Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Nothing changes on New Years Day

Left: One of Busby Berkeley's famous female kaleidoscopes, in 42nd Street. (1933)

Sitting here on New Years Day, relaxing with Turner Classic Movies, watching That's Dancing (1985), which I have seen before, several times.

For those of you who believe blogging (and the attendant political blog-wars) are a waste of time, rest assured, they are not. I am seeing the movie quite differently now. I thank bloggers such as Donna Darko, Blackamazon, Bint, Sylvia, Vanessa, BFP, Donna J., The Angry Black Woman, and Kevin at Slant Truth. Watching this movie, one would think white people had invented tap dancing.

Why did I not notice this before, or if I did, explained it away?

Certainly, since this a documentary (of sorts) about the history of dance in movies, one could say they are accurate in leaving out people of color other than Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. But of course, that isn't true either. The then-called 'race movies,' popular from 1927 - 1948, showcased plenty of African-American choreography, particularly in St Louis Blues, Juke Joint and Harlem is Heaven, all of which are resolutely ignored.

I am interested in when black dancing styles were stolen for mainstream Hollywood movies. Other than an arresting clip of a tiny, very young and adorable Sammy Davis Jr. juxtaposed with a clip of precocious mimic Shirley Temple, there is no account of this process.

Similarly, Busby Berkeley's gay-nightclub sensibility and Bob Fosse's prodigious riffing on stripper-style, is also ignored. Such explanations of their origins might prove embarrassing. Instead, they are presented as white-guy choreographers who sprang fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus, even though both men were very open and honest about their influences.

As for women of color, forget it. Not even Oscar-winner Rita Moreno gets a mention; the West Side Story segment instead chooses the Jets in the garage, doing COOL. Admittedly, I love that, but AMERICA* is also an amazing, fabulous rave-up. But that was the Sharks, wasn't it? Should I wonder why the white gang gets to be in the movie but the Puerto Rican gang doesn't?

The first women of color presented in That's Dancing are the dynamic Paula Kelly and Chita Rivera, flanking beautiful Shirley MacLaine in Fosse's Sweet Charity. They are indeed worth the wait, but hey, that movie was made in 1969, forgodsake. No women of color dancers in film until 1969??? And how many of Busby Berkeley's thousands of dancers were actually women of color? (I know little about him, except his movies and his reputation for being something of a tyrant. And by the way, yall, seeing this movie again has started me on a search for a good book about him. If you know of any, recommendations welcome!)


In addition to this being the best dance number ever committed to film (no arguing the point please, this is MY blog), the stunning leads (Rita Moreno and George Chakiris) also won Academy Awards, probably for blowing everyone away with how utterly fantastic and good-looking they are.

This amazing work of art was choreographed by (gay) Jerome Robbins (changed from Rabinowitz), subject of the fascinating and entertaining book, Dance With Demons: The Life of Jerome Robbins by Greg Lawrence. Highly recommended reading for movie fangirls and boys of all ages!

*This song also contains an excellent critique of race in the USA that sounds almost contemporary... kinda scary since it was filmed back in 1961. However, you will notice the following lyrics are in the original film (see clip), but omitted (!!!) from the lyrics-link, above:

Life can be bright in America
If you can fight in America
Life is alright in America
If you're a white in America

Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim...and with lyrics like those, no wonder it was left out of That's Dancing, as well as subsequent versions of West Side Story!

Enjoy these beautiful people, and once again, have a great New Year!


bfp said...

I watched that *same* film! And had the same freaking problems with it!!!!

The one clip that was particularly irritating to me was when they had bo jangles dancing, and the voice over is talking about how amazing and 'light footed' he was--and then the camera pans back and you see three or four of the people sitting watching him dance are in BLACK FACE!!!!!!

I couldn't believe that they could just *ignore* that!!! Oh, also, the dancing with shirly temple--those dances were always done in "clip" fashion so that they could be easily removed from the film--showing that clip in the south, even after having made Jandles up in asexual 'uncle tom' drag, were waaaay too offensive. and for some reason, that couldn't be mentioned either?????

Vanessa said...

Without gay people or people of color, American pop culture would look radically different.

you know, I haven't seen West Side Story since I was a kid, and didn't realize that song was such pointed commentary! Cool. Although, I would make an argument for this admittedly fluffy in comparison scene with Gene Kelly (who I admit to having a crush on) being being a better dance number. But your blog *koff* won't argue *koff*

Two documentaries I might recommend are The Celluloid Closet and Oscar's Black Odyssey: From Hatte to Halle, both of which usually come on cable around the time of the Oscars.

Casdok said...

AS always you make a some great points.
Happy new year.

belledame222 said...

This is terrific. I've taken dance classes on and off since I was fifteen and have or had a mild obsession with Fosse. And...yeah. Theatre in general--at least the Broadway and various spinoffs-- is a -lot- more reactionary than you might think. I do need to write about that at some point.

Daisy said...

Vanessa, thank you for the recommendations... and BFP, I had totally forgotten or spaced out the fact that those Shirley Temple movies were edited that way!! That is really amazing!!

ST was a talented little girl, but does not really translate well now, because her talent was MIMICRY, that is, obedience. She was polite and sweet, always did what she was told. Those qualities translated to the screen, and it's just -BORING- you know? But I think during the depression, especially, those qualities were psychologically very reassuring.

Belle, did you like Fosse's (non-dancing) movie, LENNY? I really loved it, but I think I'm in the minority with that! (I also went through an obsession with Lenny Bruce!)

Donna said...

Daisy, I'm not Donna Darko, we are two different WOC bloggers. If you meant me, then I just go by Donna (or Donna Johnson). If you meant DD then her blog is here:

You aren't the first and I'm sure you won't be the last to confuse the two of us!

Daisy said...

Donna, really sorry about that! And I just got confused with Daisy Bond again, so I guess that came back to bite me in the butt, karma-wise! :P

I'll add both of you! Thanks, and my apologies once again.