Michael Kidd, R.I.P. (Updated)

The deep blue curtain opens to a black screen, which is covered with oversized reproductions of mock pulp magazine covers: “Stab Me Sugar,” “Dames Kill Me” and "Girl Hunt” are just some of the titles. An unseen tommy gun blasts open the black screen, and it gives way to a bluish-purple stage done up to look like an abandoned urban street corner. The lights from the “building” windows define the shapes of their skyscrapers, which make geometric, L-shaped patterns against the dark blue sky.

Fred Astaire enters from stage right, dressed in a white suit and fedora, with blue shirt and white tie (an outfit that echoes the one he wears in 1945’s Yolanda and the Thief). As he begins his narration, framed in a medium shot, he lights a cigarette, thrusting his arms back so the cuffs of his blue shirt are visible, fedora cocked at an angle. He saunters past a very flat street lamp as a mournful jazz trumpet plays. It is a striking image, as if the playboy schemers of Astaire’s earlier films had suddenly taken on an existential loneliness.

He begins to narrate his story, in a neo-Chandler patois: “My name is Rod Riley…The rats and the killers were in their holes. I hate killers…” Rod has barely lit his cigarette when Cyd Charisse’s “Blonde” slides onstage from the right. The camera tracks to follow her, until she is in the frame, next to Rod, whom she grabs in desperation. Framed in a medium shot, he pokes a cigarette between her lips, and her shoulders shrug. She takes a puff and falls into Rod’s arms. This existential loner isn’t having it: he spins her back out, as the camera dollies back to a long shot to capture the movement. A tracking shot follows their dance, until their heads swivel right, and a cut reveals a thug, in brown trench coat and fedora, menacing his way through the fog in a long shot. The thug’s wide frame moves to the foreground, where he picks up a bottle and a hankie. In this pastiche, however, elegance will always trump machismo, so it’s only logical that the next cut returns the viewer to Rod and the Blonde, twirling in dance. Her canary yellow trench coat obscures Rod’s lower left side like a Surrealist tarp in a Man Ray photo, and all we can see is his left leg and arm. Dancing in front of a deep blue shop backdrop, Rod rolls the Blonde off his front, and she lies vertically on the ground.

Since the holidays, I've been somewhat out of the news loop, which means I only just found out about the death of Michael Kidd, the brilliant dancer, director and choreographer, who died of cancer on December 26, at the age of 92. Kidd's most famous screen choreography was for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), one of the most innovative MGM musicals in its use of outdoor settings and the incorporation of "every day" items like axes, saws and tables into dance routines (Kidd would utilize this technique in an even more dramatic fashion in the underrated It's Always Fair Weather, whose trash-can dance is a moment of shake-your-head audacity). Kidd also danced in Jerome Robbins' Fancy Free, starred opposite Gene Kelly and Dan Dailey in the aforementioned Weather, and had many successes on Broadway, including Li'l Abner, Can-Can, and the groundbreaking Guys and Dolls.

For me, though, he will always be the choreographer of The Band Wagon, the greatest musical in Hollywood history, and the best showcase Fred Astaire ever had. From the casual walking dance of "By Myself" to the insanely commodified joy of "Shine on Your Shoes," to the lyrical yearning of "Dancing in the Dark" (a pas de deux that wears its considerable heat and tension as lightly as a summer suit), to the hilariously psychotic "Triplets," the film offered Astaire a wide range of movement, and allowed Kidd to remind us that dance can be almost anything: witty gesture, character sketch, narrative engine, roccoco ornament, intertextual joke, conveyor of desires.

Above all, it can be the "Girl Hunt Ballet," whose opening moments I described above, and which for me is one of the most sublime sequences in American cinema. Its quivering mise-en-scene (Kidd's sensuality dovetailing beautifully with director Vincente Minnelli's) makes its Mickey Spillane storyline balance right on the edge of parody without ever quite falling over; it's funny, but it's also genuinely dangerous, and immensely sexy-- it invites a camp reading but never lets its audience slip into the distanced, smug cynicism that camp too often engenders; and because the number cares so much about its style and movement, it forces us to care, and stay involved. It takes every emotion or mood from every previous number in the film-- the explosion of color in "New Sun in the Sky," the relaxed fatalism of "By Myself," the frenzy of "Shoes" and the yearning of "Dark"-- and blends them into something funny and extremely charged: when Cyd Charisse opens her green trenchcoat to reveal a sequined red dress, and wraps herself around Astaire's dapper white suit, every cinematic and critical code is suddenly short-circuited, and I, for one, don't know whether to laugh or gasp.

"She was bad," Astaire says in his noirish voiceover. ""She was bad. She was dangerous. I wouldn't trust her any farther than I could throw her. But she was my kinda woman." Ironic, sincere, funny, smart, and sensual all at once, "The Girl Hunt Ballet" is not just a model of dancing or filmmaking, but a model for critical writing, a mixture of rhetorical modes that allows each element to speak while blending them all into a new language that feels both social and personal, esoteric and public at the same time, like Cyd Charisse's leg slipping across Fred Astaire's shoulder.

UPDATE: Bob has a very nice tribute to Kidd up at his superlative site, Forward to Yesterday, which has good insights and fun trivia, including Kidd's real age! Check it out, and browse around his blog for awhile-- there's a lot of good stuff there.


Flickhead said…
Thanks for writing about Michael Kidd. I also love The Band Wagon, and appreciate your inclusion of the YouTube clip. It's an important reminder that choreography on film needs to have the dancers shown in full body, with as few cuts as possible. Recent films such as Chicago, Moulin Rouge and Hairspray go the opposite route and suffer for it.
Cinephile said…
Thanks, Flickhead! I like the three films you mentioned, but agree with you that their ritalin-style framing and cutting is a real distraction, and long for the lyrical, sensual full-body framing that Minnelli was so good at (and that astaire often insisted on). There's a real joy in not only seeing the body in movement, but in letting your eye wander around the space-- for instance, I've seen the Band Wagon at least six times, but I've always been so entranced by charisse and astaire in the foreground that I just now noticed the men lurking behind them, when astaire pulls the gun. There's so much going on the film's mise-en-scene that it needs that fuller, more relaxed framing to take it all in.
Flickhead said…
Astaire and Cyd have some excellent numbers together in Silk Stockings, too!
Cinephile said…
Yes, that's a great film, too!
Jonathan Lapper said…
Well I just want to say that as a leg man Cyd Charisse filled my dreams as a boy. I wish my hat was perched on the end of her foot (Singin in the Rain). And ditto on what both of you said.

Nice write up.
Cinephile said…
Cyd Charisse is marvelous, and I think I read somewhere once that she was Astaire's favorite dancing partner.
Bob said…
Informative stuff, Cinephile. I will quickly steal...no, link to it, for my site.

I think you capture a lot about what makes "Girl Hunt" so , too. Though, as per Comden and Green's script, there's also an element of real mockery of Mickey Spillane in particular there, I think. But perhaps I'm just projecting my own dislike of Spillane there.

(The show-within-a-show posits a writer "selling his soul to the devil" by writing lurid, violent detective novels and the character is at least as bloodthirsty as Mike Hammer -- not that the show makes a lick of sense since I'm not sure how a pulp writer would be involved in a "Louisiana Hayride" and don't ask me where the triplets get into the story.)

When I wrote my much more hurried piece, I was also unsure of how much credit to give Kidd for "Fair Weather", which is a particular favorite of mine. There's no choreographer listed on IMDB, so I figured that Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen probably did most of it with probably an assist from Kidd (though I do recall something from one of the documentary about Kidd being involved with the trashcan dance, now that you mention it).

Even on "The Bandwagon," Kidd is credited as "dances by" rather than a choreographer for some reason and I wondered if maybe it was more of a collaboration with Astaire and maybe and uncredited Hermes Pan or someone else, since they weren't always so complete in credits back then.
Cinephile said…
Hi Bob,
The question of credits is tricky-- given their perfectionist personalities, I have no doubt that Kelly, Astaire, Donen and Minnelli were all involved with the dances (or at least the shooting of the dances) on their respective films. I believe it's on the Band Wagon extras where it's mentioned that Astaire came to Kidd and asked him to stage a dance for him "like the dances in guys and dolls." Kidd mentions his surprise, because he didn't think Astaire would be interested in that, but also his admiration for astaire's willingness to stretch (kind of an ironic extension of the BW's own story). Kidd also talks about how he had to work out the girl hunt dance after Astaire went home, or else he always had astaire over his shoulder nitpicking. There's a great piece of footage on the DVD doc showing the bottle-exploding moment of the dance, with someone (I believe Kidd) counting off the moves. But even the narration of the girl hunt ballet is contested-- I believe Minnelli, Comden&Green and someone else (Levant, maybe? I'd have to look it up) all took credit for it at one time or another. That's the great thing about musicals-- although we attach names to them (Minnelli, Kidd, Fosse, etc.), they are so often collaborative that sorting out who's responsible (or deserves credit for) what is a chore-- but a very pleasing one.

Thanks for the link-- I will link back!
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