MOVIE REVIEW : 'DANCING!' TRIPPED UP BY ITS WORDS

Times Film Critic

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Gene Kelly. Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Margot Fonteyn. Eleanor Powell. Bill Robinson. Ray Bolger. Cyd Charisse. Could any movie with nice chunky excerpts from these artists and possibly a hundred more, if you count every cheerful Busby Berkeley chorine, possibly go wrong?

Yes.

Sadly, "That's Dancing!" (selected theaters), which soars with its dancers, plummets with its narration. It's fusty, facile, leadenly unimaginative, good for you--except where it is just plain wrong. Does anyone who loves dance enough to be in the audience in the first place need to be told how old dance is, that "since the dawn of prehistory" artists have tried to capture dance in drawing, but that "without movement, dance was lifeless"?

If as much imagination had been used in the making of "That's Dancing!" as in, say, one Busby Berkeley spectacular, this might have been a lovely movie. It certainly has joyous moments, but it also has all that blather too.

And considering that this is the first of the "That's Entertainment!" school to venture beyond the MGM film library to the vaults of RKO, 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount, the Library of Congress and wherever the film makers chose, some of the clips are strikingly anemic, some less than first-rate, some (this "Invitation to the Dance" dance and animation mix) simply terrible.

Jack Haley Jr., writer/director and co-producer with David Niven Jr., needs a bold format--one as fresh and instantly charming as the dancing feet under the credits for "Footloose." Instead, the movie farms out its talk to dancer narrators--Baryshnikov, Liza Minnelli, Bolger, Sammy Davis Jr. and, in the main, Gene Kelly--who are made to stand and spout superlatives and cliches.

A beginning montage has what the credits say are "more than 100" split seconds from the world of dance. Say helloandgoodby to Ann-Margret, Joan Crawford, Lucille Bremer, Betty Grable, Liza Minnelli (as a singer/dancer), June Haver, Lucille Ball and Gene Nelson: You won't be seeing them again. Marge and Gower Champion you will see for about as much time as it takes to say their names. There is no Marilyn Monroe, no Gregory Hines, no Barrie Chase; the Katherine Dunham troupe might never have danced for a camera. Unbelievably, there is nothing of influential choreographer Jack Cole and not one minute of dance's blithe goddess Rita Hayworth.

The opening of the properly generous Busby Berkeley section puts forth one curious notion. The marvelous Charleston number from Lubitsch's 1926 "So This Is Paris" practically vibrates off the screen, then narrator Kelly reminds us how remarkable it was that this was a silent film. Silent, perhaps, but surely not without a pit orchestra for its audiences.

The Berkeley clips have shot after trademark shot: girls as lily pads, girls lit like neon, platoons of girls and boys tapping their little hearts out. But you would never know from the clip from Berkeley's favorite number, his "Lullaby of Broadway" from "Gold Diggers of 1935," that all this frenetic tapping is the prelude to a death, or that the dance had a dramatic shape at all.

It's certainly interesting to see Vera Zorina (and to speculate on how much more is expected of today's ballet dancers, even beautiful ones), but it might be nice if someone explained that Balanchine's choreography in the "Princess Zenobia Ballet" was supposed to be parody. That's the sort of thing that gave ballet a reputation for being affected even then--that and "Spectre of the Rose."

As an introduction to a generation who doesn't know the wonders of Eleanor Powell, the Nicholas Brothers, or Shirley Temple and Bill Robinson, or James Cagney as a dancer, "That's Dancing!" gives each warm, essential moments here. However, almost every tempo is relentlessly upbeat. There's hardly ever a quiet or a restful pas de deux, only peak energy heralded by the narrators as "the most. . . ," "the greatest. . . ," "one of the very best . . . ever put on film." Poor Jane Powell, apparently wearing green cheese boxes tied to her feet in "I Left My Hat in Haiti," gets the Good Scout award for even attempting to keep up with Fred Astaire in this number from "Royal Wedding." She doesn't need a narrator commenting on her "remarkable versatility."

Where the choice is between a weak number from a successful movie or a great one from a failure ("Yolanda and the Thief," for example), the pick goes to the well-known film. Even the print quality is a shock: The Astaire-Rogers clips seem filtered through some sort of astral dandruff. Others look washed out and weak.

Retrieving a lost number from "The Wizard of Oz," danced by Ray Bolger in the cornfield surrounding the Yellow Brick Road, turns out to be at best a gimmick. Technically, the number shows its underpinnings--flying wires and rubber fence poles--more than the rest of the film.

It's nice to see that the film confronts the Marine Jahan/Jennifer Beals "Flashdance" question head on by crediting Jahan with most of the film's performances.

But in the leap to the present, choices seem inexplicable. No "Footloose" (and another shared dancer/double credit)? None of Onna White's infectious street dances for "Oliver!" or Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," Christopher Gable's elegant Busby Berkeley homage in "The Boy Friend," Danny Daniels' wide range of dances for "Pennies From Heaven" or Twyla Tharp's remarkable ensembles from "Hair"? Nothing at all from Carlos Saura, neither "Blood Wedding" nor "Carmen"? And why, in heaven's name, an excerpt from "Fame" that looks like rioting in the street when the film has so much more dancing that is both electric and clearly defined.

The idea of a dance film is still a seductive one, but great dances (or even good ones) deserve a setting that is at the very least their equal in taste and imagination. 'THAT'S DANCING!' An MGM/UA Entertainment release. Producers David Niven Jr., Jack Haley Jr. Writer/director Haley Jr. Additional camera Andrew Laszlo, Paul Lohmann. Supervising editor/associate producer Bud Friedgen. Editor Michael J. Sheridan. Research Jessica Berman Bogdan, Howard W. Hayes, Stephen Fisch. Music Henry Mancini. With narrators Gene Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr., Mikhail Baryshnikov, Liza Minnelli, Ray Bolger, dancers Fred Astaire, Baryshnikov, Bolger, James Cagney, Cyd Charisse, Dan Dailey, Jacques D'Amboise, Davis Jr., Isadora Duncan, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Carol Haney, Robert Helpmann, Michael Jackson, Marine Jahan, Ruby Keeler, Gene Kelly, Paula Kelly, Michael Kidd, Charles Laskey, Bambi Lynn, Shirley MacLaine, Leonide Massine, Ann Miller, James Mitchell, the Nicholas Brothers, Rudolf Nureyev, Donald O'Connor, Anna Pavlova, Eleanor Powell, Jane Powell, Tommy Rall, Debbie Reynolds, Chita Rivera, Bill (Bojangles) Robinson, Ginger Rogers, Moira Shearer, Shirley Temple, Tamara Toumanova, John Travolta, Bobby Van, Vera-Ellen, Vera Zorina.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

MPAA-rated: G.

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