Wednesday, May 9

In the Shadow of Astaire and Kelly

It was a very, very big shadow.  These were some big dancing shoes to fill.  Probably every boy who wanted to dance in the movies was inspired by Fred Astaire.  Both he and Gene Kelly (who came around a good dozen years later) were hard to beat in the dancing game but others would do the best they knew how.  Some other male dancers were brave enough to pair up with these greats in a film together.

Gene Nelson

Gene Nelson said he was turned on by watching Fred and Ginger's movies.  He could be smooth like Fred but came to have the athleticism of Gene Kelly.  One of his last starring roles was arguably his best and certainly his best-known and that was as singing-dancing Will Parker in the 1955 Rodgers and Hammerstein production of Oklahoma

Nelson made a splash at Warner Bros.  Both Astaire and Kelly were MGM stars, although Astaire was at RKO for most of his turns with Ginger.  Every studio needed to duplicate MGM's dancing men and Nelson filled that role at Warners.  He virtually had a screen partnership with singer Gordon MacRae.  They made five films together.  He danced marvelously with Virginia Mayo in four films and offscreen they were good friends.  He paired with Doris Day in three films.  He could sing quite well, too, but when paired alongside with MacRae, it was clear who was the singer and who was the dancer.  Nelson did dramatic roles but ultimately said he found his greatest satisfaction in directing.

No other studio could rival MGM in the musical business or the dancing business but they all tried.  Warners was lucky to have Gene Nelson.  He was a damned good dancer and I quite loved his movies.

Donald O'Connor

Donald O'Connor was one of those who paired with Gene Kelly and when they did, it became a movie musical sensation.  It was, of course, Singin' in the Rain (1952).  In a lot of circles, it would be considered the best musical ever made, so O'Connor has a little something to crow about.  His comedy mugging in the Make 'Em Laugh number is the stuff of legend.  His speciality was perhaps best expressed in his youthful exuberance.  It was hard to watch him in adult-like romantic roles, never more so than when paired with Marilyn Monroe in There's No Business Like Show Business (1954).  He succeeded well in dance partnerships with Vera-Ellen in Call Me Madam (1953) and Mitzi Gaynor in Anything Goes 1956).

O'Connor, unlike some of these other dancers of the time, didn't do as much dancing as he did comedy.  He did rare dramatic turns but was a good fit to play the title role in The Buster Keaton Story (1957).  It his later years he did a great deal of television and a lot of dinner theater.

Dan Dailey and Betty Grable

Dan Dailey had something in common with Donald O'Connor, other than appearing together as father and son in There's No Business Like Show Business.  They were both married to the same woman.

Dailey had worked at a few studios in dramatic parts but he became world-famous when 20th Century Fox cast him opposite box office queen Betty Grable in a bunch of musicals.  Arguably Fox did the best job in rivalling MGM in the singing-dancing department and its roster of musical stars were among the best.  He and Grable, who were good friends offscreen as well, were well-paired. 

Truth be told, he made a lot of silly movies, most of them a carbon copy of any number of others.  Where O'Connor mixed comedy with dancing, I think Dailey mixed more drama.  There was a darker, edgier side to him and he, in fact, did more dramatic work than some of the other male dancers and did it well.  He was well-cast as baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean in 1952's The Pride of St. Louis.  I think my favorite Dailey roles, both in 1956, were playing opposite leggy Cyd Charisse in Meet Me in Las Vegas and in The Best Things in Life Are Free (1956), teamed with Gordon MacRae and Ernest Borgnine as real-life songwriters De Sylva, Brown and Henderson.

The Dancing Champions

Gower Champion had an unusual movie dancing career in that he performed with then-wife Marge.  They were always billed as Marge and Gower Champion.  I thought he was very handsome and they were an exceptional pair of dancers.  They didn't make many films at all and most were done at MGM.  Their best and brightest was clearly 1951's Show Boat.  Only in 1952's Everything I Have Is Yours were they truly the stars.  Usually one or the other or both were the best friend of the lead but they danced their socks off and sang too.

Their last film together was in 1955 but they remained married until 1973.  He went on to become a dazzling director of some of Broadway's best.

The great Bob Fosse

Bob Fosse was a whirling-dervish of a dancer... I think one of the best there ever was.  Unfortunately he didn't have a very long movie career and never a starring one.  He was this or that person's friend or neighbor or coworker, usually brought on to do one or two sensational dances... and I mean sensational.  Treat yourself and tune into TCM on some rainy Sunday and watch Fosse in Kiss Me Kate, Give a Girl a Break or My Sister Eileen, all early 1950s, and see the dancing fool.

Fosse suffered with some demons but didn't suffer fools lightly.  There were issues with the bottle and with drugs, but he went on to a significant Broadway career and was the Academy Award-winning director of Cabaret (1972) and also the director of the acclaimed Lenny (1974).

Bobby Van

Bobby Van came from vaudevillian parents so showbiz came naturally to him.  He became a second lead at MGM; he had that same exuberance that Bob Fosse possessed which may be why they were teamed to perfection in two films... The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (Van had the title role) and Kiss Me Kate, both 1953.  That same year he also did his famous "hopping" dance (which I found annoying) in Small Town Girl.  His first MGM film was in a 1952 Mario Lanza film Because You're Mine, which featured Van in a specialty dance number.

In addition to singing and dancing, he was a dramatic actor and did a lot of television at the end of his career.  I always thought he was a worthy successor to Gene Kelly, excelling in that same athletic dancing but Kelly's career lasted far longer than Van's.

Brascia and Vera-Ellen doing "Abraham"

I only recall seeing John Brascia in two films but he is included here because of one of them, 1954's White Christmas.  In it he was paired with the sensational Vera-Ellen in the minstrel number,  Mandy and the exciting Abraham.  Mandy was a huge production number featuring Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Danny Kaye as well.  They sang and mugged.  When it came time for the dance, Vera-Ellen and Brascia dominated with such a steely excellence that I can close my eyes and picture their moves to this day.

Abraham was a quickie number wherein Kaye calls them to the stage to rehearse.  I was riveted to the screen watching this number and when it comes up on my DVD, I usually watch it a second time.  It reminds me very much of the Fred and Ginger number Bouncing the Blues from 1949's The Barkleys of Broadway.

The other film I recall is 1956's Meet Me in Las Vegas where he performed in a specialty dance.  I thought he was one of the best dancers around.  It is too bad, although understandable, that he and the others remained in the shadows of the great Kelly and Astaire.

NEXT POSTING:  Favorite Movie #39

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