Tuesday, February 5

Dancing Girls I

We're launching a brief little series we're gonna call Dancing Girls.  It will be a short visit with a pair of them per posting until we run out of them.  Well, not really.  We wouldn't run out if I included such dancers as Joanne Gilbert and Bambi Lynn but we'll stick with bigger names.  And in the bigger name arena, there aren't all that many.  Part of my love of musicals is actually about dancing.  It's a talent I have always admired and these women were dazzling.  See if you remember... 

First up will be Virginia Mayo and Vera-Ellen.  They had a number of things in common.  Both were good-looking leggy blondes.  Oddly, neither of them could carry a tune so their singing was always dubbed.  For a time both were under contract to Sam Goldwyn and both were the frequent costar of Goldwyn goofball Danny Kaye, sometimes together.  Neither actually hit the very top of her game, although both were very fine dancers indeed.

The two together on the Goldwyn lot

While both of them started at Goldwyn, who had a penchant for hiring leggy showgirl types, neither stayed there.  Mayo did her best work at Warner Brothers in as many non musical roles as musical and Vera-Ellen wound up at MGM where she would be a partner to both of the studio top dancing stars, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  Neither actress was really one to take part in much publicity.  They eschewed the glitz and glamour of being seen in the right nightclubs and the hot places of the day.  Mayo was married just once and Vera-Ellen only twice, both had just one daughter and they went home to them after a day at the office... um, dance rehearsals.

Virginia Mayo's career started out in her native St. Louis as part of a vaudeville-like act where she played a circus ringmaster to two guys in a horse suit.  She came to the attention of the highly over-rated Eddie Cantor who put her in one of his Broadway shows and from there it was into the consciousness of Sam Goldwyn.  Mayo was always a rather fetching lass and she photographed gorgeously in color, although, I cringe to say this, wasn't she just a little cross-eyed?  Nonetheless Goldwyn put her in one silly musical after another.  Again, that singing voice was dubbed but she could cut the rug moving those shapely gams.  The actress part of her, the persona she established, was one of a pouty willfulness and she always stood up to her male costars on camera.  Honest to God, she must have gotten so tired being the straight woman to resident nincompoop Danny Kaye. 

Before she flew the Goldwyn coop, he put her in one of her best films, although in a supporting part, as Dana Andrews' shrewish wife in The Best Years of Our Lives.  Her legacy would be largely forgotten if it weren't for this fine film and also one of her earliest at Warners, as the treacherous gun moll in White Heat opposite a memorable Jimmy Cagney performance.

Her Warners musicals were B-movies.  Warners had a hard time competing with MGM and even 20th Century Fox in the musical department.  Mayo was pretty much Warners' reigning musical queen until Doris Day arrived.  The two singing/dancing blondes appeared together in The West Point Story, an absurd piece of fifties fluff that I adored.  Still do.  The three male costars, Cagney, Gene Nelson and Gordon MacRae, were frequent costars of both actresses.  Nelson was a superb dancing partner to Mayo in She's Working Her Way Through College, She's Back on Broadway and Painting the Clouds with Sunshine.  (Lordy... those titles.) 

She worked more than once with a lot of people... Alan Ladd, Edmond O'Brien, Randolph Scott, Burt Lancaster, Dorothy Malone, Ruth Roman, Ronald Reagan, among them, and she was leading lady to Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Rex Harrison and Paul Newman in his debut film.  Most of her work with these big names was some of their lesser accomplishments.

She made a fair number of westerns as well.  Hmmm, let's see, she did westerns and musicals.... no wonder she captured my attention.  At the end of her career she did a lot of schlock.

Before she died, she wrote an autobiography somewhat on the cheap.  I, at least then, had to order it through her website.  It was a hoot.  The lady told the truth about a lot of people and Hollywood.  It was a helluva read.

Vera-Ellen made only 14 films and except perhaps for two, she danced in them all.  She acted as the part required but she was a dancer, first and foremost.  History is kind to her because her best film (by far) is shown every December, White Christmas.  Watching her dance routines in Mandy and Abraham, both with a fabulous dance partner, John Brascia, were some highlights.  She was a great dancer but she owes him big time.

From her earliest days in Ohio she loved to dance and her family encouraged her.  She moved to Manhattan and became one of the youngest Rockettes ever.  That propelled her into a number of Broadway shows where, of course, Sam Goldwyn spotted her.  She was perfect for his stable of singing & dancing beauties out in Los Angeles.

Her first project was Wonder Man with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo.  She was really a perfect candidate for the little family-oriented studio that was Sam Goldwyn's but a dancer of the magnitude of Vera-Ellen is going to be snatched away by the big guys and the biggest of them all, MGM, did just that.  Vera-Ellen is one of only six women to have danced with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.  She danced with the former in two films, Three Little Words and The Belle of New York, and with Kelly in On the Town.  She was perfection on a loanout to Fox to strut her considerable stuff with Donald O'Connor in Call Me Madam.

All throughout her career she suffered from anorexia.  Before I knew this, I used to comment on her tiny waist and I thought she had the thinnest legs of any dancer I had ever seen.  Her only child died of SIDS.  After that her will to do much died with the child.  When musicals more or less petered out in the mid to late 50s, her career did as well.  

She once said... dancing is like breathing.  Missing a day of doing either one is quite bad.

Review of Side Effects

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