Tis the Season of Joy, and since this is the final post at Kill Zone for a couple of weeks, I thought I'd leave you with some of the purest joy I know. It comes from the world of dance.
If you ask the question, who is the greatest dancer who ever lived, you'll get several responses. No doubt Fred Astaire will get a huge number of votes. Maybe Gene Kelly, Rudolf Nureyev, Nijinsky, Margot Fonteyn, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, a few others.
But there's one name you're probably not all that familiar with that deserves to head the list. I'm talking about Eleanor Powell.
I met Miss Powell in the mid-70's when I was in film school. In the days before DVDs and TCM, we had to find our films at revival houses. One night I went with some buddies to see Born to Dance, the 1936 musical starring Powell and James Stewart. And she was there. She spoke, and afterwards we went up and met her. She couldn't have been classier.
I wrote her a thank you letter and she wrote back and we started corresponding. At some point I invited her to come speak to a film class, and she readily agreed. So I drove my Ford Pinto into Beverly Hills, picked up her and her secretary, and drove us up to Santa Barbara. She gave a lecture and then, to demonstrate a point, she stepped out from behind the podium and started to tap. She was around 64 at the time. And she was still poetry in motion.
Ellie retired fairly early, after marrying Glenn Ford (a matrimonial misstep as it turned out). After her divorce from Ford she mounted a successful night club act, and was rediscovered by millions via the That's Entertainment series. A quietly devout woman, she spent her latter years working with young people, inspiring them to a higher vision. "Who we are is God's gift to us," she used to say. "What we become is our gift to God."
Why do I call her the greatest dancer of all? Because not only was she the equal of Astaire in tap (he was in awe of her, and that's saying something); she was also a ballet dancer, a gymnast (she could kick to perpendicular, bend herself completely backward, and spin like a top) and, if modern dance had been in vogue, she would have been the equal of Cyd Charisse or Gwen Verdon.
In other words, she could do it all, and she does it all in the one film she made with Astaire, Broadway Melody of 1940. Here she dances ballet on point, taps, ballrooms, bends and spins, all with her singular grace. This film has what is, IMO, the greatest tap dance ever recorded, Begin the Beguine. You can watch the full number here. Give yourself nine minutes. You will not regret it. At about the 1:30 mark Ellie comes on and does some of her signature kicks and moves, then at 2:30 Fred joins her for an elegant tap-ballroom number. Then there's a short interlude (I love the old swing sound, a la the Andrews Sisters), and then, at about 6:10, comes the greatest tap number you'll ever see. Just look at how much fun they seem to be having. That's another mark of their greatness, because they rehearsed this number for weeks, to the point of exhaustion. It was worth it. It is, without question, my favorite three minutes of film of any kind.
There's also another great tap number from the film, the "Juke Box Dance." It's the first one they worked on together. So sit back and enjoy the two greatest dancers of all time, just diggin' it. A merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!