Monday, June 6, 2022

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1935: Dance Direction

In 1927, The Jazz Singer made sound - and the movie musical - into big business, receiving an Honorary Award at the First Academy Awards in 1929. In 1930, The Broadway Melody became the first musical to win the Best Picture Oscar at the Second Academy Awards. In 1934, Best Original Song was introduced as a category. And in 1935, the domination of the movie musical was further recognized with a brand new category: Best Dance Direction.

The category was short-lived - it was only given out thrice - but it's stuck in the minds of Oscar Heads for decades, often misremembered as a Best Choreography category. It's understandable, of course, but the difference is cinematic: beyond the steps, the great dance directors conceived of numbers that went beyond the proscenium, taking full advantage of edits, cinematography, dubbing, to make for the most transcendent musical experiences since Ziegfeld's tableaux.

There were seven nominees this first year, most of them cited for two musical numbers - sometimes from two different films, sometimes two numbers from one. And yes, we've video. Let us entertain you:

Busby Berkeley
first of three nominations
"The Words Are In My Heart" from Gold Diggers of 1935
"Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935

His two numbers are both from the same movie, Gold Diggers of 1935, an ensemble comedy about the patrons and employees of a ritzy New Hampshire hotel at summertime, climaxing with a musicale charity dinner. The show within the show opens with "The Words Are In My Heart," an impossible number where the female pianists play at Grands that take on a life of their own - look closely and you'll see the legs of the male dancers manipulating those pianos from under and within - breathtaking in the complexity. Also up for consideration if the legendary "Lullaby of Broadway," climaxing with a massive tap-dance routine that I have always found to be both impressive and possessed of a threatening aura. That it ends with a woman falling to her death doesn't help. 

Bobby Connolly
first of three nominations
"Playboy from Paree" from Broadway Hostess
"Latin from Manhattan" from Go Into Your Dance

Connolly has two separate films under consideration. Broadway Hostess follows a performer who's in love with her manager, but is disappointed when it turns out he doesn't abuse his power and maintains professionalism; instead, he sets his sights on an heiress who's got a ne'er-do-well alcoholic brother. The film ends with our performer doing the "Playboy from Paree" number, much of which takes place within her champagne glass - how the audience sees this is anyone's guess, but it's kitschy and adorable. Go Into Your Dance is an Al Jolson-Ruby Keeler vehicle about a talented young woman who gives a problematic Broadway star a second shot at a career. The nominated number is also from the film's climax, "Latin from Manhattan," which features an unwieldy-looking globe set. Oddly enough, both films play as larks for 70 minutes only to end with a shooting in the last 60 seconds.

Dave Gould
first of three nominations
"I've Got a Feeling You're Feeling" from Broadway Melody of 1936
"Straw Hat" from Folies Bergère

The winner won for two films. In The Broadway Melody of 1936, "I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling" is the first musical number to take place within the actual narrative of the film. It's a trip! Folies Bergère, in which Maurice Chevalier plays an actor who trades places with a lookalike millionaire, ends with a wink at the actor's iconography via a number called "Straw Hat." It's a bunch of straw hats! Another worthy nominee would have been "Rhythm of the Rain," but "Straw Hat" has such cheeky, self-aware fun with its insipid premise that you can't help admiring it. In both films, Gould demonstrates that he doesn't just keep up with the post-Ziegfeld razzle-dazzle of his contemporaries, he kind of thumbs his nose at their excesses, too. "I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling" is genuinely complex with its mix of visual effects, editing, and practical mechanisms providing opportunities and obstacles for the dancers; "Straw Hat" is all hat, hilariously so.

Sammy Lee
first of two nominations
"Lovely Lady" - King of Burlesque
"Too Good To Be True" - King of Burlesque

Up for two numbers from King of Burlesque, yet another film where a theater impresario courts a wealthy woman over the obvious affections of his star chanteuse...and also another film where a man almost loses it all but brings it all back together thanks to the love of a woman. It's effective for a number of reasons: the performances, for one, with the great Warner Baxter in the lead. The script, for another: funny, starry-eyed, but surprisingly grounded. And the musical numbers: I can't find an isolated clip of "Too Good to be True," but "Lovely Lady" has a bunch of broads doing their act from a series of trapezes. Dangerous! Also narratively relevant, as our titular King is going for broke with this production.

Hermes Pan
first of three nominations
"The Piccolino" - Top Hat
"Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" - Top Hat

Nominated for two Top Hat numbers: "The Piccolino," the scale of which impresses, but it is, while still a great number, decidedly the weakest song of the film (it's a great film); and the titular "Top Hat." Fred Astaire's thunderous tapping, a major plot point in the film, is now used to simulate gunfire. You want me to find fault with "Top Hat"? I shan't, it's a great number and a great song.

LeRoy Prinz
first of two nominations
"Viennese Waltz" from All the King's Horses
"It's the Animal in Me" from The Bog Broadcast of 1936

All the King's Horses is yet another identity swap, with a Hollywood star switching places with a European king in a mostly conflict-less but very charming, very funny comedy. Carl Brisson plays both roles, of course, and to see him walk up to himself, sit down, put one arm around the other him's shoulders, play a duet on the piano, then clink glasses - not a seam visible - I mean, it's astonishing. Nothing looks this good. Prinz's nominated work is "Viennese Waltz," which I honestly do not remember except that mirrors are somehow involved. Prinz also does the Ethel Merman number "It's the Animal in Me" for The Big Broadcast of 1936 (a snooze with some amusements, plus movie-stealing appearances by the Nicholas Brothers) which uses a lot of, uh, "rewinding" I guess you'd call it, to make it appear as though elephants are dancing along to the music. I could find neither number isolated, and I honestly think that's just.

Benjamin Zemach
first and only nominations
"Hall of Kings" from She

The only nominee up for just one number, and from a non-musical! She is an adventure flick wherein a man, a woman, and an older man find the secret of immortality within an ice cave at the top of the world. Said cave is ruled by the ageless She Who Must Be Obeyed, and the "Hall of Kings" dance comes as part of a climactic ceremony meant to sacrifice the woman so that She may take the young man as her eternal lover. Not always in sync, but it's just so nutty, unsettling!

The world knows Busby Berkeley and Hermes Pan. For this year, however, I would agree with the Academy. My vote goes to:


Next up, we look at the Music Awards: Original Song - featuring tunes from Gold Diggers of 1935, Roberta, and Top Hat - and Original Score - featuring The Informer, Mutiny on the Bounty, and Peter Ibbetson.

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