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A celebration of dance in film at TCM Classic Film Festival

May 2, 2011 |  4:06 pm

TCM

Hollywood Boulevard, once dotted with ballet/tap/jazz studios, celebrated the joy of dance this weekend. The second TCM Classic Film Festival -- a four-day event held at the Roosevelt Hotel, Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Mann's Chinese Six, Egyptian Theatre and the Music Box -- feted an unusual number of dance legends along with its other classic-movie fare.

CaronA 60th-anniversary restoration of “An American in Paris” opened the festival Thursday night. Gene Kelly's costar, Leslie Caron, forever a Parisian princess, joined the gala in person. Screenings of “Royal Wedding” (1951) and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954), Michael Kidd’s outing for top-dog male dancers of the '50s, were graced by star Jane Powell's in-person presence. Mickey Rooney and Debbie Reynolds rounded out the movie hoofers attending TCM Fest.

Sunday was a dance lover’s paradise. Larry Billman, a foremost movie and television dance expert, moderated a panel discussion featuring Marge Champion, Debbie Allen and Vince Paterson.  

"You sweat, you cry, you bond, you fall in love,” when you dance in a movie, according to Billman. But MGM musical veteran Marge Champion, beautiful at 91, who costarred with husband Gower (notably  in “Show Boat”) remembered more: “There were endless waits between takes. They didn’t understand how hard it was to warm up your body and stay warm.”

Music-video pioneer Vince Paterson, who directed Michael Jackson (“Beat It,” “Smooth Criminal”) and Madonna (“Vogue”), attended opening night.

“I was watching all those long takes in 'An American in Paris,' ” Paterson admitted. Collaborating with director Lars Von Trier and Bjork on “Dancer in the Dark” the choreographer deployed 100 cameras. “Then the hell was for the editors,” he quipped.

But dance’s presence in film has a dark back story. According to Champion: “My father [the great English-born ballet instructor Ernest Belcher, a key Los Angeles dance pioneer] choreographed 'The Merry Widow' in 1924 for [Erich] von Stroheim. He trained Mae Murray and John Gilbert. But his  [Belcher’s] name is nowhere in the credits.”

Paterson added, “In the film business, we are the only people on the set who don’t have a union.”

Allen, stage veteran of “Sweet Charity” and “West Side Story” and of TV's “Fame,” gained directorial chops on her own: “When I got 'Fame,' I spent hours in the editing room,” she said, then adding ruefully, “All those years on 'Fame,' not a dime of residuals for my dancers. Not a dime for me.”

Director Robert Townsend (“The Five Heartbeats”) teamed with documentarian Bruce Goldstein for “A Tribute to the Nicholas Brothers.” Three generations of the dance duo's descendants, including sister Dorothy (a former Bella Lewitzky dancer), joined the crowd in watching footage of the brothers' blastingly rapid-fire tap dancing as kids; Fayard was about age 10, and Harold, 3. After a tour of the filmography, the great “Jumpin’ Jive” sequence with Cab Calloway from “Stormy Weather” (1943) capped TCM's Nicholas Brothers love-in. 

WestSideStory A 50-year anniversary screening of “West Side Story” played at the Egyptian. Academy Award-winner George Chakiris, Bernardo in the movie, attended. Chakiris reminisced with Culture Monster about being a movie-crazed teen in Long Beach. 

“I had music in my blood. My sister and I danced in the living room. I was always interested [in the movies], but didn’t know how to get there.

“[Around 1950], a friend took me to the American School of Dance on Hollywood Boulevard, Eugene Loring’s school. [Watching the class,] I knew I had to do this.

“I got a job as an office boy in the advertising department of the May Co. [downtown]. After work, every night, I rode the train [street car] and took two classes. The ballet classes were the best. Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse were there."

Chakiris danced behind Marilyn Monroe in “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953). He said, “Jack Cole [“Gentlemen’s” choreographer] and Robert Alton were the two everyone wanted to dance for. I remember during rehearsal Cole was sitting in his chair and he got up to demonstrate. It was an explosion of dance.”

 “I’m so glad I got to work once for him in that incredible number. He made Jane Russell look so good too,” said Chakiris, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of movie dance numbers. The quiet-spoken celeb remains equally devoted to "West Side Story's" co-director-choreographer, Jerome Robbins.

“I loved that time in my life. I was part of the last generation. You would come to work, everyone's in rehearsal clothes. For filming, you're all in costume and make up. And there’s that lovely shiny floor….

“You’ve been rehearsing to a piano. When they play the orchestra music on the set, it gives you energy you didn’t have. It gives you adrenaline.”

RELATED:

Jack Cole made Marilyn Monroe move

TCM Classic Film Festival: Warren Beatty on sex, politics and being 'a delicate flower'

-- Debra Levine

Top photo: Robert Osborne, from left, Marni Nixon, George Chakiris and Walter Mirisch discussing "West Side Story" on Saturday at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Credit: Mark Hill / TCM

Middle: Actress Leslie Caron speaks onstage during Day 1 of TCM Classic Film Festival 2011 at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Credit: Mark Hill / TCM

Bottom: George Chakiris, center, leads the Sharks in "West Side Story." Credit: MGM/UA Entertainment

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