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Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Hoofers (originally published 12/00)

Movies about ambitious youngsters looking to make it in show business have been perennial favorites right from the beginning. This is especially true when the star-struck protagonist is a dancer. As we saw last week, the currently playing "Billy Elliot" is only the latest in a long line of ballet movies.

Not all aspiring dancers in the movies are ballet dancers, however. Indeed, there is scarcely a form of dance that has not been the subject of such a film at one time or other. Cinema history brims with hopeful young hoofers, from virtually every category of dance, looking for the break that will change their lives, just as Billy Elliot comes to see ballet as his ticket out of the mines. For a small sampling, look for these titles on home video.

"Born to Dance" (1936). Eleanor Powell stars as a talented young dancer waiting for her big break who falls for a sailor played by Jimmy Stewart. By an odd sequence of events, he is able to create for her the opportunity she needs, but only by risking the loss of her affections. The Cole Porter score includes "Easy to Love," which is sung by Stewart in his one and only scene as a singer. A vocal track of the song was recorded by a studio session vocalist for use in dubbing over Stewart's voice, but Porter preferred Stewart's version.

"Mambo" (1954). American director Robert Rossen, temporarily expatriated because of the Communist witch hunts that ripped through Hollywood in the late Forties and early Fifties, made this film in Italy. Silvana Mangano plays a young woman whose sensuous mambo dancing catches the eye of a wealthy nobleman played by Michael Rennie. He takes her under his wing, seeing to it that she is allowed to join a dance troupe that will provide her with the exposure she needs to succeed. She is grateful, but is also attracted to a charming rogue played by Vittorio Gassman. As her star rises, she must decide which of these men she will remain faithful to.

"Saturday Night Fever" (1977). Although it has become something of a cult film in certain circles, the critical mainstream has yet to give this engaging little film the respect it deserves. It isn't hard to understand why. Between the disco score and John Travolta's image, only now being rethought, as a lightweight TV pretty boy, there was no way this film was going to receive serious consideration. Look past all that and you will see a soberly told story of a young man whose dead end existence is brightened only by the glory he receives winning dancing contests on the weekends. In its own way, it can stand comparison with the British cycle of "angry young man" films like "Look Back in Anger" (1959) and "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" (1960).

"A Chorus Line" (1985). Take the premise of dancers trying to make it in show business, boil it down to its essence, and this record-setting Broadway musical is the result. The film version, directed by Richard Attenborough, was a disappointment to those who had been lucky enough to catch the theatrical production, but for the rest of us it's well worth seeing. Michael Douglas plays the director, winnowing his way through a "cattle call" to cast his chorus line, who asks his applicants to reveal something of their personal lives as well as strutting their steps. Along the way, something of his own inner self comes out as well, as an old flame re-enters his life.

"Strictly Ballroom" (1992). Australian director Baz Luhrmann's first film was this barbed look at the world of ballroom dancing competitions. It is, as Luhrmann presents it, a culture based on absolute conformity. Innovation is grounds for ostracism, as a young dancer learns when he has the temerity to change a few steps during a samba competition.

These are just a few of the many, many permutations of the deathless story of the dedicated hoofer trying to make good. In fact, by now the single toughest problem faced by a filmmaker tackling such a project must be figuring out how to bring a fresh approach to the narrative. Coming up with a new variation on this well-worn premise may well be the fanciest footwork of all.

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