Vera & Gene & Vera & Fred
Vera-Ellen was a gem. A gorgeous woman with some of the fastest feet around, Vera-Ellen Westmeier Rohe made only fourteen films, but you can bet that she made an impression in each and every one of them. Despite this, when it comes to discussing the great film dancers, Ann Miller and Cyd Charisse are more likely to be mentioned than Vera-Ellen. In terms of her onscreen personality, her acting, and her talent, I would say that Vera was a mixture of Miller and Charisse. She was also one of six women to have danced with both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who are arguably the biggest legends in movie musical history.
When talking about her work with Astaire and Kelly, Charisse said "it's like comparing apples and oranges. They're both delicious." With that thought in mind, I'm not setting out to see who was the better partner for Vera. I would rather focus on this overlooked actress and the differences in her partnerships with the Marlon Brando and the Cary Grant of dance.
Vera and Gene
Words and Music (1948) | On the Town (1949)
For their first pairing, Vera and Gene only pop in for one number in the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music -- but what a number! Tasked with enacting the dramatic piece "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue," the duo is mesmerizing as an average Joe and his girl looking for a good time until things take a tragic turn.
Everything about this number, from the sets to the dancing, is highly stylized. Because there are no lyrics, the dancing has to convey much more. Right away we understand the characterizations -- Gene is brash and macho; Vera is sassy and feminine; both are a bit wild. The choreography is full-bodied, which sounds obvious, but with certain dancers, like Astaire, you don't always notice it. With the extremely athletic Gene, you can bet that your attention will be drawn to every part of his and his partner's bodies. With her boundless energy, Vera-Ellen was a good fit for this kind of dancing. When her and Gene's nameless characters meet, their sexual attraction is represented by slinky, sultry moves with Vera taking equal part in the seduction. In a bar, their happiness spills over into their joyous dancing until it all comes to a violent end, thanks to the bullets of a hotheaded stranger. Watch it here.
An American in Paris two years later, "Miss Turnstiles" illustrates Vera's versatility as she embodies a myriad of personas, such as the wholesome housewife, the elegant glamour girl, and the thoughtful artist.
Determined to find this woman, Gene, his friends, and the gals they encounter (Ann Miller and Betty Garrett) search the city. Proving that they're meant to be together, Gene and Vera are easily united and turn out to be from the same small Indiana town. Their first duet is the sweetly simple "Main Street," whose tap-centric choreography shows that the balletic Vera could also hoof it with the best.
For example, when he finds her at the dance studio, instead of the adorable "Main Street" number, we get a sensual, slow, and sublime pas de deux. Perhaps what I find most exciting about watching Vera-Ellen at work is the striking visuals she created while dancing. Whether twirling a voluminous skirt or being flipped around by chorus boys, Vera consistently crafted memorable images, and this duet with Gene is part of that. You can watch the end of the "Day in New York" routine here.
Vera and Fred
Three Little Words (1950) | The Belle of New York (1952)
Thanks to the massive success of On the Town, Vera-Ellen finally hit her stride as a bona fide leading lady. Who better to cement that status than Fred Astaire? A vastly underrated classic, Three Little Words is Fred and Vera's first and best outing as a team. The film is a biopic of songwriters Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby, played by Astaire and a terrific Red Skelton. Vera is Jessie Brown, Bert's vaudeville partner who becomes his wife.
"Where Did You Get That Girl?" in top hats and tuxedos. Vera's ability to handle a cane with the same dexterity as Astaire, the master of dancing with props, just proves what a badass she was. To my knowledge, I can't recall any other partner of Astaire's that was trusted with props like Vera was. It is also a testament to her warmth and naturalness that she is able to sell the idea that her and Astaire's characters have known each other for years, long before our plot has begun.
While "Where Did..." is a nice appetizer, "Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home" is a thrillingly satisfying feast. As Fred noted in his book, this number is a pantomime of the ordinary day of a husband and wife. Taps are used as clever expressions of the sound of utensils hitting their plates during breakfast, Fred speaking on the telephone, and the stages of an argument between the couple. Surrounded by bright colors and swathed in a sparkling costume, Vera is a sight to behold. What is often overlooked about her is that she danced with a sense of humor, making an already delicious number that much more fun.
Ginger Rogers may have made dancing with Astaire look appealing, but Vera made dancing in general look like a blast. For evidence of this, I present "Come On, Papa," a true Vera-Ellen solo. The woman is joy incarnate as her remarkably flexible body flips, dips, and does the splits. I also kind of love that when it comes time for the acrobatic choreography, she kicks her high heels off and performs in her stockinged feet. Although Vera never sang in her films (here she is dubbed by Anita Ellis), her other talents more than made up for it.
"Nevertheless (I'm in Love with You)." Their dancing is as fluid and radiant as ever, but it is their next number that really showcases what an effervescent couple they were. With "Where Did You Get That Girl?" as the appetizer and "Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer" the main course, "Thinking of You" is the decadently rich dessert. The choreography takes full advantage of Vera's abilities, causing Astaire to do more lifts and legs extensions than usual. Their gorgeous attire combines with the luminous music and the romantic dancing to create one of the loveliest routines Vera -- and maybe Fred -- ever did.
"The less said about it the better, I think, because it never did get off the ground although plenty of money and pains were spent on it. For some reason or another, I liked making it, probably because Vera-Ellen and I had some interesting dance ideas to keep us busy. ... [T]he element of fantasy which prevailed backfired on us. One trick which we hoped would prove effective was
dancing on air and that above all failed to register."
(Unfortunately, my DVD turned out to be dysfunctional, so I wasn't able to get the screenshots I wanted. If you'd like to check out a great review with plenty of superb photos, check out The Blonde at the Film's here.)
Playing a devil-may-care bachelor with a wealthy aunt, Fred is perfectly fine with going through life without any responsibilities -- until he meets Vera's welfare worker. For their first number, we see a familiar Astaire trope of dancing with the woman who dislikes him until she becomes so charmed that she starts to fall for him. As much as it pains me to say it, "Baby Doll" is not that memorable. There is one fun moment, however, with a collection of signs. Fred and Vera flip through some welfare signs as a means of communicating. Vera, for example, points to "Evil has many disguises" while Fred responds with "Spread a little kindness." It's pretty cute.
Their next routine, "Oops," is infinitely more fun, making it my favorite number from this movie. Light and comedic, "Oops" finds Fred driving a horse-drawn trolley as a means of holding down a job and proving to Vera that he isn't a deadbeat. Stiff, locked-limb choreography is mixed with the smooth sophistication we know and love, establishing an interesting push-and-pull. The duo even dances alongside the moving trolley without missing a beat! It is such a dazzling display of their prowess.
After becoming engaged, Fred and Vera pose for portraits at one of the Currier and Ives Studios, thus putting in motion the musical number "A Bride's Wedding Day Song (Currier And Ives)." Fred and Vera are transported into the different backgrounds the studio offers, moving from a spring tableau to a winter wonderland to a beachside summer scene. Although everything looks nice and pretty, this sequence is slightly too long and our leads don't really dance until 6 minutes into the 8 minute-long routine. But of course, it's still a marvelous dance! Once again, Vera goes tap for tap with Fred and it's great to see.
For Vera's solo, we have the vibrant "Naughty but Nice." The dancer is stunning in her stockings, lace gloves, and black corset. The racy gown she puts on is excellent too, with its high slit and greenish yellow lining. Trying to trick Fred into thinking she has become a streetwise sexpot (as you do), Vera kicks and twirls around her room. This song perfectly describes her -- she could be an alluring pin-up girl type, but we also knew that underneath that, she was kind, decent, and intelligent. She wasn't a prude, yet she also wasn't a stereotypical blonde bombshell.
After watching Vera-Ellen dance with Fred and Gene back-to-back, I can honestly say I don't know who was the more suitable partner for her. (It might actually be Donald O'Connor!) With Gene, she could be more rough-and-tumble, more sexual. With Fred, there was more elegance and refinery. Interestingly, both men highlighted her flexibility in different ways -- Fred explored the gracefulness of her leg extensions, while Gene intensified the sensuality that her acrobatic body suggested. Regardless of who she danced with, Vera-Ellen was always a delightful presence and an astonishing performer. To paraphrase White Christmas, the best things really do happen when you dance with her.
This is my contribution to the fantastic Duo Double Feature Blogathon, which looks at terrific duos who only made two films together. Check out the other fun entries, starting with Day 1, here!