Favorite Movie Dance Scenes: Swing Time

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Its week thee of my blog spotlight on my favorite movie dance scenes. Last week I focused on song and dance legend Gene Kelly’s iconic Singin’ in the Rain number. This week I go from one legend to a pair of legends: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The pair made a total of 10 films together. One of their best was Swing Time (1936). There’s a cornucopia of great dance scenes to pick from in the film. But my favorite is Pick Yourself Up. It’s not only exquisitely choreographed, but it’s a genuinely sweet scene between the iconic dancers.

At the point in the film when the number happens, Astaire and Rogers have just gone through their initial first meeting where they irritate each other (part of the formula of their films). Astaire tracks Rogers down at her dance studio and pretends to need dance lessons. If that doesn’t tell you this film is fiction, I don’t know what will. At first, Astaire feigns being a clumsy dancer. But as Rogers is about to be fired for being an incompetent dance instructor, Astaire implores the dance studio owner to let him show off what Rogers taught him. That sets up the fun number where they dance not just over the dance floor, but waltz over the railing around said dance floor and appear to defy gravity.

There’s much to love about this dance scene. There’s the natural chemistry of Astaire and Rogers. They look like they’re having fun on the dance floor. It’s not that in other scenes/movies they don’t. But here their chemistry just pops off the screen a little bit more for me. I think above all what I love the most though is the simply elegance of the scene. The waltzing and tap dancing is energetic yet graceful. They waltz and tap dance ace if they’re floating on air. My favorite part is at the end when they waltz over the dance floor railing and the dance studio owner looks on in awe.

There are more complicated and legendary numbers in Swing Time. There’s the elaborate tribute to Bill Robinson: Bojangles of Harlem and the legendary Never Gonna Dance (Ginger Rogers performed it so many times that her feet bled!). But I love the simplicity of Pick Yourself Up. The choreography is fun but spontaneous. Credit must go not only to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, two of the most talented people to ever put on dancing shoes. But I must also acknowledge choreographer Hermes Pan. He never ceases to disappoint.

My favorite Astaire and Rogers film is actually Top Hat. But Swing Time gives it a run for its money and grows on me each time. It has the usual Astaire and Rogers formula, but the dancing and acting chemistry of the stars elevates it to fun and artistic heights. You can’t go wrong watching any of the Astaire and Rogers films. But if you need a film that instantly lifts your spirits and makes you want to get up and dance, Swing Time is the one to watch.

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Favorite Movie Dance Scenes: Singin’ in the Rain

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Greetings, readers! Last week I kicked off a month-long look at my favorite movie dance scenes. My first pick was America from West Side Story. And now I go in a completely different direction. This week’s favorite is the title song number from Singin’ in the Rain. The film is filled with worthy choices: Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses, Good Morning… But it’s Gene Kelly’s solo number that’s so delightful I could watch it on a loop.

To set the scene up: Kelly has just figured out how to save his latest picture (with help from Donald O’ Connor and Debbie Reynolds) how to save his latest picture: The Dueling Cavalier. After a screening filled with technical problems (it’s the studio’s first attempt at a talking picture that has glitches from beginning to end), Kelly and company have an epiphany: make it into a musical! As Kelly and Reynolds part ways after the revelation, Kelly is filled with joy not just at being able to save his career, but with his realization of his love for the Reynolds character. And it’s Kelly walking on a cloud that leads to what’s arguably the most iconic dance scene of his legendary career.

Why do I love this scene so much? It’s filled with such pure joy and spontaneity for one thing. While it flows effortlessly, the whole number feels like Kelly is making it up as it goes. He’s physicalizing all the warmth his feeling about being in love. That makes the number really pop off the screen. The energy in the iconic dance sequence is contagious. That probably explains why no matter how many times I’ve watched it, I still view it with a goofy grin on my face.

Another reason this scene is a favorite is because I love the imagination of the choreography. Kelly tape dances down the street, under a rain gutter, hangs from a lamp-post, twirls his umbrella in a circle in the middle of the street, and triumphantly stomps in a big puddle while getting a quizzical look from a passing policeman. It’s like watching a kid in a candy store. According to Hollywood lore, Kelly had a fever while filming the number (according to IMDB he had a temperature of 101). It’s a testament to Kelly’s professionalism and ridiculous talent that under those circumstances he delivered such an amazing performance. While Singin’ in the Rain isn’t as technically difficult as the Broadway Melody number, it’s no less impressive. Its brilliance is in its simple imagination and Kelly selling it with his facial expressions and body language.

Finally, there’s just the simple fact that it lifts my spirits every time I see it. I don’t care what mood you’re in. You’d have to be dead inside to not be the least bit uplifted by that scene. Singin’ in the Rain is on a special list of movies I put on whenever I’m feeling down in the dumps. I’m a big fan of movie musicals, especially the ones from Hollywood’s Golden Age. Of all of them, Singin’ in the Rain is my favorite, just ahead of The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story. As Roger Ebert said in his Great Movie essay on the film, “Singin’ in the Rain is a transcendent experience, and no one who loves movies can afford to miss it.” I couldn’t agree more!

While another Gene Kelly vehicle, An American In Paris, got all the awards recognition (it even won an Oscar for Best Picture), Singin’ in the Rain is the superior movie IMHO. An American In Paris is well-made and has great music and dancing, but the story to me has always felt pretentious. Singin’ in the Rain is a great fable about the early days of talkies and is rich with great singing, dancing, and fun dialogue. Kelly’s performance of the title song is iconic for good reason. I will never tire of watching it.

Favorite Film Dance Scenes: West Side Story

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I don’t know about you, but I love musicals. I love them for the great songs, and, of course, the fabulous dancing. In that spirit, this month I will be highlighting some of my favorite dance scenes in motion picture history. Now, I will be discussing one scene a week, so I won’t be covering all of my favorites. But I thought it would be a fun spotlight to do.

My first favorite movie dance scene comes from the Robert Wise classic West Side Story. Now, I could pick any number of dance scenes from this movie. There’s not a song or dance sequence that isn’t just utter perfection. If you were to ask meĀ  to pick my favorite, it would be between Cool and my choice this week: America. The whole movie of West Side Story crackles with energy. That’s in large part due to its choreographer Jerome Robbins. For a large stretch of the production, Robbins was also the co-director. But he was too demanding, and eventually was fired. But he didn’t leave without putting an indelible stamp on the film. Robbins rehearsed with the dancers three months before shooting began, and the hard work shows.

America is not only my favorite song in a musical full of great songs. But the energy level and dancing skill on display is off the charts. At the center of the number are Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. Watching them dance, you can see that they richly deserved their Oscars. I love how whole sequence is framed too, cutting back between the men and women singing. The song is about how the different genders view life in America as immigrants, and the way it’s cut really lets each side’s point of view be heard. But back to the dancing. I love this number in particular because of Moreno’s sass. Her facial expressions tell you so much about how she really feels. This is a strong, complicated woman, not to be crossed. On the other side is George Chakiris, who’s every bit equal as a dancer (he actually played Riff in the stage musical’s London production). Chakiris not only nails the dance moves, but his body language sells the whole number. The frustration of his character comes out in his physicality.

America is a great song (having Leonard Bernstein do your music and Stephen Sondheim do your lyrics never hurts) and it all meshes perfectly with the choreographed visuals. The way it’s filmed makes it feel like a dancing duel between the male and female Puerto Ricans. That adversarial feel adds to the energy level. At the end when there’s an overhead shot of some of the dancers being triumphantly lifted overhead, it feels like an exclamation mark being put on the number. The lyrics are poignant and all the actors and dancers make them come alive through the amazing choreography. It’s a joy to behold. Today when movie musicals are made stars are hired often at the expense of people who can actually sing and dance. West Side Story shows what can be achieved when you invest in people who can sing dance and act. That’s why it’s still being embraced by audiences old and new over 50 years later.