THE UNFINISHED DANCE: Hollywood’s Greatest Ballet Film?

17 Nov

I recorded THE UNFINISHED DANCE (1947) off TCM a year ago and finally got around to watching it. I was pretty astounded. On one level, it’s a beautifully filmed Technicolor musical from MGM about the world of ballet, with excerpts of many famous ballets on display. On another level, it’s an insanely intense Hollywood melodrama about a child’s heroine worship and the horrific results of that obsession. Why did this film never play on TV when I was growing up? Why had no film programmer or curator ever included it in their MGM or musical retrospectives at the Museum of Modern Art, the Regency or any other outlet in New York that used to show the likes of ON THE TOWN, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and THE RED SHOES regularly? (Or, if they did show it, why wasn’t I paying attention?) Why had no film text devoted space to it in all the thousands of articles, reviews and book chapters on classic Hollywood cinema that I’ve read? It’s rare that I come across an unsung Hollywood classic that’s flown so far off my radar, but this is one of them.

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THE UNFINISHED DANCE focuses on a nine-year-old ballet student named Meg Merlin (Margaret O’Brien) who is devoted to a prima ballerina named Ariane Bouchet (Cyd Charisse) and even skips class to watch her rehearse.

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When another prima ballerina, La Darina (Karin Booth), returns to the company and is given the lead role in “Swan Lake,” Meg is compelled to pull a stunt that will cause embarrassment to La Darina and hopefully scare her off or damage her public standing. Instead, her little prank results in an injury that sends La Darina off to the hospital and threatens to end her career forever. Meg is stricken with guilt and begs her one accomplice, her best friend Josie (Mary Eleanor Donahue), to keep her secret. Gradually, Meg’s guilty conscience compels her to try to reach out to La Darina to confess her crime, but the path to forgiveness and redemption is a rocky one.

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The whole thing is played out on Margaret O’Brien’s face. Could any other child actress have expressed such extremes of emotion in such incredible closeups? Yes, she was great in every other film she did as a child actress, from JANE EYRE (1943) and MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944) to LITTLE WOMEN and THE SECRET GARDEN (both 1949), but this is the first film I’ve seen in which she carries the whole emotional load from start to finish. It helps that the character she plays is a working-class orphan girl who has a hunger and drive that set her apart from her background. Her aunt is a vaudeville dancer, seen briefly leaving on a tour, who leaves poor Meg in the hands of the aunt’s sometime boyfriend, a Greek immigrant shopowner named Paneros. Meg’s friend Josie lives in her neighborhood and Meg sometimes sleeps over with her. The two have a rival at the ballet school named Phyllis (Connie Cornell), a snippy blond rich girl who uses her sense of privilege at one point to manipulate a breakup in Meg and Josie’s friendship. Some vicious behavior is displayed and pre-adolescent fireworks are set off. The whole class warfare element is evident but not emphasized; it provides one factor in the melodramatics that erupt.

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The ballet scenes, which draw on several famous ballets, are beautifully staged, filmed and scored. Cyd Charisse’s dancing is quite a revelation to those of us who’ve only seen her in THE HARVEY GIRLS, THE BAND WAGON, BRIGADOON and IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER. We forget that she was a ballet dancer first and foremost. Karin Booth was not a ballet dancer but was able to do the necessary moves in the close shots while being doubled in the long shots. Margaret O’Brien does very well in her dance scenes. (I’ve linked to an interview with her below where she talks about her dancing in the movie.)

Cyd Charisse

Cyd Charisse

Karin Booth

Karin Booth

The two actresses are fascinating to watch, especially in their scenes with Meg. Bouchet is alarmingly happy when La Darina’s accident lands her the role in “Swan Lake” and takes to the perks of stardom in a way that reveals that Meg’s heroine worship may have been misplaced. Meg gradually realizes her mistake and begins a relationship with La Darina, who recovers enough to teach at the school and take an interest in Meg’s progress. Eventually, the love of ballet asserts itself and everyone is set back on track in an ending that may strike some as too pat and too “happy,” but one that comes after some extreme disruptions. Maltin’s Movie Guide cites the film’s “sugar-sweet story,” but I doubt the reviewer saw the same film I did.

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For the record, I must say that I haven’t seen THE RED SHOES (1948) in a long time so it would be unfair to make a comparison between the two and I have yet to see a recent Hollywood film about ballet, THE BLACK SWAN (2010). I will say simply that I don’t recall having anywhere near the kind of emotional reaction to THE RED SHOES that I did to THE UNFINISHED DANCE.

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THE UNFINISHED DANCE is that rare classic Hollywood film about women and their relationships in which men hardly come into the picture at all, except as needed facilitators to get the ballet productions rolling or, in Meg’s case, a makeshift guardian who tries to help her during her troubles, sometimes to disastrous effect. Ms. Bouchet has a hapless boyfriend (Charles Bradstreet), a male version of the “dumb blonde,” but he’s tossed aside rather effortlessly when the need arises. Bouchet and La Darina are both engaging characters driven by their own passions and love of ballet. The actresses who play them both have great faces and give great closeups and the director, Henry Koster, wisely provides lots of them in addition to the closeups of O’Brien. (Koster had previously directed five films with Deanna Durbin, including her first two starring roles, so he had some experience with high-spirited young female stars.)

There are other strong women in the film at the ballet school: Olga (Esther Dale), who plays the piano and tends to La Darina, and Madame Borodin (Ann Codee), who teaches and administers the ballet school. Both offer formidable, but steady and dependable personalities who balance out the turbulence on display.

Esther Dale

Esther Dale

Ann Codee

Ann Codee

The actor who plays Paneros, the Greek-accented shopowner who looks after Meg, is played by a future sitcom star who made his film debut here and is given an “Introducing” credit.

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Yes, that’s THE Danny Thomas of “The Danny Thomas Show,” aka “Make Room for Daddy,” which was on TV during the first eleven years of my life. He seems to be doing a Hans Conried impression here, which is pretty funny considering that Conried occasionally played his uncle on the TV show. He overdoes the folksy ethnic component of his character, but I couldn’t complain because his mere presence gives the film some added resonance and a degree of comfort for Meg that might have differed with another actor.

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Also in the cast is another future sitcom star, Elinor Donahue, the beloved “Princess,” the oldest daughter of Robert Young and Jane Wyatt on “Father Knows Best.” She plays Josie (and is billed as Mary Eleanor Donahue) and I had no idea Donahue had been a child actress. She’s pretty amazing here and has some solid dramatic scenes, including a fight scene, that are quite a distance from her famous sitcom character.

Connie Cornell, Mary Eleanor Donahue

Connie Cornell, Mary Eleanor Donahue

(I should add that another sitcom icon, Barbara Billingsley, aka June Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver,” appears here in a bit part as a saleslady alongside Marie Windsor. I spotted Windsor, but not Billingsley.)

The film is a remake of a 1937 French film entitled BALLERINA (aka LA MORT DU CYGNE), which I’d now like to see, and I wonder if the dark tone of much of this film can be traced to the influence of the earlier film.

I mentioned Ms. O’Brien briefly in my last blog entry [ROMANCE MUSUME: 1956 color musical from Japan], so that may have influenced my decision to pull this tape off the view pile and give it a look, but I’m glad I did. My only exposure to this film beforehand was a black-and-white still image from it many years ago in a published source that I cannot recall. I was always intrigued by that image and wondered what the film was like, but I never got the opportunity to satisfy my curiosity until TCM ran it on October 8, 2013. (Granted, TCM had certainly run it before then, but always at times when TCM wasn’t on my radar.)

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In researching this film, I found an interesting review of it by Moira Finnie on TCM’s Movie Morlocks website:

Beware of The Unfinished Dance

It has some nice images from the film and some valuable background information.

I also found a brief interview with O’Brien about the film:

Margaret O’Brien Looks Back on ‘Unfinished Dance’

I also found the trailer for THE UNFINISHED DANCE on another TCM site, so this should give you some idea of the movie’s extraordinary pleasures:

http://www.tcm.com/mediaroom/video/135404/Unfinished-Dance-The-Original-Trailer-.html

ADDENDUM: Since doing the above post, I’ve acquired the film on DVD from the Warner Archive and have replaced the old screen shots with new ones.

 

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2 Responses to “THE UNFINISHED DANCE: Hollywood’s Greatest Ballet Film?”

  1. Robert Regan November 19, 2014 at 6:55 PM #

    Wow! Another winner, Brian. Fascinating and informative throughout and well-written.

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  1. Happy 80th birthday to Margaret O’Brien! – Champagne for Lunch - January 15, 2017

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