Thursday, April 6, 2017

If I had the chance, I'd ask the world to dance


If every musical of the 1950s winds up turning into a pretentious art film for ten or twenty minutes, what would happen if a musical was simply conceived as a pretentious art film from the start?  That's the experiment Gene Kelly ran when he made Invitation to the Dance, and the results, while mixed, suggest that Kelly's opus deserves a higher profile amongst its brethren musicals than the near-obscurity which, sadly, it actually enjoys.

Directed by, choreographed by, and starring Gene Kelly

Spoiler alert: moderate

In 1952, at the height of his fame and clout—a year after An American In Paris, and directly after Singin' in the Rain—Gene Kelly reinvested every bit of both into a new musical anthology of unparalleled ambition.  Depending upon your temperament, you could describe the result of Kelly's efforts, Invitiation to the Dance, as a project born of either passion or of vanity, and, either way, you'd be correct.  I tend to come down on the former side; but that doesn't mean it isn't at least a tiny bit pompous and off-putting.

But imagine how the people who paid for it must have felt!  Upon receipt of Kelly's film, MGM was unable to make heads or tails of what their money had wrought.  It had been an unusually hands-off production: their single major contribution to finessing Invitation during its filming was to demand that their bankable star perhaps deign to actually show up in the movie he'd asked them to finance.  But once they got a look at Kelly's film, they tried their hand again, cutting a full half-hour of finished footage, amounting to one of Invitation's original four segments.  In the process, they brought the runtime down to a svelte 92 minutes—and there's something to be said for a mid-century musical that gets in and out that quickly—but it was at the cost of what surely must've been the most conventionally audience-pleasing part of the whole endeavor; more on this particular oddity below.

As for the cut that MGM saw fit to release to the public, Invitation still didn't actually see the light of day until 1956.  Even when it finally did, it was only in the art house cinemas of major cities.  MGM evidently hoped that by catering to a high-class clientele—the sort of folks who, theoretically, might've actually been into this kind of shit, and would be willing to pay for premium screenings—they could still, perhaps, net themselves a modest return upon their investment.  And that investment, incidentally, was a massive one.  Invitation had cost them $2.8 million, which may not sound like that much until you start comparing like to like: Rain had cost MGM $300,000 less; Forbidden Planet, almost a million less.  Hell, even Ben-Hur itself would cost the studio only five times as much—and Ben-Hur, you know, required such high-end cinematic luxuries as "sets that looked like actual places" and "on-set sound recording."

So, yes, you can sympathize with MGM's predicament.  But that doesn't mean you have to agree that Invitation was only ever an arty failure.  Honestly, I find it difficult to actively dislike even the most disagreeable parts of it; they were, perhaps, the inevitable cost of Kelly trying to do something weird and different on his way to "educating" (his actual words) the American public on the science of dance.  And it was to this end that Kelly had upped sticks to Europe, to get himself closer to the major continental dance companies, from which he drew much of his supporting cast.  (And this may partly explain his film's unsightly budgetary bloat.)

Now, I know: I'm avoiding simply saying it, because it's so on-point it almost seems lazy, but the most succinct way to describe Inviation is to simply call it what it is, which is Fantasia For Dancing.  Just substitute "Gene Kelly" for "Walt Disney," and "ballet" for "animation"—the projects practically look identical.  If a Fantasia is what Kelly was after, though, then a Fantasia is certainly what he got.  Shockingly, those arthouse screenings didn't exactly reap the whirlwind, and, like Fantasia, Invitation put a crater in its studio's bottom line.  Honestly, I imagine this came as a surprise to nobody at all, except maybe poor Kelly himself, whose belief in his project, misguided or not, apparently never flagged.

The film is divided into three wordless segments, of about one half-hour apiece.  The film's bad luck is that they descend, quite uniformly, in their quality, both as pieces of cinema and as works of dance set to classical-ish original music.  The fourth of these segments, as I alluded to above, is lost to us; I don't even know if a Criterion-grade resurrection could bring it back.  Conceived as Invitation's climactic setpiece, it was an interpretation through dance of various contemporary hits.  And it's frankly baffling that this is what MGM thought was a bridge too far, especially since the demise of "Dance Me a Song" (as this pop song medley was titled) means that the film's extant third segment is the last one, thereby closing Invitation out with the most abrasive thirty minutes it has to offer, by far.

But the first segment, meanwhile, is "Circus," and "Circus" is its clearest standout.  Certainly, it's the most perfect and affecting of its pieces.  Set to a composition by Frenchman Jacques Ibert (mildly famous, I suppose, it was his only film work ever aimed at an Anglophone audience), "Circus" tells the story of a Clown (Kelly) in the throes of unrequited love for a woman (Claire Sombert) who only has eyes for their less effete coworker, a certain strapping young aerialist (Igor Youskevitch), who makes Philippe Petit look like a wuss.  (During his walk, this man on wire does a flip.  And it's still impressive, even if the editing doesn't even bother to conceal the fact that it was done with an off-camera net.)

It is an egregiously elemental romance—the characters' names are "The Clown," "The Lover," and "The Loved," for God's sakes, and Kelly spends the entire sequence in pancake pierrot makeup—but while my reference points are hardly legion, I can't name a single piece of dance in cinema that communicates melodrama more eloquently than the one Kelly, Sombert, and Youskevitch perform together and separately here.  It is broad work, to be sure, but that's no strike against it; it's broad material, ending in broad tragedy, grounded in a selfless love that seems virtually superhuman in the telling.  It's probably as easy to hate it as it is to adore it, and, honestly, I get that; but I'm an easy lay for this kind of thing, and there was essentially no chance I wouldn't adore it.

Cinematically, it's the simplest of the three segments we get; but, leaving aside the barbaric cutting that shows off our aerialist's astonishing moves, "simple" doesn't mean "inelegant."  The way Kelly's Clown disappears into a crowd during a long, slow pull-out, a nobody loved by no one, is heartbreaking; during the Lover's balletic tryst with the Loved, cool blue stage-moonlight streaming in from the right wars against warmer stage-firelight streaming from the left, and deep black chiaroscuro forms a neutral zone between them.  It's a tantric Technicolor orgasm, orange-and-teal before it was cool.  Of course, dance isn't just for smacking you in the face with feelings; it's also about athleticism.  "Circus" brings that, too, though if you dislike clowns (probably because the Internet told you to), I suppose you could find its opening frolic unbearable.  The only thing I don't care for here is the circus' show-within-a-show; it seems that even back in the day, nobody took these things seriously, and it's hard to imagine any crowd giving a damn about the wan little play the clowns put on before they get down to boogie.

"Circus" is followed hard by "Ring Around the Rosie," scored by Andre Previn, and evidently explicitly intended as a jazzy interpretation of Ophuls' La Ronde, given the similarities in plot: a husband (David Paltenghi) buys his wife (Daphne Dale) a bracelet, and delivers it to her by venturing into the flapper nightmare she evidently calls home, where she's blatantly screwing around with an artist (Youskevitch again), who in turn is screwing around on her in his dingy studio with a model (Claude Bessy)—and so on and so forth.  The metaphorical bracelet is passed on to each new lover (and it must be a metaphor, because 1)the bracelet doesn't match most of these women's dresses, and 2)even in the bohemian underbelly of the 1950s, I don't think guys typically wore turquoise bracelets, even if it did match their suits, which, here, it never does), until, finally, the bracelet goes around in a complete circle.  (One of its stops is with a Marine played by Kelly, although he's barely in this one.)

"Ring" is an exercise in style, and it's fun, with a whole host of little flourishes driven by Previn's score (the most memorable of the bunch, although maybe that's only because he leans heavily, if cannily, upon the titular nursery rhyme).  And so we get those ramshackle Expressionist sets, sort of gesturing toward actual spaces rather than rigidly depicting them; the undercranked camera that sells the dementia of the wife's unsustainable party-hard lifestyle; and, naturally, a whole lot of overtly sexy dancing, especially from the streetwalker (Tamara Toumanova), who attempts to seduce Kelly's cuckolded Marine, and who (apparently) doesn't completely succeed, but, of course, everything being laden in metaphor makes it kind of hard to tell.

Still, my favorite trick in "Ring" is my least favorite, too, conceptually sound and executed in the weirdest, most alienating way it could be.  One of the links in this daisy-chain of animalistic copulation is a young crooner (Irving Davies), who, by definition, must sing; but there is no singing in this musical, only score; and so a warbling trumpet supplies his allegedly dulcet tones.  I am absolutely in love with the idea, but whether it's the rubbery faces Davies makes into his microphone (rather unnecessarily, since he's not actually crooning), or whether it's the unattractive sound of the trumpet itself, it's extremely hard to love how it turned out.  A great idea mishandled still contains the germ of the great idea, though, and I award some points for effort, if nothing else.

I was prepared to dismiss "Ring" as a complete frivolity anyway, an example of things thrown together in one place that had been done separately and better elsewhere—that is, right up until its final gesture, which closes the circle with the husband's discovery of the bracelet on another woman's arm, leading him directly into confrontation with his unfaithful spouse.  But it does not end the way you'd expect.  It ends kindly, and when kindness is married to surprise, it is indeed all the more keenly felt.

And that brings us to "Sinbad the Sailor," and oh Lord—to take it back to Disney, it makes you wonder if Invitation, like Alice and Wonderland (and Fantasia itself), might've had more staying power in the pop-cultural consciousness if it too had been dutifully re-released during the next decade, after young people had started doing copious amounts of drugs.

"Sinbad" basically takes one little idea from Kelly's own 1945 musical, Anchors Aweigh, and decides that this idea was strong enough to drive a whole short film: as in Anchors, Kelly in "Sinbad" dances with cartoons; unlike in Anchors, Kelly is lost for twenty minutes inside a cartoon.  It is not, altogether, a failure of conception.  Indeed, it has its small clevernesses, and probably the cleverest thing about it is recasting Sinbad as Kelly in his signature sailor suit.  But there are other things, like the way dialogue is conveyed in word balloons above the characters' heads once this so-called "Sinbad" gets to where he's going; and one might feasibly enjoy (if mostly on a notional level) the way Kelly slays his enemies by literally dancing them to death.

There's a plot to be reckoned with here, if not much of one—White Sinbad, wandering around some Arabian port, finds himself purchasing a lamp, which turns out to be magic, and contains a genie (David Kasday), with whom the sailor soft-shoes before accidentally wishing himself into the netherrealm.  On the other side, he meets a gross snake-dragon thing, some really mean guards, an evil sultan, and one smoking hot cartoon concubine.  She melts our hero's heart, and, eventually, he somehow turns her into a WAVES reservist from World War II, evidently bringing her back into the real world with him.  (And thus is the most interesting part of the story left to your fevered imagination: Frank Sinatra asking earnestly, "Where did the two-dimensional brown broad come from?")  But I'll say this for it, it's better than Cool World, and that's true no matter how you slice it.

It is, of course, probably racist, but let's just stick to how crappily nuts it is: it is a segment where Kelly finds himself (often badly) composited against a cartoon world, filled with all the implausible cartoon logic that Hanna and Barbera's level of skill as animators could bring to bear, which, needless to say, is not much skill at all.  The character animation itself occasionally manages to appeal—the concubine, in particular, is a well-designed princess-type, and occasionally finds herself rendered in nice, flowing movements, with camera tilts and everything—but every character suffers terribly from recycled movement.  And even in her dance with Kelly (let alone in Kelly's dances with anyone else), the action virtually never leaves one single, horizontal plane.

All the while, one realizes how badly one's been spoiled by Disney: simply put, "Sinbad's" backgrounds are categorically unacceptable.  Half the time they're little more than a solid color (and more often than you'd like, the camera moves on the background completely out-of-sync with Kelly's live action movements), and, curiously enough, they somehow make the rest of the movie worse.  The underdetailed set of "Circus" and the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari-level backdrops for "Ring" are, obviously, the products of intent, and even love (the artist's studio in "Ring" is a wonderful piece of design), but what they certainly aren't are expensive, and while they might be artful, they surely weren't time-consuming.  It is not good to know that Invitation cost almost three mil; with "Sinbad," it slaps you in the face with its minimalism, and here it doesn't feel like intent, it feels like laziness, cost-cutting, and outright ineptitude.  You look at that budget figure, and you can only wonder where it went, because flying Kelly to Europe could not have been that costly.

I'll admit, "Sinbad" half-charmed me in the end—Kelly is pure energy in every frame I've ever seen him in, and even this misstep is no exception—but it is never a good thing for an anthology to close upon its weakest segment.  ("Sinbad's" batshit insanity makes you question the basic goodwill of the executives who cut "Dance Me a Song," which clearly could not have been worse.)  It leaves Invitation with a somewhat sour aftertaste, even if you didn't completely despise it.

Yet you respect what you've seen nonetheless, and, for my part, I respect Invitation immensely: it takes the mid-century musical to its ultimate limit, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.  After An American in Paris, every musical had to have its own phantasmagotic ballet; and, indeed, they are always the best part.  Invitation simply asks the question, "If that's so, then wouldn't a musical that's all phantamosphoric ballet be the best 50s musical there ever was?"  Well, this one's not.  But give it this: it's not for lack of trying.

Score:  7/10

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