Thursday, August 4, 2022

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1936: Dance Direction

The short-lived category of Dance Direction was inaugurated for the 1935 Academy Awards. They continued through into the 1936 ceremony, and that is what we discuss today. 

At this time, a committee of 50 decided the nominees in each category. While most categories kept their limit to five nominees, for some reason - possibly a tie or compromise? - Dance Direction's lineup was seven-wide.  That's one tic more than Original Song, which suggests to me that this committee liked a musical number.

The nominees:

"Swingin' the Jinx Away" from Born to Dance
Dave Gould
previous winner, second of three nominations

The movie: Discussed before, in Original Song.

The nominee: This is the culmination of the film: not only does Eleanor Powell get her big break, she gets her guy, too: a Navy man. No wonder she's dancing alongside sailors atop and alongside an aircraft carrier, decades before Cher. The scale of the thing is constantly surprising, the camera and choreography revealing one new layer after another, yet - and this is most important - its cinematic qualities do not interrupt the conceit that this is a stage show. Not until those cannons fire into the audience do you start to worry, but even then, you know these are just pyrotechnics. This is large-scale, complex stuff, but it's possible. And besides, the real show is Powell's dancing, her movements sometimes so subtle you can't see the feet touching the floor; other times, her leg's kicked so high she's less human than yardstick. This is breathtaking work.

"1000 Love Songs" from Cain and Mabel
Bobby Connolly
second of three nominations

The movie: Cain is a boxer, Mabel is a new Broadway star; at first they jinx each other, but then when their careers start to stall, their reps cook up a fake romance between them and sparks fly! A seemingly silly premise brought off thanks in no small part to the charm of stars Clark Gable and Marion Davies, but also because the film uses that gag to talk about exploitation between family members.

The nominee: There's a better movie bookending this interminable number. I can't find a clip of it, and I think there's a reason.

"The Finale" from Dancing Pirate
Russell Lewis
first and only nomination

The movie: While attempting to sail to California, a Boston dance teacher is kidnapped; he escapes into a small town, where everyone believes him to be a pirate, but no suspects a local baron of being the true villain. OK as far as these things go. Costumes are great.

The nominee: Villains vanquished, our hero finally gets to be with the girl he loves; the village celebrates both peace and the couple's union with a dance that culminates in their nuptials. It's much shorter than many of the other nominees. There's a lot of gown- and cape-flourishing, which I quite like. Honestly, kudos to the nominating committee for going with something whose flash isn't in the sets or the edits, but in the genuine talent.

"Love and War" from Gold Diggers of 1937
Busby Berkeley
second of three nominations

The movie: A struggling life insurance salesman's new client is a Broadway producer with a number of nervous disorders; his business partners are keen for the producer to die so they can cash in and cover their book-cooking. At its best when it embraces macabre absurdity: the life insurance company has an anthem that goes, "There'll be pie in the sky if you die, die, die," while one femme fatale chorine coos, "It's so hard to be good under the capitalistic system." Dick Powell seems tired, though; it's lacking something that the 1933 and 1935 editions possessed, but what?
The nominee: The song is catchy, a reference, I suppose, to how close our Broadway producer came to getting bumped off by his singer girlfriend. It's another one of those numbers that's ostensibly a stage production but which would be impossible to pull off within the atrium. The synchronization of the dancers is mesmerizing. The literalization of the lyrics do it no favors (the mass of rocking chairs undone by a bomb? yawn!). A disappointing finale whose barrage of explosions and setpieces conveys desperation less suited to the cast of Gold Diggers than it is to the cast of Red, White, and Blaine.

"A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" from The Great Ziegfeld
Seymour Felix
first and only nomination

The movie: The life of iconic Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld. To be discussed in further detail later. Also nominated for Film Editing, Art Direction, Original Story, Actress (won), Director, and Best Picture (won).

The nominee: This number closes the first act, just before Intermission. Various musical styles across continents and centuries as a revolving tier of damsels representing the feminine ideal throughout history twirls about. It's meant to be the spectacle that tells everyone that Florenz Ziegfeld is The Real Deal, he's made it. So if it feels ostentatious, if you feel beaten down by it...well, that's partly the point, I think. You're meant to gasp, "Christ!" and not know whether it's in horror or admiration. It rides a thin line between glamor and gauche. And you know those dancers were in danger the entire shoot. I think it's effective and completely understand the win.

"Skating Ensemble" from One in a Million
Jack Haskell
first and only nomination

The movie: Oh, jeez, OK, so this troupe of performers led by a constantly down-on-his-luck manager winds up staying at this Swiss chalet where the innkeeper's daughter just so happens to be an incredibly talented ice skater, which gives the manager an idea for a new act. Watch it for the Ritz Brothers. Actually, Sonja Henie's not a bad presence, either.

The nominee: I can only find this odd, manipulated bootleg of the film, but that's the number: Adolphe Menjou's fantasy of a show built around Sonja Henie. The ensemble does a wonderful job, Sonja Henie's raw talent is the showcase. It's very nice. It's also desperately dull to watch. Maybe it's the music arrangement? I don't know, there's this sense of, "OK, this is what you're betting the farm on?" to it.

"Bojangles of Harlem" from Swing Time
Hermes Pan
second of three nominations

The movie: Discussed before, in Original Song.

The nominee: So, it's impossible to discuss this number without mentioning the blackface. And not just the actual blackface Fred Astaire is wearing, but the style of dance and clothes - as some commentators have noted, neither exactly evokes the persona of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Indeed, despite the song's title, Astaire's costume and dance style in the number are a tribute to his dance teacher, John W. Bubbles, who originated the role of Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess (the Sportin' Life costume is the one referenced in Astaire's wardrobe). So here is the dilemma: Astaire pays tribute to a Black artist he was close friends with but does so ostensibly under the guise of a different Black artist, and while either gesture is laudable on its face, the implication that they are interchangeable is as problematic as the greasepaint on Fred's face. That context and disclaimer and acknowledgment are all necessary, I think, because it mars what is otherwise one of the most perfect dance routines ever set to film. From a typical ensemble tap number it gives way to a hypnotic and deceptively simple shadow dance. Almost 90 years later, it wasn't any of the numbers above - with their cannons and costumes and six-figure sets - that you've seen a hundred times in specials, tributes, and rewatches. It's this one.


This is an award for inventiveness in entertainment. I have two five-star dances - one problematic, one not. I award my vote to:


Tomorrow, the nine nominees for the Writing Awards: After the Thin Man, DodsworthFury, The Great ZiegfeldMr. Deeds Goes to Town, My Man Godfrey, San FranciscoThe Story of Louis Pasteur, and Three Smart Girls.

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