Monday, February 15, 2010

cinema obscura: Irving Reis' "Dancing in the Dark" (1949)

Adolphe Menjou, Betsy Drake and Mark Stevens in Reis' drama-with-music, "Dancing in the Dark" (1949)
Fans of film musicals seem to concur on only a half dozen titles as truly great, and Vincente Minnelli's 1953 "The Band Wagon," adapted from the 1931 Arthur Schwartz-Howard Dietz
stage revue, is one of them.

But Minnelli's film is predated by another version of the Schwartz-Dietz show - Irving Reis' 1949 "Dancing in the Dark," not available on home entertainment but receiving a rare screening on the Fox Movie Channel at 8 a.m. on Friday, 19 February.
Both films, coincidentally or not, scuttled George S. Kaufman and Dietz's stage "book" which was actually a series of skits. Each retained only the score, inventing new narratives which - again, coincidentally or not - are strikingly similiar.

For "Dancing in the Dark," writers Mary C. McCall Jr., Marion Turk and Jay Dratler came up with a plot about a has-been actor (William Powell) hired by Fox's studio head (Adolph Menjou) to coach a newcomer (Betsy Drake) in a big budget musical called "Bandwagon." For Minnelli's version, Betty Comdon and Adolph Green (with an uncredited assist Alan Jay Lerner) conjured up the story of a washed-up song-and-dance man (Fred Astaire who starred in the original revue with his sister, Adele) recruited to make a comeback in a musical of "Faust" being helmed by a pretentious snob (Jack Buchanan).

While Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" is a glossy, flashy musical, pure MGM through and through, Reis' "Dancing in the Dark" is more of a muted drama with the songs discreetly woven in more or less as strands.

There's never any question which is the better film.
Fred Astaire, accompanied by Leroy Daniels, in Michael Kidd's bracing "Shine on Your Shoes" routine, a number that was not in the original Broadway revue (but from another Dietz-Schwartz-Kaufman stage revue, 1932's "Flying Colors")


Gerald said...

Sounds like both Reis' and Minnelli's respective take on the stage material had the same motivation - to take that glorious score beyond its variety-show format. I've never seen "Dancing in the Dark" (thanks for the tip) but it's clearly a companion piece to the Minnelli.

Deborah said...

I’m glad someone brought up "Dancing in the Dark" which is striking because it, er, isn't striking at all. It is precisely the opposite of "The Band Wagon." It doesn't have Minnelli's visual language that is so utterly unique in that film. Odd that "Dancing" should avoid conventional sweeping, “romantic” camera gestures.

Lou Lumenick said...

Interestingly, MGM, which had no shortage of great cinematographers, borrowed Harry Jackson, the DP on "Dancing in the Dark'' to shoot "The Band Wagon,'' which was his last credit. "Dancing in the Dark'' is largely an uncredited reworking of Linda Darnell's quasi-autobiographical "Star Dust'' (1940) with Adolphe Mejou playing "Melville Crossman'' -- one of Darryl F. Zanuck's screenplay pseudonyms.

joe baltake said...

Lou! Thanks, as alwlays, for the invaluable info. Love the Linda Darnell connection.