One thing I miss, in today’s entertainment, is the great dance scenes of old. Seeing Fred Astaire dance on the walls and the ceiling, tough guy Jimmy Cagney dance across the dinner table portraying a nimble, less polio stricken, president Franklin Roosevelt, and Gene Kelly gliding from puddle to puddle in a rain storm. These performances just added a certain fun-ness and cavalier-ness to film and Broadway.
You see, in the early days of entertainment, both in film and on Broadway, a performer was most valuable if they could sing, dance, and act a little. This is why people, you would never think of as dancers or singers, could hold their own when it came to performing such feats, a bit out of the characters we came to know. Perennial tough man and usual gangster type James Cagney, of “you dirty rat” fame comes to mind as he was a great hoofer. Today however, film rarely demonstrates the brilliant talents that exist, when it comes to dancing and/or singing. Which is why, I believe, you see a resurgence of television shows focused all around these two marvelous talents; Dancing with the stars, America’s Got Talent, The Masked Singer, and American Idol, just to name a few.
But I prefer the movies. Borrowing portions of a very well written piece, in the Washington Post, By Sarah L. Kaufman, on Nov. 8, 2018. With her help, I will explain why the great dancers of film, are the best, and unfortunately becoming a lost art amongst what we today call “Great” entertainment!
What do dance scenes add to a movie? Unspeakable bliss, for starters. Dancing starts when dialogue fails. When lovers need to move beyond conversation, when conflicts boil past negotiation, when joy can’t be expressed in any other way than by leaping into the air on a trumpeter’s high note.
With the rise of movie musicals in the early part of the 20th century, dancing moved easily from stage to screen, becoming bigger, more potent, ever more spectacular — and a lasting love affair with the moviegoing public was born. Even though it has waned a bit in recent years, I am encouraged by a small resurgence depicted by the mainstream success of “La La Land,” a 2016 film in the golden age mold.
As Ms. Kaufman begins her effort to rate the best dance films, I will endeavor to bring her back to the olden days and reflect more on the films that made this genre great.
Taking stock of film’s dance treasury, to pick the paragons of best films, can be an irresistible challenge. In making your choices for the best dance scenes, you need to look at several factors: mastery of technique, imaginative choreography, quality of the music — this is very important — and design and storytelling. Sarah and I value authentic expression more than dance doubles and tricky editing. Does the dancing carry you away, give you chills, distill some truth about the human experience? Whether it’s a masterpiece of steps and skill, or an intentionally funny, hot mess— dancing that moves you, is great dancing.
With matchless artists in movement, music and choreography, the 1930s, 40s, and ’50s dominate the best dance films. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, were clearly the best, with “Top Hat” or “Swing Time” being the best of the best, from all the jewels in their 10 films together. Astaire made some equally great films without Rogers. Classics like “Easter Parade” with Judy Garland and “Royal Wedding” with Jane Powell. Man, that guy could dance – I’m not sure there has ever been a better dancer-entertainer!!!
My second favorite is Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. This man was absolutely great and way before his time!!! He was already a well-established dancer-performer before he became widely known, dancing in clubs and on Broadway to huge crowds and admiration. “Bojangles” became more widely known for his adoring supporting role in many of the Shirly Temple movies of the late 1930’s, and has also been immortalized in song by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and other various artists.
My third choice is James Cagney – yes, the star of many a gangster film. Cagney won his only Academy Award for “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” a portrayal of song and dance man George M. Cohen who became a great musical writer-producer and song-writer. Seeing Cagney sing and dance across the stage and screen is absolutely incredible and so very enjoyable. This is an Academy Award that they got right and was so very well deserved. He was an amazing talent!!!
My forth choice is, of course, Gene Kelly. Kelly was likely the best athlete of the bunch which by default made him a great hoofer. But he also had a great smile, persona, and could sing equally as well. Kelly made such blockbuster films as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “American in Paris” along with many more very good films. If you truly enjoy the incredible talent of the dancer, you cannot miss with any of Kelly’s films.
Our vast cinematic history is studded with marvelous dancing; Donald O’Conner, Gregory Hines, Buddy Ebsen (yes Jed Clampett of Beverly Hillbillies fame 😊), and many others come to mind. I could go on-and-on about the greatest dancers and performers, but one has to draw the line somewhere, so I will stop with just my top four.
As a film buff, I have an extensive memory of these great films. However, the memory isn’t quite what it used to be, so sometimes I have to do some research to “remind” me. 😊 So, when I am researching anything related to films, one of the top sources of information is IMDb. IMDb is the world's most popular and authoritative source for information on movies, TV shows and celebrities. They provide products and services to help fans decide what to watch and where to watch it.
I tell you this because I think IMDb got it MOSTLY right when rating the best dancers in films – here is a summary of their top ten list: https://www.imdb.com/list/ls000002037/
So, on that late night when you’re looking for something cozy to do around the house, look up one of these old movies, and check out the incredible athletic feats these dancers went through to entertain their audiences. It will both amaze and entertain you, and remind you of a simpler time when movies were solely about the entertainment value of the performers, writers, sets, and wardrobes, and not about computer generated graphics, special effects, and shock value. An older, simpler, more enjoyable time when movies were movies, and dancers could dance – dance - dance!!!