Scorsese Screens - November 2021
This month’s TCM Spotlight is “Dance Numbers,” and the program includes many of the titles you would expect, including 42nd Street, The Gay Divorcee, The Red Shoes, An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, West Side Story and All That Jazz. If you’re reading these words and you are a dedicated TCM watcher, you’ve probably seen all of these pictures multiple times, like I have. The best of them are inexhaustible, and it’s a great experience to revisit them at different moments in your life.
The level of artistry and dedication at every level is astonishing. In a documentary about Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds said that the two hardest things she ever did were working with Gene Kelly and childbirth. And Cyd Charisse said that if she came home from work with black and blue marks on her body, her husband Tony Martin knew that she was working on a Kelly movie. This does not mean that Gene Kelly beat up Cyd Charisse. It means that he was a perfectionist who rehearsed his numbers again and again until everyone and everything was working together seamlessly. This is true of all filmmaking, and really, of all art, no matter what the medium. So much time and attention and energy is devoted to creating the sense of constant flow, and you feel it deeply in the greatest dance numbers. “Singin’ in the Rain,” for instance, which took a week to shoot—for most of that time, Kelly had a 103 degree fever and was drenched in a mix of water and milk (so that it would photograph more clearly). You watch the finished number and there’s not a trace of all that relentless effort. As Leonard Bernstein said when his friend Adolph Green showed him the film for the first time, that number is a celebration of life.
The same could be said of “I Got Rhythm” or “Tra La La” or “S’Wonderful” in An American in Paris. Or, for that matter, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing “Never Gonna Dance” in Swing Time, or the barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, or Kelly’s dance with the newspaper to “You Wonderful You” in Summer Stock, or “Everything Old Is New Again” in All That Jazz. And then, there are numbers that are great in a very different way, that embody the extreme and sometimes fatal obsession of dance, of cinema, of all art—the extraordinary 17-minute ballet in The Red Shoes, the great ballets in An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain that it inspired, the audition scene set to “On Broadway” that opens All That Jazz, and 42nd Street in its entirety. The program is an opportunity to study contrasting approaches to the musical (the differences between Busby Berkeley, Vincente Minnelli movie Donen/Kelly, between a Freed production and a Joe Pasternak production, Jerome Robbins’ choreography and Michael Kidd’s), and to return to some of the greatest works of a genre that is intimately tied to the art of cinema itself.