Sunday, January 13, 2019

Irresistible, You Fool



Dancer/choreographer/singer/actress Gwen Verdon was a mainstay of The Great White Way for decades, but she actually got her start on the other side of the continent as a "specialty dancer" in Hollywood musicals and even nonmusicals that nonetheless needed a dance scene. Generally, a specialty dancer appeared in only one scene, or sequence, and wasn't seen again for the rest of the film. Some specialty dancers, such as Cyd Charisse and Ann Miller, went on to become full-fledged movie stars. That didn't happen in Gwen's case, so the Californian native went east, where she became a full-fledged Broadway star, first in the 1954 show Can-Can, and, more decisively, the next year in Damn Yankees, for which she won a Tony. When it came time to turn Yankees into a motion picture, Gwen was a shoo-in to repeat her role as the satanic seductress Lola, though you might get the opposite impression from the above headline that appeared in the 1950s tabloid Tempo News. In fact, you  might have thought Hollywood was through with her. Why, exactly, was she "too hot"?



Well, according to the article, written in the wake of her Broadway success in the baseball-and-Beelzebub musical, Gwen "can't get to home base with Hollywood umpires", meaning that her scenes were either trimmed or cut out of a movie altogether by censors. Gwen herself is quoted as saying that "Boston has never seen me", but she was "...allowed in...cities where there was progressive education." The latter quote reminded me of the "communities standards" test the Supreme Court once invoked in an obscenity case. I must tell you, I was a bit surprised when I came across this article. I never knew that Gwen Verdon was once thought of as only appealing to the "prurient interest", to borrow another memorable Supreme Court phrase. She was undeniably sexy, and remained sexy for quite a long time (when she was 50, she appeared on stage wearing an outfit much like a bikini in the original 1975 Broadway production of Chicago.) But this article is from the same decade that saw the rise of Marilyn Monroe, Jayne Mansfield, Ava Gardner, and Gina Lollobrigida. Those ladies didn't exactly come across as Taliban charm school teachers. I wonder if the whole thing wasn't written by some press agent, which was a common practice back then. Of course, censorship was a genuine threat during the homogenized 1950s, in particular, and, at the time, famously, in Boston (the joke went that the city's library system had an extra branch just for all the banned books) and the movie studios did have to be careful. However, the well-publicized threat of censorship, but one that was nonetheless successfully dodged (except in Boston), well, that could fill up those theater seats that were being increasingly abandoned in favor of television. So it was a fine line Hollywood had to walk, and someone like Gwen had to dance.

The line was often walked religiously. Literal religion. Until the advent of the beach movie in the 1960s, the greatest number of scantily-clad females could be found in biblical pictures, and 1951's David and Bathsheba is where we find then-specialty dancer Verdon, her red hair hidden beneath a black wig, playing a slave girl (as were most professional dancers in 1000 BC, at least according to Hollywood): 

       

 
Now for something a little less devout (unless you're a disciple of Anton LaVey.) In this scene from the 1958 film version of the aforementioned Damn Yankees, Lola presents a ballpark figure to Tab Hunter, who, in a brilliant bit of acting, looks as though he's just been hit with a line drive: 


Gwen Verdon, at her sexy, and, lest we forget, talented, best. As controversial as the above two clips may have been in the 1950s, were they being shown now for the very first time, I doubt there would be any calls for censorship. But even if there were...


 ...Boston can now be easily detoured.
 

11 comments:

  1. You rarely see that kind of dancing anymore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think it's still alive on the Broadway stage, Adam, but it disappeared entirely from movies for awhile, though with the success of La La Land it could be coming back. But it has to go a long way to equal Verdon (or Charisse, or Astaire, or Rogers or Kelly, or Miller, or Powell, or O'Conner, etc.)

      Delete
  2. Hi, Kirk!

    Thanks for clearing this up. I thought The Great White Way was the name given to the Trump administration's domestic programs.

    I remember Banned in Bean Town dancer/actress Gwen Verdon, a familiar name in my youth. I agree that the best way to pry people away from the boob tube and fill theater seats is to hint that they have an opportunity to see taboo content banned in some parts of the country. I just watched that clip from David and Bathsheba. If Gwen can overcome her shyness and come out of her shell, she'll be okay. :) I remember those sexy dancing slave girls in biblical motion pictures. Let's remember that many of the talkies released between 1929 and 1934 in pre-code Hollywood were wild and racy.

    I'm sure you know that Tab Hunter died last July. Maybe you ran a post on him at the time and it slipped my mind. Happy 94th birthday (in heaven) to a zesty dancer and all around fine entertainer, Gwen Verdon!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I knew Hunter died, Shady, but while he could act, I was never particularly wowed by any of his performances. My "brilliant bit of acting" remark was kind of an in-joke regarding other aspects of his personality that I thought might be brought up here in the comment section (I should know by now not to anticipate what people are going to say.)

      Speaking both of Boston and Tab Hunter, the latter could have replaced Coach on Cheers.

      Delete
    2. Oh, one other thing, Shady. I've seen plenty of pre-Code pictures, and yes, they're more racy than movies made between 1935 and, say, 1960 (when, as I said before, the studios, in an effort to distinguish their offerings from television, increasingly began ignoring the Code before scrapping it altogether in 1968.) But that's more indicative of just how incredibly tame films got in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and not the explicitness of pre-Code movies themselves. There's no movie made in the pre-Code period that couldn't have been show uncut on TV way, way, way back in the 1970s when Norman Lear ruled the airwaves. It's all relative.

      Delete
  3. Interesting! Thanks for the info about Gwen Verdon about whom I didn't really know much.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, Debra, she made her biggest mark on Broadway, and one can be a huge star on Broadway and be no more than a "celebrity" everywhere else, as is the case with Patti LuPone (Corky's mother on Life Goes On), Betty Buckley (Dick Van Patten's wife on Eight is Enough) and Bernadette Peters (was once in a Steve Martin movie.) By the way, Debra, I'm not saying YOU don't know any of those women are Broadway stars, only that there's a dichotomy between the Great White Way and Hollywood that I find interesting.

      Delete
  4. I loved Gwen Verdon. She was a great dancer and a very unique entertainer. Everything I've ever read about Ms. Verdon pictured her as a really nice person.

    Would you like to follow each other? If the answer is yes, please follow me on my blog & I'll follow you back.

    http://www.okcheori.com

    ReplyDelete
  5. I followed something of yours Okcheori. Not sure if it's a blog or not.

    ReplyDelete