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Unfinished Dance, The (DVD Review)

2 May, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Margaret O’Brien, Cyd Charisse, Danny Thomas, Karin Booth.

Well, whaddya know? — here’s some vivid color photography back-dropping the story of a ballet company where Swan Lake is part of the repertoire. But if the hook sounds familiar, we’re not talking Black Swan — though the latter’s success couldn’t exactly have hurt the chances of this cult (to dance fanciers) Margaret O’Brien starrer of making the latest Warner Archive “on-demand” cut.

I frankly never paid much attention to this movie and never even realized that MGM had sprung for Technicolor — which (momentarily leaving aside the musical trappings here) was still unusual in the late 1940s for a contemporary drama. And this is a drama — which, in fairness to a fairly upbeat ending that really isn’t shoehorned in, is remarkably dark and even borderline morbid for an MGM release (to say nothing of one from sugar-laden producer Joe Pasternak and director Henry Koster, whose swan song was 1966’s The Singing Nun). Dance is a remake of a 1937 French film: La Mort du Cygne, a title whose translation the studio would have naturally nixed. Leo the Lion didn’t roar for dead swans.

Captured at the time when she was no longer tiny but not yet an adolescent, O’Brien plays a lonely child ballerina in a kids’ troupe packed with pre-pubescent hopefuls who include the future “Betty” on TV’s “Father Knows Best” (Elinor Donahue, billed here as Mary Eleanor Donahue) and a fairly memorable blonde snot who rates a distinctive mean-girl turn by the obscure Connie Cornell, whose only movie this was. With a much-absent aunt as her guardian, O’Brien fixates on a young adult and possibly burgeoning ballet star played by Cyd Charisse (an early showcase role here, a few years away before marquee value took hold).

The child is so taken by her possibly shallow idol that she feels more threatened than Charisse’s character does over the appearance on the scene of a more seasoned star played by Karin Booth, an actress who never really made it but provided one or two good memories for fanciers of ‘50s ‘B’-fare (in other words, Tobor the Great lives even if Jungle Man-Eaters probably doesn’t). O’Brien dreams up a prank to take the edge off Booth’s dancing skills which, putting it mildly, ends up having tragic consequences for the latter’s career.

O’Brien’s character is already melancholy — a trait the young actress always projected better than any peer — and now here she is carrying around a warehouse of guilt. Watching her here, we sense that there may be some NYC psychiatrist out there destined to be living large, thanks to the retainer she’ll have to put him or her on for the next 50 years.

And somewhere in all this there’s a role for Danny Thomas — the comic’s screen debut, in fact. Sporting Technicolor five o’clock shadow that makes Richard Nixon look like a Ken Doll, Thomas plays a shop owner with an unrealized yen for the travelling aunt (an actress), though the latter has no compunction about asking him to care for O’Brien during frequent absences. Thomas plays him tentatively, which is in keeping with the character, though it’s certainly difficult to reconcile the performances with the memorably amusing rages he’d later fly into on TV’s "Make Room for Daddy."

Though this DVD has been remastered, the color processing has its uneven moments compared to, say, the recent resplendence of Warner Archive’s Yolanda and the Thief, a Technicolor MGM from the same general era. But Dance was photographed by the great Robert Surtees (three Oscars that were not for his contribution to The Graduate or The Last Picture Show), so it’s only relative; this is still a good-looking movie, especially in the frequent dance sequences. And if Dance is no The Red Shoes, it did anticipate that masterpiece’s neuroses by a year — neuroses against a brightly pigmented milieu, which carry through to Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis & Co.

Shoes is famous for having launched a ballet boom affecting what seemed like half of the female Boom-er population — the same one that Boomer boys tried to distract long enough for them to partake in a double-header or at least a Rory Calhoun Western. From what I’ve been reading playing catch-up ball, it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this movie did its part as well. I doubt that too many dance-bent aspirants who saw it at the time ever got it totally out of their minds.


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