on which to hang the final comic climax. No musical respect at all is rendered the lyrics or vocal line.
It appears that in the context of a badly performed song, Kelly and Donen will allow badly performed dance. In “You Can Count on Me,” Lucy’s comic performance was integrated into the narrative by bringing Gabey back into the community of fellowship. “That’s All There is, Folks” is a structurally integrated running gag, and “Pearl of the Persian Sea” is almost tossed aside as a musical piece in the tidal wave of comic activity both in the performance and the activity around it. Well-performed dance is acceptable at any time, but badly performed dance, apparently, only in a comedy context.
Where dance is not performed humorously, it is so respected as performance within the film that it begins to act as a pivot point for changes in film structure. “New York, New York” and to a lesser extent, “On the Town,” present evidence of the interplay between dance and film form seen in embryonic form earlier in “Strictly USA” in Take Me Out to the Ball Game and Words and Music’s “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”. Referring specifically to “New York, New York,” Kelly remembers the editing rhythms:
We did a lot of quick cutting—we’d be on the top of Radio City and then on the bottom—we’d cut from Mulberry Street to Third Avenue –and so the dissolve went out of style. This was one of the things that changed the history of musicals more than anything (Fordin 269).
After becoming accustomed to the rapid cutting patterns of more modern musical films and television shows, it’s easy to forget that the norm for dance musicals in terms of filming the performance back then was the Astaire dance, photographed to allow a continuous head-to-toe viewing by the spectator. “New York, New York” is filled with high and low camera angles, rapid cuts and shots only a few seconds long, and a few rapid pans that convey a sense of dizzying exhilaration and speed. Kelly and Donen allow the cinematic treatment of the dance, in addition to the dance itself, to operate upon the spectator; dance goes from simply creating couples and communities to affecting the very way it is presented in the film. “On the Town,” which functions in a similar fashion narratively to “New York, New York,” also contains the same kinds of quick cuts and pans. Dance has broken away from simply being presented directly to the viewer to partnering with the film in how it’s being presented, dynamically affecting cinematic language while it creates couples and conquers space.
On the Town defined and developed the role of dance beyond its functions in The Pirate. Dance was removed from its context of magic, hypnosis, imagination, and theatrical setting, and placed in as real and contemporaneous a world as the directors were allowed to create. It retained its ability to create communities, but the scope of its power was enlarged, breaking out of its limited expression in Anchors Aweigh and The Pirate to transform the biggest city in the country. The personal and political conflicts in which dance became expressively involved in The Pirate grew to more universal concerns in On the Town; dance helped overcome both time and space.
Creation of the couple/s increasingly became a series of events involving dance alone, and not song and dance. Two out of the three couples in On the Town were created choreographically. Kelly’s partner under his and Donen’s direction was defined in terms of dance and became his equivalent, or in a sense, his reflection, instead of the complement that Garland was. The element of performance remained from the earlier films, and became even stronger, in that the characters were no longer all performers, as they were in The Pirate. Only Ivy was a performer by profession in On the Town, yet many of the numbers, especially “Prehistoric Man,” “On the Town,” and “You Can Count on Me,” were performed for the other characters as much as for the spectator.
Integral to the importance of performance is the willingness to compromise vocal lines and rhythms in such comic numbers as “You Can Count on Me” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea.” This is an integration of music into the film that uses, rather than showcases, the music. It is a tendency that will reach its height in Singin’ in the Rain. Similarly, the affecting of film form by the music, as seen in “New York, New York,” will play an even greater role in the directors’ next film.
Two different expressions of dance are held in a kind of suspension in On the Town. There is the outward, extroverted dimension, in which dance conquers space and time, and is able to create couples and communities. There is also the dance of performance, of dance within the film, which is not directly presented to the spectator, but to the characters in the film. In the next two Kelly-centered films, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, these two kinds of dance begin to separate. But first, there was a favor to return.
Summer Stock (1950)
Summer Stock is an often forgotten or easily dismissed film that is best remembered as Judy Garland’s final film for M-G-M. If Kelly, her co-star, is remembered at all, it is as the now-successful star who was talked into the film as a favor for the woman who helped his entrance into film eight years earlier in For Me and My Gal. Yet even in placing himself in service to Garland personally and in support of her career, he managed to continue his exploration of dance as power.
The film was conceived as a grown-up version of the “let’s put on a show” films that Garland and Mickey Rooney had done a decade earlier; in fact, Rooney was the purported first choice for male lead before his dwindling box-office appeal proved the deciding factor in replacing him with Kelly. Its concept was decidedly yesteryear, the story is hackneyed, and the direction was by Charles Walters, a talented but not particularly innovative director. Last but not least, this was a Joe Pasternak production and not an Arthur Freed production, so the energy and creativity of the Freed Unit wasn’t a factor.
The element of performance, however, was at the center of the plot, as the narrative had to do with a summer stock company finding a place to rehearse, and then, putting a show together. At a point, that show becomes dependent on Garland’s character’s ability to become a performer herself. Thus, the release of Garland romantically and in terms of performance ultimately becomes the real story of the film, echoing the Garland-Kelly dynamic in The Pirate.
The reason that Kelly was able to exert his influence on that plot line is that while Nick Castle is listed as the dance director, Kelly choreographed several of the numbers–the group number “Dig-Dig-Dig Dig for Your Dinner,” his solo number with the newspaper, and the romantic/performance numbers with Garland. The “Dig-Dig-Dig” number is a community-building song-and-dance that echoes the barn-pole dance with the children in Living in a Big Way and anticipates “By Strauss” in An American in Paris. All three numbers create communities–with children, with the performers at the farm, and with the other male leads and the café servers and customers. With the children in Living in a Big Way, Kelly related strongly to his diegetic audience, performing for them and uniting them in appreciation of his talents. In An American in Paris, Kelly will draw in both real performers within the diegetic world and those in the café who are not performers by calling, turning everyone into a singer and dancer, with a heard-but-barely-seen audience united in appreciation for the performance.
Here in Summer Stock, the acting troupe needs to be encouraged to help with chores. Kelly and his Cover Girl co-star Phil Silvers begin the number with slapstick comedy, but the emphasis soon moves to a vocal inventory of chores necessary to keep the farm going. At that point, the vocals take a back seat to dance as Kelly moves from instruction and encouragement to solo performing. A few members of the troupe dance with him in the earlier simple steps, but the number eventually becomes spectacle, with the group uniting as vocal background and ultimately as impressed spectators. He has created a community in two ways–catalyzing them first to perform their duties on the farm, and secondly, to unite in appreciation of his talents. Kelly will go back and forth in centralizing himself as the object of appreciation in the next few years, and the degree of applause for his efforts will vary as well. Here he strikes a fairly equal balance between a group energized and motivated to work for their room and board, and one reminded of their leader’s skill.
The solo number, the famous newspaper-in-the-barn sequence, is actually a dance set to an instrumental rendition of “You, Wonderful, You,” which had been an earlier number with Garland. It is more of a novelty number, with little outward, expressive choreographic power. Kelly owns the space of the barn, but limits himself to a relatively small area on the floor and a few stairs. His only other domination is over the newspaper, which he tears in half, then halves those pieces, and then halves them again. It’s as if his quiet supportive role in the making of the film extends to his solo number, which demonstrates his abilities while keeping the dance expressions drastically contained. The classic structure of the film, the goal of everyone around Garland to keep her going, and the lack of input Kelly had in the direction of the film all seemed to conspire to keep this number subtle, in check, and soothing rather than brash, outwardly expressive and stirring. The one connection with Kelly’s future work here is his whistling introduction of the song, followed by a whistling close–a first cousin to the opening and closing of the title song in Singin’ in the Rain.
The initial use of “You, Wonderful You” is where the Kelly/Garland romance begins. But first, Garland has to be shown to be a performer worthy of Kelly (and capable of contributing to the theatrical troupe). The number is “Portland Fancy,” a hoedown barn dance with the troupe. Joe (Kelly) tries to bring in Jane (Garland) as a dancing partner, but she is initially put off by the energy and movements of the other dancers. Yet quickly it becomes a competition with Joe daring Jane to match his dance moves, which she does until he gets too complicated, at which point she gives up the contest and joyfully settles into becoming his partner. At this point, Jane matches him move for move, demonstrating heretofore unknown terpsichorean talents. There is no romance suggested at this point, but in the context of the musical, it’s only a matter of time. What is settled at this point in the film is that Joe and Jane have performance in common, a required element for the plot and a foundation for a romance with Kelly and whatever partner he finds himself paired with in a film.
“You, Wonderful You” falls thematically alongside the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet” in On the Town and the upcoming introduction to Lise in An American in Paris, where Leslie Caron is presented as the well-rounded and talented equal to Kelly. These two sequences are outside the diegetic worlds of their films, where “Portland Fancy” is squarely inside, but the intent is the same: to present the female half of the couple as the worthy performing partner to Kelly’s character, the better to unite the characters and form a foundation for romance. More than that, Jane’s breakthrough is from hesitance on the dance floor to exuberant enjoyment of performing. The competition, like the hypnosis in The Pirate, has worked to overcome Jane’s resistance, and has released her as a performer.
At this point in Summer Stock, Jane has been presented as a talented performer in her own right, but not yet the other half of the Joe-Jane couple. They are each assumed to be attached to others. The couple creation, built upon the equality of Jane and Joe as performers, comes with the first use of “You, Wonderful, You” (before the instrumental version over the newspaper number with Kelly). Now that she has proven her talents in “Portland Fancy,” Joe is trying to explain to the supposedly non-theatrical Jane how things are done to create a couple on the stage. Giving some kind of rationale (which isn’t explained) for the existence of the entire musical genre, Joe tells Jane, “If a boy tells a girl that he loves her, he just doesn’t say it–he sings it.” Then he gives her an example of how it works.
In true classical fashion, Garland joins Kelly near the end vocally. But throughout the number, Kelly also draws Garland into a series of dance steps. She’s sitting down at first, listening to him sing. His first move is to cause her to stand for a moment, then sit down again. Then Kelly explains that the next step in showing the growing relationship of a couple in a show is dancing together. Garland slowly begins to work with him as a dance partner, first with small movements, then with movements that mirror Kelly’s, showing once again her performing abilities. For a few moments, the dance goes from show business performance to romantic slow-dancing as the number moves from a demonstration of what’s done on the stage to an expression of what’s beginning to grow in the heart of the characters. The song ends with a kiss–not between two troupe members acting as lovers, but a heartfelt kiss between the two characters. The couple has been firmly created, with a solid basis in their mutually compatible performing talents.
As a support for Garland and working under a director and producer simply as a performer, Kelly was necessarily limited in experimenting with dance as power in Summer Stock. The goals of dance are quite limited here as compared to The Pirate and especially On the Town–creating the small community of actors, creating the couple and releasing the performing abilities of the female half of that couple. Almost as if this film were the calm before the storm, or the buildup before the release, Kelly was poised to release the power of dance in unprecedented and explosive ways with his next film, An American in Paris.
Royal Wedding (1951)
Donen, in the meantime, had been assigned to Royal Wedding, after changes in leading ladies and directors. This was his first solo effort at direction, and he was being paired with Fred Astaire, a dancer who had his own celebrated history of presenting dance before a camera, and which bore little to no resemblance to Kelly’s increasing vision. The story, inspired by the upcoming wedding of Britain’s (then-)Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip, but more specifically based on Astaire’s early performing history on the stage with his sister Adele, is a trifle. With a concept, script, cast and score into which Donen had no input, it is only the numbers themselves that would demonstrate in which direction that Donen would take dance. Compared to his earlier work with Kelly, the numbers here are generally contained and/or focused on spectacle, with one great technical exception.
“Ev’ry Night at Seven” is the number that introduces us at the start of the film to the equality of the two central performers. There is no eventual discovery of talent, or releasing of dance here, and certainly no couple creation. Tom and Ellen Bowen (Astaire and Jane Powell) are a successful song-and-dance brother-and-sister team, and this straightforward stage performance demonstrates that. It is unimaginatively shot from a general audience perspective, with one cutaway to the audience toward the end of the number, and a backward tracking shot at the close that reminds us that we’ve been watching a stage performance. Though it moves more closely and farther away from the performers throughout, the camera never deviates from the general perspective of an audience member. The only possible connection with any of his work with Kelly is the first appearance of Astaire in a large throne, that, coupled with his depressed-looking attitude, bears a strong resemblance to the first animated shot of Jerry Mouse as the king in “The King Who Couldn’t Sing or Dance” sequence in Anchors Aweigh.
The bookend to the number is the film’s last, “I Left My Hat in Haiti,” which features the same two performers and the same general camera treatment, except for the addition of a chorus of singers and dancers, and one jump of the camera to the middle of the action halfway through of the number. The moving camera follows the action more closely on stage at that point, and threatens to integrate itself with the action, creating something new. But it returns to the stage audience POV a minute and a half later, and aside from a few tracking shots in and out of the action, maintains that perspective to the end of the number.
“Sunday Jumps” is Astaire’s famous number with the coatrack. It’s decidedly a demonstration of his ability to dance with anyone, or anything, as it’s commonly been viewed. That perspective, in fact, reflects the main differences in how he and Kelly use their space and props, and therefore, how they use dance itself. Astaire draws the energy of the dance back into himself, using props as partners or to give evidence of how easily he can incorporate items in a space. His energy is centripetal, contained within the space, and generally, the frame. As a first-time solo director, Donen may not have had a great deal of leeway in how he presented the musical numbers. But it seems that Astaire’s interest in keeping the energy and dynamism of his musical numbers within the frame in his numbers in this film is something not only found throughout Royal Wedding, but in much of Donen’s subsequent work. Kelly tends to own and dominate his spaces; Astaire demonstrates his ability to use elements found in the space as a kind of partner.
“Open Your Eyes” has the main brother-sister couple dancing again for an audience, this time on a ship. The number is aimed in some sense at Peter Lawford’s character, the man who would eventually sweep Powell’s character off her feet. It’s performed in a ship’s ballroom. Its only distinguishing feature is its simulation of a rolling boat, which has the brother and sister working diligently to maintain their balance while a variety of items from oranges to a drum to a couch roll across the inclining floor. The comedy of the rolling dance floor is the only distinctive element of the dance, as it features simple generic ballroom dance moves that present Powell’s graceful but limited dance abilities and that Astaire could have done in his sleep.
According to Fordin, Donen and art director Jack Smith found a boat-rocking device on the back lot, and choreographed the number to work with the back-and-forth of a hydraulic lift (Fordin 302). As in Cover Girl’s “Alter Ego,” we find Donen solving technical problems that involve new ways of showcasing dance–in that earlier film, with intensity, and here in Royal Wedding, with humor. The effect in both numbers is a colorful containment of dance, a showcasing that can add depth or comedy, but which nevertheless keeps it held, both in the frame and within the diegetic world of the film.
“How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life” is essentially a more energetic follow-up to Easter Parade’s “A Couple of Swells,” a comparison that would have been more obvious had Garland, as was the case for a short while, been paired in this film with Astaire. As in that number, Astaire is humorously slumming dance-wise here, which, like “Open Your Eyes,” has comedy rather than dance itself as its central performing element. (Powell plays a wisecracking dame trying to catch the two-timing Astaire by holding him to promises he had no intention of keeping.)
“The Happiest Day of My Life” and “Too Late Now” are vocal numbers both sung by Powell to a stiff and still Lawford. Both are unimaginatively shot, with the camera following the limited moves of Powell.
By far the most famous, and most telling number in terms of Donen’s approach to dance, is “You’re All the World to Me,” the well-known “dancing on the ceiling” number. According to Fordin, “For the past three pictures, Astaire had been after Freed to let him do a number in which he would be dancing on the walls and the ceiling. Freed found the right spot for the number and turned the song over to Astaire” (Fordin 301). As with “Open Your Eyes,” the challenge was a technical one. And as with that number and “Alter Ego,” the effect was to contain, to an unprecedented degree, the power of dance within a single room. Fordin’s description shows the technical similarity to that number, as he describes the creation of a cube-shaped room set into a kind of giant barrel, with the camera operator strapped onto an ironing board, rotating with the set as the number was filmed. Highlighting Donen’s technical finesse, Fordin notes that “Donen had laid out the number so methodically that it took him only half a day to shoot it” (303).
On one level, this number adds to Astaire’s reputation for being able to do anything as a dancer, and that he was, indeed, lighter than air at times. Within the context of Donen’s dance numbers, however, it highlights Donen’s work as a dance technician eager to explore how dance can be filmed within the frame, as opposed to Kelly’s growing desire to explore dance as power that affects the world outside of it.
An American in Paris (1951)
The centrifugal, explosive dimension of dance developing in Kelly’s dancing and choreography reaches its peak in An American in Paris. At this point, Kelly, with director Vincente Minnelli, had almost completely subordinated song to dance. Such audacity—with a music book by George and Ira Gershwin!
In On the Town, two numbers, “New York, New York” and “On the Town,” established the pattern of dance creating communities and extending its scope of expression. Both numbers began with a group of people literally at the top of the city. The songs united the groups and then sent them down into the city, first to find companions, and then to “paint the town red.”
An American in Paris sets up a similar pattern, with four numbers also using a large city as their setting. As with On the Town, Kelly wanted to shoot the film on location in Paris. But this was not his film to direct, and Paris was created on the studio lot (Fordin 309).Staged in a real setting or not, dance’s reach into the city was as unmistakable and dynamic as in On the Town.
The first “number” isn’t really a number at all. It’s a bit of choreographed movement detailing Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) in his early morning routine. Jerry arises from bed and gets his breakfast–a simple bit of action. Hirshhorn in his description of the number focuses on the confined space and the machines necessary to make life easier:
The idea behind the scene was to show Gene living in so confined a space that the only way he could cope with his physical restrictions was by inventing a series of mechanical contrivances (such as his bed sliding upwards at the tug of a rope, or a makeshift table appearing from behind a door), in order to make life more comfortable and smoother running. The idea crops up in numerous silent comedy shorts, but the challenge for Gene was to do the scene in one take, for otherwise it would look phoney; and in order to achieve this, had to choreograph the sequence. He did, however receive an invaluable piece of advice from Minnelli, who told him to play the scene as if he were under water” (Hirschhorn 304).
Seen in context with his growing use of dance as power, however, the focus should be less on the machinery than the dominance over his physical space. Kelly performs the sequence as a silky-smooth dance routine, with doors opening and closing, the bed being hoisted up and put out of the way, and with body movement that combines every action into a fluid whole. Because Jerry uses household utensils in the number, the dance takes on the quality of a bricolage number in reverse. He does not borrow from the environment for purposes of performance, but imposes movement on the environment; every household item, the act of awakening and the physical necessity of eating all bow to the fluid choreographic line. It expresses the triumph of movement over Jerry’s personal, physical world. The subsequent numbers chronicle the extension of that triumph and power out onto the street and into the rest of Paris.
“By Strauss” occurs in the coffee shop downstairs from Jerry’s apartment. The number doesn’t move the story forward an inch, and in terms of musical tradition, it merely allows the lead, second lead (Oscar Levant), and the vocal lead (Georges Guétary) their first chance to perform together. But this is the number that links Jerry’s personal dance expression with the community. The dance accompanying the vocals eventually attracts the approval of the first spectators in the film—the other patrons of the shop and the local citizenry. Jerry brings in the café workers, who are the unlikeliest of dance partners: an elderly woman and an older, large woman. Neither looks as if they could dance or move with any kind of grace. When the larger woman is paired momentarily with Guétary’s character Henri Bourel, she moves awkwardly and even crashes into him. Yet when Jerry takes her hand a few moments later, she and the elderly woman are transformed into legitimate dance partners, having been released as dancers by Kelly’s/Jerry’s touch.
But that’s only the second step in dance’s conquering march. The third number takes place on the street itself, and brings children into dance with Jerry acting as Pied Piper. The song is Gershwin’s “I’ve Got Rhythm.” Though no liberties are taken with the vocal line—likely due to the high reputation of the composer and the stature of the song—liberties are taken with the lyrics.
The song is once more recast as a direct performance for the film’s characters, and not just for us as viewers. The children on the street ask Jerry to dance, and he responds by giving them an English lesson, using the song lyrics. He substitutes “J’ai du rhythme, j’ai de la musique” for the classic first line, integrating the song more into the diegetic world of the film and aiming it even less toward the spectator. He invites the children to share the vocals with him, and then teaches them some of his dance movements, which are less traditional enchaînements than danced imitations of airplanes, trains and Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. To show the variety of dance expressions, always a Kelly theme, he also adds a time-step and shim-sham (two classical tap steps), the Charleston, a soldier, Napoleon, and a cowboy. He finally takes his leave, uniting both the gathered children and the more distance adult observers in delight at his performance and communal approval of his talents.
The progression of spatial dominance is made complete with “‘S Wonderful,” a vocal duet by Jerry and Henri, with dance provided by Jerry. The two men are sitting at a café table discussing their current state of bliss: both are in love. Neither knows at this point that they’re in love with the same woman, a fact the audience is aware of and that undercuts the exuberance with an ironic undertone. The two men arise from the table and move down the street, collecting an appreciative audience along the way.
The sense of community-building is much like that in The Pirate’s “Niña,” but substituting shared joy for that earlier song’s more manipulative intent. The number is also a dance, with Henri moving rhythmically (Guetary is the vocal lead in the film, but not a dancer) and Jerry doing more complex steps. The final overhead shot shows the two men, now at a distance one from another, with Guetary in the lower left of the frame with Kelly in the upper right. The local community, including cars, carts, many people, signs, vegetables and shops, is between them, sharing in their joy and being incorporated as audience to Jerry’s dance. The progression of power is complete; from Jerry’s room to the shop, out onto the street, to the children in the street to the adult community sharing the joy of romantic joy. Dance has been brought to bear on Paris, uniting its citizen in amour, joy and appreciation of performance.
Of course, dance acts to create the couple as well. On the Town presented Ivy through narration and choreography; Lise (Leslie Caron) gets the same treatment here. At her introduction, she is presented as Henri’s ideal—the total female. That completeness is presented in a world devoid of natural time and space, possessing only the same simple props and single-color lighting schemes used for Ivy in the “Miss Turnstiles Ballet.” Lise’s various qualities are demonstrated by a brief description by Henri and a snippet of dance, ranging in style from the Charleston (representing her fun-loving, vivacious side) to classic ballet moves (her studious, serious nature). She is first and foremost a creature of dance, and therefore a fit match for Jerry (and Kelly).
Creating the couple also implies eliminating the competition; here, that’s Henri. Though in the narrative he’s presented as a rival to Kelly, the romantic associations established for dance keep him out of the running from the start. Jerry and Lise can dance; Henri can’t. Though he is one of the only two in the film who is a professional performer within the film (the other being Levant’s character, Adam Cook), and is by far the most talented vocally, the focus on dance eliminates him from the realm of consideration. This delineation helps pair Jerry and Lise, and solidifies the film’s preference of dance over song. Song in On the Town had been used to confirm and develop Chip and Brunhilde’s relationship (“You’re Awful”). Here song, even performed as well as Henri sings, serves to disqualify a character from the possibility of a romantic relationship.
When Jerry and Lise share their first number together, “Our Love is Here to Stay,” it follows the formula established with “Main Street” in On the Town. In both, Kelly’s character sings to his partner, they dance while he sings, and they continue dancing together while the instrumental carries the melody. It ends with Kelly again picking up the vocal. Yet a change has occurred. The balletic gestures and their attendant emotions, reserved for the non-diegetic “Day in New York” ballet in On the Town, find a place here in the dance duet. The more delicate movements, the longer dance lines, the more fluid integration of parts into a whole, have moved out of the world of imagination and dream and into the diegetic world of the film. The push-and-pull structure of the Astaire-Rogers dances is there, but the dance lines are longer, the movements more elegant and classical. While the balletic movement in the 17-minute ballet later in the film contains even more dramatic choreography, “Our Love is Here to Stay” supplies Kelly with his most balletic expression in the diegetic world of any of his films.
The other numbers, with the grand exception of the ballet, serve traditional musical tradition by expressing emotions and highlighting talents and secondary relationships. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” displays Levant’s technical process at the piano and introduces us to Guetary’s vocal skills. “Tra-la-la (This Time It’s Really Love)” is a piano-vocal duet with Jerry and Hank, showcasing Jerry’s new-found feelings of love and reminding us of their close friendship (and of Levant’s gruff nature as an actor). “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise” finally gives place to a completely vocal number, with Guetary singing a solo in the best Ziegfeld tradition.
“Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra” is Levant’s star turn as a musician in the film. It almost didn’t happen, as producer Freed had apparently declared that there would be no concert music [“There will be no lulls in this film” (Fordin 311)]. Significantly, the piece was “shoe-horned” into the film through the back door of yet another framing device, used in The Pirate and On the Town, and the ballet in this film, and later employed much more extensively in Singin’ in the Rain. Echoing Buster Keaton’s 1921 The Playhouse and even further back to Georges Méliès’ 1900 The One-Man Band (L’homme orchestre), “Ego Fantasy” begins with Adam’s daydream of performing the concerto on the piano, where he takes over the roles of conductor, every member of the orchestra, and every member of the cheering audience.
The third movement is presented in toto, but is framed in a supporting structure of comic irony. If “Pearl of the Persian Sea” in On the Town was too silly to be performed “straight,” Gershwin’s concerto was deemed too serious, and needed a similar framing device to present it. A Pasternak film may well have presented the performance straight, as the Jose Iturbi numbers were in Anchors Aweigh. But here, Hank is on his bed, daydreaming in the middle of the day, and the entire sequence is drenched in the irony of imagination and narcissism. The number gives about a third of its length to a direct presentation of the piano work of Levant, but then reveals the conductor as Levant, and the rest of the piece combines music with comic irony as it completes the third movement.
The framing continues with the “An American in Paris Ballet” at the end of the film. Jerry has lost Lise and he is mourning. Most of the ballet is joyous, however, and ends on the final creation of the couple in the narrative. The number thus takes on a utopian quality; it’s a dream of what could be, and ultimately, what will be, in the relationship, interpreted through dance. The freedom of a framing device again allows Kelly to use the non-diegetic world as a setting for a wide array of dance styles. In On the Town, “A Day in New York” was shorter and mainly gave expression to ballet. In An American in Paris, all kinds of dance are displayed, from bouncy jazz moves to George Cohan’s more open-ended forms to traditional, classical steps.
The original purpose of the ballet was not to extract the more exquisite feelings bubbling up in the narrative, as had “A Day in New York” in On the Town. Nor was it created to demonstrate a variety of dance styles. It was designed to display a changing background of French painters, in turn created as a backdrop to the film’s title song. The ballet, in fact, was the reason the film came to be in the first place; a ballet set to Gershwin’s symphonic poem was the original idea that had led to the creation of the film (Fordin 316).
But this framing device plus the looseness of the structural framework provides a context where the two leads could develop their relationship choreographically. Should there be any question left about it at this point in the film, the sequence confirms their complete compatibility as romantic partners by their complete compatibility as dance partners. At one point in the number, “Jerry” sniffs the red rose that is symbolic of “Lise” and their love in the number. (The quotes reflect the fact that the two leads are not quite the film’s leading characters within the context of the ballet, but are the dream ballet’s romantic and choreographic stand-ins for their characters within the film.)
“Lise” enters from the right side of the frame en pointe, and we are presented with two classical ballet dancers. “Jerry” bends, dips, and twirls “Lise” in movements only possible for a trained ballerina, and they eventually fold into one another in an elegant embrace before she is transformed into a bouquet of flowers that are released, symbolic of her departure. The embrace is at once sweet and slightly erotic, a hint of what is to come later in the ballet. Unlike in On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain the next year, this kind of exquisite ballet movement isn’t confined to the dream sequences, as we’ve already seen it in the diegetic world of this film in “Our Love is Here to Stay.” But the ballet, while dutifully solidifying the couple creation, also explores an eroticism only hinted at in Kelly’s previous work.
Before a greater expression of the erotic, however, there’s a preview of the “Broadway Melody Ballet” sentiments found in that Singin’ in the Rain ballet. “Jerry” is despondent, having just lost “Lise” within the context of the ballet. As he mopes frame left, four energetic male dancers enter frame right, and immediately draw him into the dance, completely breaking his dejected mood. One can almost here “Gotta dance!” playing in the background. “Jerry” attacks his dance moves with renewed exuberance and joy as he and the other men do a dance tribute to George M. Cohan’s unique dance style, repeating his moves from Take Me Out to the Ball Game’s “The Hat My Dear Old Father Wore Upon St. Patrick’s Day”.
Just as this section begins, however, we move to “Lise” and a small group of women dancing with the same joy and energy. Clearly, performing is what brings both “Jerry” and “Lise” out of their moods, bringing them individual delight and a closer connection to one another. Eventually, the two groups enter each other’s space, and a new level of pairing begins with the leads. “Jerry” stays in his vaudeville choreographic style, while “Lise,” while keeping her balletic form, partners with “Jerry” again. At one point, he leans forward in imitation of Cohan, while “Lise” mirrors his movements, but en pointe, in what must be a kind of inside joke or tribute to the Cohan’s unique, forward-leaning form. They are now, with all their stylistic differences, a dancing pair within the dream ballet.
At this point, this new pair moves beyond the embrace of the earlier part of the number to a whole new level of sensuality. Beginning as silhouettes against a smoky yellow background with a sultry instrumental wailing in the accompaniment, “Jerry” begins to pick up “Lise” and there is a quick, near-invisible cut that nearly hides the switch of outfit for each of them. “Jerry” is back to his basic black, and “Lise” has moved from her modest, multi-colored outfit to a seductive, slinky, slitted dress. The sexual anticipation is obvious even in silhouette as “Jerry” reaches out to “Lise” and pulls her into himself, then lifts her entire body into his arms. It’s the most erotic and sensual expression of dance Kelly has ever allowed, one that couldn’t make its way into the diegetic.
The number moves into its “blue period,” and the two begin a series of movements that are clearly a choreographic equivalent of lovemaking, even while keeping it in a balletic style. The number then turns a “Minnelli red” reminiscent of the “Pirate Ballet,” with much of that number’s eroticism, as the moves reflect a kind of lovers’ post-coital afterglow. The sexual aspect of the relationship is sealed by a new freedom of movement with one another and a final kiss.
In the next section of the ballet, “Jerry” and “Lise” are already a couple, dancing, leaping and twirling with enthusiasm at a ball. “Toulouse-Lautrec” arrives, featuring his drawing of Chocolat dansant dans un bar. “Jerry” becomes Chocolat for a time, giving Kelly a chance to explore and express yet a different style. But as he and “Lise” are now a couple, Chocolat/“Jerry” enters a cabaret with “Lise” doing the can-can, or a modest version thereof. They eventually pair off and dance together, moving on the beat back into the previous ballroom and into their previous outfits. Another cut in the middle of swirling dancers changes them back into black (his) and white (hers) costumes, reminding the viewer of the black-and-white ball in the diegesis.
The end comes quickly, as the dancers surround a fountain with “Jerry” and “Lise” inside. A cut removes everyone but “Jerry,” and he is alone again. He returns to his original “place” before the drawing he created, and he picks up the rose. The camera tracks in, holds on the rose, and finally the sequence dissolves to Jerry, nearly staring into the camera as he was in the beginning of the sequence. This reminds us that this has all been a dream, expressing both his longings and fears, and finally, his loss. The narrative quickly wraps up with Lise returning to him, and the two of them walk down the stairway and into their future together.
The power of dance shifts in this sequence from geography to art and art history. According to Fordin, “Kelly thought of dancing his way through the streets of Paris, as he had done through the streets of New York. ‘Let’s not repeat ourselves,’ Freed contended, ‘do it here, at the studio, in the Paris of the impressionists.” (316) So the power of dance is taken from the realm of physical space to the world of modern French painting. Kelly had essentially conquered Paris earlier in the film, not by tromping through the Champs-Elysées, circling the Eiffel Tower and scaling the Arc de Triomphe, but by dominating every aspect of French street life in “By Strauss,” “I’ve Got Rhythm,” and “‘S Wonderful.”
The ballet was filmed on a soundstage, but evokes real-life Parisian locations, including Montmartre, the Alexandre III bridge, la Place de la Concorde, la Place de l’Opéra and the Moulin Rouge. By having the film simply evoke Paris rather than representing it realistically or through semi-realistic sets, the location itself becomes less of a physical place and more of a soft setting for the parade of artists. Dance becomes part of a much larger whole, an equal partner with Gershwin’s music, Saul Chaplin’s musical arrangements, the work of the various French painters (Renoir, Dufy, Manet, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec) and of course, the designs of director Minnelli and his team. Dance is expressive, but not dominant. It is the glue that holds these disparate artistic elements together. But this ballet, while allowing Kelly a variety of different dance expressions, is a kind of dance/music/design Gesamtkunstwerk. Kelly would have to wait until he could direct again before dance would assert its independent power.
An American in Paris continued to explore many of the powers of dance found in On the Town. While not extended to every physical corner of Paris as it had been in New York, dance retained its ability to create communities and couples, now essentially locking out song as a creative or bonding force; poor Henri (Guétary) never had a chance with Lise, as he only sang beautifully. In this context, Kelly also brought more purely expressive balletic movements out of the non-diegetic world and into the couple’s relationship within the narrative. At the same time, the range of dance has increased, with sequences containing styles not related to one another nor directly connected with a single event in the narrative. Lastly, the use of framing devices develops to include choreographic styles and a sensuality that would otherwise not have found a place in the rest of the film. Having removed song as the primary musical expression in his films, and seeing how framing devices could free him up choreographically, Kelly makes full use of all he’s learned with Donen and Minnelli in his next, most famous, film.
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Kelly, with Donen, moved from the dramatic to the comedic with Singin’ in the Rain. Dance still created couples, and it was still the best way to demonstrate a potential romantic partner’s suitability for Kelly’s character. But dance was slowly and almost imperceptibly beginning to implode in terms of its power and influence on physical space.
The framing of numbers, though, moved to the forefront in the film. Used only in Adam’s/Levant’s imagination for the “Concerto” and in the daydream of the final ballet sequence in An American in Paris, framing is used throughout this film. As a kind of final victory of dance over song, there is more tweaking of the vocal lines of numbers than in either On the Town or An American in Paris.
Part of the reason lies in the songs themselves, and the flexibility they afford. An American in Paris had been based on the George Gershwin song catalog. Producer Freed decided that Singin’ in the Rain was to be based on his song catalog, in which he composed lyrics to Nacio Herb Brown’s melodies. Most of the songs chosen for the film were written for early M-G-M musicals. According to Comden and Green, “It occurred to us that, rather than try to use them in a sophisticated, contemporary story or a gay nineties extravaganza, they would bloom at their happiest in something that took place in the very period in which they were written” (Fordin 352). That may have been less of an inspiration than an answer to a dilemma.
Like An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain contained songs that could be integrated lyrically into the film (e.g., “Our Love is Here to Stay” and “‘S Wonderful” in the former and “You Were Meant for Me” and “Singin’ in the Rain” in the latter) and others for which a place had to be found. Unlike Minnelli’s film, though, the song catalog did not consist of respected classics that demanded respect for the vocal line. Only the title number was a bona fide classic, and that due more to its reputation as a standard than to respect for it musically. So while the songs in themselves were not up to the Gershwin standard, their very lack of sophistication and musical stature gave opportunity for a much greater freedom of interpretation.
Relying on the framing devices learned in An American in Paris, the directors found a myriad of ways to integrate the songs into the narrative. In certain ways, Singin’ is the integrated musical par excellence, going far beyond the traditional definition of integrated musicals, which are often little more than the integration of the lyrics of the songs into the narrative flow. Singin’ in the Rain integrates lyrics, too, of course, but also integrates whole songs as performances within the context of the narrative, weaving the numbers in and around the role of dance, the film’s thematic concerns, and the comedy. The elastic approach toward the songs’ structures and lyrics leads to a breakdown of the song units as discrete musical elements, melding into a gestalt of story, comedy, and performance.
The world in which these numbers are presented has changed from that of An American in Paris, however. The direction dance had begun to take in On the Town—that more introspective, implosive aspect—comes to the fore in Singin’. Dance still unites communities, but the communities are much smaller. And it still expresses milestones in creating the couple. The element of performance, though, is brought to the forefront here—both in the way the characters perform before one another, and in the theme of the ballet. And while there is a confidence about the use of song and dance, and a certain brazenness to the comedy, there is the beginning of a sense of self-doubt, which reaches its apogee in It’s Always Fair Weather. In Singin’, we find the beginnings of a loss of faith in the conventions of musical comedy that expresses itself in a defense of illusion, comedy and artifice. Dance had progressed from individual to community in On the Town and An American in Paris. Singin’ in the Rain takes dance in a different direction, instead presenting it as performance for the character and/or spectator, as a major factor in creating the couple, or as part of a comic routine.
The first number, “Singin’ in the Rain,” sung over the credits, presents the cast of characters who embody the world in which dance lives in the film. Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds directly address the audience in a setting of Technicolor blue and yellow, with torrents of rain coming from nowhere. They deliver the song in a straightforward style, with no change in musical structure or lyric. The tempo is relatively quick, which provides energy and sets up the contrasting, more relaxed tempo of its performance later in the film. The lack of specific context in the opening keeps the focus on the performers, and allows the possibility of developing the performance in any direction, by defining context, character, situation or style of performance.
The first treatment given to a number once the film begins its story is a comic one, and the number, “Fit as a Fiddle,” is seen through the film’s first framing device. It’s presented as a flashback, as Don Lockwood (Kelly), famous silent screen star, tells the story of his rise to success to Hollywood interviewer and columnist Dora Bailey (Madge Blake). Lockwood’s theme is “Dignity, always dignity,” but the visual presentation shows us anything but. “Fit as a Fiddle” places Lockwood with long-time performing partner and friend Cosmo Brown (O’Connor) as they perform a two-man dance routine before a vaudeville audience.
The tempo of the song is speeded up for comic effect—essentially throwing it away as a piece of legitimate music—and a heavy one-two beat is imposed, working against any appreciation of the words. Their costumes are a loud turquoise plaid, and the comic gestures are bold, further distracting the viewer from the music. Lockwood’s version of his story over the radio is always at odds with what we see, so the number is seen from beginning to end in an ironic light. Yet there is an inconsistency here based in Kelly’s refusal to laugh at dance. In On the Town, bad or comic dance was only seen in the context of a comic number or routine whose primary musical expression was poorly performed or comic vocal interpretations. In “Fit as a Fiddle,” the performers are clearly meant to be laughed at, as the diegetic audience of Lockwood’s memory is booing and the context is putting the lie to everything he’s saying to the radio interviewer.
Yet the dance performances are superbly executed. Costumes and props notwithstanding, no audience could fail to appreciate the complexity, ingenuity and technical skill displayed, whether in the first part of the sequence when Don and Cosmo were children, or later as adults. The directors might allow songs to be “thrown away,” yet the preference for dance over song prevents them from allowing dance that same flexibility. The high level of performance works against the narrative concerns of the memory sequence, and confuses the comic point. (It’s not unlike the incongruity of Liza Minnelli’s first-rate vocal and dance performances in Cabaret (1972), where she is supposed to be a second-rate singer and dancer in a sleazy, third-rate nightclub.) Second-rate entertainment has already been shown to be entertaining in “That’s All There is, Folks” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea” in On the Town. Either Kelly and Donen were reluctant to show badly executed dance, or Kelly was reluctant to show himself performing it, or both.
“Fit as a Fiddle” is only one of two numbers used for satire. The other is “Beautiful Girl,” which is preceded by a montage sequence marking the arrival of sound to film. The sequence includes segments of “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’,” “Wedding of the Painted Doll,” and “Should I?”, each played at far too quick a tempo to be appreciated as music, and presented with the most garish Technicolor costumes and backgrounds. The tempo slows and “Beautiful Girl” emerges at normal speed. The song is sung in a Dennis Morgan/Allan Jones style (anachronistic in terms of the film’s plot by at least a half-dozen years, as both these singers began their careers in the mid-1930s), and is presented as straightforwardly as possible, with no vocal exaggerations or tempo changes.
While the musical line is respected, however, the number seems more of an excuse for two comic bits than a performance for the spectator. In the middle of the number, there is a fashion display highlighting and satirizing the outmoded fashions of the twenties. Later, as the number ends, there is a sly comic tribute to Busby Berkeley (Kelly’s first film director, for For Me and My Gal), with overhead camera angles and kaleidoscopic patterns (again anachronistic by several years). The satire that pervades the rest of the film in a playful but respectful way comes to the surface here in the treatment of the number. Kathy Selden (Reynolds) is one of the “beautiful girls,” but that narrative connection is a tenuous one that fails to tie in the number to anything other than sheer satire. In the end, the number fails because its musical interpretation is not determined by the narrative or the role of performance, but simply by an attitude.
A more integrated number, and one that advances the tendency toward performance among the characters, is “Make ‘Em Laugh.” The number is actually not out of the old Freed/Brown catalog, but was created by the two men for the film, and was their last collaborative effort. Musically, it is a near-complete plagiarism of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown” from The Pirate, and according to Donen, was intended to be a song “like” “Be a Clown.” Apparently, when the song was heard, few had the courage to speak up and note note the similarity (Fordin 359). Porter, too, was reportedly too refined to say anything publicly.
The purpose of that song is to prove a point. The audience consists of Don alone. The point? That entertainment—specifically clowning—is legitimate. Kathy has insulted Don and ridiculed his profession, and it’s Cosmo’s job to cheer him up by reinstituting his flagging faith. The song and intent are similar in purpose to “You Can Count on Me” from On the Town. As in that number, it’s the performance, not just the words, that is emphasized. “You Can Count on Me” had introduced Lucy as performer, and used Alice Pearce’s comic style and attributes to that end. Here, O’Connor’s talents as a dancer are brought into play, and the number accomplishes two tasks at once: it satisfies musical tradition by giving the second lead the chance to shine, and succeeds in integrating itself into the narrative, much like “Prehistoric Man.” Yet “Make ‘Em Laugh,” for all its plot connection and technical genius, represents a change of direction for dance.
The audience for the number is just one person, though the first part of the dance has a few stagehands unwittingly involved in Cosmo’s routine. Had the number been in a Kelly film a few years before, it may well have ended up drawing an audience of those on the set, and concluded with a hearty round of admiring applause. But now the audience is first Don, and then simply us as viewers as Don is removed from the sequence. The last half of the song is performed directly for the camera, which completely loses its identification with Don as it moves into a final overhead shot. The number reverses the progression in numbers such as “You Can Count on Me” and “On the Town,” which created communities and advanced the influence of dance within the film. The scope of dance’s effectiveness has been reduced here to two people, and the scope is rendered smaller yet by Don’s removal as spectator. That finally turns the number into a direct performance for the film viewer, a first in the Kelly/Donen series.
Aside from the narrowing of the scope of dance’s influence, the argument that Cosmo makes differentiates the number from all others preceding it in On the Town and An American in Paris. The dance itself is a response to Don’s wavering faith in his profession’s validity. Yet by shifting the spectator from Don to the film viewer, the number also seeks to convince the viewer as well. The question raised by Don emanates from the script, of course, and ultimately, from Comden and Green. The only answer offered to that question is the performance itself. What speaks most loudly in the number is the brilliance of its execution and the obvious hard work involved, a common trait in Kelly’s choreography. As a defense of entertainment, the number is a virtual celebration of illusion. From the dummy Cosmo tussles with to the phony hallway to the door that leads nowhere, the routine redeems illusion by first exposing it, then by using it for comic effect, thereby redeeming it.
But the issue isn’t resolved within the film. Once Don is removed from the number visually, we never go back to him, and his reaction to Cosmo is neither revealed then nor alluded to later. This indicates how dance’s power is now narrowing its scope. The belief that dance is accepted by “anybody whose heart is big and warm and happy” (Anchors Aweigh) is starting to crack. The energy that infuses Cosmo’s dance can be read as a striving to convince Don, himself, and the film spectator that entertainment is legitimate. Simple faith no longer suffices; an explanation, a reaffirming, is necessary.
Note too how dance has shrunk in power—the issue of the legitimacy of entertainment and the answer through dance only involves performers now. The new community has been reduced, and consists only of those that understand and appreciate dance, and perform it. Two other numbers continue the trend toward the limited audience for performance: “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning.” “Moses” begins as a comic takeoff on the problems of silent film stars having to adjust to the demands of sound films by taking vocal lessons; here the humor is derived from the tongue-twisters that Don has to master to satisfy the coach’s demand for proper enunciation. The sequence begins with Don’s diction lesson. Cosmo enters and engages the instructor in some tongue twisters of his own. The leap to song is made from a sentence beginning with “Moses supposes his toeses (sic) are roses.” The spectator is ostensibly the speech instructor, but he is progressively removed as Cosmo and Don bury him underneath a load of props. The performance thus shifts to one for the film spectator, much like “Make ‘Em Laugh.”
Unlike “Make ‘Em Laugh,” the number is not well integrated narratively. The burying of the instructor is a triumph over a minor inconvenience, and Don’s success with the tongue twisters was never in doubt. His ability to get through the song lyrically is no victory, as his diction has always been superb. The number thus becomes a straightforward performance for the film spectator. It’s well executed, and provides the two great dancers their one showcase number, but it’s connected to the narrative by less than a thread.
Aside from satisfying the demands of musical tradition by pairing the two best performers in a duet, the number solidifies the two dancers as a kind of non-romantic couple. Rick Altman notes that “the Kelly-Sinatra musicals (Anchors Aweigh, Take Me Out to the Ball Game, On the Town) … provide an opportunity to treat the male principals as a couple . . . ” (Altman 32). This number does the same for this film, but the couple is bound not by growing affection, but by shared skill and performance. As with Kelly and Vera-Ellen in On the Town, and with Cyd Charisse in the ballet number in the film, Kelly has found his other, equal half in this number. What stands out here is the shared joy of performance, the joy that binds. This number could also function as Don’s response to “Make ‘Em Laugh;” Don is reassured of the validity of entertainment, and he demonstrates that by joining Cosmo in performance. The thin connection of this number with the plot is replaced with something even stronger than narrative connection—the mutual delight in performance. The love the two men share is similar to Kelly’s and Vera-Ellen’s in “Main Street” (On the Town); it’s the connection of performer with performer, minus the romantic attraction.
Better related to the narrative is the other number with a limited audience, “Good Morning.” Within the diegetic, it’s a celebration of the decision to turn a failed sound film into a musical, where Kathy will substitute her voice for the untalented, vocally repellent Lina (Jean Hagen). This is an example of the narrative’s doing what the directors have been doing with the numbers: creating frames and recasting the material to re-present it. Cosmo suggests that the sound film with Lina—a period piece—be framed with contemporary song and dance material. What had been filmed already in silence could then be incorporated in a flashback sequence, essentially the same approach used by Comden, Green, Kelly, Donen and Edens with the Freed/Brown song catalog.
The tenuous narrative link to the song is Kathy’s discovery that the film-saving decision comes in the wee hours of the morning. The number’s primary function is strengthening the community—here, a community of three—the largest in the film. The three dance before one another individually, and together as a group. Kelly and Donen again take the opportunity to incorporate a variety of different dance styles (including classical ballet as they all do a few moves on the barre), as each of the three takes a solo turn before the others. By the time the number is ended, the three are laughing and smiling at one another, having enjoyed the performance and celebrating the salvation of the film. It is the most creative and expansive work done through dance in the diegetic world of the film.
The title song indicates more strongly than any other, even more than “Make ‘Em Laugh,” why the world that dance can influence is becoming smaller. “Make ‘Em Laugh” posed the question of the validity of entertainment, but still made room for performance. “Moses Supposes” and “Good Morning” were limited in scope, but found their (limited) audience. “Singin’ in the Rain” has no audience within the film. Don and Kathy have expressed their love for one another, and Don is simply expressing his joy. Unlike “‘S Wonderful,” where the joy was shared, “Singin’ in the Rain” has Don savoring the joy by himself. But instead of ultimately handing the number over to the film spectator, as in “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” Don is stopped by the presence of a policeman, who causes him to shrug and slink away. The moment is given a socio-political interpretation by Leo Braudy:
The dream of the future that the musical could embody was being suffocated by the harshness of the present. The cop who stops Kelly’s exuberant dance in Singin’ in the Rain asserts the reality of the streets and the rain and the lamppost Kelly is holding on to—a reality that is in opposition to what dance would like to make of the world. Throughout the sequence our point of view is with Kelly, but at the end we stand behind the cop’s shoulder and watch Kelly walk away. Acting out, exuberance, energy, all seem suspect, both psychologically and politically (157).
If this had been made years earlier, the cop may well have been drawn into the dance instead. Or perhaps, as in Cover Girl’s “Make Way for Tomorrow,” Kelly and Donen simply viewed policemen as killjoys. No matter the forces or prejudices at work here with the policemen, what the other numbers in Singin’ have hinted at is spelled out here. Non-performers can’t be trusted to understand or be touched by performance; it must be preserved for the initiated, for those of like mind and talent. With this number, Kelly and Donen have come full circle from the “King Who Couldn’t Dance,” with the policeman and all he represents standing in for the tyrannical Jerry Mouse. As Don slyly skips off, it is as if he carries with him not only the secret of Kathy’s love, but the secret of the dance, a personally-held treasure.
When it comes to the filming of the title number, Peter Wollen makes a grand understatement: “The effect of the ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ sequence could be incomplete without Kelly’s attention to the filming of the dance and its staging for the camera” Wollen 24). From the perspective of the the camera as recording mechanism only, he states:
[From Busby Berkeley, Kelly’s first director for For Me and My Gal] “[h]e learned a number of lessons. First, that movement on film is always movement in relation to the camera and that the visual effect of looking through the camera eye at a stage is different from that of looking through the human eye at a stage. Spatial context and scale appear very different—people far away really look tiny—and the effect of movement is also different, favouring especially movement towards the camera” (32) . . . the camera has been moving almost incessantly to keep up with Kelly’s progress, adjusting to his movements as he pantomimes and dances in one location and then travelling on with him to the next, pulling back and up for the most athletic and exuberant moments and moving him into close-ups for the cuts” (35).
At this point, Kelly is both dancer and filmmaker, and if O’Connor, Reynolds, and Charisse can be a dance partner, so can the camera. If the camera “keeps up” with Kelly, it does so in the same way that Rogers “keeps up” with Astaire. In pairing the moving camera to the dance, this number is nearly as much of a duet as “You Were Meant for Me.” Don’s/Kelly’s exuberant joy in the number is matched by the camera’s sweeping movements. When the camera lifts to get a complete view of the street, film language and dance become equal partners as Don decreases in size and energy and the camera movement becomes dominant. Yes, Don is simply recorded in the middle of the frame at certain moments, but as Kelly stated earlier, in other places he is dancing into the camera as much as the camera is recording him. Ironically, “Singin’ in the Rain”, arguably the most famous musical solo in American musical history, is actually a pas de deux.
Kelly’s move in his film toward replacing song with dance perhaps reaches its peak here. Carol J. Clover in “Dancin’ in the Rain” points out that “It is . . . Kelly who insisted on adding into the lyrics of the title song the word “dancin’” . . . A small but telling adjustment, it acknowledges that the title does not do justice to which art is really at stake” (Clover 159). It’s one of the least noticed but most powerful ironies that this song, the most famous of those chosen for the film, and perhaps the most famous in all the Brown/Freed song catalog, has been transformed by two words and a dance treatment from a song about singing while it’s raining into a dance.
Dance’s community-creating power might be shrinking here, but it maintains its power to create the couple, and even begins to direct its energies toward an unprecedented effect on film structure. Singin’ is like On the Town and An American in Paris in terms of how we’re introduced to the love interest. As Ivy and Lise were given numbers that demonstrated their talent, and the dancers playing them displayed their choreographic range, so Kathy/Debbie Reynolds has her number. The big difference this time is that it’s performed not in the imagination, but in the diegetic world of the film. As Kelly brought the more expressive balletic gestures into the diegetic world when the couple was created in An American in Paris, so here he brings the number that introduces the female lead into the diegesis as well. The number is “All I Do is Dream of You.”
The number may not be in the realm of imagination, yet it’s still seen through a strong framing device. Kathy has already met Don, insulted him, and indicated her own preference for stage over film. The number begins as Kathy steps out of the prop cake at the party Don’s attending, and proceeds to join a chorus line for the number. The scene includes cuts back to Don, first in closeup, then in a group of appreciative onlookers, to link the spectator’s point of view with his perspective on the number. Instead of imagination, the sequence uses Don’s surprise, delight, and obvious respect for her performance as the filter through which we view the number. While the number fails to define Kathy as the ultimate woman in choreographic terms, it demonstrates Kathy’s equality with Don as a performer, and therefore her worth as a possible romantic partner.
Kathy’s skillful and energetic performance, in fact—and not the song— is the raison d’être of the number, effectively burying the song’s musical integrity. It’s speeded up in the same manner as “Fit as a Fiddle” and given the same heavy one-two beat, accentuated by a drum that distorts the melodic flow while providing musical accompaniment to the swinging legs and derrieres of the dancers, Kathy included. The words themselves are all but lost amid the vocal and visual noise; the singers have just enough of a nasal edge to prevent the audience from enjoying either the melody line or the lyrics. At the end, the song speeds up even more, and the last word is accompanied by a tonic/dominant below/tonic configuration, a trope usually reserved for calliopes at circuses or trombones at burlesque shows. Its net effect is the song’s quick dismissal, allowing for a rapid segue into the next scene. One wonders at times what Freed thought of the musically disrespectful treatment of his old tunes. Did he realize that his songs were being poked, pulled, prodded and distorted in ways that kept pointing away from melody lines and lyrics? (Compare the version of this song to the one Reynolds sang the next year with Bobby Van in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, a slower, much more tender version.)
As a showcase for the song itself, the presentation is abysmal; as a showcase for Kathy, the violence done to the lyrics and vocal line work to her favor, as does the framing device. Reynold’s personality was a bouncy, effervescent one, and the quick tempo and beat accentuate that. The cavalier treatment of the song also highlights the ironic contrast between her earlier protestations about serious art and this performance. The solid presence of the framing device of Don’s reaction also helps Reynold’s performance in that the surprise and delight of the legendary Kelly tend to cover her limitations as a performer. Reynolds had had minimal dance training before working with Kelly and Donen, and her voice, never strong, was quite weak at this stage of her career. Her performance here is adequate, but no more. The flow of her dance is interrupted by the visual references to Don, and her voice is barely audible above the other dancers’ voices. It’s the flexible attitude toward the song’s interpretation that allows the moment to succeed.
After the female lead was introduced in On the Town and An American in Paris, the central male/female relationship was next expressed in a song-and-dance number—”Main Street” in the former and in “Our Love is Here to Stay” in the latter film. Singin’ follows the same format, but the song is a richer experience in that it also explores some of the film’s other concerns. The number is “You Were Meant for Me.” Like its couple-creating predecessors in the other two films, it’s respected musically; indeed it is one of the most sensitively sung songs of Kelly’s career. And like the other two songs, it begins with Kelly’s character singing, then singing and dancing with the woman, then just dancing, and it concludes with song.
As in “Main Street,” the number extends the role of character as performer. The quick look shared by Gabey and Ivy when doing a little series of taps in On the Town is repeated here with Don and Kathy. They share an even broader smile as they jointly execute a relatively rapid series of dance steps in what is generally a slow number with flowing dance lines reflective of the melody. The dance confirms the two characters as two performers who derive as much enjoyment from their shared dancing as they do from their growing relationship.
The number also addresses the question of illusion broached in “Make ‘Em Laugh.” The setting for the number is a Hollywood sound stage. Don has reached the point where he wants to express his feelings for Kathy, but finds he can’t do it directly. He brings her into the stage, turns on colored lights, starts a stage fan, releases artificial fog and aims a spotlight on Kathy, creating an overly romantic backdrop. Only then is he ready to convey his feelings.
Within Kelly’s career, the same kinds of expression were found in Thousands Cheer with Kathryn Grayson in a circus tent, in Anchors Aweigh with the same actress on a film sound stage, and in Summer Stock, with Judy Garland on a theater stage. As one performer dealing with another, Don is merely using the accouterments of (film) performance to express his feelings for Kathy. As a statement of the legitimacy of illusion, the number pretends to be able to use all manner of artificiality to make an honest statement. In fact, artifice here becomes the means through which honesty can be attained—a further indication of how faith in musical convention is eroding. The props and the setting must be exposed as artifice before they can be used to express real emotion.
In another regard, though, the song represents an apex of the directors’ ability to remake the worlds of their films. At this point, they can so easily reconstitute the reality of the diegetic worlds of their films through the artifice of dance that they’ve peaked artistically, and begun to rework the artifices as the film’s realities, as a mountain climber reaches a summit and descends down the other side. It seems a turning point of the same significance as the policeman’s arrival in “Singin’ in the Rain.” The policeman represented restriction of the expansion of dance: it couldn’t extend beyond the single individual. “You Were Meant for Me” represents a similar dead-end. The environment, even created by one of the performers, is now affecting the dancers instead of vice versa. The dynamics, instead of expanding outward as in On the Town and An American in Paris, now become increasingly implosive and centripetal.
Yet along with this new dynamic, dance begins even to affect film form—to an unprecedented extent. In this number and in the next love song, “Would You?”, dance determines both the movement of the camera and the rhythm of the editing, incorporating them both into the number as partners. In “You Were Meant for Me,” the camera begins in a high position, swooping and gliding with the same long lines and grace as the vocal and dance lines, moving around the dancers and the ladder, finally tracking back at the end of the number, creating a near-spaceless void reminiscent of the spatial context of the Kelly ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris.
Kelly, with and without Donen, had always been concerned with finding the proper relationship between camera and dance. For a still camera, Kelly felt that “a dancer rushing from a fair distance away can create some sort of kinaesthetic effect” (Hirschhorn 118-119) Both Clive Hirschhorn in his biography of Kelly and Barry Day note that panning shots used by Kelly often made use of vertical props (e.g., the lamppost in “Singin’ in the Rain”, the ladder in “You Were Meant for Me”) to create depth. According to Day, Kelly’s answer [to the question of the best way to photograph dance] was “to create an artificial depth of field. Place objects between the dancer and the camera and you create a new visual dimension. With a few vertical props strategically positioned, the camera can wander at will. Instead of revealing everything at once, it provides a series of surprises, of frames within frames. Suddenly the dancer had depth” (Day 24).
Kelly himself commented on the quest. He told Dance Magazine that “as much of a contribution as I made, was the use of the camera for dance in big, broad movements outdoors, down the street, that couldn’t be done on stage” (Stoop 72). In describing the creation of the title number in Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly recalled his use of the camera:
Stanley Donen and myself decided to take advantage again of cinematic treatment, and we kept the dance coming into camera . . . I never had any weak movements. If I stopped, we would bring the camera up and cut and come sidewards so I could move back and forth. Always into camera. Always the forces were pushing, pushing, pushing the camera (Hanson 24).
The camera in “You Were Meant for Me” is so well integrated into the performance, so designed to move with it, that it partakes of it. It moves beyond a recording mechanism to becoming the third partner.
There has been a critical tendency to see the camera movement in musicals solely in the context of the revealing or hiding artifice. According to Feuer,
Singin’ in the Rain ultimately denies that technology is responsible for our pleasure. “You Were Meant for Me,” the romantic number on the deserted sound stage between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, demystifies only in order to restore illusion. Although Kelly gives us a look at the hardware behind movie magic (the wind machine, the soft lights) in an introduction to the song, the camera arcs around and comes in for a tighter shot of the couple during the central portion of the number, reframing to exclude the previously exposed equipment. We regress from an exposé of romantic duets to an example of a romantic duet, which, along with all the others, lies about its past (46).
Feuer and other authors appreciate the complexity of the number, but seem to differ in their interpretations of the intent of the sequence’s revelation of illusion and artifice. Kelly and Donen have demonstrated a rather consistent set of values and meanings connected with song and dance, and have shown their willingness to manipulate vocal lines, lyrics, and tempos to that end. It’s true they’ve spotlighted illusion in this number, but in a sense the revelation of illusion is just another segue into the performance. It is self-conscious, to be sure, and may well be rooted in an insecurity regarding the use of illusion. But the presence of the device does not mean the film is “about” the revelation of its own technology any more than it is “about” the interplay of dance and film form, creating the couple, or the diminishing scope of the power of dance in the films of Kelly and Donen.
The attempt to expose some levels of illusion shouldn’t be seen as an attempt to expose them all. There’s no attempt, for example, to expose the lie of rehearsal—Kathy still joins Don in a perfectly executed dance duet that’s presented as spontaneous. The purpose in exposing illusion was to use it again. Ultimately, the camera movement in “You Were Meant for Me” goes beyond dealing with illusion. It’s part of the imploding dynamics of dance in the Kelly/Donen films that makes the camera a dance partner.
Technology is also exposed, to similar effect, in “Would You?” The song itself is a relatively saccharine piece, structured in a straightforward semiclassical manner. The vocal line is smooth to a fault, and the song builds to an overblown climax. Musically, it’s a first cousin to “Indian Love Song” as performed by Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, and as ripe for satire. The song is not performed directly for the viewer, however, but is integrated into the film at several levels. It’s used to further the narrative, reveals illusion only to use it again, and applies the song’s original love expression to Don and Kathy and their growing relationship.
Narratively, the song brings Kathy’s dubbing of Lina’s unacceptable voice from the initial recording stage to the final product on the screen. Kathy is first seen recording the song, under Cosmo’s musical direction, with the opening shot of the microphone beginning the scene. Lina is then shown mouthing the words in rehearsal, preparing to lip-sync the number in the actual filming, the next scene. The total effect is demonstrated in the final product itself, which is last seen in a screening room. At no point in the presentation of the song is it ever performed “straight” for the spectator, or directly to a character in the film.
While the song is musically unbroken from beginning to end, what is shown to the film’s spectator is the technological process of creating a cinematic effect and illusion. The number is presented only as a means to an end. When the final effect is presented in the finished film at the debut of the The Dancing Cavalier, the emphasis is taken off the song itself by the musical interpretation. In that film-within-the-film for which the song is being recorded, Lockwood raises himself from near death to sing the final chorus in a parodic move that comically distracts the spectator/listener from the song itself. Once again, the song itself is tossed aside as a legitimate piece of music meant to be respected in and of itself. This final presentation of the song is by Kelly, who as a tenor is clearly struggling with the relatively low tessitura of his lines, and his light sound is the exact opposite of what the song needs to put it across; it needed an Allan Jones, Nelson Eddy or Jimmy Thompson, or someone with an equally powerful baritone range to give the song the vocal respect it deserved.
At the final note of the performance at the preview, the camera within the film raises itself to focus on an image of Cupid, a move that again sacrifices song for satire. The “Would You?” sequence does not end with that camera move, however, but with a return to Don and Kathy, who view the successful dubbing of Kathy’s voice as a personally shared triumph. The song is transformed into a sequence that step-by-step displays a labor of love, thus redeeming the original intent of the lyrics by a recasting of the song.
Performance, again, is at the heart of this sequence. It is Kathy’s performance of the song that we hear and that pushes the story forward. Kathy’s performance becomes Lina’s performance, with the end result— the aim of all the activity—being Don’s and Lina’s performance on the screen. The whole sequence uses the song as fodder for creating that performance.
The exposing of technology has to be seen in this context. The sequence focuses on the work involved in creating the illusion, much as “Make ‘Em Laugh” presented hard work as a justification for the legitimacy of entertainment. Creating the illusion of Lina singing the song involves effort, and the technology display shows specifically what goes into it. Yet the intent is not to reveal the film’s mechanisms for its own sake; demystifying isn’t the point. The creation of the final result is the narrative’s concern here, and the display of technology merely demonstrates how it’s accomplished. In terms of using a Freed/Brown song, the recording, lip-syncing, and final filming of the song is one more way to re-frame and perform another (rather musically weak) number.
Finally, the number is also used in developing the relationship of the central couple, and the central team, as the song, in toto, is “made theirs” by their having worked to create its final performance. It’s related to “All I Do is Dream of You” in that regard, which was Don’s first viewing of Kathy and her talents. In that number, there was a cut to Don, regarding Kathy’s efforts from an appreciative distance, then a cut back to Kathy. Here, the unity of the team of Don, Cosmo, and Kathy is demonstrated not just in their common work to bring the song to the new film, but in the way the number is filmed. Before the first cut to Lina attempting to lipsynch, the camera moves from the close-up on the microphone to a smooth reverse tracking shot to Cosmo directing the orchestra, still with Kathy in the frame. She looks frame right to where Don is standing, and there is a pan to his loving gaze. Unlike the cut that showed Don’s respect but distance in the beginning of their relationship, the camera now pans to him, showing their unity as well as Don’s newfound confidence (in the project, in his relationship, and in the team that is making it all happen). The camera pulls back once again while Don moves frame left, and finishes the shot with all three in the shot–Kathy the singer, Cosmo the conductor, and Don the power broker in the situation. The creative team is defined, and the couple is fully created. All in all, the number works on several levels, and is one of the most reflexive, complex uses of song in the film.
[The reflexivity of the number is compounded by the facts of its actual production. Reynold’s voice was not vocally strong enough for the song, which requires a legitimate voice, especially for the full-bodied climactic measures. A singer named Betty Royce (sometimes written as Noyce) was called in to dub Reynolds as Kathy was dubbing Lina. Also, in the scene with Kathy recording Lina’s nasal dialogue in the film-within-a-film —“Our love will last ’til the stars turn cold”–Reynolds voice was again not used. According to Donen, “We used Jean Hagen (Lina) dubbing Debbie dubbing Jean. Jean’s voice is quite remarkable, and it was supposed to be cultured speech and Debbie had that terrible Western noise . . .” (Fordin 358)].1
“Would You?” is a busy song used for multiple purposes. It moves the narrative forward, helps develop the central couple, finalizes the creative team that will lead to the new film’s success, presents song as performance for the characters as well as the audience, and it integrates itself into the structure of the film. As the moving camera movement became a dance partner in “You Were Meant for Me,” so the camera and editing of the song sequence become the dance partners here. The smooth panning and dollying in the various small scenes making up the sequence reflect the fluidity of the vocal line. The editing provides the rhythm to the camera’s motions, interrelating the scene changes with the lines of the lyrics, sometimes anticipating the change, and at other times holding a scene for a moment, creating a kind of cinematic “hesitation step.” We’ve now moved from the camera becoming a dance partner (“You Were Meant for Me”) to its joining song, dance and editing in a gestalt of movement, sound and meaning as resonant and meaningful as any sequence in film.
The ballet, on the other hand, is not so well integrated into the film. It is unrelated narratively, and is ostensibly present as a part of the film that Don and Lina are supposed to be working on. Yet it’s a classic example of the reworking and re-presentation of musical material seen elsewhere in the film, and reveals, as well as the more narratively connected sequences, the shrinking of dance’s power. Indeed, as with “You Were Meant for Me” and “Singin’ in the Rain,” the ballet represents yet another peak or dead-end in the development of dance within a Kelly-Donen film.
The ballet is presented as a possible production number in the reconstructed sound film proposed by Don to the studio head. It is the visual expression of a verbal description of the sequence that Don is presenting to the producer. Like the ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris, it’s a product of imagination, with the attendant “anything goes” attitude. In Kelly’s ballet in An American in Paris, the action reflected the plot but allowed the events to resonate on a higher emotional plane. That ballet was less connected narratively, but in context, on one level, was presented as both fantasy and utopia. Both ballets related to the couple and emotionally developed their relationship.
The ballet in Singin’ in the Rain is also “thrown away” by its context as much as “Fit as a Fiddle” and “All I Do is Dream of You” threw away their melody lines and lyrics. The context redefines the entire sequence of the ballet as part of a grand joke. After the number is presented, the film returns to the room where Don has supposedly been explaining the number. The producer reacts, saying in perhaps the most understated comic statement in the film, that he can’t visualize it until he sees it on the screen. The distancing effect that such a comment produces is of little consequence, as the number has no bearing on the rest of the film anyway. The comic framework around the number serves merely to extract comedy from the ballet, providing another example of the continual recasting and reframing of the musical material in the plot.
With a dance partner unable to mount the choreographic heights of the two ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris (Reynolds), and a male buddy from the diegetic world of the film unable to be in the ballet because of the actor’s previous commitments (O’Connor), Kelly was forced to take the ballet in a different direction. Donen’s contention was that the ballet was “too far away from the really important situations of the plot” (Johnson 48). Kelly himself expressed later that it “was out of keeping with the rest of the film. There were some arresting moments, but the overall conception seemed somewhat chaotic” (Behlmer 16).
Freed from having to connect with the diegetic world, Kelly was able to explore other concerns. He expanded the definition of the complete woman, examined other expressions of dance not found in the diegetic world of the film, and he recalled his own dancing roots, coming to terms with his own urge to perform.
In both their introductory numbers and the subsequent ballets, Ivy in On the Town and Lise in An American in Paris had been presented as very nearly the “complete woman.” Kathy had been limited because her introduction was as a character in the world of the film, and not in the imagination, and because Reynolds was a limited dancer. The ballet expands the definition of woman with the introduction of Cyd Charisse, who countered Reynold’s effervescence with sensuality and sexual power. From the entrance of Charisse, with Kelly’s character’s hat dangling on the tip of her shoe, to the camera’s ogling of her famous long legs, it’s clear that the dimensions of woman in the film are being expanded from Reynold’s innocence to Charisse’s aggressive sexuality. This creature is a temptress, and the young man, on his way from small-town America to Broadway dancing fame, is nearly enticed away from his call. Her movements are slow and seductive, drawing him into her spider’s choreographic web. But she is greedy as well, and this is finally what breaks her hold on him; a diamond bracelet proffered by a gangster pulls her away, and the young man returns to his original quest to perform.
This sequence also features a turning point in the role of women in the Kelly and Kelly-Donen films, especially those featured in a fantasy ballet. Ivy in On the Town and Lise in An American in Paris were both objects of desire and pursuit, but it was obvious that they were always meant to be together with the Kelly character. Those ballets were also simple reflections of the romantic story in the diegesis. Only Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) in An American in Paris presents us with the temptation of money and sex to divert Kelly’s character away from his destined love interest (and moral convictions), and she is featured in the diegetic world of the film, not a ballet. The presence of Charisse’s character is the first time that a possible partner for Kelly presents as someone who would ruin him if he caved in to her advances. For the first time in the Kelly/Donen series, dance has been granted to someone who could be classified as an antagonist. The harshness of the real world, seen only briefly in the police officer in “Singin’ in the Rain” up to this point, has made its way into the non-diegetic world as well. The ballet sequence, formerly the province of the most exquisite and sensitive dance expressions of their musicals, is now a platform for the evil present in the world, the evil still not found in the diegesis.
The ballet is also the setting in which the dark side of woman and the sexual aspects of male/female relationships are addressed. Charisse is interested in Kelly until the Scarface character proffers a diamond bracelet. Even after the more classical dancing of the sequence, where everyone else disappears but the two main dancers—and where they finally kiss and seem to be forming something of a relationship—Charisse again ends up with “Scarface” when the other dancers return to the number. She turns out to be the classic noir femme fatale. Lust, greed, betrayal—these are the dark undercurrents in a number ostensibly about the joy of performing. Those undercurrents will break into the diegetic world in full force in It’s Always Fair Weather.
The presence of Charisse and her character here also helps to expand Kelly’s persona. Reynolds had brought out his sweetness, and O’Connor his athletic prowess and technical skill. But Charisse brought out his sexual fire. “The Pirate Ballet” in The Pirate had presented Kelly in a dangerous and explosive sexual context, and An American in Paris kept him inches away from the role of gigolo. The diegetic world of Singin’ in the Rain expressed none of that, however, and his sexuality becomes one of the elements he chose to explore in the ballet. His dance with Charisse is often little more than a choreographed mating ritual. Part of the number includes sexual thrusts so blatant that they might never have been allowed in the film had they not been “framed” by their integration into a dance routine.
Rick Altman, in exploring the dual nature of the American musical, makes reference to the “personality dissolve” often found in the individual in a musical: “Sometimes it is the very circumstances of performance that establish a hierarchical relationship between the two sides of a character’s personality” (Altman 81). He uses the dual nature of Fred Astaire’s Petrov in Shall We Dance to make his point at first, but both sides of Astaire’s character play out in that film’s diegetic world. Once Altman addresses the dream world of which Singin’ in the Rain’s ballet is a prime example, he simultaneously sheds light on the dynamics of that kind of dualism while setting in relief how different this dream ballet is from others. In addressing the capability of the dream world to contain ideas and feelings not found in the diegesis, he says:
We are conscious of our overt behavior and thus must take responsibility for it. Our repressed desires, quite to the contrary, are unconscious and thus can hardly be used against us…. This dilemma is resolved by the introduction of a mode in which certain types of conscious behavior are accorded a special status which frees them from the frightening spectre of accountability. In all of these ‘make-believe’ modes—dream, performance, and role-playing are the most common—an individual gains the right to ‘play out’ personal fantasies without submitting to the judgment normally associated with conscious behavior. The character can say and do whatever he/she pleases and yet in the eyes of his/her psychic censor it is as if nothing had either been said or done. Like a child playing ‘dress-up’—like the spectator watching the film—a character can try on a role without actually assuming it. This strategy ultimately permits the recovery of repressed material and thus the merger of submerged and surface components of the personality. By way of make-believe one dissolves into the other” (83).
Altman goes on to demonstrate his point with Garland’s character Mañuela in The Pirate, who undergoes hypnosis to recover hidden desires. He also mentions the “let’s try this on for size”/dream aspect of songs such as Showboat’s “Make Believe” and Carousel’s “If I Loved You,” as well as the many dances that pre-lovers have in films to dip their toes into the waters of love before actually diving in. The key difference is that in most musicals, the dream sequence opens the door for the character/s to bring those desires into the diegesis. Hypnosis in The Pirate and the ballets in On the Town and An American in Paris resonated so much because they were visualizations of what we already knew or suspected as viewers, and because the feelings aroused and demonstrated in those ballets were brought into the diegetic worlds of those films.
This is not the case with Singin’ in the Rain. The seductiveness and heat of the ballet doesn’t come close to being added to Kathy Selden’s character after the ballet sequence, and Don leaves his sexual fire back in the dance with Charisse, unable to bring it into his relationship with the pure and virginal Kathy. What remains isn’t an extension or enrichment of a character; what remains here is an extension of a performer. The “personality dissolve” is more about the performer’s persona than any dual aspect of a character.
In tandem with that thought, Singin’s ballet addresses the issue of performance itself, ultimately making a defense of it based on an inner compulsion, the song’s opening cry: “Gotta Dance!” In the beginning of the number, Kelly, in a framing device within the ballet, sings the opening verse of “Broadway Melody,” which ends with a reverse tracking shot and an explosion of bright neon signs that echoes, pays homage to, or is simply borrowed from a similar explosion of signs in The Red Shoes. A crowd of dancers descends upon Kelly and he is transformed into a young hoofer who cries out three times as he’s searching for an agent: “Gotta dance!” That cry is what will carry his character through every challenge, pain and pleasure the sequence throws his way.
Once he gets the agent and is taken to a nightclub, the cry is reflected back to him by the dancers, and we expect a traditional creation of a community, as the dancers join in his call-and-response both vocally and choreographically. That community, however, is quickly abandoned as Kelly does his solo turn. There is a seated audience in this section of the number, but they are never engaged, and they remain distant observers. Instead of what in earlier numbers might have been the “let’s gather in applause” moment for Kelly, he slides into Charisse’s green pump and into that section of the number.
After that rejection, the agent returns and brings Kelly to theatrical success, with a trip from crass to class in the three “When I hear that happy beat…” vignettes that satirize all those levels of entertainment. He’s now a success, and makes a reappearance at the same nightclub, this time as an acclaimed entertainer. His moment of glory is interrupted, though, by the reappearance of Charisse, this time in wedding garb. The sequence then shifts into a dream-within-an-idea, and Kelly and Donen present us with the most exquisite couple creation in the film. This part of the number is borderline arch, with Kelly and Charisse moving and posing in a combination of jazz and classical moves, in many ways reminiscent of the most erotic portion of the ballet in An American in Paris. The equality of the two performers, especially in this combination of modern and classical dance, demonstrates their complete suitability as partners in both dance and romance. But as this finds itself within the “Broadway Ballet” sequence within the larger film, and the fantasy sequence-within-a-sequence here, the connection and complete parity of the two cannot last. Far from being able to bring that connection, sexual fire, or even sensuality into the diegetic of the film, this supreme connection cannot even make its way back into the world of the main number itself. Once back to the world of the number, Charisse flips the silver coin à la “Scarface,” next flips it over to Kelly, and then is off once more with “Scarface.” As he leaves Charisse, her mystery, and her complications behind, he hands the coin to a hatcheck girl, and turns his back on the whole exciting, disturbing episode.
As the hoofer finds himself alone, the scene behind him changes to the opening scene where he was originally planning to become a dancer, with the bright signs around him. This time, however, the music is maudlin, even near-tragic, as it takes the main theme of “Broadway Melody,” slows it down and gives it a plaintive violin lead. He looks lost and, for the moment, purposeless. Then he hears a young voice cry out, “Gotta dance!” and he turns and spies another young man dressed as he was earlier. Kelly shrugs, then returns to the performance of “Broadway Rhythm” with his manifesto—”Gotta Dance!” The shrug indicates two things: it stands for the character’s shrugging off the interchange with Charisse and its attendant complexities, pleasures and pains. It also represents the giving up of the character’s attempt to understand either the exchange with Charisse or his own urge to perform. He is a performer. That’s his identity, and questioning it would be futile. He must give expression to it—that one thing is understood.
Kelly’s disconnect with other dancers in the film is highlighted in the rest of the number. Kelly and the other dancers begin the final part, but Kelly is the center and the other dancers are essentially back-up, albeit energetic ones. This is back to dance as spectacle, as in most past musicals. The focus has changed from the time of such community-creating numbers as “‘S Wonderful” and “On the Town.” “Broadway rhythm, it’s got me, everybody dance” is what’s sung, but Kelly finally downplays the “everybody dance” aspect and favors the first half of the line: “Broadway rhythm, it’s got me.” The emphasis at the end is on Kelly as the source of that power, and on the urge to perform that wells up within him. Kelly is constantly kept at the center of the activities and the final shot is a rare close-up of him that offers the spectator only Kelly the performer, not any character. And while the close-up features the other dancers in the background, Kelly is no longer connected with them; the image is a matte shot, with Kelly’s smiling face in the foreground, and the others in the background. He’s on his own, separated from the others.
The power of dance has now retreated back into its source, and exists solely as the urge to perform. The offering of Kelly to the spectator here seems to present the performance for purposes of acceptance as other such sequences have done, but the raw urge to perform is not expected to be applauded, commented on, accepted, or rejected. It’s merely stated and demonstrated. Dance could not bring Charisse to Kelly; other factors got in the way. Dance has hence retreated, as it did in the diegetic world of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and is now only performed for those of like mind and sensibility. Yet this ballet takes the retreat even further. In the diegetic world of the film, dance at least remained a performance for those who understood. In the ballet, it is performed within the group of fellow performers, but not for them. Dance has retreated, finally, into the very soul of the performer.
Kelly’s other dance partner in the ballet sequence, aside from Charisse, is once again film form, specifically the camera and editing. “You were Meant for Me” and “Singin’ in the Rain” were not just recorded with the camera; they were partners with it. “”Would You?” went one step further by including the editing into the partnership. The ballet makes great use of depth with reverse and forward tracking shots in the opening and closing sections of the number, which first serve to integrate Kelly into a panorama of dancers, and then finally confirms his isolation from them at the end. Within the entire number, a rarely still tracking camera adds energy and movement to Kelly’s dancing. Even when he is dancing for the nightclub patrons and the camera maintains an Astaire-like distance from him, the better to see him from top to bottom, Kelly’s choreography demands a continually moving camera to follow him.
The end of that section brings Charisse and Kelly together, and the camerawork changes to reflect the new dynamic. The camera ogles her leg with a pan, and makes its way up her body to her face in a leering attitude (accompanied by an equivalently sultry musical accompaniment). Once that sexuality is established, and the two begin dancing, the camera backs off to give the classic mid-distance perspective. (The same general approach is taken for the second time they dance in the fantasy sequence with the long white veil, except that the veil and the greater use of depth demand mid-to-long shots.)
At this point, the editing takes over the job of adding to the dance, working to add punch to some of the more erotically-charged dance moves. When Kelly gives up the rube persona and grabs Charisse, pulling her into himself, the film cuts to a tight two-shot, emphasizing Charisse’s joy at discovering this new, aggressive aspect of Kelly. Instead of moving back and forth, the camera now moves up and down, capturing a few seductive floor moves before returning to eye level. Once again Kelly pulls her in forcefully, and the film cuts to another close-up, this time followed by a quick arm move backward that emphasizes an instrumental wail in the orchestra while the camera tracks backward once more. The third and final close-up of the two almost kissing is interrupted by the offering of the diamond bracelet and the loss of the Charisse character to greed. Once the ballet returns to Kelly finally giving into the call to dance, this time with no distractions, the emphasis is on the moving camera again as it tracks forward and backward, adding energy and ending with that famous smiling close-up.
As a single musical, Singin’ in the Rain uses and incorporates music with so much flexibility and on so many levels that it redefines the way in which music can be presented in a musical. The hard and fast divisions often separating the song from a film’s narrative, thematic concerns, or structure have here given way to a pliant attitude that softens the distinctions among a piece of music, a comic gag, or a development of the narrative. This is due to two things. The song catalog gave the directors a group of songs unrelated lyrically to the narrative. Only two songs were integrated lyrically into the narrative, “You Were Meant for Me” and much more loosely, the title song. The rest were integrated in other ways.
The second reason for that pliant attitude is the specific way in which most of the songs were treated—they became performances within the diegetic world of the film. It’s the element of performance, which began to show itself strongly in “You Can Count on Me” and “Pearl of the Persian Sea” in On the Town, that now comes to the fore. Most of the numbers are performances for the select group of Don, Cosmo and Kathy, (“Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” “Moses”) or for shows or films (“Fit as a Fiddle,” “All I Do is Dream of You,” “Beautiful Girl,” “Would You?”). “Singin’ in the Rain” combines performance with self-expression, and the ballet presents performance and self-expression as two sides of the same coin.
As a film in the Kelly/Donen series, Singin’ in the Rain shows a marked decrease in the power of film to build communities and to transform environments. The number of people affected by dance has shrunk drastically, and the environment has changed from major cities to the indoor arena of the movie-making world. Dance had once been poured out onto strangers, and had been allowed to flow down the street. Now it’s increasingly bottled and stored, and brought out to be enjoyed in small quantities on special occasions.
Yet dance hasn’t remained stagnant. It remains as instrumental as ever in the creation of the couple, always a function limited in scope. And like a body of water that has been blocked up, dance is beginning to overflow its banks and find its level elsewhere. The level was in film structure itself. Dance began to enlist camera and editing as partners to replace the partners it had lost in the narrowing of its scope. No longer extending outward to people, dance’s influence is being absorbed by the film’s own cinematic language.
The ballet in Singin’ in the Rain is the virtual back door through which the real world begins to enter, a trend opposite to that of the other two ballets before it, which served to heighten emotions found in the diegesis. The real world, found in the presence and effect of the police offer in “Singin’ in the Rain,” is expressed in the ballet in terms of woman, or specifically, the other side of woman not found in the diegesis. Greed, sexual entrapment, and lust are acknowledged and explored. The fracturing of relationships, suggested in the other two films but always resolved in the diegesis, is presented as irrevocable. The urge to perform is the bottom line, however, and turns that loss into gain.
Aside from a new height of expressiveness in their musical numbers, the Kelly/Donen worldview has evolved as well. The pair managed to bring a number of the qualities expressed in the non-diegetic world in On the Town into the diegetic world of Singin’ in the Rain; the balletic gestures and emotional expressiveness of “A Day in New York” (a fantasy sequence) have found their way to a great extent in “You Were Meant for Me,” an emotionally vulnerable performance. The two explored the darker side of sexuality, cruelty and greed in the “Broadway Melody Ballet.” The dark aspects of that world expressed in that so-called imaginary sequence would ultimately find their way, with clear eyes and cynical heart, into the diegetic world of the directors’ next and last co-directed film, It’s Always Fair Weather.
Invitation to the Dance (1952-1956)
Between Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather, Donen and Kelly went their separate ways, likely anticipating that the previous collaboration would be their last. Kelly would pour his energies and passion into Invitation to the Dance, his personal project aimed at introducing the film-viewing world to the world of ballet. He would be producer, choreographer, director, and in one scene (at least originally), a star. He was living in Europe at this time, due to a tax break for Americans and to the increasingly uncomfortable life of a politically liberal entertainer during the first years of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Far from Hollywood, Kelly found himself removed from the production support of his home studio, as well as the guiding and creative hand of Arthur Freed. The film is famous for Kelly’s drive to make it happen, its overambitious scope, Kelly’s lack of clarity for far too long a time, and the continual disappointments that came with studio facilities that didn’t come close to those of M-G-M’s.
Aside from the HUAC pressure on him, his marriage to blacklisted actress Betsy Blair was coming to an end, and he may have been suffering a classic case of hubris. “The Oscar for the ballet of An American in Paris [sic] went to Kelly head’s instead of to his feet. No one could talk to him–and even his pal, Stanley Donen, stopped,” said Gerald Mast, author and film historian (Silverman 206). With personal troubles and his role as producer, director, choreographer, writer and star, Kelly has generally been viewed during this season as unfocused, distracted, and in over his head.
During his time in Europe, he was forced to honor his contractual obligations with his home studio with acting jobs in two poorly made films, The Devil Makes Three and Crest of the Wave, in neither of which he had much of a creative hand. He was able to finish Invitation to the Dance in 1952, but its release was delayed until 1956. As an all-dancing film with no spoken dialogue and uneven production values backed weakly by a studio unsure of the box office potential of the film or its star, it was a financial failure. Instead of becoming his hoped-for masterpiece. Invitation to the Dance has become notorious as an overambitious reach by a man who’d just peaked critically and popularly, and had moved away from the supportive people and infrastructure that had made his successes possible.
The story of the ultimate failure of Invitation to the Dance is a fascinating study, especially in the light of the end of the studio system and the shake-up of leadership within M-G-M. What is significant in terms of Kelly’s work with Donen is the direction of his interests and efforts. Free from partnerships with one up-and-coming director (Donen) and a veteran who’d brought him to the height of fame and critical regard just two years before (Minnelli), Kelly was free to pursue his own interests–and that involved classical ballet. He was taken up–some say obsessed–with the idea of producing a four-part ballet film that would feature some of the world’s greatest ballet dancers.
The descriptions of the four parts originally intended for Invitation to the Dance show his thinking and perhaps demonstrate where his artistic directions were headed:
- A love-sick clown falls to his death from a trapeze, trying to impress a girl
- A bracelet is followed as it passes through a dozen different hands, seemingly based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Reigen, the source of Max Ophuls’ classic La Ronde, released in 1950
- A sailor segment that matches live action with animation, similar to the concept of “The King Who Couldn’t Dance” from Anchors Aweigh, but with music by Rimsky-Korsakov
- A segment featuring Kelly interpreting American songs–filmed, but later removed from the final cut
Kelly was eventually to end up in the three remaining segments of the film, but his original aim is clear: this was to be an all-dance film, mostly classical, with no single narrative arc and no spoken words. Up to this point, Kelly’s classical interest was expressed in the occasional lyrical sweep of his choreography (“Our Love is Here to Stay”), in his fantasy ballet sequences (in On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin’ in the Rain), and in the classical “quote” he threw into an occasional number (e.g., On the Town’s “Prehistoric Man” and “Our Love is Here to Stay” as well as the dream ballet in An American in Paris, among others). With Invitation to a Dance, Kelly was looking to remove ballet from its film context (its entrapment?) within songs and films featuring more modern dance steps. If he shared the common artistic view that ballet was the highest dance expression, it appears that this film was his attempt to release ballet from the confines of the traditional American film musical and make it the unquestioned centerpiece of a major popular film.
Historically, ballet has seemed to need a great amount of context to succeed in films made in the West–from a few steps set in a modern dance number in a Gene Kelly film to becoming the work and/or life of the leads so that a strong dramatic narrative surrounds the balletic expressions (The Red Shoes, The Turning Point, Black Swan). That is a subject worthy of separate study, as is Kelly’s failure to realize the several reasons why Invitation to the Dance was something of a rêve fou. But this pursuit of a classical ballet film was the direction he was taking, and its production challenges plus the demands on his attention and energy–as well as required dramatic turns in films made for M-G-M in Europe–may go a long way to explaining his work in Brigadoon and It’s Always Fair Weather.
Fearless Fagan (1952)
Donen, on the other hand, was building rather than trying to hold on. His first film after Singin’ in the Rain was Fearless Fagan, a black-and-white, low-budget film about a circus trouper who takes his pet lion into the service when he is drafted. Based on a true story, it was a financial failure. Its one musical number is Janet Leigh’s version of “What Do You Think I Am?” The number is unremarkable in every way. Leigh has a serviceable voice that borders on lovely in the sweeter, quieter moments of the song, but is hardly a strong vocalist. Her moves are rudimentary at best. The camerawork and staging are perfunctory.
Give a Girl a Break (1953)
With his next film, Donen began to break away from Kelly and his views on dance, and toward his own integration of dance with film form. Produced by Jack Cummings, the “other musical director” at M-G-M after the more famous Freed and Pasternak, the film’s early credits announce, “Musical Numbers Staged by Stanley Donen and Gower Champion.” Champion was a famous film dancer and choreographer who became more famous in subsequent years as the choreographer and director of such Broadway successes as Bye Bye Birdie; Hello, Dolly!; and “I Do! I Do!” Co-starring was Bob Fosse, also a performer and choreographer who, after a short and moderate success in film, would also go on to greater success on Broadway with his choreography (The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees) and choreography/direction (Sweet Charity, Chicago, Pippin), only to follow that with more film success as a director (Cabaret, All that Jazz). According to co-star Debbie Reynolds, Fosse insisted on choreographing his own numbers, and maintained a creative rivalry with Champion throughout the making of the film (Silverman 182-183). With the moves coming from the dancers themselves, we can assume that the filming of the various numbers was Donen’s “staging” responsibility.
The title song “Give a Girl a Break” is the part-comic opening number featuring some dreadful options for a Broadway role, the search for which is the plotline of the film. The hopefuls presented include an unattractively large female singer, a nasal obnoxious-sounding singer (similar to On the Town’s Lucy Schmeeler, but without the charm), a physically lovely woman with a horrible off-key voice, a contortionist with a manly voice, and a pretty blonde singer with a decent voice who seems to have a sugar daddy ready to play the theatrical angel if his girl gets a part.
After introducing them individually, Donen breaks up the screen with all five in the frame at once, then moves them aside as he cuts to the three main contenders in a kind of talent demonstration similar to the “Miss Turnstiles” ballet in On the Town and the Lise introduction in An American in Paris. Reynolds is the typical hoofer/tap dancer, Marge Champion (married then to Gower) is the classical dancer, and Helen Wood is a powerful, athletic and acrobatic female version of Gene Kelly with an obvious background in classical dance. Unlike either Vera-Ellen/Ivy and Leslie Caron/Lise, however, none of these girls is the complete package, for any romantic relationship or for any show. The differing and partial talents of the three account for the discussions and conflicts of the film, and it’s a necessity in a film without a strong, single male lead (there are technically three). But this is a change from how the main female lead has been conceived and presented in a film directed or choreographed by/with Kelly. In fact, the dispersal of talents among the three women is the very opposite of Kelly’s vision.
“Nothing is Impossible” is the dance spectacular and team creation number that is nearly identical in purpose to “Moses Supposes” and “Good Mornin’” in Singin’ in the Rain, and is almost a combination of the two. As in that film, there is a challenge created by the lead actress, in this case, one who left the stage musical in a huff. For no understandable reason, this creates a need for a new score and lyrics, a challenge directed at composer/lyricist Leo (Kurt Kasznar). The number features the film’s three male leads, with the emphasis on Fosse and Champion, whose different styles in their later careers are obvious in this number even when they are supposed to be doing the same steps. The number provides the opportunity for the two great male dancers to do a number together (“Moses Supposes”), and shows the future success of the team with the “dancing” addition of Kasznar (“Good Mornin’”).
Kasznar is an Austrian version of Oscar Levant without the skills on piano. Unlike Reynolds, he can barely move and sing, but he is nevertheless incorporated into some of the dancing. There are two variations in the number that set it apart. One is an awkward moment of crossed hands and arms that results in a series of uncomfortable attempts to extricate themselves from their linked hands and arms. It’s an ironic problem that doesn’t augur well for their future success, as it follows the men’s hand-upon-hand-upon-hand gesture that commonly indicates unity and success. The other moment is when Kasznar suddenly leans forward and then leans back in moves that demonstrate the thesis of the song title. It’s a trick that Donen created, but is nothing more than that, and its only connection to the number’s purpose or meaning is its impossibility. The number at least ends in unity with the three of them exiting on their knees frame left, uniting them in movement and their hope for success.
As a chance to see two future stage legends (and in Fosse’s case, a film legend as well) dancing together, the number is historically invaluable. As a demonstration of dance as unity, the number is in the tradition of the team-creation numbers in On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. There is even a sense of performance within the number, as Fosse bends up his heel for Champion to lean on as he executes a certain dance move. They also kick side to side, ever higher and higher, in what ends up as much of a competition as a shared moment of performance. It is the film’s only moment of joy in performance, and ends up being a remnant of that joy that we found in Donen’s two earlier films with Kelly.
“In our United State” is the couple creation song featuring Fosse and Reynolds. The number begins with Fosse doing a serviceable performance of the lyric, followed by a series of dance steps–first his, then hers, then theirs. What is surprisingly lacking is the sense of joy as performers as seen in the previous Kelly/Donen films. Before the dancing begins in earnest, the two, seated, kick up their feet with Fosse taking the lead and Reynolds following. After that, the number has them performing before each other, with Fosse kicking off that portion of the number with his signature backflip. After Reynolds does her solo for Fosse, the two dance together, and at this point their connection is essentially lost; they become two dancers performing for the film audience. There is a quick look from Fosse to Reynolds in character as the lovesick young man, but there is no sense of shared joy in performance as Kelly and Vera-Ellen had in “Main Street” and Kelly had with Reynolds in “You Were Meant for Me.”
The number shows skill, and the two dancers are talented enough to belong together according to musical tradition. But compared to how performance itself connected lovers and created teams in earlier films, the connection here is perfunctory. Whether this is due to their rumored disconnection in the making of the film, or to the absence of the power of performance that would have been brought by Kelly’s involvement, the two are simply presented as skilled dancers entertaining the film viewer. The characters and dancers only connect emotionally at the comic end of the number when Fosse’s character accidentally falls in the water, and they reconnect–with their dancing behind them–as young lovers. Otherwise, the only unity the two demonstrate is in their uniformity of steps.
The other couple-creation number is the “Challenge Number,” which perhaps comes closest to a Kelly/Donen collaboration. Ex-husband Ted (Champion) visits ex-wife Madelyn (Marge Champion) to convince her that theater performance is in her blood, and that she has as good a chance to get the lead as the other two women in contention. To prove her still-present talent, he draws her into an energetic number that highlights the skills of the two dancers, and proves both to the viewer and Madelyn that she has the requisite skills–as well as proving to the viewer that the ex-couple should get back together. In the beginning of the number, Ted spins Madelyn around, demonstrating her grace and power. Then he challenges her by laying down a few quick steps, which she easily repeats, a set of moves reminiscent of Kelly and Garland’s more subdued challenge in Summer Stock’s “Portland Fancy”.
While the choreographic style is nothing like Kelly’s, this number carries more echoes of Donen’s work with Kelly than any other in the film. There is a certain conquering of space, as the dance takes place on rooftops and short walls, which adds different levels of height and energy. But the space ultimately remains a stage-like creative platform for the dancers rather than a space to be dominated. The camerawork is more inventive than earlier solo Donen efforts, with pans and a variety of medium shots and close-ups, though the camera has little connection with the performers as in Singin’ in the Rain. The editing, too, is exact vis-à-vis the dance moves (not always the case with dances in other musicals), another evidence of Donen’s technical proficiency.
The couple creation in the number starts off strongly as the two relate closely to one another in the early stages of the dance. Gower/Ted smiles occasionally at Champion/Madelyn during the rest of the number, but the dance ultimately breaks down into a demonstration of two talented dancers, more Fred Astaire/Eleanor Powell than any Astaire/Rogers collaboration. The phrasing of the previous sentence indicates one of the problems with the number. The two dancers don’t stay in character throughout, losing it early and only regaining it at the end of the number when they slip back into their acting roles. After the first few moves, the point of the number becomes obscured, and it becomes a showcase for talented dancers rather than a visual persuasion for Madelyn (and us) of her talents and her chances at the lead. The lack of connection between the dancers also dilutes the possibility of highlighting the element of performance found in the directors’ earlier work together; the absence of joy in performance–Gowers’ quick smiles notwithstanding–is ironic in a number that is supposed to inform us of the dancing talents of the two stars as well as of the romantic re-connection that we know will happen. A comparison of any number with Kelly and Garland will highlight the difference.
The equivalent of a fantasy ballet number in this film is in three parts, each featuring one of the lead males and their choice of leading lady. The first is a bubbly dance duet, set to an instrumental version of “Give a Girl a Break,” with Fosse and Reynolds. It’s an imagination number, where Bob (Fosse) is imagining himself dancing with Suzy (Reynolds), his love and hoped-for lead. It explores nothing of the yearning of the ballet in On the Town, nor is it a recapitulation of the love affair of An American in Paris. Neither is it an exploration of the darker aspects of greed, lust and the drive to perform we find in Singin’ in the Rain. It is a visual expression of sheer joy and infatuation. Not one to explore themes through dance, Donen is preferring to explore his technical cinematic options, a budding propensity he would continue for decades. The number is all balloons, streamers, confetti, and an exuberant dancing pair in yellow and white, and has balloons appearing out of nowhere rather than popping, and confetti and streamers floating skyward rather than down. As Donen explains:
“The special effects were accomplished by shooting in reverse,” said Donen. “Because [Bob Dowdy, Fosse’s character] is so in love, everything he touches is as filled with emotion as he is. That’s why the balloons blow up. But in fact, the way it was shot was to have Debbie and Bob do the entire number backward, so they are really popping the balloons with pins, which you don’t see. The sound track plays forward, but they are dancing backward, if that makes any sense” (Silverman 184).
The number is a first cousin to Cover Girl’s “Alter Ego” with Kelly and Royal Wedding’s “You’re All the World to Me” with Astaire. Like those two numbers, the technical effects are nearly distracting, but also bravura. All three numbers are set apart from the rest of the films in which they are placed by the special effects; and within the context of Donen films, it is often the combination of special effects and dance that makes for the spectacular in his musicals. While it appears that Kelly wants to make the camera and the editing rhythms a kind of partner in some of his numbers, Donen is leaning toward the partnering of cinematic effects with his dances. It’s no wonder Donen thought that the ballets in On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain were superfluous and unconnected. He apparently failed to understand or appreciate what those ballets were expressing and investigating choreographically, and couldn’t see how they resonated thematically or emotionally within their films.
Donen’s exploration of special effects continues immediately with the next scene, this film’s echo of the Oscar Levant-dominated “Concerto in F” in An American in Paris, where Levant placed himself in all the major roles in the orchestra, including the conductor. Here, Leo (Kasznar) is imagining his “dance” with his choice for the lead, Joanna (Wood), who excels in both classical and gymnastic modern dance. Donen opens the scene with a kind of left-to-right wipe that is seemingly created by Leo’s move of his conducting baton as he goes into the daydream. Dance-wise, it is similar to Ivy’s introduction in On the Town and Lise’s in An American in Paris in that she is shown as something of the complete, well-rounded dancer. But instead of showing her in a variety of costumes, poses and dance styles as in those films, Donen limits her to classical and modern. It demonstrates Wood’s range to some degree, but is not a demonstration of romantic worthiness signified by an array of dancing styles as it was in the earlier films. It is only Leo’s daydream at work here, and since she is only one of three girls being considered, even her set of skills don’t come close to erasing our memory of those displayed by the other two women. Since she is married, she is also out of contention romantically. We only see that Leo sees her talents and feels that her range would work best for the production, something already stated several times before.
What sets this sequence apart again from the Kelly/Donen oeuvre is the use of special effects, which are as as fundamental a part of the sequence as in the previous ebullient dance with Fosse and Reynolds. The wipe “created” by the left-to-right movement of his baton is only the beginning. Leo then imagines himself in an artful but indeterminate stage space, in full conductor regalia. Realizing he is alone, he taps his wand, and modern Joanna magically appears. He taps it again, and she disappears. He next summons classical Joanna, and he guides (controls?) her hand movements with his wand. After seeming to begin to conduct her for a moment, she is released into a series of pirouettes and spins that showcase her classical training. When finished with her first set of steps, she grabs the wand and turns Leo into the unlikeliest of male ballet dancers, complete with purple tights. He takes the classical male ballet role of cavalier, complete with lifts. That portion of the scene ends with a confusing and altogether unconvincing moment of possible romance with Joanna as she backs up en pointe, stops, and suddenly transforms into modern Joanna. She begins this portion of the sequence with a series of jazz-inflected moves, then moves to Leo, who inexplicably becomes her now-modern dance partner. He awkwardly leaps, grunts, and assumes a few simple positions around which she can leap and twirl. Other than demonstrating Joanna’s range, the number does little to nothing to advance the film, and reminds the viewer of the impossibility of the relationship between the two and of Leo’s inability to partner her in any real sense. Leo/Kasznar is completely out of his element as a dancer, or even a coordinated “actor who moves,” but the scene is played straight, and comes across as confusing in its intent.
The film then moves to the third segment of the “fantasy ballet” sequence with Ted, called “It Happens Every Time.” Donen claims no credit for this one, and said, “‘It Happens Every Time” is horrible, and I had nothing to do with it” Silverman 182-183). Ted looks into a mirror and sees himself and Madelyn in a “fifties-modern-looking” set of poles and floating lights. After the opening vocal by Ted, the two dance in a series of fluid, ballroom dancing-type movements that are in a completely different style than the two previous segments in the fantasy. While Suzy and Bob were new and excited lovers in the first sequence, and Leo the unrequited lover in the second, this segment showcases a mature couple, who move well together and are clearly still in love.
There is a point more than halfway through the number that seems to promise a walk toward a Kelly-like moment of deep choreographic emotion. The scene changes to a dark and empty space, and Ted enters alone. The other two theatrical contenders (Suzy and Joanna) enter, and it looks as if there might be an emotional struggle on Ted’s part. Madelyn enters too, but then so do several other unidentified dancers as well. They all disappear eventually, and Ted seems to choose, and ends up with, Madelyn. Champion is a limited actor, however, and with all his choreographic and dancing skills, only takes his mark, not infusing the moment with the angst, confusion, or pain that Kelly brings to these situations. The contemporaneous viewer likely knew the two were married at the time of the making of the film and had danced together for years, so the real-life story of the two dancers tends to dominate any diegetic meaning the dance might have within the film. It is finally a lovely if expected moment of dancing skill.
The film closes with a number from the show-within-the-film, called “Applause, Applause,” featuring Ted and Suzy, with a group of male back-up dancers that prefigures “Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks” with Dolores Gray, from It’s Always Fair Weather, a year after that. It is an overproduced large-scale number that begins with Ted/Champion (again, the identities are blended, to the number’s detriment) dancing solo with the backup dancers. Suzy/Reynolds is eventually introduced, and the number continues to the end, with juggling clowns, a clown on a tiny bike, a fire-eater, moving sidewalks, gymnasts, and a dancing human “horse.” There is even a moment with props that visually resembles and evokes the dummy on-and-behind-the-couch part of “Make ‘Em Laugh”.
The number’s lyrics are close in meaning to that number, as well as The Pirate’s “Be a Clown.” O’Connor’s song, of course, is a near-complete plagiarism of the Kelly-Garland number in melody and lyric. But more than that, both numbers extolled the joy of performance within their films, and in the case of “Be a Clown,” blended that joy with a final romantic attachment. In this number in Give a Girl a Break, the lyrics say essentially the same thing:
From orchestra to gallery
Could mean a raise in salary…
We live, we thrive
You keep us all alive
With “Bravo!” and “Bravissimo!”
We’re dead if it’s pianissimo . . . .
While professional smiles abound in the number and there is a great deal of energy exerted, there is little joy in performance, and the connection between the two lead performers is nil. Suzy is connected with Bobby now, and Ted is still (at this point) pining for Madelyn, so the number carries no sense of teamwork, victory, or couple creation. It’s a polished, if overly busy number, and the viewer only takes away the ideas that Suzy will be a success, as will the show. If anything, it demonstrates how little a production number can resonate emotionally or thematically, especially when compared to nearly every other number created by Kelly and Donen together.
The film ends in an entirely unbelievable and overly quick fashion as Ted walks away from the celebrating cast, dejected and alone, only to find Madelyn. She had seen the performance, is gracious about Suzy’s role in it, and tells Ted that she returned not for the role, but for him. Her sweeping run down the theater aisle into Ted’s arms is reminiscent of Norma Shearer’s arch moment of outstretched arms at the end of The Women, and is perhaps even more clichéd.
The film’s resolution is less dynamic than that of On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain for a number of reasons, some quite telling. In On the Town, the three men find their loves, and their essential unity as a team is affirmed as they return–all equally happy–to their ship. In An American in Paris, the central couple is finally created, confirming their dancing (thus, romantic) compatibility and equality. In Singin’ in the Rain, the final unity of Don and Kathy is not just a moment of couple creation; it is a victory over the schemes of Lina, the pressure of studio heads and producers, the challenge of sound-on-film, and any number of other obstacles to their professional and romantic success. As in An American in Paris, there is only one couple the viewer is meant to be rooting for, and the final pairing is meaningful on several levels.
In On the Town, there were three couples and one trio (the sailors). At the end of that film, the three couples are created with the promise of a future, and the trio is kept intact, and we assume, closer than ever. Looking ahead to It’s Always Fair Weather, we find the ending of On the Town the springboard for the beginning of that film.
But the hint of the darker direction the Kelly/Donen films will go is found here in Give the Girl a Break. There is also a trio of men, all looking for professional success and romantic attachment. All three found both in On the Town. All three found professional success in Give a Girl a Break–the show managed to go on–but two were (necessarily) disappointed in the final selection of the female lead. And only two found romantic success. The partnership among the men in On the Town is mutually supportive, helpful, and warmly encouraging. The partnership among the men in Give a Girl a Break is professional and workable, but often fraught with tension and finally, is more professional than personal. Bobby finds his love with the new star, a combination of professional and romantic success. Leo finds success in the new show, but is alone. Ted, at the end, rekindles his romance with Madelyn, but she has rejected the theater, so the two won’t be enjoying their professional union. Each story is wrapped up separately, leaving a tenuous professional unity as their tissue-thin connection, a foreshadowing of the division coming up in It’s Always Fair Weather.
Marge and Gower Champion were the ostensible “stars” and the first names listed in the opening credits, and the film ends with their kiss. But the true “performance-created” couple (and a far more engaging one, considering both the performers and their roles within the film) was Bobby and Suzy, who fit more into the pattern of Don/Kathy and Jerry/Lise. In terms of the previous Kelly and Donen films, the film ends with the “wrong” couple. In terms of what was coming up next in their collaboration, the division among the leads, the focus on special cinematic effects over emotive choreography, and the shrinking of dance’s power all signal the different directions the two directors would be taking.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is the film that finally separated Donen from Kelly. It gave him financial success and a new choreographer, Michael Kidd, freeing him finally from any hands-on involvement with the dance moves. It was Donen’s first foray into CinemaScope–a normal aspect ratio version of the film was created at the same time, but never shown–and he tackled the technical challenges of the wide screen in the same way he experimented with special effects in Cover Girl, Royal Wedding, and Give a Girl a Break. With Kidd in charge of movement, Donen was no longer working with someone trying to explore meaning through dance (Kelly) or trying to establish themselves as star film dancers (Champion and Fosse). This would be his film more than any other to this point.
But of course it was a musical, with songs and dance sequences, and Donen had his own ideas on how to create a backwoods, All-American musical: he would hire dancers to play the male leads. Kidd would make sure that they didn’t dance in any traditional sense. Whenever “numbers” involving movement would arise, they would arise logically from the narrative. A telling difference between Donen and Kelly and their divergent approaches to musical numbers is Donen’s view, expressed on the commentary of the film’s 50th anniversary DVD release, of the difficulties of moving from the main story to the songs [or dances], especially in films that were not backstage stories (Sobbin’ 2004). Kelly, who could be described as always acting during his numbers and always performing during his straight scenes in his musicals, seemed to see a unity between the diegetic and nondiegetic where Donen saw discrete units.
Kidd saw a unity between the diegetic and the musical numbers, too, though dance contained different, less emotive and dramatic expressions. Lead Howard Keel remembered that “Michael Kidd proposed one condition for the choreography for Seven Brides. There would be no dancing per se. The musical numbers would emerge naturally from the actions and motivations of the characters” (Sobbin’ 2004).
Perhaps attempting to out-Kelly Kelly, whose balletic scenes, energy and masculinity were still being compared to Astaire’s continental grace, Kidd created both smooth, graceful numbers (“Lonesome Polecat”) and an exhausting, rollicking “number” consisting of classic “high-steppin’” country dancing that evolved to intense competition and ultimately to outright fighting and destruction (the barn-raising sequence). Both challenged Donen beyond the normal by having to film them in the new widescreen format.
For the six brothers apart from lead singer/non-dancer Howard Keel, Donen was able to get four experienced classically trained dancers, one acrobat/gymnast (Russ Tamblyn, later to achieve his greatest success as Riff in West Side Story), and one athlete who was generally kept relatively still or in the background.
“Lonesome Polecat” had the six brothers out chopping wood as they pine for their beloved girls. Donen wanted to maintain a smooth unity throughout the number, but wanted to make filming easier by filming it in sections and having a few cuts. Kidd, this time throwing down the technical challenge to a director who’d had a history of doing that to his earlier collaborators, wanted to do the complicated number in one take, which was finally managed. After the opening vocal solo, the number is a rhythmic movement piece, with axes hitting wood on the beat and the men moving smoothly and languorously in the frame, reflecting the pensive pace of the song. Matt Mattox as Caleb has a solo moment spinning around and twirling his axe, reflecting his high level of classical training, but that is the closest the number comes to dance. The sequence uses movement to express sexual and emotional longing, but unlike in Kelly’s sequences, not through dance as much as through movement and rhythm. Kidd’s insistence on the single take takes the emphasis off the individual dance moves and puts it instead on the contained, cumulative effect of smooth, slow movements and a light presence of percussion with the axe hits. Movement, as dance was in the Kelly/Donen films, is not released, but literally restrained inside the single shot. Within the context of the film, unreleased tension works well with the narrative of sublimated, longing woodsmen. But within the context of Donen’s work, it is another example of film form dominating dance, in this case cinematically holding in the dynamics created by the men’s movements. The tendency would peak with It’s Always Fair Weather.
The most famous number in the film, perhaps, is the one where movement explodes out of the frame, expressing itself in a variety of athletic forms, and ends up becoming a force of destruction and disunity. It is the barn-raising sequence, which becomes the barn-razing sequence. The number begins as the six women of the woodmen’s affections begin a community hoedown with men from the town (clearly classically trained dancers as well). The six brothers begin to assert themselves into the dance, alternately becoming the women’s partners, and then losing them to the townsmen once again.
The competitive stakes are raised as the traditional folk-dancing gives way to perhaps the most energetic and large-scale bricolage number on film. The townsmen set off a series of spirited competitive movements that move from dynamic to dangerously aggressive. From logrolling at fast speeds to gymnastic turns on narrow planks (with and without axes), the dances and moves become a vehicle for some of the lustiest, brawniest choreography of any Hollywood musical. When the men dance with their women, the dancing is expansive and sweeping. When the men end up facing one another in various competitive movements, using every construction tool and accoutrement in sight from hammers, ladders, and saws to sawhorses and boards, the movements are athletic and forceful.
After a brief break getting the barn-raising competition officially off and running, the movement changes from dancing and gymnastics to increasing violent behavior on the part of the townsmen, working to slow down their backwoods rivals. Eventually, with the music racing (a fiddle version of “Bless Your Beautiful Hide”–Keel’s first vocal solo– performed at a rollicking tempo), a full-fledged fight breaks out, with punches and bodies thrown in equal measure. At this point, the number is reminiscent of Kelly’s “barnpole” dance in Living in a Big Way, when he “conquered” a half-completed barn for the amusement of the local children. This time, fighting with music replaces the dancing (a preview of A Clockwork Orange’s gang fight scene accompanied by Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie?), and the end result is anything but entertainment. The second half of the barn-raising number contains movement, to be sure, but it’s destructive movement that ends up hurting people and destroying whatever they had built of the barn. Dance began in the number with a traditional male-female couple-creation pairing, was followed by male-male competition, and ended up in physical damage and property demolition–a far cry from Kelly’s joyous romping in 1947. Perhaps the destruction of the dinosaur replica at the end of On the Town’s “Prehistoric Man” was not a fluke or exception, but something of a precursor to this demonstration of the damaging power of dance.
On one level, it can be read that the sublimation displayed in “Lonesome Polecat,” when released in this number, is dangerous and harmful, or that male competition, when taken to its extreme, is destructive. For the role of dance and movement in the Donen/Kelly films, the number represents another change of direction, and another technical challenge for Donen to overcome. Dance to create couples has been transformed from smooth romantic steps (e.g., “You Were Meant for Me,” the ballets of On the Town, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain) to raucous, high-energy country dance steps and twirls. Dance to unite communities, a hallmark of Kelly and Donen to this point, has been turned on its head as it’s moved from real dance at the opening of the barn-raising number to rhythmic man-to-man competition to accompanied fisticuffs that end in the barn’s annihilation.
Kidd succeeded in creating a number “that would emerge naturally from the actions and motivations of the characters.” The brothers were ready to explode–in love, in lust, in competition and in anger–and the fight scene is that logical explosion. In terms of people involved, energy, and a sense of culmination, the scene is the film’s fantasy ballet.
The CinemaScope format was Donen’s great challenge, as it was for many directors in the format’s early stages. “Lonesome Polecat” had the dancers spread out horizontally in the set with the left-side brothers up closer and the right-side dancers farther back in the frame for depth. The scene features small to medium movements of the dancers with a camera that moved back and forth and from foreground to midground. “Goin’ Courtin’” was a Jane Powell number, sung with movement as she tries to teach the brothers about the rules of “courtin’ girls”. She is nearly always on the move, and Donen only settles for a still camera when there are three or more in the frame. The number ends in a medium shot of six brothers and Milly (Powell) as they try their first comic attempts at dancing with a women. It was nearly all done in midground distance from the camera, with the emphasis on the horizontal.
The dancing parts of the barn-raising sequence were a greater challenge, as there were often 12 to 18 dancers in the frame. Donen kept them spread out horizontally (which became a classic example of what can be lost in pan-and-scan versions of widescreen films), and used depth in the same way he did in “Lonesome Polecat.” The dancers frame left are often closer to the camera, and the dancers on frame right are farther back in the frame. Or Donen kept the dancers moving diagonally, adding energy to the frame. Or he used subgroups to divide the frame into three. In frames with many people or lots of action, he kept depth by keeping various onlookers in the far background. He was quickly learning, and mastering, the format.
In both “Lonesome Polecat” and the barn-raising number, the role of dance is changing. In “Polecat,” it has been completely contained within a single uninterrupted shot, which kept its energies implosive. In the barn-raising sequence (really, sequences), dance begins almost uncomfortably in a couple-creation context (while entertaining for the viewer, it’s too fast to be enjoyable by either half of the couple), and ends up transferring its choreographic energies into athletic competition and finally, into an outright brawl. Donen and Kidd were opening up new expressions for dance, containing it with film form on one hand, and releasing new energies on the other.
Kelly’s biggest project and most popular success during this same time was Brigadoon, a legendary Broadway production put into the hands of Kelly and Minnelli. The filming was quickly awash in technical challenges, and proved to be a step backwards for Kelly. With the problems associated with Invitation to a Dance, and two unsuccessful European films for M-G-M, it was decided that he was not the best choice of director (Yudkoff 229). This was after three films that were successful artistically and financially, with two as director and the middle one (An American in Paris) where his influence was central to the film’s success. His newly weakened position as a filmmaker meant that his preferences for the film weren’t heeded. Soprano Kathryn Grayson was announced as the first female lead. Kelly, pulling in the direction of dance over song, sought The Red Shoes ballerina Moira Shearer, but was told that M-G-M contract player Cyd Charisse would be cast instead.
Wanting to place the film in its natural context–the hills of Scotland–as he was able to do to some extent in On the Town, Kelly eventually found that the studio insistence on the weather being unsuitable for predictable filming was correct. Hoping to at least film it in a natural California setting, Kelly was overruled and the film was brought into the studio lot. It was also shot simultaneously in CinemaScope and a 1.75:1 aspect ratio, which posed challenges in the new process, and which posed exhibition problems for those theaters not equipped for the various widescreen processes.
There were other artistic challenges. Kelly and Minnelli had two different conceptions of the film (Yudkoff 230). Minnelli didn’t like the stage version, and saw it as a song-driven musical. Kelly loved the stage version, and saw it as a dance musical. Minnelli had a point: The original Broadway production was a strong vocal showcase (the title song; “Almost Like Being in Love”; “The Heather on the Hill”; “Come to Me, Bend to Me”; “Waiting for My Dearie,”’ “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean,” and “Almost Like Being in Love”), though famed stage choreographer Agnes de Mille (who had done the original groundbreaking choreography for Oklahoma! on stage in 1943) had done the Tony Award-winning Scottish-flavored dances. With a combination of personal antipathy toward the choreographer and a desire to resurrect the choreographic aspect of his career, Kelly exchanged the legendary stage choreography for his own version, with disappointing results. His work, derivative of his earlier work and therefore not of a piece with the light Scottish-flavored fantasy, fell flat and seemed, for the first time, anything but fresh. His lack of fire was apparent to many critics of the time, and is painfully evident today. And because he was not the director, Kelly was therefore unable to coordinate the camera with the dances as he’d done in his last two directorial efforts; there was little to no creative interaction between the dances and the way they were filmed.
Contributing to that specific problem was the decision to film in CinemaScope, film’s latest weapon against television and a movie-going public that had settled down after the war and had begun its move into the suburbs. Minnelli, always focused on set design, placed most of the dances in lovely pictorial settings, which drained them of whatever energy they had and kept the camera at an enervating mid-to-long distance. The film was further compromised by Kelly’s presence as a vocalist in a primarily song-driven show. The gravelly light tenor that worked well in smaller, more expressive songs simply couldn’t carry the heftier weight of the show’s vocal numbers.
Song and dance in the film begin promisingly enough with a community-creating number “Down on MacConnachy Square.” The townspeople gather first in song, then go into a folk dance somewhat akin to American square dancing. The dancing fills the screen adequately, but other than expressing corporate unity, the number does little to create any excitement. The story of the town of Brigadoon necessarily adds a certain centripetal energy to all the activity on screen, as venturing too far out of the town will spell its demise. People indeed “come to the square” as the lyric insists, but not for any strong dramatic reason that advances either the theme or the plot.
“Waitin’ for My Dearie” is primarily a vocal number, with Charisse lipsynching the vocals of Carol Richards. The number is sweet and gentle, as is the choreography. In fact, the movement is decorative only, and carries no particular meaning beyond that. Minnelli manages to invest the image with some depth by occasionally showing action in the background on one side of the screen. But the number is a singer’s number, and neither Charisse or the other actresses in the number are given much to do. She gives a nod to her classical training with a few moves with toes en pointe and the occasional pirouette, but the number is ultimately reduced to a series of static or moving poses. Dance has not only been drained of meaning here, but is now just dressing to the vocals.
The most “Scottish” of the dance numbers is perhaps the most challenging vocally, which Kelly ultimately turns (again) into a dance: “Come Home to Bonnie Jean.” Though the role of the young lover Charlie is credited to Jimmy Thompson, who had sung “Beautiful Girl” in Singin’ in the Rain, he was a late addition and his vocals were already recorded by John Gustafson. It’s a strong vocal number, which easily functions as a community-creating experience. Though Gustafson provides by far the strongest male vocal experience in the film, the number eventually evolves into Kelly’s version of a Scottish dance.
At first, it draws the community together around Charlie’s expressions of love and anticipation of his upcoming wedding. But Kelly uses the number as a chance to dance with co-star Van Johnson. Unlike “Make ‘Em Laugh” or “Moses Supposes” in Singin’ in the Rain, the duet portion of the number neither advances the film narratively or thematically, nor does it unite the two male leads in any greater way. It simply satisfies musical tradition by pairing the two male leads in some kind of number. Johnson was a dancer, but in more of a traditional hoofer category. Kelly dances down to his level, and the two dance in a traditional American musical fashion that is strikingly at odds with Kelly’s attempts at a Highland dance flavor and the Scottish musical background.
The number affords the two male leads the chance to join the number vocally a few times, and provides a classic example of the American hesitance of expressing too much trained performance. The word “I’ll,” often held a beat or two in the number, was first sung by Charlie. Jeff (Johnson) joins in with a verse that befits his cynical nature, and when he hits the high ‘I’ll,” he hits it well, then coughs as if it’s too much of a stretch for him. When Tom (Kelly) joins in later with his more tender but weaker tenor, he hits the high note without a problem.
The element of shared performance enters the number not when the two leads are dancing, which is more perfunctory than joyful, but when the group sings the chorus and everyone hits the high note, Tom hits it along with Charlie, but this time, so does Jeff, this time without a cough. The note is clearly within Johnson’s range as a singer, but the song pauses for a moment to allow Tom and Jeff to rejoice in the fact that his character Jeff has hit the note, a moment celebrated by big smiles and a handshake. A decade later we find the same ambivalence toward what might be “mistaken” for high art (or for calling attention to the work–or talent–behind the song or dance when Julie Andrews reaches the end of “Do-Re-Mi” in The Sound of Music. The last high note is easily within Andrews’ range, but such a glorious note coming out of little Maria might be unseemly or distracting for any number of reasons, so Andrews puts her hand to her forehead as if the last note were difficult and demanded great effort.
Kelly’s dance bits with Johnson do no more than show them together. There is no special unity needed for a joint effort as in “Moses Supposes” in Singin’ in the Rain, nor are the two celebrating anything in their shared but unknown mutual affection as did the two male leads in An American in Paris’ “‘S Wonderful”. Even looking at the high dancing skills of Kelly and O’Connor in the former number and the strong vocal skills of Guétary (with help from Kelly) in the latter as sheer spectacle alone, the dance in Brigadoon falls woefully short in entertainment value, and even more so in meaning.
The number that created the couple is “Heather on the Hill,” a strong vocal number that Kelly also turns into a dance. Kelly’s dances with Charisse had smooth, classical lines, but the number is a pale imitation of the passionate love expressed in “Our Love is Here to Stay” in An American in Paris, which is similar in movement and narrative placement if not in intensity of feeling. Kelly pinches his first high note a bit as he begins singing, but generally carries the tune along with gentleness. Like the play’s original tone, the number is meant to capture the hearer by the fantasy created by the lyrics and the beauty and strength of the music itself. Kelly sings well if weakly and evokes nothing, and isn’t able to bring out the vocal beauty of the song. The number is finally undone by the camerawork, which tends to place the dancers far back into the image, robbing the movement of energy, passion or intensity. We see at a distance, but don’t experience, the newfound love and attraction we are supposed to believe is occurring; we can’t get in close enough, and the choreography is sweeping, semi-classical, and generic. “Main Street” in On the Town was sweet and included shared performance as a couple-creation number. “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain was lovely, tender, full of feeling and included shared performance as well. “Heather on the Hill” iss lovely but languid, has no shared joy in performing, and even ends up with a reverse tracking camera shot that reduced the dancers visually and emphasized the artificial set, ending on a traditional Minnelli note of art design over all else. At this point, too, Kelly and Charisse were so much a pair that Brigadoon didn’t even bother to prove their equality; the film just assumes it, as did its viewers.
“It’s Almost Like Being in Love” is Tom’s celebration of having found the love of his life in Fiona. It ends up a kind of combination of “‘S Wonderful” and “Singin’ in the Rain”. All these songs are celebratory love songs. The first was carried by Guétary’s strong vocal; the second was transformed into a dance and energized by the incongruous circumstances of singing so freely and joyfully during a rainstorm, as well as by Kelly’s dancing and his partner, the camera, that moved and swirled along with him. To begin with, Kelly’s thin voice isn’t a good fit for the vocal demands of the number, which demands the kind of strength and training needed in Singin’ in the Rain’s “Would You?” He sings straightforwardly in the first verse, and then the tempo and rhythm change slightly with the second verse, where he begins dancing. Perhaps to capture something of a dizzy lover, he begins to perform light bouncing steps and then twirls and leaps, finally even adding traditional hoofing steps into the mix. While not completely at odds with the lines and even the exact meaning of the song, the steps look like a derivative of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and the lightness and energy of the movements clash with the power and stateliness of the vocal.
Kelly manages to move over the artificial hills enough to suggest that he might be conquering space. But the space is ill-defined, and the hills and rocks end up as decoration for the dance. There’s no dominance expressed. Then the end becomes an imitation of the last moments of “‘S Wonderful,” with Kelly in the upper right and his musical partner (here Johnson instead of Guétary) in the lower left. The number is ripe for a traditional “big finish,” but primarily vocally. Kelly is going solo here without a powerhouse vocal partner, with a voice that just manages to grab enough power to complete the song. The “big finish” is provided instead by the camera with a reverse dolly that puts a great deal of space between Kelly and Johnson. In “‘S Wonderful,” that space was filled with onlookers participating in the joy, making that love declaration a community-building number. Here, it’s blank but for some artificial heather and a few rocks.
The marching entrance of the clans and the “Wedding Dance” are “fill the screen” numbers that feature bagpipes, drums, and nods to both Scottish and classical dance. There is nothing new choreographically and the latter is simply another wedding celebration dance, this time with kilts. The community, if not exactly fracturing, is less of a unity here, as it is now divided into clans. The unity is restored quickly, but not by dance. When Harry Beaton (Hugh Laing) threatens to leave Brigadoon and thus destroy it, the film suddenly comes alive. The chase is as choreographed as a dance, though the one-on-one “fights” are less than believable even by musical drama standards. But between the thrum of the music, the moving camera, and the movement of both the chasers and the chased, the film comes alive for the first time. The energy and threatening tone of “The Pirate Ballet” from The Pirate reappears, this time with a blue and green palette replacing the red. It even evokes the danger and style of Minnelli’s harrowing Halloween sequence in 1944’s Meet Me in St. Louis. It is ironic that the most exciting “number” in the film is a chase, albeit a choreographed one, with an invisible choral background and no dance.
After the danger is past, Kelly and Charisse reprise “Heather on the Hill” for the final dance. They move similarly to the first performance of the number, but this time against an instrumental version of the song. The choreography is essentially the same, as is the distant, enervating camera. Coming off the edgy highlight of the film (“The Chase”), the number is a repetitive letdown, only differentiating itself by Charisse’s red dress, the village location instead of the hills, and the concluding kiss. The film’s final musical expression is a reprise of the opening “Brigadoon,” signaling the viewer’s exit from the town.
Brigadoon is in some respects the portrait of an artist who is tired, stretched too thin, and bound by too many restrictions. Kelly’s choreography had come to include the camera, an impossibility with Minnelli directing, and specifically directing a CinemaScope film. It reduced his choreographic work visually, and essentially reduced the choreographer to simply a dancer. His voice is a poor match for most of his sung numbers, and the boundless energy exhibited in his earlier films is nowhere to be found here. While Donen’s artistic career was beginning to rise rapidly, Kelly’s had already peaked as a film performer/director. Their next and final film together showed both happening at once.
Deep in My Heart (1954)
After the learning curves provided by Fearless Fagan, Give a Girl a Break, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Donen plateaued, or even regressed, with Deep in My Heart, a turgid film firmly in the musical biography tradition of Words and Music, A Song to Remember, and Till the Clouds Roll By. The subject was Sigmund Romberg, best known for The Student Prince and The Desert Song. Instead of being produced by Arthur Freed, Joe Pasternak or even Jack Cummings, the task was given to musical director Roger Edens.
Within M-G-M walls, Edens was a legend as a musical and vocal director. He was a musical director since the mid-1930s, and had first made a name for himself with the 1937 Judy Garland performance of the classic, “You Made Me Love You,” with musical direction and extra lyrics addressed to Clark Gable. It was that performance at a studio birthday party for Gable that brought attention to Garland as a performer and launched her career. Edens became legendary for directing singers to their best songs, best keys, and strongest interpretations. Edens was also a musical director for most of Freed’s great successes, including The Wizard of Oz, Babes in Arms, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Band Wagon. He also wrote the incidental music for and musically directed Garland in her “Born in a Trunk” sequence in A Star is Born, a Warner Brothers production. While never a first-rate song composer, “Our Love Affair” from 1939’s Strike Up the Band may be considered his best. But he also wrote the songs “It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” and “You’re the Right Girl for Me” from Take Me Out to the Ball Game; the title song and “You’re Awful” from On the Town, and “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain, among many others. He’d associate produced many a film for Freed, sometimes uncredited. This was his opportunity to finally produce a film of his own.
Placing Edens as producer would automatically put a film’s emphasis on the vocals over dance. But Edens was also particularly enchanted with opera singer Helen Traubel, a rather staid film presence who is featured almost too strongly in the film, pulling it down in terms of energy and pulling the film in the direction of operatic vocals. She was a dramatic soprano best known for her Wagnerian roles, and in one sense was a logical fit for a biography of America’s best known composer of operettas. But her hefty presence as a fictional character kept the narrative earthbound and unnecessarily plodding.
M-G-M musical biographies tended to be more focused on the numbers and the guest stars that performed them; these kinds of films were more than simple musicals, but were a parade of talented singers and dancers that highlighted the studio’s dominance of the genre. Donen was not the most obvious director for this type of film, but felt that he owed it to Edens to do so, Edens having been such a support to Donen in the early years: “I don’t think Roger had any more affinity for Sigmund Romberg than I, and I would run from that picture like crazy except for Roger. I told him I would direct anything for him” (Silverman 201).
While necessarily holding fast to the formula for such films, Deep in My Heart nevertheless manages to connect occasionally with what both Donen and Kelly had been doing since their earliest work together. “It,” for example, is a solo and group dance number highlighting Ann Miller dancing the Charleston, with the inclusion of the On the Town star’s more famous tap dancing steps. The background dancers, costumes and set are a combination of Singin’ in the Rain’s “Broadway Rhythm” (Charisse’s green flapper dress makes an appearance) “Beautiful Girl” (several recycled costumes) and the opening film premiere (the vamp costume). The mostly unseen chorus dancer sitting at the bar in the beginning of the number is purportedly Kelly himself.
Kelly shows up as himself in his only film dance with brother Fred. “I Love to Go Swimmin’ with Wimmen” is a typical and unremarkable vaudeville number. Perhaps it’s because of a different style from the start, or because of Gene’s experience with film and its general insistence on more subtlety over the stage in terms of performance, but it’s notable that Gene’s moves are tighter than Fred’s and that his center of gravity while dancing is lower as well. Also of note is that this is one of the few times that Gene, when harmonizing, takes the lower melody instead of the higher tenor harmony, which is usually Gene’s staple part in a duet; Fred sings even higher than his brother. This places the number more in the Kelly performance oeuvre rather than one that belongs in this film; the two are not characters in the diegesis, and the presence of Gene Kelly moves the dance from an example of Romberg’s work at a specific point in time to a simple novelty number featuring America’s greatest athletic film dancer.
“One Alone” features Cyd Charisse in a pas de deux that takes moves past the almost comic sexuality of the “Broadway Melody Ballet” number in Singin’ in the Rain, creating perhaps the most erotic dance number of its time. The number, a song from The Desert Song, begins as a lyric with Charisse again lipsynching the vocals of Carol Richards. It’s then transformed into a sleek mating dance choreographed by Eugene Loring, best known then and now as the creator of the ballet Billy the Kid. Loring combined classic ballet and modern dance in his work, and “One Alone” uses two M-G-M dancers comfortable in both idioms–Charisse and James Mitchell, one of Agnes de Mille’s leading dancers. It has all the sensuousness of the more suggestive moments of Singin’ in the Rain’s “Broadway Rhythm” ballet between Charisse and Kelly, and even Kelly and Caron in the ballet in An American in Paris, but eschews Kelly’s more percussive, energetic moves. It’s sleek, smooth, elegant and as outright sexual as any M-G-M number ever done, going far beyond any of Kelly’s earlier work in sexual suggestion. It contains enough sexual energy and sexual politics to support a separate book, with Charisse’s aggressiveness and Mitchell’s presentation as both aggressor and object of desire, as well as an example of what becomes permissible on screen when it’s danced instead of simply acted out.
The “Leg of Mutton” dance sequence is a song-and-dance duet with Romberg (Ferrer) and Anna (Traubel) that purports to celebrate Romberg’s first successful “Broadway-sounding” hit, a departure from his more semiclassical work. It is a suggestion of dance as unifier that we see in Singin’ in the Rain between Kelly and O’Connor (especially in “Moses Supposes”). But unlike the gradual teambuilding we find in Singin’ in the Rain between the two male leads (and later, Reynolds) that leads to the success of a musical talkie, this number leads nowhere. The two are already close (if fictional) friends, and their ability to sing and dance together doesn’t lead anywhere; the Traubel character never becomes a performer in a Romberg musical, but stays a café owner and friend.
There is a good deal of joy shared between Romberg and Anna as they sing and move, but the number is more of a song demonstration for the viewer than either a performance for others (there are no witnesses) or even one another. Ferrer was known for his acting skill, and Traubel for her singing, but neither talent is on particular display in the number. Like the singer playing her, Anna could “get down” with a popular song, but that ability doesn’t play into the rest of the film. And unlike the high degree of artistry in the dances in Singin’ in the Rain, this is a simple song-and-dance on the level of a high school production. Ferrer would be known today as an “actor who sings” and an “actor who moves,” but couldn’t be called either a real singer or dancer. Traubel was a great operatic singer who could put over a popular song, especially in a jazz or Broadway idiom. But this number plays to neither performer’s strengths, and now comes across as awkward and ill-fitting.
Aside from the specialty numbers that make up the bulk of the film, there are some directorial touches that point to Donen’s continued exploration of film form. Directly after the “Leg of Mutton” dance sequence, for instance, Donen switches to the next number in a manner reminiscent of some of the segues in Singin’ in the Rain, especially the beginning of the “Beautiful Girl” sequence featuring “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin’,” and “Should I?” Donen keeps the “Leg of Mutton” song going under a montage of images of sheet music, dancing legs, dancing couples, and various brass and wind instruments. He uses depth and double exposure, and extends the frame by the entrances, exits and swirling motions of the dancers. It moves the narrative forward by suggesting the popularity of the number, Romberg’s first major success. Images of instruments appear in the sequence as they are highlighted in the musical arrangement, adding variety to the presentation of the song. Nothing is changed in terms of tempo, and the arrangement is typical of its time, but the segue, perhaps due more to Edens than to Donen, brings a focus to the internal structure of the arrangement of a number, at least suggesting the work and complexity involved in a final musical product.
The number that does play with the tempo and the concept of arranging itself is “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise,” (called “Sunrise in Paris” in the show within the film) first performed by Tamara Toumanova (a prima ballerina featured in Invitation to a Dance). It’s a presentation and arrangement similar to Debbie Reynolds’ version of “All I Do is Dream of You” in Singin’ in the Rain. The song is first featured in its composition phase, as an achingly lovely piece with a medium slow tempo. In its first stage presentation, however, the tempo is drastically sped up, and the undulating rhythms of its original form are replaced by the banging beats of a tawdry burlesque-style revue. The haunting song we heard in its original format has been mangled painfully, with musically insulting hard beats on the fourth beat of a measure and the first of the next, accompanied visually by crudely swinging hips. There is far too much hard drumming, including all four beats at the end of a verse. A female chorus appears after the soloist has her way with the number, accompanying her in a comically overproduced number that isn’t completed.
In “All I Do is Dream of You,” the goal was to introduce Kathy as a musical equal to Don, highlighting Reynold’s perkiness, and at the same time sending up Kathy’s earlier expressed aspirations to acting in the great theatrical roles. Here, the immediate context tells us that Romberg is horrified at what the musical producers have done with his work, and that he needs to somehow take back his music to preserve its integrity–a tension expressed several times in the film. In “All I Do is Dream of You,” the slight tempo change and relatively heavy percussion of the arrangement is scarcely noticeable. The main contrast the viewer is to understand is Kathy’s earlier fine words about her serious acting goals versus her light and entertaining performance. In “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,”, the tempo change and heavy accents of the arrangement are meant to be glaring–and judged harshly. There is flexibility toward musical arrangements in both films, but Kelly and Donen are much more subtle, as they are hiding the flexibility to use songs for other purposes than mere entertainment; Donen’s use of a quick tempo here in Deep in My Heart is simply to give a comic moment that demonstrates how plebeian, money-focused theatrical producers can mangle a beautiful piece of music with the wrong tempo and arrangement.
To make the point again, the film next has Traubel sing it the way that Romberg apparently intended it to be performed, much more slowly and with a much lighter accompaniment of piano and strings. Her voice is too heavy for the number, especially on the lower tones. But her interpretation is on the whole sensitive and lovely, and shows off the elegance of the song.
Some slight flexibility for comic reasons is exhibited as Romberg presents a one-man version of his latest musical for his future wife, her mother, and the future show’s producers. It’s similar in purpose both within and outside of the film to Judy Garland’s “Someone at Last” from the same year’s A Star is Born, where Garland’s character is donning different personalities and costumes in an attempt to cheer her depressed husband (James Mason). Here, Ferrer combines Romberg’s “Girls, Goodbye,” “Fat Fat Fatima,” and “Jazza-doo” in a virtuosic display of talent as he narrates, sings and dances the entire plot of the new play at a rapid pace, though his singing and dancing skills don’t approach Garland’s. But his version of these numbers shows a more flexible, yet more sophisticated, approach to the music than any other number in the film. On the shimmering surface, the number is supposed to inform the onlookers and us as viewers of the rather inane plot of his latest project. The greater purpose is a demonstration of Ferrer’s performing skills, which lean heavily on his comic talents and timing. (Mostly only half-remembered now, Ferrer was perhaps the most acclaimed actor of his time, along with Marlon Brando. He had a great deal of Broadway credibility that even Brando lacked, and he’d won the Academy Award for the 1950 film version of his Tony-winning performance as Cyrano de Bergerac, as well as another nomination for 1952’s Moulin Rouge.)
The songs in the number, therefore, take a back seat to the comic performance we’re viewing. As in “Would You?” in Singin’ in the Rain, we’re getting a behind-the-scenes view of a show, in this instance the narrative structure rather than the hidden technology making it happen. As in “Would You?” and the same film’s “All I Do is Dream of You,” this three-song Ferrer number in Deep in My Heart sacrifices the musical integrity of the songs for a higher purpose–here, the comic timing of a one-man extravaganza that bends tempos and melody lines to its comedic purposes.
The number is a performance, too, even within the film, but unlike most other such performances in a Kelly or Donen film, it’s done alone; no team is strengthened, and no community is even temporarily created. In fact, the number and Romberg are summarily dismissed by half of the small audience–the future wife and her mother–the very ones Romberg is ostensibly hoping to impress. Finally, in a Kelly or Donen film, performance fails, at least within the film. The movie audience is impressed with the performance, but within the diegesis, the producers are only happy there there is a completed play, and Romberg’s intended audience is actually repulsed. The death of performance will finally come with It’s Always Fair Weather, but this number demonstrates that performance in the directors’ work is hearing its death knell.
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
It’s Always Fair Weather began as a sequel to On the Town, intending to follow the lives of the sailors ten years later. But there were necessary casting changes. Frank Sinatra was considered too big a star (especially after 1954 brought him an Academy Award for From Here to Eternity, and after his resurgence as a singer with “Young at Heart”) and too difficult to deal with; Jules Munshin was no longer the draw he was six years earlier. With Sinatra out, the trend toward dance over song continued, and Sinatra and Munshin were replaced with real dancers. Thus arrived choreographer/dancer Michael Kidd (choreographer for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and actor/dancer Dan Dailey.
The plot takes the three men (now soldiers rather than sailors) from the end of the war, sending them off on their separate ways with a group pledge to meet again in ten year’s time. The decade passes and they meet up again in a painful clash of culture, experience and class that nearly destroys their friendship.
The lines between the diegetic and nondiegetic worlds of the Kelly-Donen films had grown ever less distinct with Singin’ in the Rain. That film’s ballet had contained threatening elements of the real world, and at least with “You Were Meant for Me,” elements that earlier might have found their way into a fantasy ballet were brought directly into the diegesis. With It’s Always Fair Weather, those lines blur even more. In tracking the changes the men go through during that ten-year period, It’s Always Fair Weather follows the changes in post-war America. Personal defeats, the loss of dreams, and the pain of deteriorating love relationships have moved out of the dream ballets and here are part of the narrative.
Ted (Kelly) is a cynical manager of a prizefighter, well acquainted with the sordid underworld of New York gamblers. Doug (Dailey) is a frustrated artist turned advertising executive working in television, trying to deny his feelings that he has compromised his talents. He’s married, but has no children, preferring to substitute material goods for family. Angie (Kidd) had dreams of being a gourmet chef, and now owns a pretentiously named hamburger eatery in Schenectady, New York, a location as mockingly referred to as Buffalo sometimes is in common conversation.
The film sets the mood right away by a montage of war scenes—hardly the typical upbeat opening for a musical. The trio is singing while marching through war, bombs, and fatigue. VE Day dawns with understandable relief and joy, but we are no longer in a fantasy musical world, or even one of heightened stylized realism. “March, March” is a martially rhythmic “number” connecting a visual simulation of drills with the three’s war experience and finally, with their joint celebration at a bar.
The film is in CinemaScope, and the directors (with Donen’s experience with Seven Brides as a guide) make full use of its possibilities. “March, March” makes use of the split screen, a device that will become increasingly significant on several levels as the film progresses. The three panels show the three men, following their individual progress through the war. “March, March” is heard first as a choral number in the background of the action. Eventually the three men are singing it as well, and the three panels change from showing the separate activities of the men to showing the three moving in unison, though still separated by the panels on the screen. The song brings them to the end of the war, and the three panels disappear, leaving the three in the same space and time. The effect is one of a gradual buildup of united action within the frame that culminates in the three moving together in the same space as they are released and enter their favorite New York bar, where the number ends.
The split screen is the unifying force that brings the men from separate places and activities and finally joins them within the undivided frame, abandoning them at the final moment to allow the three to share the same physical space. Rather than dance or even movement, it’s the split screen that creates the community, first by visually uniting the leads in movement and then by disappearing. The movement of the three dancers breaks down no barriers, but rather is contained in the three panels. Film form, specifically the split screen, is taking over the activities that were once the province of dance. Moreover, it is containing the dance itself within its borders.
The other technical aspect that calls attention to itself is the repeated use of double exposure (reminiscent of the similar montage in Deep in My Heart), allowing for images of the marching trio against a backdrop of changing war scenes. The technique, likely Donen’s contribution, connects the movement (the first “dance number”) to the battle history of the three as they progress in movement and song to what they hope will be a joyous reunion with their favorite bartender.
Once the men are united in the frame and in physical space, the energy and hope of the number is stopped short quickly. Instead of a warm heroes’ welcome by the bartender, the trio is told, “No more tabs—cash!” They are civilians now, and the world has changed. The American post-war confidence of On the Town is being replaced with a slightly curdled realism that will only grow more sour as the film progresses, and which is reflected in the treatment of song and dance.
Not only are these disappointments more realistically negative than the plot concerns of the other Kelly/Donen films, but the ways in which the stories and facts are presented differ as well. The songs came into the films differently, and the role of dance has changed yet again. Having turned to new directions in Singin’ in the Rain, dance in It’s Always Fair Weather works to come to grips with the loss of faith in the power of dance and with the musical forms that that faith had created in the two earlier films.
The film’s songs were written by André Previn, with lyrics by Comden and Green. According to Previn, “Betty and Adolph initiated me into the mysteries of how to construct a musical. They pointed out the fact (sic) that the songs must be inevitable instead of the way they were inserted in other producers’ films” (Fordin 433).Thus a more classically integrated tack was taken in regard to the musical, with lyrics worked into the narrative instead of the entire song itself being worked in, as with Singin’ in the Rain. Previn was also responsible for the musical direction, arranging and conducting, a combination of responsibilities he felt worked against the effectiveness of the music: “…to be honest, I don’t think that too many of the songs were very good, and that’s because I was too intent on having them sound clever or well arranged and all that” (Fordin 435).
Timothy Scheurer, in defending the need for variety in the songs of a musical, criticizes It’s Always Fair Weather from a conventional critical perspective:
The lack of varied songs is clearly a weakness because it has not, through song, offered the viewer the opportunity to experience and understand the multifaceted natures of the different characters and their relationship to one another….A well-rounded musical score is essential in a good musical for more than just entertainment’s sake: it is our direct encounter with the characters’ way of looking at the world and at life. (Scheurer 310).
Scheurer’s points may be valid for most musicals where the song is an expression of the character singing it. Yet Singin’ in the Rain demonstrates that essentially second-rate songs with limited musical variety can be made to express characterization, as well as build relationships and advance narrative—all through the context in which the songs are placed, and in the specific way those songs are used. Up to this film, too, the element of performance in Kelly/Donen films has been as significant as the style of the song or its lyrics. It’s the loss of that sense of performance and that flexibility toward the musical content that limits the expressiveness of song and dance in It’s Always Fair Weather as much as the mediocrity of the score. As compared to what the directors have done in the other films, too much respect is shown to the music as music, and not enough to music as an integral element of the entire cinematic expression.
Dance has progressed in the other two Kelly/Donen films from a community-uniting, couple-creating, time-and-space-conquering force to an urge located in the heart of the performer, a force affecting even the structure of the film around it. Yet the other two Kelly/Donen films have left a pattern of certain kinds of dance numbers, such as those arising from musical tradition and others showcasing the burgeoning power of dance. It’s Always Fair Weather attempts to resurrect these forms without a basis of faith in the power of dance that brought them into being in the first place. And in a reversal of dance affecting film form, film form, especially in the form of the split screen, begins to contain dance, breaking it into units and, ultimately, presenting it simply, as in days of yore, as entertainment for the viewer.
The first actual dance number is set up as a reaction to the virtual slap in the face the three leads have received from the bartender. After the abrupt greeting they receive, their disappointment is compounded when Ted receives a Dear John letter, a first indicator of what can happen when time passes. (The moment is accompanied by a few moments of background music straight from film noir, a remarkable break from musical tradition.) The situation is strikingly similar to Gabey losing Ivey in On the Town, where the response of the others was the uplifting “You Can Count on Me.” The situation could also have been ripe for a moment such as “I Fall in Love Too Easily” (Frank Sinatra in Anchors Aweigh) or Singin’ in the Rain’s “Make ‘Em Laugh”.
Instead, the three men move from bar to bar and get roaring drunk. Apparently, sadness and disappointment are now shared–even magnified–and not challenged. The first dance number, “The Binge,” is dance as foolishness, with the three drunkenly performing dance moves for and on one another. Eventually, acting in concert for the first time, they rudely stop a cab and use it choreographically as a kind of prop as they enter and exit doors, dance on the top of the cab and around it, and go in and out of the moon roof. Until this point, “The Binge” is an awkward mix of inebriated sloppiness and deliberately compromised classic hoofer steps. It’s the film’s first demonstration that the leads are dancers, but the unity expressed by the three is shared escape, dismay, and dissipated revelry. The narrative doesn’t build on that temporary new connection, but the emotions expressed are shot through the rest of the film.
The next section of the number is the famous garbage can lid dance. The three are banging lids together like cymbals when Doug slips a garbage can lid on his foot and begins to beat it rhythmically on the pavement. Ted and Angie notice it, and grab their own garbage can lids. They dance together at first, even using the ever-present curb in Kelly’s choreographic toolbox. Then the three break away as individuals performing for the other two. Here, performance is again brought to the front as in On the Town’s “Prehistoric Man,” “You Can Count on Me, and especially, the title number itself, all of which have the characters performing for one another, even to the point of applauding. This, however, isn’t the kind of performance that would endear the performers to those around them, or that would unite a diegetic audience in anything other than a shared desire to call the police on them for disturbing the peace. It’s performance, but lacking in any sense of joy, and any uniting it might create would be suspect.
The last section of this number most closely resembles the most energetic parts of “New York, New York”. The three are seen in a reverse dolly, running toward the camera three abreast on the wide screen. They nearly anticipate West Side Story (which opened on Broadway two years later, and appeared on the screen six years later) in their leaps and bounds near iron fences, elevated trains, storefronts, and brownstones. Like “New York, New York,” which comes at the beginning of On the Town, this opening dance in It’s Always Fair Weather expresses a unity among the three, and sets us up in one sense to see these three as conquering heroes.
The city is indeed New York, but no one would know it by the dance. No highlights are seen. It’s night, not day, and the setting is a deserted, generic city street, lacking any of the specificity of the landmarks seen or referred to in On the Town. The opposite is shown—we see only the world of all-night bars and dark streets that could be in any city. There is no area, much less a city, that’s metaphorically conquered. The three are drunk (and were a police officer present, probably considered disorderly), and instead of ending up at a landmark or high atop a skyscraper overlooking their new territory, they end up once again in a bar. Rather than expressing any kind of joy and anticipation, they are beginning to wallow in a combination of pity/self-pity and dissociation with their new role in a post-war world. Seen years after its original release, this last section of the dance seems desperate and striving, as if wild energy might conjure up something of the hope and cheerfulness of the musicals of the previous decade.
When the bartender reminds them that folks don’t like drunk civilians as they might have tolerated tipsy sailors, the three realize that they have a new identity, and it’s time to go their separate ways. “Time for Parting” is a surprisingly maudlin number, especially for a song that sets a musical into action as the three go their separate civilian ways:
Though the time has come for parting
And the future is unknown,
Although the years may come between us
We will never feel alone…
We’ll be friends until we die.
As the song closes with the three pledging true friendship until they meet again, a predictive pall has been cast over the sentiments. Their expectations have already been dashed twice, with the bartender’s harsh greeting and Ted’s letter. Their response to that disappointment was to be inebriated, so we have only witnessed immature responses to disillusion and change. The hope and excitement of On the Town has been replaced by fear of the future and the hint of failure. The joyful exuberance of Singin’ in the Rain has been replaced with apprehension.
Overhearing their promises of lasting friendship, the bartender cynically tells them that he’s seen these kinds of optimistic protestations before, and that such promises are always doomed to failure. Ted challenges that dire pronouncement, and the three agree to meet in the same bar in ten years from that date. From this point on, the stakes have changed, growing inward. The goal is no longer to conquer a city, see the sights and get a girl. Nor is the goal the creation of a fruitful partnership, love relationship, or a film that will reinvigorate or jump-start successful careers. The goal is now simply to hang onto a trio of friendships forged in the war. The stakes have never been lower, and between the bartender’s pessimism and the assumed experiences of the audience a decade after the war ended, the prospects of success seem tenuous at best. The cinematic treatment of the three nearly confirms the upcoming troubles. There is a reverse bird’s-eye shot of the three that pulls back enough to see the cityscape as the three lose themselves in the image.
Up to this point, the wide CinemaScope screen has been used simply, with the three men generally placed left, center, and right. Even as the next sequence begins, which shows a kind of “March of Time” through the next ten years, the men begin in the same places on the screen as they were in “March, March”. While remaining in the same place, their clothes change to civilian business suits and ties. But as 1947 begins, the three, though in the same relative places on the screen, are now separated visually in a split screen as they embark on their career paths. There is even new individual music playing under each one as we see Doug move into graphic design and advertising, Angie begin testing recipes for his restaurant, and Ted playing pool. Doug gets some indiscriminate martial music, Angie gets an upbeat version of “Time for Parting,” and Ted gets a sleazy arrangement of “(Can It Be That) I Like Myself?”, which arrives as a full-blown song much later in the film. The separation among the three is shown to us not in song or dance or dialogue, but through the split screen.
The changes continue with the split screen as Doug gets married, Angie does the same, and in the middle, Ted is shown with two girls enjoying a night on the town. The pattern continues as we watch Doug and Angie run into the drudgery of their jobs, and Ted gambling and winning, and then Doug and wife growing in possessions, Angie growing in children, and Ted gambling and carousing, this time losing both cash and female companionship. Finally, the three are rejoined in the frame, moving toward the viewer as in the beginning of the sequence, but looking bored and beaten down, with a “ticking clock” sound accompanying their mood.
The three make it back to the bar ten years later, but of course they’ve changed. Angie is still naïve and is excited to be there. Doug has put aside his artistic aspirations for a good-paying job in advertising, but suffers medically and is on the verge of a divorce. Ted, who was only accidentally reminded about the reunion and castigated himself at first for being a fool to go, has been revealed to be a drinking gambler who won a boxer in a bet, connecting him to the underworld.
After a couple of awkward rounds of drinks, which only emphasize what the years have done to bring them to different places in life and perspective, Doug offers to treat them to lunch at a high-end restaurant. “The Blue Danube (I Shouldn’t Have Come)” is the group response the three have to their uncomfortable reunion, and is almost an anti-song. A string quartet is playing the Strauss waltz in the background with the three sitting in the foreground, spread out equally across the wide screen. A brief conversation among the three only serves to divide them further, and then the non-sung song begins. The camera moves into a closeup of Ted, who begins the song with his silent thoughts of regret that we hear as sung to the tune of “The Blue Danube”: “I shouldn’t have come….”, calling the other two “a snob” and “a hick.” The closeup not only separates him visually from the other three, but the screen size and aspect ratio change; the close-ups are much smaller images in something closer to a normal widescreen (non-CinemaScope) shape.
When Ted’s portion of the song is done, the camera pulls back, and there is a nearly-invisible cut to show the three again in their original seated positions. Meaningless conversation ensues. Then Angie gets his close-up and regretful lines, followed by Doug’s similar laments. As the number reaches its crescendo, the tempo increases, and the film moves into a series of quick cuts among the three as they join together in (thought) song, bemoaning their decision to meet with the others.
Music is disappearing into film form, and being captured by it. Yes, the words tell us what we already know about their judgments of one another, but it’s the close-ups, split screen and change in aspect ratio that tell the story. The quick editing at the end of the number, coupled with a united crescendo, loosely reunites the men, but it unites them in discomfort and isolation. The use of split screen, for all its interaction with the musical form, is the dominant ingredient in the number, and highlights, through its partitions, the divisions among the three. This functions narratively, but works against any sense of musical expression as coming from the characters. The form of the number tends to call attention to itself, drawing attention away from the song and offering itself as performance instead of the music. It also breaks down the number into discrete units and reconstitutes them, presenting a construction rather than a performance.
The music is deliberately derivative, and isn’t quite a song for a number of reasons. It’s a well-known melody with only clever lyrics added, and these aren’t even really sung in the diegesis–just thought and expressed musically with the typical reverb we associate with expressed thought. Whether the men’s voices were meant to reflect their unease and frustration or not, the singing is second-rate and not always on pitch. Though Kelly was never a strong singer, he was always precise in terms of pitch and tone. He often used a light falsetto or sacrificed what could have been a vocal belt in some of his songs so that the pitches were true. Some of the pitches in “Blue Danube”–by Kelly and the others–are more approximate than exact. As musical performance, even the unspoken “singing” falls short of entertaining.
There is a typical musical couple-creation moment in It’s Always Fair Weather, but it has nothing to do with either song or dance. Jackie Leighton (Cyd Charisse), a high-level television program coordinator, meets Ted at the awkward lunch, and Ted begins to put his standard moves on her in a cab they share. She quickly turns the tables on him, “remov[ing] the initiative of the brute male, [so that] he’ll retire in confusion.” We’ve already seen Ted’s aggression and confidence; in this scene, the viewer gets a display of Jackie’s educational accomplishments, sharp intelligence, ability to reverse expected sexual dynamics, and broad array of knowledge–even in the area of boxing. Ted, impressed and with the wind out of his sails, relaxes and opens up about his disappointment about the reunion.
The scene is an extraordinary reversal from previous Kelly films. The fears, insecurities and darkness previously found in Kelly’s ballets have found their way into the diegesis here in Ted’s bared heart, and the sexual aggressiveness of Charisse in her Singin’ in the Rain ballet has made its way into the diegetic world of the film, throwing Ted off-balance. He regains some equilibrium at the end of the scene by correcting Jackie’s Shakespearean quote, and they are finally presented as strong, sharp, cynical equals. By the end of the ride and their departure in different directions, they’re something of a new couple, based not on an equality expressed in song or dance, but on intelligence, personality and wit.
The true musical vocalist of the film is Dolores Gray, aptly described as “a contralto that sounded like a freight train slathered in honey” (Phillips). Gray was known more for her Broadway work, and possessed a powerful vocal instrument. (Respect for her talents won Gray a Tony Award for Best Lead Actress in a Musical for her role in Carnival in Flanders, setting a record unlikely to be broken by winning a Tony Award for a show that ran the shortest amount of time–six days.) Here Gray plays Madeline, the star of a late-night show that would today be considered reality television. Her singing is a straightforward delight to the ear. But as done with the music in Singin’ in the Rain, there is a context given to her songs, reconstituting them as more and less than direct entertainment. Her performance throughout, when both singing and acting, is slightly exaggerated, and is something of a send-up of the musical variety shows of the time, as well as the over-dramatic personalities often found in front of the camera.
Her first number, “Music is Better than Words,” is ostensibly a rehearsal for that evening’s show. The song is done expertly, and Gray’s voice soars. But other than offering itself for a study by privileging song over speech in its lyrics, and equating music itself with simply song (rather than other forms of music), the number is merely spectacle. Its lyrics stand alone, unconnected to narrative or character. Just five years earlier, for example, in Summer Stock’s “You, Wonderful, You,” Kelly began to explain to Garland that “If the boy tells the girl that he loves her, he just doesn’t say it–he sings it.” That same sentiment is expressed here in the lyrics, but the meaning is lost. The moment simply shows us Madeline’s (significant) vocal talent, and is no more than an enjoyable experience. Being primarily a dance musical, the film presents this song only as vocal spectacle with no resonance throughout the rest of the film. In fact, the experience ends abruptly as the sequence immediately becomes a satire on early television, reality shows, and spoiled histrionic media personalities. The sequence turns the use of artificiality in Singin’ in the Rain’s “You Were Meant for Me” on its head. In that song, Kelly used lighting, wind machines, and backdrops to bring forth real emotion. Here, the technical elements of a television production (background orchestra, sound effects, etc.) are presented as strained and pretentious. Nothing is real about Madeline, her songs, or her show except her singing abilities.
“Stillman’s Gym,” an ode to the classic boxing training gymnasium, is a kind of throwback to the rousing numbers of earlier decades (e.g., “Stout-hearted Men” or “Babes in Arms”) but with experienced boxers doing the singing. An all-male vocal number with rough-edged voices but classic four-part harmonies, it’s also a community creation number uniting the fighters and trainers where Ted’s fighter works out. Where it’s different from previous numbers that create communities is that it essentially creates a world that’s self-contained. The gym and its inhabitants don’t become a conquered city such as Paris or New York. Nor do the gym’s fighters become a creative team as in “Good Morning” in Singin’ in the Rain. The place is merely a setting for a song, and the group unites to sing homage to the gym and then to back up and highlight Charisse in her next number.
“Stillman’s Gym” is also different in that the community isn’t created around Kelly’s character, but simply around the legend of the gym and the memory of its more famous boxers. Though the plot places Ted in the gym time and again, the fighters first gather around the historical importance of the gym to the boxing world, and then form the backdrop for Charisse’s big number, “Baby, You Knock Me Out.”
That number flows immediately from “Stillman’s Gym,” and does much the same work as “All I Do is Dream of You” in Singin’ in the Rain, and the two fantasy description numbers of Ivy and Lise in On the Town and An American in Paris, respectively, or even the title song in For Me and My Gal. In terms of demonstrating Jackie’s suitability for Ted, it’s a success as well as a showcase for the talents of the dancer. But Jackie has already proven her equality and made her connection with Ted in the previous taxicab scene. Neither of the characters knows it yet, but the viewer is aware that the two are already in the first stages of couple creation. When Jackie shows her dancing skills, Ted isn’t even there to observe them, arriving as the number ends. The number succeeds in establishing Jackie’s connection with the boxers, and provides Charisse her moment in the sun according to musical tradition. But only the boxers get to see her talents on display, and the unity created is Jackie’s with them. (On another level, perhaps the number was also a deliberate, more heterosexual nod to “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?”, the Jane Russell number with a group of uninterested, uninvolved “Olympic athletes” from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from two years earlier)
Dance has lost its power to do anything here but entertain. The unity of the boxers was already created vocally, and not around Jackie’s dancing, which simply provides the typical spectacle of a musical. As a demonstration of how appropriate Jackie might be for Ted, that has already been established in a non-singing, non-dancing dialogue scene. The element of performance is nearly gone in this film as well, only showing itself in a later number that has nothing to do with helping to create the couple. In fact, the “performance” element, the spectacle, of this number is not Charisse’s dancing, but the song’s introduction that has Jackie list off her impressive knowledge of boxing names and statistics. That knowledge is what finalizes the unity with the boxers, making the actual musical number a celebration of her knowledge rather than a unifying, impressive expression in its own right. (“What a dame, what a dame, she belongs in the Hall of Fame!”) Once the number is over (unlike similar moments such as “Prehistoric Man” and “All I Do is Dream of You”), only then does Ted appear, and is impressed not by her dancing, which he doesn’t witness, but by her connection with the fighters: “I see you’ve made quite a hit with the fellas.”
The final blow of film form over dance and performance in the Kelly-Donen films comes with “Once Upon a Time,” which constricts dance, and “Situation-Wise,” which demonstrates its new powerlessness. The former number, a lament in dance and a little song, comes at another moment of disappointment for the three men, after they have taken what they feel is their last leave from one another. Each expresses his depressed mood about dashed dreams primarily through dance, and the screen, through another set of three panels, contains their identically choreographed dances. Like “Blue Danube,” it is a legitimate solution to the challenge of using a wide screen to present a musical number, and functions well narratively: the men, though separate, share a common disappointment. The net effect, the performance itself, is the result of the screen’s uniting them; no actual screen space is shared nor is there any intention to share dance.
The number inadvertently opens with a sad reminder of what was. Ted (the singing is a voiceover with Ted deep in thought) sings the opening chorus (“Once upon a time, I had two friends…”) on pitch but with a thin, older, gravelly voice. He sounds tired and worn. As the film hasn’t had any of the three leads perform a vocal solo up to this point, the viewer hears Kelly more than Ted. There is nothing in the number that suggests that the loss of vocal power is meant to be noticed, but the drop in quality from Singin’ in the Rain through Brigadoon to this film is evidence of the ravages of time. The message works well, if unintentionally, for the themes of breakdown within the film, and in the context of the musical, for the end of an era.
Again, as in “The Blue Danube (I Shouldn’t Have Come),” the “performance” is largely that of the film itself, and emanates from a divided wide frame rather than from anything to do with either song or dance. It is a complete reversal of the dynamic seen in “You Were Meant for Me” and “Would You?” in which cinematic language grew in response to the music. Here film form manufactures the performance, denying any deeper affinities among the characters. A sure comment on the alienation of a generation, it is also a sad testament to the loss of dance’s power to create community. Dance is contained, even broken into pieces, constricted by an overwhelming and containing regret. The harsh realities of the outside world have beaten dance into surrender, adding the sadness of the loss of its power to the narrative disappointment experienced by its three male leads.
In “Situation-Wise,” the failure of dance to transform the environment or solve problems is exhibited in explicit detail. The solo by Dailey is a critique of fifties business-speak, with its focus on business strategy and profits over people. Doug is in a meeting with key executives of his company, where their talk turns into rhythmic speech, with “-wise” added to many a business expression. Doug eventually dissociates himself mentally from the energetic discussions in the room, and the film uses a matte shot with Doug in focus in the front and his business associates in the background, out of focus and moving around with energy but little purpose. While speaking of projections, they refer to December, January, February and March. The mention of the last month stirs Doug out of his distracted musing, and he recalls the first song that he and his friends sang at the opening of the film (“March, March”).
Doug takes a temporary break from the meeting to virtually “join” the two other men in “Once Upon a Time.” After that number, the film picks up on Doug at a party with the same executive and their wives. He is now thoroughly drunk, having defied doctor’s orders as he indulges his self-pity and frustration with his job and marriage. He becomes aggressive, is rude to his boss’s wife, and challenges his boss to fire him with derisive and insulting comments. After making the positive (for him) change of shaving off his moustache, he begins the number proper, a savage satire of business-speak, classic love songs, television, and Jerry Lewis. His behavior is inappropriate from beginning to end. He’s in the cinematic tradition of the funny drunk, but his actions are anything but comic. He sloshes around awkwardly, spills his drink, pulls his boss’s wife on his lap, spins around another unwilling partner, and uses various items in the living room set to play imaginary bagpipes and become imaginary characters. This is Doug’s frustrated attempt to re-create his world through song and dance. It is also an all-out rebellion against the hypocrisy, pressure, tension and self-serving subservience involved in his profession.
Yet instead of drawing in the onlookers as did Ted in “I Like Myself,” the number only succeeds in alienating them. Dailey incorporates a number of styles of dance, from classic hoofing steps to the Charleston, but they don’t carry the meaning of previous such numbers; they are more like a new color or flavor thrown in for variety. It’s an impressive demonstration of his vocal and dance abilities. But the number escalates from rude to dangerous. Doug insults and scares several of the people present, and ends the performance by attempting the remove-the-tablecloth-without-disturbing-the-table-setting trick, a feat he had performed with ease earlier in the film. But he fails miserably here and falls down in a faint. His attempt at transforming his environment and working out his problems through dance has been a failure, and not even a noble one. He has made a fool of himself, and is still filled with the same self-condemnation and frustration he had before; it is only the forgiveness of his boss that prevents him from being fired or embarrassed further. While “I Like Myself” and “Baby, You Knock Me Out” were less successful than their counterparts in earlier Kelly/Donen films, it was not for want of trying. “Situation-Wise” admits defeat directly. The world of dance here is the maudlin, bitter, and angry expression of a person who has sublimated his sense of failure, and has preserved his angst in alcohol. Reality is too strong for dance to change it, and the moral of the number is the futility of even trying.2
Feuer, who views “Situation-Wise” as a kind of demented bricolage number, notes the destructive elements, and extends their meaning to a seachange in the musical’s expression of energy:
Bricolage no longer represents a carefree life force; it assumes an inner compulsion to destruction and chaos, qualities buried in the classical musical’s affirmation of liberation and personal energy. Summer Stock had hinted at an anti-social tendency when the entertainers destroyed the farmers’ livelihood, the tractor. Now in Dailey’s frantic violence, destructive energy comes to the surface of the film in a quite disturbing way. We begin to see the dangerous undercurrent to the musical’s wholehearted endorsement of spontaneous energy…. “Situation-Wise” renders explicit the counter-conventional forms the bricolage number may assume (108-109, 2nd ed.).
“I Like Myself” is Kelly’s solo in the film, and technically is an imaginative variation on such famous roller skating sequences as found in Chaplin’s The Rink (1916) and Modern Times (1936). Ted has discovered that the fight his boxer is in that evening has been fixed by gangsters, and in response, Ted has made sure his own fighter is unable to fight. With the gangsters chasing him, he hides out in a roller skating rink until out of danger. Forgetting he’s still wearing the skates, he goes out into the street and begins his “dance”. This is Kelly’s last expression of dance that conquers space, creates communities and brings the issue of performance to the forefront. Having escaped imminent danger and feeling acceptance and perhaps the promise of love from Jackie, Ted is in a new place emotionally. He begins to sing of liking himself for the first time in a long time, and the song is as positive as anything else in the film. Kelly even begins the number in a similar manner to “Singin’ in the Rain,” with whistling replacing the “doot doo doo doo’s” of the earlier number. As in that number, the expression of joy is on a series of sidewalks and edges of roads, with a post office box and fire hydrant replacing the famous light pole.
Ted begins skating among observers, and eventually attracts followers, a small group of people who stop when he does and continue when he moves. Once he finally realizes that he’s wearing the skates, he begins performing for this small group, doing a series of classic tap moves. As he continues, he draws in larger crowds, eventually incorporating longer sweeping moves, even repeating the “Singin’ in the Rain” up-and-down steps along the curb. He goes so far in conquering this new space that he skates on out to the middle of the street, finishing the number with a flurry of classic steps. This draws the crowd in tighter, and the number climaxes with a surge of appreciative, clapping witnesses surrounding the beaming Ted. Though it’s only a few streets, space is conquered. Though it’s only a small and temporary group, Ted’s admirers are his formed community, as the inhabitants of Stillman’s Gym were Jackie’s. And performance hits its most joyous peak in the film in this number; Ted has no one to perform with, but once he realizes that he’s still wearing the skates, the joy of self-acceptance is elevated into performance until the end of the number. Even if experienced as a lone performer, performance can still be shared as long as there are appreciative onlookers.
Yet if this is the highest expression of joy in the film, and one of the few moments of shared performance, it’s completely undercut by the narrative and the context. Ted has found acceptance by putting himself into mortal danger from the gangsters, and as an expression of joy, the number is compromised by its context. Ted has manifested his self-hatred in the previous scenes with Jackie, and disappointment in himself has been joined to the disappointment of the failed reunion.
The growing doubt that the film has in the power of song, dance and performance to bring joy or truth is echoed in the words of the song. After the introduction, Ted sings the first verse, introduced by a new possibility: “Can it be . . . I like myself?” Other lyrics include “Feeling so unlike myself, always used to dislike myself . . . .” These are sentiments diametrically opposed to the confidence of On the Town and Singin’ in the Rain. In the former, Kelly’s character feels discouraged for a while in his failure to locate Miss Turnstiles, and in the latter, he has a moment of doubt about his role as an actor that is cured by a performance of “Make ‘Em Laugh.” Both moments of discouragement were temporary, and not as deeply embedded as here. Ted’s self-hatred only adds to the cynicism, disappointment and bitterness of the film, and prevents the number from reaching the heights of joy or the depths of sublimity found in the love songs of the earlier two Kelly-Donen films. For Kelly and Donen, the days of dance reaching out to conquer any meaningful space were over. The performance is a hollow one: Kelly has the right moves, Ted’s personal difficulties are resolved to a degree, the requisite gathering of onlookers applauds. But the power of dance to transform is gone; the scene merely presents a group united by appreciation for a performance, and the emotional victory of someone finally starting to “like [him]self”. The underlying belief that dance could change anything significant had been abandoned years before. The moves remain, but the conviction is long gone.
The role of dance in creating couples is even weaker than its abilities to create communities and conquer space. After Ted and Jackie’s conversation in the cab, her dance with the boxers, and his dance on skates, we would expect at least a confirmation or celebration of the romantic relationship in a dance duet, something along the order of “Main Street” or “You Were Meant for Me”. Yet none exists; shockingly, the couple never dances together.
Not there there wasn’t a segue in the film to such a number. “I suppose everybody’s in some racket or other,” says Jackie when she and Ted begin to get honest with one another about their disappointments and compromised lives. “Love is Nothing But a Racket,” a slow, romantic duet, was written for the two by Previn, Comden and Green, but never made it into the film. The title, the polar opposite of the sentiments of “You Were Meant for Me,” suggests that the time for straightforward romantic expression of love through song is past. According to Previn, Kelly felt that no one would sit still for a slow number–another indication of the loss of faith in the power of dance. Kelly recorded the number at a faster tempo than written, and at the end of the number, at quadruple speed. With its multiple costume changes (it’s set in a costume shop), it evokes memories of “Good Morning” from Singin’ in the Rain. But the central concept (love is a racket) is at odds with how Kelly has used dance. The couple has already been created through their shared wit and cynical outlook, and that cynicism obviates the possibility of a straightforward expression of love. There is a push-pull dynamic between the two dancers, and Kelly gets mock-violent at a few points with Charisse. The number is contradictory and forced, with a great deal of energy expended in too many directions at once. It did contain an element of performance between the two dancers, and the end of the number has the two laughing with enjoyment at their shared musical expression. But most of the attention was paid to the fourth wall, minimizing any connection created by shared performing. In any event, it was finally dropped from the film (Fordin 435).
Having lost its battle with the harsh reality of the outside world and having surrendered to the dominating power of film language, dance regresses into the realm of sheer entertainment for its own sake. Its last expression in the film is in “Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks,” a song by Madeline performed at her nightly show. The number is the film’s one big vocal extravaganza, with the emphasis squarely on Gray’s full-bodied voice. Stylistically, it’s a first cousin to Rosemary Clooney’s “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me” from the previous year’s White Christmas, and functions as something of a satire of that piece, as well as of Marilyn Monroe’s performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” from 1953’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Her performance only satisfies the vocal lack in the film, and doesn’t serve to demonstrate her compatibility with another character, create communities, or solidify relationships. Placed on a stage for the enjoyment of a studio audience, it is pure entertainment, albeit a little dark and strangely violent, both for the diegetic audience and the spectator of the film.
Dance here is seen only as a back-up to the vocals, the first time in the Kelly/Donen films that it has ever been presented in that context. The choreography is completely different from that of any other dance in this film, or in the two earlier films, and casts doubts on whether the steps were indeed created by Kelly and Donen, as stated in the credits. The lyrics describe the attempts of a man to impress the singer with outrageously expensive gifts such as Fort Knox and uranium mines. The hyperbole extends to the choreography, which has men going to dangerous lengths to please Madeline. The dancers do acrobatic flips, drop into the stage area from unseen heights above, and are literally blown away at the end of the number.
In terms of the comedy of the number, the dancing is perfectly integrated with the lyrics. In terms of dance itself, the choreography, with its exaggerated leaps and contortions, is really a satire on back-up dancing, to the same degree that Marilyn and her show are satires of early live television shows. Unlike the role that dance had played in the other Kelly/Donen films, the dancing here is mere entertainment. The number as a whole certainly works that way; Gray’s voice is strong and expressive, the lyrics clever and funny, and the choreography accurately reflects the sense of the ridiculous in the lyrics; the number is not forced into the film, but is motivated and has a sensible spot in the narrative. Yet coming at the end of a trilogy of films that has seen dance associated with a wide range of powers, this number, with its dancing in the background, serving only to explicate the lyrics, represents a confinement that completes the decline of the creative powers of dance.
It’s Always Fair Weather contains a great many contradictions regarding its own attitude toward dance, and as such is the least successful of the three Kelly/Donen films. Singin’ in the Rain had brought the rise and fall of the influence of dance in the Kelly/Donen films to a logical conclusion, and It’s Always Fair Weather attempts to resurrect the influence of dance through the re-creation of community-creating numbers such as “I Like Myself” and “The Binge.” Yet the film undercuts its message via the drunken state of the three men, and later, totally reverses its message with the failure seen in “Situation-Wise.” In a similar manner, “Baby You Knock Me Out” seems to present Jackie as a fit partner for Ted, but their compatibility has already been demonstrated beforehand, and Ted is nowhere to be seen during the number. Finally, the question of performance and its influence is completely overridden by the split screen structure in “Blue Danube” and “Once Upon a Time,” and by the film’s presentation of dance as mere entertainment in “Thanks a Lot But No Thanks.”
Apart from the way dance is used, there is a departure from musical and dance excellence that sets this film apart from its predecessors. As Feuer notes:
Non-choreography reached its peak in MGM musicals of the 1950s. It’s Always Fair Weather gives us Michael Kidd, Dan Dailey, and Gene Kelly, professional dancers all, romping about on the streets of New York. Unlike On the Town, where Kelly was teamed with Sinatra and Munshin, Kelly’s and Donen’s choreography didn’t have to be adapted to non-dancers. Yet the dance appears resolutely amateurish, despite the technique involved. The men’s movements are ultra-spontaneous, bordering on ordinary horsing around . . . (108)
“Once Upon a Time” is the other dance with all three, and its sad wistfulness is hardly the springboard for a rousing demonstration of dancing skill. So with three professional dancers, we have one number that’s “resolutely amateurish” and one that is contained by a split screen and hardly demanding in terms of terpsichorean abilities. There’s no ballet here to showcase the performers, no “Moses Supposes” to join two or more performers in a demonstration of world-class hoofing—no number at all that shows the high-level skills of the performer except solos: Kelly’s “I Like Myself” and the two Dolores Gray numbers.
Beyond the dwindling power of dance, there is a concurrent laxness in the vocals as well, especially in the “Blue Danube” number. Some of the pitches in “Blue Danube” are more approximate than exact, and not just by Kelly, though with three distinct voices and a full orchestral accompaniment, it’s often difficult to notice. We expect the pugilists of “Baby, You Knock Me Out” to be less than perfect singers, but for the first time in the three co-directed films, there seems to be a lack of vocal precision among the “real” singers.
There have been other attempts to account for the failure of the film aesthetically. The downbeat plot is one reason often cited. Yet it might not be the plot itself so much as the similarity of the plot to the real-life situation of the two directors that contributed to the contradictions. The story depicts the deterioration of a series of relationships among characters that have worked closely together, shared victories, and then gone their separate ways–a mirror of the directors’ own situation.
On the Town had been the first directorial outing for either of the two. Donen had been in a position of assistant since the Pal Joey days on Broadway in 1940. He and Kelly had worked together on Cover Girl and Anchors Aweigh, but Kelly had also worked with Minnelli on The Pirate during that time. He was a dozen years older than Donen, and had been a respected performer and choreographer before they had even met. His experience in films had been broader and longer than Donen’s and he was therefore more likely to have been the stronger influence, no matter how unified they were in approaching their material.
Donen’s first solo assignment had come with Royal Wedding (1950). During this time, Kelly was again with Minnelli in An American in Paris, released the following year. After Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly worked on Invitation to the Dance, which was not released until 1956, lost a lot of money, and was Kelly’s last directorial effort at M-G-M. Kelly’s marriage to actress Betsy Blair gradually dissolved during this same time period. To complicate matters more, Donen married his first wife, Jeanne Coyne, in 1948 and divorced her in 1951. Coyne had taken dance classes with Kelly as a child, had worked with him as a choreographer, and was part of the Kelly/Donen circle of friends for years. Blair and Kelly were divorced in 1957, and Kelly and Coyne were married in 1960. Certainly these shifting relationships contributed to the tension, if not the division, between the two directors.
The creative and marital failure of Kelly stood in contrast to Donen’s success during these years. He directed Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954, in which he came to grips with CinemaScope for the first time. By the time the two teamed up again for It’s Always Fair Weather, Donen’s star was on the rise, and Kelly was in the midst of a great deal of trauma in his personal life. Kelly recalls the time guardedly: “We were so together, we were so used to each other, that we didn’t need each other. It was almost dull doing it together; we could have phoned the shots in. It wasn’t a bad picture, though it was a little behind its time. That’s the only picture we didn’t have a lot of fun on” (“Dialogue on Film” 37).
Elsewhere, Kelly has been described during the making of the film as an “overworked, jagged-in-the-nerves executive” (Swanson 28). Donen is characteristically more caustic:
I didn’t really want to co-direct another picture with Kelly at that point. We didn’t get on very well and, for that matter, Gene didn’t get on well with anybody. It was the only picture during which the atmosphere was really horrendous. We had to struggle from beginning to end. I can only say it was an absolute one hundred per cent nightmare (Fordin 436).
Yet there is another element to which the decreasing creative influence of dance can be attributed in the films, and that is the increasing presence of Donen’s structural concerns in the film, made more evident in his subsequent films. On the differences between Kelly and Donen as directors, Joseph McBride, in his review of Clive Hirschhorn’s biography of Kelly, states that “Without Donen, Kelly’s work has often been heavy-handed and vulgar; without Kelly, Donen’s work has often seemed precious and emptily fancy” (31). Value judgments aside, the two directors developed different directing styles, which became more evident in their subsequent directorial efforts.
After It’s Always Fair Weather, Kelly and Donen went their separate ways, highlighting their unique emphases. Donen directed a group of musicals, and Kelly continued as a performer and director, but only directed one more musical.
After working behind the scenes as an uncredited director on Kismet, reportedly finishing up the film for Vincente Minnelli when the latter had other commitments, Donen began a season of directing stage-to-film musicals, a marked departure from his co-directing efforts with Kelly (compare the originality of Singin’ in the Rain and It’s Always Fair Weather, and the only slight connection between Fancy Free on stage and its vast reworking into On the Town.)
Funny Face (1956)
Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, was Donen’s first solo effort after Kelly. While there was a stage version of Funny Face in 1927 (also starring Astaire), the film version had a new plot and only retained a few of the songs from the earlier show, making it something of a hybrid adaptation/original film. Donen ostensibly had the freedom to bring his own interpretation to the dance in the film. Choreographed by Astaire and Eugene Loring, but with “songs staged by Stanley Donen,” the numbers, in all their stylishness and energy, carry none of the power of the Kelly films to dominate their surroundings, though the team and couple creation of most musicals were retained. The role of performance lives on to a small extent in Funny Face, but only to disappear in the next two stage-to-screen films, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!
Film language dominates dance right from the start of Funny Face. The frame is Donen’s playground, and the first number, “Think Pink,” a mediocre song written by Roger Edens, is an opportunity to play with areas of the frame and special effects. The song almost provides background music for toying with the frame. Characters move in and out of it, and images pop up in different parts of the frame. There are stop motion and slow motion. Donen often has three images in the frame, either broken into a clear triptych or as a loose triad of images that use up the space of the frame. This is the dominance of film language over song and dance, the dynamics of It’s Always Fair Weather’s “Once Upon a Time” taken to an extreme.
Donen’s ability to use the language of film to distract from a number’s music and movement is highlighted in “How Long Has This been Going On?” a classic Gershwin number demanding a legitimate voice. Instead, the film has Hepburn perform it in a performance that is weak vocally and dramatically. Donen uses a lot of color (specifically a hat with a lot of fabric) to command our attention, and he employs a dramatic crane shot, followed by a reverse crane shot. He closes the number with the theatrical use of a mirror that both adds to the moment’s narrative questioning of the character’s isolation and diverts the viewer’s attention from the vocals.
“Bonjour Paris!” is another mediocre song from Edens sung by Astaire, Kay Thompson and Hepburn on their excited arrival in Paris. Once the three sing their individual opening lines, Donen combines them in a split screen identical to “Blue Danube“ and “Once Upon a Dream” in It’s Always Fair Weather, but in a much more positive setting. The trio exults in the experience of being in Paris rather than hoping to conquer it; they seem to desire being swallowed up rather than dominating. After the first split screen, there is a visual tour of Paris that is the French equivalent of On the Town’s “New York, New York” combined with that film’s title song. Unlike New York, however, Paris won’t be tamed, but the heady enjoyment of its pleasure serves to unite the three leads. Back in split screen, they each sing that there is something missing, and there is one place they have to go. They all end up at the Eiffel Tower, united in their common desire to partake of the city’s delights, starting at the top. There’s not much more than movement rather than dancing, and there is no singing of any worth, but the number serves to bring the team together much like “Good Morning” and “Would You?” did in Singin’ in the Rain.
“Basal Metabolism” is Hepburn’s “modern dance” for Astaire in what would be described as a nightclub or beatnik hangout. Leaning perilously close to a meta experience, Jo (Hepburn) tries to explain to a reluctant Dick (Astaire), “Isn’t it time you realized that dancing is nothing more than an expression, a release?” To Dick’s confusion and consternation, Jo begins a series of angular and explosive modern dance moves to a nearly unrecognizable, jazz-dominated, heavily percussive arrangement of “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “Funny Face”.
The number pulls our attention away from Hepburn’s limited skills while occasionally focusing our attention on her joy in performing. Much of the dance is performed within the deep, dark reds and greens of the hangout, with Hepburn nearly hidden at times in the smoke and darkness. She is also given a pair of strong male dancers that, like Kelly and O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain’s “Good Morning,” make the female dancer in the middle look better than she is. The number functions in the same way as “All I Do is Dream of You” in Singin’ in the Rain in terms of presenting a worthy partner for the lead; the great difference, however, is in how contrasting the dancing styles are. Her modern, angular, kinetic style, and the limited aptitude needed for the number, sets her apart in terms of talent and style from Astaire, and from all other previous Astaire partners, in fact. It works, however, to reflect her character’s role as a fresh, new, and different face in the modeling industry, and a foil to Dick’s classic approach to fashion photography, as well as Astaire’s classic approach to dance.
This creative tension between the two dance styles might have signaled a change for Dick, as it might have provided an opportunity for him to connect choreographically with Jo as a way of creating the couple. Astaire the dancer had already demonstrated his ability to adopt a more modern, edgy style in 1953’s The Band Wagon, directed by Minnelli. But one of the numbers from the original stage production, “He Loves and She Loves,” has Jo drop her idiosyncratic style in favor of a more classical and romantic style. The number brings us back to Astaire/Rogers territory, but with a much less talented dancer pairing with Astaire. It’s akin to “The Way You Look Tonight” and any number of other love duets that create the romantic bond in the Astaire/Rogers canon. Jo has abandoned her modern uniqueness and brought herself in line with Astaire’s/Dick’s way of performing. His lyrical approach has conquered her idiosyncratic, angular, Fosse-like movements, as she now embraces love, marriage, modeling, and a 1930’s dance style.
There are two other numbers that could have worked to further a relationship and/or demonstrate the possibilities of a possible new team. But they do neither. “On How to Be Lovely” is a friendship-strengthening duet with Thompson and Hepburn. The two can’t really be called singers—though both can hold a tune and put over an unchallenging song—and the dancing/movement is minimal, only occasionally revealing Hepburn’s previous dance training. The song is by Edens, and like the others in Funny Face, is nowhere near the level of a Gershwin creation. Rather than use its second-rate status as Donen and Kelly did with most of the songs in Singin’ in the Rain, the song is presented straightforwardly, with its filming as facile as the song itself. The song doesn’t lead to a new connection that means anything to the film, as the two are already friends and don’t need a stronger connection to succeed. If “Moses Supposes” was weakly inserted into Singin’ in the Rain as a demonstration of the two male leads’ talent rather than a dance duet that cemented an important relationship, “On How to be Lovely” lacks both purpose within the film and an ability to demonstrate great musical talent to the viewer.
“Clap Yo’ Hands” is an overly long vocal and “dance” duet with Thompson and Astaire. It comes across as more of a favor for Thompson to demonstrate that she can sing and move well. It works on some level to demonstrate an already deep friendship between the two characters, and many critics have pointed to Thompson’s character as much more of an appropriate match with Astaire than the young Hepburn. In that context, the number would have been a couple creation performance. But it adds nothing to the plot and creates no couple or team. In fact, this early Gershwin attempt to combine black musical traditions with popular music of the twenties (before his successes later in his career) comes off as awkward and, in a more modern perspective, condescending. It nearly belongs in the same category as “Abraham” from Holiday Inn (1942), which is often cut from television showings due to its blackface elements.
“Let’s Kiss and Make Up” is Astaire’s “Singin’ in the Rain,” and the most obvious reference to Donen’s work with Kelly. This is Astaire’s solo feature in the film, and it’s performed on a street similar to the one used in “Singin’ in the Rain” (as well as similar numbers in Cover Girl, On the Town, An American in Paris and It’s Always Fair Weather.) Astaire even brandishes an umbrella, which he uses percussively and as a prop baton, sword and golf club, and uses his coat as a red cape in a pantomime of a bullfighter, as Kelly did in Anchors Aweigh’s “La Cumparsita.”
The context is wooing instead of rejoicing in love, and the number is ostensibly performed for Jo, though the camerawork frequently disconnects us from her perspective. The number is primarily spectacle and functions as a showcase of talent, with the lead now unencumbered by a lesser partner. Since Astaire’s and Hepburn’s characters never meet in the middle in terms of their dancing styles, the number doesn’t work to connect the couple in terms of dance, and while the dance begins as a performance for Jo, the majority of the camerawork is from the viewer’s perspective. Astaire’s work could have been performance for the sake of Jo’s appreciation, thereby strengthening the connection between the two leads. Astaire ends the number with kisses directed to where Jo is watching, but the camera doesn’t return to her perspective, leaving Astaire’s connection primarily with us as viewers.
Funny Face exemplifies the differing trajectories of the two directors. For a season after their last joint venture, they both stayed with musicals. Kelly was absorbed with Invitation to a Dance, while Donen was tasked with bringing staged musicals to film. To Donen, it appears that song and/0r dance numbers were simply spectacle without any other power, and aside from showcasing a legend such as Astaire with little more than direct recording, he was inclined to present and even contain dance with split screens, special effects and slow motion.
The Pajama Game (1957)
Nineteen fifty-seven continued the Donen/Kelly divergence. Kelly completed his M-G-M contract by directing (and starring in) his first non-musical The Happy Road, followed by a starring role in the George Cukor-directed Les Girls, where Kelly was a dancer working uneasily (at times) with the more modern choreography of Jack Cole. He wouldn’t direct another musical until Hello, Dolly more than a decade later.
Donen, meanwhile, returned to co-directing, this time with George Abbott, a theatrical multi-hyphenate (writer, director, theater and film producer, screenwriter) who directed Donen’s Broadway debut in Pal Joey back in 1940. Abbott concluded his film career co-directing, with Donen, the film versions of two of his stage successes, The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees!
The Pajama Game starred singer-dancer Doris Day and singer John Raitt (now better known as the father of Bonnie Raitt, but then as the stage star of Carousel). The choreography is by Bob Fosse, with the more inventive moves reserved for the supporting players, particularly Carol Haney, one of Kelly’s assistants in On the Town, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, and Invitation to the Dance, who had gone onto a successful Broadway career, particularly in the stage version of The Pajama Game.
There are solos, group numbers and duets throughout The Pajama Game, all of which demonstrate Donen’s presentation of dance as spectacle and his inclination to use film effects with his musical numbers. “Racing with the Clock,” for instance, is the opening number of the film and focuses on the pajama factory’s efficiency and speed. It’s a group number that does triple duty in introducing several supporting characters, the shared desire within the factory for a raise for its workers, and the push for efficiency insisted upon by management. The end of the number, instead of focusing on either song or movement, uses fast motion to exaggerate the effect of the pressure on the workers. The effect immediately makes this “a film” rather than simply a filmed version of a Broadway musical. The effect is so strong, however, that it takes viewers out of the direct musical experience and distances them from the plight of the workers. Donen was experimenting.
“Once-a-Year-Day” is a song and dance at the company’s annual picnic. It takes place outdoors, and perhaps in Kelly’s hands the entire park might have been dominated by his dancers and his choreography. Yet in spite of its size, the park here is a simply a big stage meant to contain rather than a space to be conquered. Fosse’s choreography is all about individual and group movement for its own sake. One can see the beginnings of the angular, idiosyncratic style for which he would become famous, including an awkward hand-on-head movement that he uses throughout the number. Fosse also repeats the same cumbersome choreography seen in “Nothing is Impossible” from Give a Girl a Break, where dancers are simultaneously holding on to one another while trying to disengage. The number is energetic and celebrates rather than creates unity among the workers, though the constant breaking into sub-groups tends to neutralize the unifying effect.
“There Once Was a Man” is the vocal powerhouse number of the film, a duet declaration of love between Day’s and Raitt’s characters. They each take a portion of the song as a solo, then join together at the end, including harmonies. The lyrics are meant to be directed at the other person, and the singers oblige. But there is no performer-to-performer connection. At the end of the song, they are clearly directing their efforts toward the camera– individual performers performing together for an outward audience. The button on the end of the song is a leap by Day into Raitt’s arms. But the effect of the song is spectacle for the viewer, a strong vocal piece with a galloping tempo and unrelenting intensity.
“Hernando’s Hideaway,” one of the show’s most famous songs, nearly favors mise-en-scène over music. The number begins with Gladys (Haney) singing in the side room at the factory, then the sequence moves to the hideaway, with matches emitting small amounts of light, allowing the viewer to see a small face, shoe or group of faces in the frame as the vocals continue. The small scenes appear in all corners of the screen, but each only takes up a tiny to medium-sized space in the frame. Finally, the film cuts to a fully-lit group of people who strike a pose, then move to their separate places in the new setting, concluding the number. Rather than song or dance dominating a space, this number essentially sneaks into view in visual increments, reflecting the slithering rhythm of the song but keeping the music narrowly focused and contained within the visuals.
“7 ½ Cents” is a community-forming number with the union workers similar to “Once-a-Year-Day,” and its smaller geographical area on an indoor stage serves to make it a stronger bonding song. The number is a performance by some workers for the others. But by the time it comes along in the film–nearly at the end–the workers have already shown their unity and desire for a raise, and the number becomes spectacle with little other purpose.
With The Pajama Game, Donen had established his new methodology: song and dance were back in the spectacle category, and he was experimenting with how to bring various aspects of film language into his numbers in a way that created something musical and cinematic. Kelly had forged a new relationship between song-and-dance and film, usually with camera movement and editing created in part by the music. Donen, on the other hand, tended to use mise-en-scène and special effects, containing the musical expressions.
Damn Yankees! (1958)
With Damn Yankees!, Donen arrived at a more assured, if not always successful, synthesis of song and dance with film. Yet another co-direction with George Abbott, based again on another Abbott Broadway show, and featuring choreography by Fosse, Damn Yankees! is a musical version of the Faust legend with a Washington Senators baseball team setting. The film’s musical numbers are essentially divided into vocal numbers and dance numbers with vocals. In the former, Donen is apt to use special effects and/or a fractured mise-en-scène. In the latter, Donen gives place to Fosse’s choreography, which takes a slight precedence over the vocals and functions again more as spectacle.
In the first number, “Six Months Out of Every Year,” the screen gets divided into six roughly diamond-shaped images in the frame, with many a wife complaining about the loneliness of marriage during baseball season. On stage, it’s a group number with the husbands united in game-watching (and reacting), and with their wives, in the same physical space, raising a unified chorus of complaint. Donen replaces the real-time, real-space unity of the theater with a cinematic unity, placing the faces on the frame at the same time, but granting them a greater degree of individuality–and perhaps separateness–than their theatrical counterparts. Donen makes the song uniquely filmic, but at a loss of unity among the attention-starved women.
“Shoeless Joe from Hannibal, MO” is a big group number with the entire ball team on the ballfield. It’s a team-building or at least team-affirming number that could have fit neatly into the Kelly-Donen numbers such as “You Can Count on Me” (On the Town), “Good Morning” and “Would You” (Singin’ in the Rain) and even “March, March” (It’s Always Fair Weather). But the setting, cinematography, and choreography are too limited and the energy too centripetal to have a similar effect. There is no dominance over a physical area, mood, or process that shows us that this team will be successful. The number takes place at a large ballpark, but the setting simply contains the number, rather than providing an area to be conquered. While theoretically a community-forming number, it breaks down into subgroups instead of focusing on the whole team (until the end), and highlights Fosse’s high-powered dancing of the individual dancers over the unity of the group.
“It’s Fate, Baby, It’s Fate” from Take Me Out to the Ball Game also took place at a ballpark, and the differences are striking. The earlier number featured an aggressive move on the Sinatra character by Betty Garrett, who chased him all over the bleachers, covering (and conquering) a wide physical area while she conquers her romantic interest. “Shoeless Joe” is a barnstorming number featuring flips, falls, hoedowns, and enough physicality to make the barnraising number in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers feel lethargic by comparison. Donen added to the hard-driving song and Fosse’s relentless choreography a near-Eisensteinian montage of players shouting “Joe!” toward the end of the number. The end effect is one of dizzying energy, with a clear emphasis on the anticipated new arrival. No particular space is conquered, as the cinematography contains even the largest subgroups tightly within its dancing space, focusing on the group and its movements. The number provides a slight degree of greater unity within the team, as they celebrate the arrival of their new star player. But the story’s emphasis is not so much on the team as a whole, but on a single player and his effect on that team. Fosse’s choreography is explosive, but the number is ultimately more of a compilation of individual and small group movements than a team-unifying expression.
“Those Were the Good Old Days” is a solo by the devil Applegate (Ray Walston), and is the male star solo turn. The film version of the number features (arguably unnecessary) visualizations in different parts of the frame as Applegate remembers his Satanic highlight reel, including the nefarious acts of Napoleon, Nero and Jack the Ripper. Giving the viewer reenactments of stabbings, cannibalizing and scalping may be something that film can provide over the stage, but the device adds a gruesome dimension to a song that might have been better off with a simple but expressive vocal performance, sans images. Aside from the grisly inserts, the number is essentially stagebound, with little camera movement and a direct address to the camera/audience. It ends, however, with a special film effect, as Applegate passes magically through a closed door as he makes his exit. That winsome ending is a cinematic rather than theatrical trick, working to make the number “film” rather than “stage,” but its self-consciousness tends to detach it from the rest of the number. Between the ending and the images, it seems that making a film more “cinematic” is not always an improvement over the stage version.
Donen later uses fast motion in the scene where Applegate oversleeps and is forced to dress quickly, similar to the end of “Racing with the Clock,” the opening number in The Pajama Game. In the earlier number, it had the effect of being a climactic expression of the intensity and hard-driving efforts of the management of the company. Here, the result is the more common interpretation of comedy, which works against the dramatic tension being created for the next sequence in which the ballplayer’s eternal destiny is about to be decided.
The one number that brings the joy of performance to the fore is “Who’s Got the Pain,” the number that is less of a piece than any in the film. Unlike the other numbers, this one is a deliberate performance for a diegetic audience, and has Gwen Verdon (as Applegate’s servant and “best homewrecker,” who has also sold her soul) performing with the film’s choreographer Fosse (also Verdon’s future husband). Fosse plays a version of himself (in his only sequence in the film, and Joe even calls him “Fosse” as he and Verdon exit) and Verdon doesn’t quite play her character Lola as much as a Lola-in-human-garb, ostensibly performing in a show honoring Joe and his achievements for the Senators. It’s the flimsiest of reasons for the existence of the number in the film, but in many ways the film comest to fullest life here. It is full of the joy of song and dance, easily seen in the looks of joy shared by the two of them, which make sense in the context of the “live” performance. They clearly enjoy one another, and clearly enjoy performing. But with Lola changing out of her seductive character, and the Fosse character essentially an unknown within the film, the meaning of the shared joy is contained within the number. There is no unity created that spills beyond the sequence, no couple built, no team cemented. The joy of performance temporarily reaches out to the viewer, but has no creative powers within the film itself.
“Two Lost Souls” is a combination vocal duet with Lola and Joe, and a dance showcase for Verdon in a way that her other two numbers, “Whatever Lola Wants” and “Who’s Got the Pain,” didn’t provide. The setting is an American version of the French nightclub of “Basal Metabolism” in Funny Face, with similar lighting and edges of the same underground culture. But the song is one of despair in the face of eternal bondage to Applegate. Drunkenness combines with resignation and a “what the hell” attitude, going far beyond the disappointment and disillusionment of the characters in It’s Always Fair Weather into misery. The other nightclub attendants join in the dancing, but ultimately become backup dancers to the main duo or to Verdon in her solo turns. It’s spectacle in a minor key, both literally and figuratively, positioned as another showcase for Verdon from her Tony Award-winning stage performance. There is no joy here, and the only unity expressed between Joe and Lola is one of hopelessness.
The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees! are fascinating hybrids. They are stage successes brought to film, and are co-directed efforts by a still-young musical film director and a legendary stage director who was known for wanting to hew close to his stage productions as they were transferred to film. Compared to Donen’s work with Kelly, these musicals are far more traditional in terms of song and dance. Couples are formed, of course, but the element of performance doesn’t exist between them. The only shared joy in performing in the two films is of a non-couple–Lola (stepping out of her role as Lola temporarily in the film) and her temporary partner, Fosse, who was her choreographer in the film and out. Communities, if not formed, are at least strengthened to some extent. But in the first film, the unity of the group has been long established before the big group number (“7 ½ Cents”) and the strength of the unity of the large group is compromised by the choreographer’s division of that group into smaller subsets and the focus on individual athletic prowess (“Once-a-Year-Day” and “Shoeless Joe”).
Certainly we can assume that the use of special effects and the division of the frame into smaller parts, or even the use of the split screen, were likely Donen’s contributions. We may also assume that the more traditional use of song and dance as mere spectacle was likely Abbott’s influence as well as Donen’s fallback position without the influence of Kelly. These two were the last of Donen’s “traditional” musicals, with only an anomaly to follow.
The Little Prince (1974)
The Little Prince is Donen’s last musical, and gives final evidence of his more traditional, and even stage-bound, approach to the role of song and dance within the musical film. The second-rate score by Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady, Brigadoon, Camelot and Gigi) and the outdated special effects have put this version of the Saint-Exupéry classic into the all-but-forgotten category. But the film is a minor showcase for major talents, especially Bob Fosse.
The film leans heavily toward the vocal rather than the choreographic with the Pilot being played by Broadway legend Richard Kiley (Man of La Mancha, Kismet), who favors vocal placement before his acting at every turn, pulling the film toward the theatrical with every song. He was also not a dancer, and his songs are limited in movement. The only other major character is Steve Warner as the Little Prince, and he sings with a lovely small voice, and is also not a dancer.
Dancer Donna McKechnie plays the Rose, which constrains her talents to limited sensual movements. Gene Wilder, a non-dancer with limited singing skills, finds his number as the Fox greatly aided by inventive and energetic camerawork. By far the most entertaining and engaging supporting part, however, is played by Fosse, who plays the Snake in his number, “A Snake in the Grass”. Fosse is the one real dancer in the film allowed to fully display his skills, and the number is a standout and a stand-alone (and according to many, the wellspring from which arose all of Michael Jackson’s moves, including the moonwalk). This is sheer spectacle, and creates neither a couple nor a community. In terms of musical performance, it is the highlight of the film, which only points to the isolated role played by song and–usually separately from song–dance in the film. The film ends up being a fable interrupted by song and dance rather than a musicalized version of the classic tale.
The Little Prince brings Donen’s musical to an end with more of a whimper than a bang. After the originality and inventiveness of his work with Kelly and his solo work during that same time (Royal Wedding, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), Donen’s second collaborative career with Abbott brought him full circle to more traditional film versions of stage classics, with the role of song and dance back into their classic roles as spectacle separated from narrative. Performance as a shared unifying force has almost disappeared, and only the smallest modicum of couple creation has been expressed by the numbers shared by couples in the making.
Hello, Dolly! (1969)
The contrast between Donen’s and Kelly’s divergent musical directions is made all the more obvious by Kelly’s last musical as director, Hello, Dolly!, released five years before Donen’s final musical, The Little Prince. In spite of the demands of bringing a popular, large-scale stage success to the screen, and harnessing the outsized personalities and talents of Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau, Kelly managed to bring back the power of dance as seen in his films with Donen. Paired with former colleagues Roger Edens (as associate producer) and Michael Kidd (co-star of It’s Always Fair Weather) as choreographer, Kelly created a film that, after years of not directing a musical, can be seen as the final expression of his views and application of dance.
“Put on Your Sunday Clothes” is a classic community-building number, in joining the residents of Yonkers in their sartorial finest as they board the train to Manhattan. Even in a film that features individual and couples rather than groups, this number emphasizes the excited group getting ready to conquer New York. The number lacks the musical drive of On the Town’s “New York, New York,” but carries essentially the same message. What’s different here is that this is a gathering number, a number anticipating rather than conquering. But the lyrics of the first part of the song show that the energy, purpose and excitement is the same:
Put on your Sunday clothes
There’s lots of world out there.
Get out your brilliantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air
Girls in white in a perfumed night
Where the lights are bright as the stars!
Put on your Sunday clothes, we’re gonna ride through town
In one of those new horse-drawn open cars
We’ll see the shows at Delmonico’s
And we’ll close the town in a whirl
And we won’t come home until we’ve kissed a girl!
Apart from the decade and the attire, the sentiments are nearly identical to those On the Town’s conquering first group number. Like that number, that features so many of New York’s landmarks, this number is also very much an “outdoors number” that takes full visual advantage of its open air setting. The two male leads end up gathering a group of other young men full of the same anticipation, and Dolly and friends attract a sizable group of couples. A group of young women appear from virtually nowhere, and enter into the anticipatory group number. The physical end point of the singers is the train platform, but there is many a dance step on stairs, sidewalks, streets and storefronts. The power to unite even extends to a Victorian mansion somewhere in town, and to a cart of young women in the countryside.
The title of the song and the lyrics in its second half put the emphasis on the various items of clothing one wears when heading out. But the visual emphasis and the dance expressions move our attention away from the attire and toward the conquering trip into town. By the time a large group of townspeople board the train, any thought of clothing (still being addressed in song) is lost in the excitement of where they are heading and the anticipated joys of the big city. As they wrap up the number, Dolly changes one lyric to, “You want to take New York by storm!” As they hit the final chord, the number concludes with a bird’s-eye view shot of the training heading triumphantly toward the big city.
The actual conquering of New York takes place a few songs later in “Dancing,” which credits the power of dancing to create couples, release creative energy and charge the atmosphere. The lyrics of the song give praise to the act of dancing for putting people together and elevating the natural world:
Make the music weave a spell
Whirl away your worry
Things look almost twice as well
When you’re slightly blurry.
In the context of the film, Dolly is the one releasing the power of dance to create all these couples, which is her trade. She is not a dancer, though she accomplishes a few turns here and there in the number. But her power to make matches extends to the release of dance upon an entire group of people. As in On the Town, New York is taken over. The number begins as a dance lesson in a hat shop for the two secondary male leads. As soon as they understand how to dance (which comes quickly), they are immediately paired with their romantic interests. As soon as they connect, the dance makes its way out to the street, where it begins to conquer hearts and create couples in every direction. In terms of spatial dominance, the power of dance spreads over other streets, parkland, water fountains, staircases and park benches. People are being matched up at a rapid rate, and the setting–as far as the eye can see–comes under its rule. Power has indeed been released, even if narrowly directed in furthering Dolly’s matchmaking intentions. In spite of Streisand’s centripetal dynamic as a performer, “Dancing” places her in the position of releasing her power outwardly, pairing people and unleashing the energy and magic of couple creation throughout the entire great outdoors.
Contrary to these two examples of the expansive power of dance, the film’s title number pulls back in a few ways. The Harmonia Gardens, a large and elegant restaurant, is the setting for this extravaganza, and is therefore a more contained world to conquer. Waiters dominate the first part of the number, but the emphasis is less on physical space than on variations of delivering food to the tables. Louis Armstrong is drawn into the number halfway through, and the second half has all the energy drawn toward the central character. With the opposite energy of “Dancing,” the number has Dolly (and Streisand) draw in all the attention and dynamism. The number ends with great applause from the guests of the restaurant, but they have been visually and aurally excluded throughout the number. The applause is perfunctory, and the number doesn’t function as a unifying activity. Compare the conclusion of “(Can It Be That) I Like Myself” from It’s Always Fair Weather, where the central performance and the audience become one, and the separation of performers and audience here is remarkable in its disparity.
The film moves back to creating through music with “It Only Takes a Moment.” This is a vocal number rather than dance, but it completes the couple creation of Cornelius (Michael Crawford) and Irene (Marianne McAndrew) as they finally declare their affections. The setting is a New York park, this time at night, and the number draws in a small but supportive crowd of onlookers who eventually become the vocal back-up to the two leads, combining a small portion of “Dancing”’s dominance of space with the unifying of the secondary leads.
Apart from the necessarily Dolly-centered title number, Hello, Dolly! demonstrates that 14 years after It’s Always Fair Weather and 13 after Invitation to a Dance was finally released, Kelly still saw dance as more than mere spectacle. Stage numbers that featured boarding a train and learning to dance in a New York shop were transformed into cinematic space-conquering spectacles that released power and love through expanses of New York City. While Donen allowed dance to retreat into spectacle, Kelly kept releasing and expanding its power.
Hello, Dolly! has historically been categorized as the last of the overproduced and expensive musicals of the 1960s that tried and failed to duplicate the financial success of 1964’s Mary Poppins and 1965’s The Sound of Music. As such, it takes its place as the decade’s last alongside such financial and critical failures as Star!, Dr. Doolittle, and Paint Your Wagon. While overproduced and expensive, Hello, Dolly! should also be viewed in another context–as Kelly’s last directorial effort, with many of the same expressions of dance as found in his three films co-directed with Donen.
Hello, Dolly! was Kelly’s last musical, and his only musical after his collaborations with Donen and Invitation to the Dance. (The comedy western The Cheyenne Social Club would be the last complete film he directed, followed by his final film work as director of the introductory scenes to the M-G-M compilation film That’s Entertainment, Part Two.)
Individually, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen are two of the greatest contributors to the mid-century American musical. As a team, however, the contributions of Kelly and Donen to the American musical were unique. In their first two films, they created a pair of true dance musicals. They associated dance with the creation and development of the couple(s), and linked it to the power to create communities and defy the natural limits of space and time. They expanded the element of performance in the musical, weaving the performances of the characters into the narrative concerns of the films.
To a small degree in On the Town and to a much larger one in Singin’ in the Rain, they demonstrated a flexibility toward musical forms unprecedented in the history of the musical. The rise of performance in the diegetic worlds of their films and the way in which the films surpassed the concept of the traditional integrated musical challenge the methods used to analyze and evaluate musicals. The intricate framing devices and the various tempo and vocal line changes helped to create a combination of elements so tightly interconnected that song and dance could not easily be lifted out. Their one film “failure” is a valuable illustration of the consequences of the loss of faith in the creative power of dance and the effect that imposed structural devices (split screen, special effects) can have on the performance elements.
While each went on to other successes, and Donen in particular to a successful directorial career, their creative confluence brought forth a trio of groundbreaking musicals that reflected their times, but even more, redefined how musicals can be created and how they should be evaluated.
1Peter Wollen’s Singin’ in the Rain unfortunately creates some confusion in attributing Reynold’s singing voice throughout the film as coming from Hagen (68), when only this spoken line came from her. He also appears to mix up the special Academy Award that Kelly received at 1952’s Academy Awards presentation for his contributions to the previous year’s An American in Paris with a nonexistent one for Singin’ in the Rain (53). Singin’ in the Rain’s only two Academy Award nominations were for Jean Hagen as Supporting Actress and Lennie Hayton for Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture. Neither won.
2 Michael Kidd recorded his own number, “Jack and the Space Giants,” which was meant to be his moment to shine. It was eventually cut from the film. Film length, the quality of the sequence, and rivalry with Kelly have all been offered as partial explanations as to why.
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