1950s · 1953 · animation · blogathon · classic film · Gotta Dance blogathon · musicals

Gotta dance!: the hypnotic magic of Girl Hunt Ballet

“Many people do not see a connection between science and dance, but I consider them both to be expressions of the boundless creativity that people have to share with one another.” –Mae Jemison 

Mae Jemison holds the distinctive honor of being the first black woman to travel in space. In addition to her many achievements (astronaut, doctor, college professor, recipient of nine doctoral degrees), Ms. Jemison is a dancer. I loved that quote the moment I read it, because it reminded me of Wall-E. That Pixar masterpiece is a lot of things, and the celebration of wide eyed wonder is certainly one of them. Captain McCrea in that film has lived a life lacking in wonder, magic, and discovery, even though he’s in outer space. But suddenly, this ancient ritual, dancing, becomes new again. I’ve always loved the juxtaposition: the computer’s clipped voice using stale, academic terms, Wall-E and Eve’s space dance. Of course, there’s also Thomas Newman’s whimsical score undercutting the whole scene, making it one of the most memorable, visually and sonically. 

So that scene, and the film as a whole, is about reclaiming wonder, along with life. I think there’s an imprecise science to dancing. Both are all about joy and wonder. And where can you find these things in abundance? Musicals. 

When I was a teenager first discovering classic movies, I fell in love with Fred Astaire. One of my ultimate fantasies is dancing with him in a garden full of moonlight. I like to imagine that I’m Rita Hayworth in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) or You Were Never Lovelier (1942).


I also like to imagine that I’m Cyd Charisse when she partnered with Fred in Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (or Cyd in anything).


Fred Astaire’s remarkable agility and elegance made him an ideal partner. He didn’t look like Robert Taylor or Paul Newman. But when you see him glide or tap across floors, walls, and ceilings, his looks really don’t matter. The magic he created with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon can never be replaced. And even though there’s a stark 23 year age difference between them, you couldn’t trade Fred for a younger model. I think that’s partly what makes his career so impressive. He still had “it” even in his 50s. And this, after he’d announced his retirement! 

The Band Wagon is a backstage musical that displays the struggles and joys of putting on a show. Fred plays Tony Hunter, a Broadway star hoping to revitalize his stalled career with a new show written by his friends Lester and Lily Morton (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray). Cyd is ballerina Gaby Gerard, his leading lady. Their first meeting doesn’t go well and more friction builds up between them. But eventually they warm to each other and come together in glorious dance. 

When I watched The Band Wagon earlier this year, I was most looking forward to “Girl Hunt Ballet.” The entire film however, was better than I could have imagined. I haven’t seen many backstage films, but I know this is one of the greatest. I had only seen two of Cyd’s films prior to this one, a mistake that needed to be corrected immediately. I’ve now seen more, and I’ve been spellbound by her in everything. She and Fred have become especially dear to me this year.

“Girl Hunt Ballet”, which was choreographed by Michael Kidd, is just one number in a film that’s rich with color, song, and dance. But it’s arguably the most memorable. It inspired one other enduring work of art: Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.” My nephew is currently obsessed with MJ and wants to dance like him when he’s older. Michael and Fred continue to inspire dance in us even now. 
 
MJ pulled from “Girl Hunt Ballet” but he also added his own unique flair and magic. “Smooth Criminal” definitely has a darker edge – a greater sense of urgency owing to the lyrics. It’s film noir set to pop music, but “Girl Hunt” parodies the noir style and conventions. It’s a murder mystery in jazz. Most noirs lead you down twisted alleys and can be hard to follow. The same is true in “Girl Hunt.”
 
In “Girl Hunt”, Tony plays Rod Riley, a hardboiled detective. Gaby has dual roles; she’s the blonde and the brunette. The blonde is a troubled innocent (or is she?!), ethereal in a floaty periwinkle dress. The brunette, with her dark, blunt bobbed hair, is the femme fatale of the piece, slinking about with feline movements.

“She came at me in sections, more curves than a scenic railway. She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn’t trust her any farther than I could throw her. She was selling hard but I wasn’t buying.” 

 

Then Rod meets up with the blonde again in a subway station. As gangsters shoot it out, the orchestra music swells and the two sway in their ballet. Ballet, in a dingy underground. I need a dictionary to properly describe the complementary grace of these two. It’s suggestive, but restrained. There’s a hint of passion just beneath the surface before it pours forth. 
 

 

 

Cyd Charisse, ladies and gentlemen! 
 
Fred Astaire christened her beautiful dynamite. What else could she be? A devastating supernova of beauty, legs, and high octane smolder. Now add all of that to Fred’s elegance and the magic is undeniable. It’s legend. 
 
But all this is really only the build up. When Rod is led to Dem Bones Cafe, the music is punchier and jazzy. He’s closer to solving the case and he sees the brunette again. And this time she’s in a glittering crimson dress that clings to her frame. 
 

 

 

 
The bar patrons watch them, transfixed. They aren’t dancing ballet, but there’s a grace and poetry to the dance here. It’s gritty and glamorous, bursting with sensual energy. Possibly the apex of these series of movements is Cyd’s gravity defying leg kick. 
 
 
Define dancing? There it is. Stunning science. 
 
My words could never do it justice, but you can watch “Girl Hunt Ballet” here
 
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This post is for the Gotta Dance blogathon, celebrating dance in film and hosted by Bonnie of Classic Reel Girl. Click the banner for more foot tapping perfection!
 
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10 thoughts on “Gotta dance!: the hypnotic magic of Girl Hunt Ballet

  1. Simoa, What a great quote to begin with! It shows that the creativity found in the arts is essential to success in the sciences. (Plug for creative arts programs in education. 😉 ) Love that you incorporated Wall-E's robot dance. Joy of dance is universal.

    “high octane smolder” “sensual energy” You do a marvelous job capturing Astaire and Charisse's movements. Looking at the photos, I am struck by how stunning the colors are. Though I never joined the Band Wagon, “Girl Hunt Ballet” may be growing on me. Thank you for participating in the blogathon! =)
    Bonnie

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  2. I love everything about this post, from the Wall-E reference (one of my favorite scenes) and Smooth Criminal's take, and of course to the dance sequence itself. Sometimes I'll watch the whole number on YouTube, and I never get tired of it. Though the climax of the scene is obviously fantastic, I think my favorite part is the dancing in the subway station, Fred and Cyd are so beautifully juxtaposed with the setting and background action.

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  3. Thank you, Bonnie, and thanks for hosting! I'm so glad I got to write about it and that we could all celebrate dancing and national tap dance day. The colors really are amazing, I'm glad the screenshots captured them. 🙂

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  4. Love this! You chose a great topic, for sure! It's lovely that this sequence shows off the versatility of Cyd Charisse, allowing her to be the sweet, balletic “good girl” and the jazzy, more overtly sensual “bad girl.” It also demonstrates the physicality of Fred. I remember hearing an interview with Michael Kidd and he said that Fred was constantly doubting that he could do the highly athletic choreography of Kidd's, like the fight at the end of the Dem Bones Cafe section, but Kidd knew Astaire could do it and just had to keep pushing him. Even the greats had their insecurities, I guess.

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  5. Your description of the dance is beautiful! And your description of dance not only being about joy, but also wonder is profound. I don't think I ever thought to apply that particular word. Thanks for a wonderful look at Girl Hunt Ballet!

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  6. It amazed me how the Girl Hunt Ballett is a film noir in itself. It has everytihng: a femme fatale, a detective, the setting, the nightclub, the action. I imagine that a musical noit would be exactly like this number.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Cheers!
    Le

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