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Friday, April 27, 2018

Invitation to the Dance ( 1956 )

Most fans of MGM musicals of the 1950s can rattle off the titles of Gene Kelly's pictures when called upon, but I bet you 23-80 that the majority of these musical aficionados will forget to include Invitation to the Dance among those titles. 

This 1956 dance extravaganza features Kelly in not one, nor two, but three separate stories all told through the art of dance, sans dialogue. As early as 1947, Kelly had envisioned a film where dance could take center-stage. He wanted it to be a showcase of some of the most talented ballet artists of his time, gathered from around the world, but the brass at MGM - knowing that Gene Kelly's name would be drawing the audiences in - insisted that he star in all three segments. 

Some critics felt that Invitation to the Dance was too much dance to handle in one sitting and that may be. Kelly himself agreed with "those who found the whole thing a bit much", but, having seen it over the course of three days ( one segment each day ), I found it to be delightful. Each segment is entirely different from the others with the costumes, art direction, music, and dance styles all being unique. 

The first segment, "Circus" set in 18th-century Italy, features Kelly as a clown who is in love with a ballerina ( Claire Sombert ) that only has eyes for a great tightrope walker ( Igor Youskevitch ). The clown's love story parallels that of the character which he enacts daily in front of his audience. At the beginning of this segment, Kelly does a fantastic pantomime dance with the other members of the dance troupe and, later, Youskevitch's muscular prowess is a marvel to behold. 
The second segment, "Ring Around the Rosy", takes us from Italy to Paris, where a mad party is taking place. The host of the party has just given his wife ( Dephne Dale ) a new bracelet as an anniversary gift but shortly thereafter she passes the bracelet onto her lover, an artist ( Igor Youskevitch ). Then, within the span of one night, it goes from hand to hand ( with Claude Bessy, Belita, Diana Adams, Tommy Rall, Gene Kelly, and Tamara Toumanova all being recipients ) until it returns to the possession of the party host. This was the most explosive and creative of the three segments, featuring some very imaginative modern dance sequences. 

"Sinbad the Sailor", the last segment, is set in modern Arabia. Kelly portrays a sailor on shore leave who befriends a boy ( David Kasday ) with a magic lamp. Together they embark on a journey to the palace of a sultan, meeting a princess ( Carol Haney ) en route. This segment felt like the weakest of the three, because of the focus on the animation. The animation, while novel, extended too long, and seeing dancers in Arabian costume performing traditional dance would have been more welcoming. 
In the early 1950s, MGM had millions in frozen assets in England that they could not take out of the country. These funds could be used only if they employed British artists, and so in 1952, production on Invitation to the Dance began at Elstree Studios outside London. Since the majority of the dancers were from Europe, this seemed like a clever decision, but Gene Kelly, who also directed the film, later regretted the move because the soundstages were not nearly as large as the MGM soundstages in Hollywood and the smaller space made filming the large production numbers more difficult. 

In fact, Kelly later regretted the entire project. The production took much longer than planned. Since most of the ballet dancers had other dance engagements throughout the Continent, much of the film had to be shot in bits and pieces, and Kelly's quest for perfection led him to overwork his dancers. Russian dancer Igor Youskevitch said, "There were times, I think, when [Kelly] overdid things. He rehearsed us all so rigidly - and on cement floors! - that it required superhuman energy to not collapse."
After two years, Invitation to the Dance was completed. But MGM's distributors felt that there was no audience for it, especially with motion-picture attendance rapidly declining and television becoming increasingly more popular. The film sat on a shelf for two more years until it was finally released in special "art house" theaters throughout New York City in 1956. Ultimately, it grossed only $200,000 in North America ( $415,000 overseas ) making it MGM's biggest creative flop of the year. 

2 comments:

  1. I think it's probably Gene's most innovative work and ought to be shown more often. Yes, it is a lot of dancing, but there are many delights--including another rare opportunity to see Carol Haney on film. So glad you highlighted this one; hope it will inspire others to watch it.

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  2. I haven't seen this, but being a Kelly fan, I know I will one day :-) I think your idea of watching it over 3 days sounds wise!

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