Posted by medusamorlock on February 16, 2013
Those of us who can’t resist a good MGM musical are no doubt now and again thinking about the great screen dancer Vera-Ellen, a sparkling screen presence in an number of films yet someone whose memory is overwhelmed by the passage of time and a peculiar lack of the proper respect paid to her accomplishments. On the occasion today of the 92nd anniversary of her birth on February 16, 1921, and although I wrote about her once already (way back in 2007, check out the post by clicking here), and though she’s been gone for over thirty years — she passed away from cancer on August 30, 1981 at only 60 years old – it’s a perfect time to remember again this most charming and talented actress.
I don’t even think it’s important to go back over her biographical details — check out my previous post or her brief bio on Wikipedia or her listing on IMDb for that — at this point; what’s important is to watch her dance in the movies she made. In a nutshell, though, she started dancing as a young girl in Ohio, made it to Broadway and eventually co-starring roles there, and then to Hollywood when Sam Goldwyn put her under contract and she made her screen debut in Wonder Man in 1945. Though she sang in her Broadway roles, including a couple of major tunes in her last show A Connecticut Yankee (and you can hear at least one of them here, duets with co-star Chester Stratton), she didn’t do her own singing in the movies. But she wasn’t there to sing — she was there to dance, and let’s look at some of her work.
Here are two numbers from her debut film Wonder Man starring Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo. The first is a novelty number called “Bali Boogie” and it’s crazy, and the second is “So in Love” which is a straight perky love song with an extended dance sequence tacked on. You can see Vera-Ellen’s youthful appeal and athletic dancing style in both of these; she was one of the most powerful female dancers onscreen, often compared to Eleanor Powell in terms of the sheer strength and energy in her dancing. The style of the musical numbers in her movies for Goldwyn is brassy and not particularly beautiful, not polished or with muchartistic pretense like MGM’s output, but they eventually wear you down into enjoyment and admiration for Vera-Ellen’s stamina (but not so much for the Goldwyn Girls who are lovely but sort of awful). Obviously Samuel Goldwyn thought she was just the cutest thing on two legs and concentrated on that part of her image.
Her next film, 1946′s The Kid from Brooklyn, also with Kaye and Mayo, gave her a couple of numbers including “Hey, What’s Your Name?” where a very forward old-fashioned Vera-Ellen chases after guys at a train station.
She went over to 20th-Century Fox for her next film Three Little Girls in Blue where she danced to “You Make Me Feel So Young” alongside Charles Smith.
At Fox she also made 1947′s Carnival in Costa Rica opposite Dick Haymes, where she danced in a frantic and colorful wedding dream sequence.
Vera-Ellen finally got the chance to step up to MGM as Gene Kelly’s partner in the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” segment of Words and Music (about Rodgers and Hart) from 1948. At last she’s getting into the big leagues here in this long feature dance that was very well-received.
In 1949 she found herself in the Marx Brothers’ last movie Love Happy, also co-starring Marilyn Monroe. Harpo is smitten with Vera-Ellen’s perky ballerina, and she also gets to do a sultry turn in a Sadie Thompson ballet. (A slightly better-looking version of that dance is here).
Finally — finally! — she makes it again to MGM to co-star in the movie version of On the Town, along with Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller and Jules Munshin. She’s beautifully paired up with Gene Kelly again and has a solo, a dance with Gene, as well as ensemble dances. She’s quite delightful in this terrific movie.
Next up, also at MGM, Vera-Ellen was paired with Fred Astaire in the Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby 1950 biopic Three Little Words, co-starring with Red Skelton and Arlene Dahl. Though it’s always a little jarring watching musical scenes where her singing voice is dubbed, nevertheless she has some lovely dances here, both partnered by Astaire and otherwise.
Vera-Ellen made a British musical the next year, co-starring with David Niven and Cesar Romero in Happy Go Lovely. Though it’s not up to MGM standards, it still showcases her dancing in a couple of interesting numbers, quite balletic. You can watch the whole movie (click here), also.
In 1952 she returned to MGM for the delightful musical The Belle of New York again opposite Fred Astaire. Though it wasn’t a big box office success, it’s tremendously cute and has some fun numbers, including Fred’s immortal “Dancin’ Man” (which I’m putting here because it’s so darn good) and a comedy duet called “Oops” that is truly amusing and adorable.
In 1952 Vera-Ellen made the big-screen version of the Irving Berlin stage hit Call Me Madam, this time dancing opposite the boyish Donald O’Connor. Ethel Merman reprised her stage triumph as Miss Sally Adams, and George Sanders co-starred. This one is full of great songs, with several great dance numbers for her and O’Connor.
Next up, in 1954, Vera-Ellen co-starred in the movie that probably accounts for most of her lasting fame, Paramount’s White Christmas. Alongside Bing Crosby, Rosemary Clooney and Danny Kaye (who was brought in to replace Donald O’Connor and Fred Astaire who had to decline the role), Vera-Ellen sang and danced in this not quite top-notch yet people-pleasing holiday entry, and at least its subject matter gets it regular yearly viewing. Obviously a spin-off of sorts from Holiday Inn at least in terms of Irving Berlin’s music, White Christmas is full of show-biz vernacular, with a fun vibe between Kaye and Crosby, some nice numbers, and the production is gorgeous. However, I used to love Vera-Ellen and Danny Kaye’s “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” but it doesn’t quite hold up next to her pairings with O’Connor, Kelly and Astaire, and that’s coming from someone who is a die-hard Danny Kaye fan. Just sayin’…
Vera-Ellen’s last big-screen musical was 1957′s Let’s Be Happy, a minor entry co-starring singer Tony Martin.
Not a great note to go out on, but musicals were in a precipitous decline and Vera-Ellen was a little past her screen dancing prime and had other interests including a new marriage. She didn’t give up show business entirely but did stage shows and some TV.
If you’ve never fully embraced the Vera-Ellen experience, I highly recommend checking out some of the movies featured here, and if you’re intrigued by her life story, you should get David Soren’s book Vera-Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery, which is in its 2nd edition. Her life is full of highs and many lows, but those of us who’ve admired her onscreen will find much of interest in the book. Somewhere among my mementos I have Vera-Ellen’s obituary from Variety from 1981, and probably also the faded clipping from one of the tabloids of an aging and ailing Vera-Ellen going into a Hollywood dance studio from not too long before that. I’ve obviously loved Vera-Ellen for a long time, and she’s somebody whose memory I really want to help keep alive.
Happy Birthday, Vera-Ellen. You would have made an awesome old lady…
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