Tuesday, March 24, 2015

History per Hollywood & Dance Halls

With only a few days left until the annual TCM Film Festival, I have this year's theme, History According to Hollywood, on the brain. I go back and forth on my film choices, wanting to hear the discussion connected with the "herstory" films, but also wanting to see old favorites on the big screen. Since this will be my first time attending the festival, I opted for the Palace Pass. This means I'll be missing out on the TCM Club exclusive panel "Facts and Fiction: Whose Responsibility?" hosted by Jeanine Basinger (my author idol!) and Jeremy Arnold. Hopefully some of the bloggers I read will attend, so I can hear secondhand what was discussed. 

The films chosen for analysis include 1776, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Miracle Worker, Apollo 13 and many more set in an era prior to the film date. I am equally interested, however, in the way Hollywood shapes history through the portrayal of current events of the day. As one example, I think of the ticket-a-dance halls, popular during the 1920s and 1930s, but long since extinct. Lacking the libraries of in-depth research found on the American Revolution or Abraham Lincoln, we are left with the story Hollywood has bequeathed us, a few frames of celluloid, and Lorenz Hart's lyrics to "Ten Cents a Dance." Depending on the circumstances under which they were created, the story may reflect different shades of truth.

I can't recall my first exposure to ticket-a-dance halls, but I do remember being enchanted with the idea of dressing in glamorous gowns and being paid to dance. An added bonus: I would never be lacking a dance partner. In hindsight, my happy go-lucky attitude may have been naive. At the time, visions of a hunky Randolph Scott purchasing dance tickets, Harriett Hillard's bias-cut dress, and a dancing contest with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played in my head. How could I have known any better? 

Follow the Fleet (1936)

Later I saw Barbara Stanwyck's portrayal of a taxi driver. The dresses were less fabulous, the shoes and stockings wore through each night, and the job zapped every ounce of life in the dancers. Stanwyck's character was hardened, but she found her "hero" on the dance floor nonetheless. Doris Day's Ruth Etting showed an even grittier side, fighting off a tough guy at the beginning of Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and losing her dance hall job in the process. Suddenly the full meaning of the Hart's lyrics began to take hold:
Ten cents a dance, that's what they pay me.
Gosh, how they weigh me down.
Ten cents a dance, dandies* and rough guys,
Tough guys who tear my gown.

*as sung in Love Me or Leave Me; however "pansies" is used in other versions of the song

Somewhere between dancing with Fred and fighting off sleazy guys is the truth about dime dance halls. Consider my curiosity peaked.

Since then, I have kept my eye out for depictions of taxi dancers. I plan to explore these in future blog posts (maybe a monthly column of sorts). On the menu is a film I caught in January, These Glamour Girls (1939) starring a young Lana Turner, and the short "Asleep in the Feet" (1933) which Danny from Pre-code.com recently reviewed on his blog.

I also did a bit of research on dime-dance halls, which yielded mixed opinions. According to some, taxi dancing was the positive experience I first imagined, where gals who loved to dance could make a better living on their feet than as a secretary, and out-of-town strangers could easily make new acquaintances. 
Fighters and sailors and bowlegged tailors
Can pay for their ticket and rent me.
Others explain that the dance hall was friend to the social outcast, admitting men regardless of race, ability, and occupation. Still others point out the presence of actual prostitutes among the dime-a-dance girls. If this was the case, it wouldn't be a large leap for the patrons to assume their "rented" partner--prostitute or not--owed them more than a friendly dance.

So the dance hall verdict is still out, but deciphering fact from fiction is part of the fun. Hope you can come along for the dance.


Cressy, Paul Goalby. The Taxi-Dance Hall: A Socialization Study in Commercialized Recreation & City Life. 1932. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008. Web. 14 March 2015.

Silverman, Justin Rocket. "'Dance Hall of the Beautiful Radiant Things' shows new crowd a really old-school way to meet." New York Times. 5 February 2014. Web. 21 March 2015.

Vaillant, Derek. Sounds of Reform: Progressivism and Music in Chicago, 1873-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003. Web. 21 March 2015.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Dancing Legs Quiz ~ March Edition

These dance routines debuted in films during March of their release year.  Each of the golden decades ('30s, '40s, '50s, and '60s) is represented. Guess whose legs these are. Then give yourself a bonus if you can name the movie.



Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Temptations of Silk Stockings

This post is part of Russia in Classic Film hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently and sponsored by Flicker Alley. To check out all of the wonderful posts, click here.

Of the two films* Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse made together, Silk Stockings (1957) is by far the superior. This belief may be in the minority, but I stand by it. (You can read more about my unpopular opinion about their other movie, The Band Wagon, here.) Like Band Wagon, we are treated to beautifully choreographed dances showcasing Astaire and Charisse, who actually star this time around. However, there is much more to Silk Stockings by way of plot and subject matter.

*Three if you count Astaire and Charisse's brief appearance together in Ziegfeld Follies (1946),  an ensemble piece featuring performances from over a dozen stars.

"I've never known anyone to resist enjoyment the way you do." ~Steve to Ninotchka
The primary focus of Silk Stockings is the ideological difference between the capitalistic West and communist Russia represented respectively by main characters Steve Canfield (Fred Astaire) and Ninotchka Yoshenka (Cyd Charisse). Where Steve parties all night, sleeps in, and rents extravagant hotel suites, Ninotchka works hard, wakes up early, and lives simply. Where Western culture celebrates the frivolous, Russian culture appreciates the useful. Pleasure and entertainment are a way of life in the West. The film even takes a self-depreciating jab at itself with a diva-ish swimming star (played by Janis Page) and a song ("Stereophonic Sound") about all the gimmicks added to movies "to get the public to attend the picture show." On the other hand, Russians view pleasure as a sign of selfishness, and art as a means to publicize communist culture. Finally, the characters' clothing visually symbolize their core differences. The American and Parisian women dress in gorgeous gowns of satin and silk while Ninotchka's dress is simple, made of a drab olive material. Charisse's outfits may be missing the razzle dazzle of her flashy Band Wagon costumes, but her dances have more meat to them. In her first dance with Astaire, the audience sees a gradual shift in her character's pro-communist attitude. By next dance, which is rather sensual for the time, the metamorphosis is complete.

In addition to Ninotchka, most of the Russian characters in Silk Stockings wish to escape from their oppressive society. The three commissars (Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin, Joseph Buloff), who are sent to return a stray Russian composer, rejoice at the thought of a prolonged stay in Paris, dancing and singing "Too Bad (We Can't Go Back to Moscow)"--the highlight of which is Peter Lorre doing Russian kicks between a table and chair. If seeing the oft serious actor behave in such a comedic manner doesn't put a smile on your face, I don't know what will! 
Peter Lorre dances..kind of... Source
Even the new commissar in Russia seems to understand the boys' unwillingness to come home. He wistfully tells
Ninotchka about his experience in Paris: "I got very close to the French people. In fact, they deported me three times." The sentiment reaches a crescendo with the "Red Blues" dance number, in which Russian workers secretly dance to jazz and lament their dreary lifestyles. 

If they are so unhappy, what keeps them there? One only has to remember the numerous asides throughout the film: if any of the Russians defect, death--either their own or their relatives'--awaits them. Of course, there is always Siberia as the three commissars explain in a song of the same name. Cole Porter's witty lyrics illustrate the undesirability of that option: "When it's cocktail time/it will be so nice/just to know you'll not have to phone for ice." 
"But this is an American picture. You're liable to have Napolean win." ~Ninotchka
Ninotchka's words are a bit of an exaggeration, but she makes a keen observation--Hollywood has been known to embellish history. Silk Stockings itself would have been prime material for some doctoring given the political climate in which it was made. It was filmed during the height of the Cold War and just as McCarthyism was losing steam, although the musical production on which the film is based opened in 1955 when Senator McCarthy still had a stronghold on the entertainment industry. (For those not familiar, McCarthy's hunt for supporters of Communism resulted in end of numerous careers in the arts. The evidence used against individuals was often flimsy at best.) Whether or not this played into the portrayal of the cultural differences is hard to say. Both sides--Western Europe's bourgeoisie and Russia's proletarians--seem to be extreme versions of themselves in Silk Stockings. Capitalism wins, but it also triumphed in the original version, 1939's Ninotchka (starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas)*, which was made a decade prior to the Cold War and twenty years before the McCarthy era. The self-righteous face of capitalism, Steve, does not go unscathed. Towards the end of the movie, Ninotchka calls out Steve's inability to accept her values: 
It's always your opinion. It's what you want and what you think. Everything I do is wrong. And everything you do is right. You leave me nothing of my own.
While the writers do not adequately resolve the issue, I appreciate that the inequity has been noted. There has to be a little give. We need to meet in the middle. Democrats and Republicans take note. 

*This is one of the few cases where the remake is just  as good as the original. I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already. 

"For the past five years, I have been assigned to the job of rectifying the mistakes of foolish commissars." ~Ninotchka
In addition to cultural relations, Silk Stockings also briefly touches upon the inequality between men and women in the workplace. Because Ninotchka is a woman, the male Russian commissar casually glances at her credentials and doubts her ability to take on a complicated mission. She points out that his opinion is based on her gender and that she is more than qualified. He finally concurs and when she leaves, he comments to his mistress that Ninotchka is not a woman. This is symptomatic of a general attitude that women who take their job seriously are somehow unnatural. 

What is natural--or so the film tries to tell us--is the overactive male libido. Whether European, American, or Russian, all the men are chasing skirts in this film.  (Interestingly enough, there are several extramarital affairs occurring, but the movie does not play these up due to censorship. Listen to the dialogue carefully to see what I mean.) Additionally the lyrics of Porter's "Satin and Silk" tell men, "If she's wearing silk and satin/she's for petting and patting" and "If a woman was born a prude/she can reverse her attitude/if she's wearing silk and satin." Does this sound like 'she's asking for it' to anyone else? Yikes!  

Silk Stockings came to fruition at a unique time in history. It is squeezed between the McCarthy era and the Cold War, between a movie-going and TV-watching public, between the censored studio system and independent film making. As a result, Silk Stockings is a treasure trove of 1950s ideologies and attitudes across cultures and genders, from the workplace to the boudoir. And to top it off, you get Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse!

Atkinson, Brooklyn.  "Silk Stockings: Satire on the Soviet." New York Times 25 Feb. 1955. Web. 7 March 2015.

Shaw, Tony. Hollywood's Cold War. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. Web.