Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Vera Caspary
Theoretically, the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s are about dancing. That wasn't always true in practice. Movies like Athena are barely interested in the art form. Movies like Easy To Wed clearly thought that dancing—hell, singing—were obligations to be avoided. But, often, it's obvious that the main reason they exist is to showcase the terpsichorean prowess of their performers. They can seem downright proud of their visible seams as a result: in line with film musical tradition going back to the 1930s, the excuses they make for their numbers—even some very great ones—can be aggressively transparent. They were rarely as nakedly ornamental (or disconnected) as, say, a Busby Berkeley musical module from the 1930s would be. But they can get pretty close. I suppose this is how one of MGM's single most profitable musicals turns out to be That's Entertainment, which was just a compilation of musical numbers presented as pure eye candy, but then, they already were.
So even in this genre and in this era, 1953's Give a Girl a Break feels unusually dedicated to dance, but also dancing as a cinematic tool rather than just an activity to be documented with greater or lesser elaboration. Partly, this is qualitative. Its seams are nearly invisible: every one of its eight dance numbers, without exception, is germane to the story being told—even the big diegetic stage number of its finale (the weakest thing in the movie, unfortunately) still bears some significant connection to its narrative and themes. Partly, it's just plain quantity, for it's entirely possible that this film boasts the single highest ratio of dance to regular movie of any musical of its era*, with around a third of its slight 84 minutes of runtime devoted to dancing showcase. It's just so concentrated—in terms of thrills-per-minute, it's the 50s musical to beat.
The flipside is that the story can come off flimsy, even for this genre, and unless you're primed to accept that the dancing is the story, it hardly has any story at all, barely enough to establish its conflict and relationships, and to let you know its characters' names and what their jobs are. As a screenplay, it's just one more backstage musical and doing absolutely nothing special with that. And so our tale begins, as so many of them do, with a Broadway revue that's found trouble in the form of its female lead (Donna Martell), who lately has developed a bad case of temperament. Feeling wronged in some nebulous way, when the apology she gets from her director, Ted Sturgis (Gower Champion), isn't sufficiently groveling, she walks off the show and, indeed, out of the movie altogether.
This leaves Ted, along with the show's composer, Leo Belney (Kurt Kasznar), and its impresario, Felix Jordan (Larry Keating), in a bind. Desperate, they announce an open casting call in the papers, braced for a deluge. They never expected three women equally ready for the limelight, but that's what they get, one favored by each of our three male leads: production assistant Bobby Dowdy (Bob Fosse) brings young Suzy Doolittle (Debbie Reynolds) to Ted's attention; Leo is enamored with the beauty and talent of a modern dancer, Joanna Moss (Helen Ross); and Felix has instead gone over his director's head and contacted a known quantity, Madelyn Corlane (Marge Champion), the caveat there being that Madelyn used to dance with Ted, and their collaboration dissolved acrimoniously when she left to pursue—well, whatever it was she pursued.
Give a Girl a Break is pretty vague on this point and others, and it doesn't have the time (or, really, the desire), to dig deeply into its characters. It is content to simply gesture at them: Suzy has a domineering Black Swan stage mom; Joanna is in reality Mrs. Burton Bradshaw, her husband an academic on the cusp of getting hired by a Midwestern university, and therefore the prospect of a hit Broadway show for his wife leads to friction; and the implication with Madelyn is that she left Ted because her aim was marriage, which is why a tall, personality-free blockhead (Peter Graves lookalike William Ching) keeps hanging around her apartment. Needless to say, you get no points for guessing that the man she wanted to marry was Ted, or that Ted regrets letting her go.
It's reasonably clear that nobody, neither its screenwriters nor its director, Stanley Donen, went very far out of their way to add much meat to the bones of their scenario. That it doesn't fail to be funny and snappy—it's not clever, sure, but it's sometimes cute enough to garner a laugh—is testament to the efficiency of the MGM machine. But its priorities affirmatively lie elsewhere, and Donen, probably extremely conscious of the limitations of the script and his performers, wisely tailors his approach to their actual strengths rather than attempting to wrench sparkling dialogue out a cast that had, for the most part, barely acted in movies before, and in Wood's case had never acted onscreen period. I don't think that this is a problem, as such. It's not a great script, but this kind of gauzy storytelling doesn't do any damage to a film that, after all, is dealing in broad, elemental strokes.
Still, even with all the charity in the world, that screenplay does get worse as it goes: while it slinks along being just good enough, but with overwhelming compensation, when it comes time to resolve its situation, it concludes on a genuinely disappointing note of dull literalism that suggests how little thought or imagination went into it. It's almost shocking, because the one thing the screenplay seems to be doing that's of any interest at all is seeding the obvious Gordian knot solution to everyone's problems, and then it ends without paying that off, instead tumbling through a series of clunky contrivances that feel like Donen and the writers decided upon their movie's "winner" by throwing a dart that happened to land on her name. (Though it probably had more to do with who the movie's biggest extrinsic star was.) As consolation, they give the other women "happy endings" that do not read as especially happy to a viewer in 2021; and, while this is by no means unique to this film, Give a Girl a Break is furiously invested in the idea that a woman's career cannot coexist with marriage, almost as a law of thermodynamics. This is always weird, every time I see it, because virtually every actress in every one of these movies was married in her real life. But it's particularly weird in this movie, that stars an actual husband-and-wife dance team.
But I mentioned "overwhelming compensation," which is where those eight numbers come in. The condensed structure is probably the result of some terrible birthing pains. The film had begun as something rather more ordinary, and if it had panned out, you'd definitely have heard of it: the original plan was to combine Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, along with Judy Garland. I cannot say if it therefore originated within MGM's most prestigious musical unit, overseen by Arthur Freed—Astaire and Kelly and Garland suggests this might well have been the case—but, if it did, by the time it entered production it had found its way to Jack Cummings's second-string outfit at the studio, with attendant budget cuts and a whole new slate of stars, the newer ones that MGM hoped would turn out as big as the old ones but, of course, we know they never did. (Well, not counting Reynolds, and of course Fosse did, but not as a screen actor, and one can see why.) I do not know if I would trade it anyway: Freed has always gotten all the accolades, and that's increasingly struck me as awfully unfair, when Cummings turned out results that were arguably more consistent than Freed's productions and, at their best, should at least be part of the same conversation as Freed's most-beloved works. (As a bonus, Cummings also didn't sexually assault children.) In any event, the shadow of a bigger project remains: the lyrics by Ira Gershwin (with music by Burton Lane), for one thing; the complexion of those numbers, for another, feeling lavish but also like somebody wanted to spend even more money on them than they did.
Of the eight, they're not all masterpieces: the stagebound finale, Gower Champion and Reynolds's "Applause, Applause," joined by the show's chorus in tribute to vaudeville, is merely comfortably decent; and ending on "decent" is, of course, a disappointment. The very first, however, reaches "very good" already. This is the titular "Give a Girl a Break," which permits Donen to cut together a montage of the hopefuls, beginning with the blatantly hopeless, before arriving upon our three female leads, each reading the advertisement in their morning paper while doing dance exercises, and who join together at the end to show off their respective moves in a colorful, notional dreamspace, as selective shadows give each one a moment to shine. (It should be acknowledged, of course, that one of these women is not like the others, and Reynolds, while certainly pleasant to watch, is barely even working in the same medium as Champion and Wood, with Reynolds coming off much more narrowly stereotyped. In fairness, it would be hard to match Champion's skill, let alone Wood's flamboyance; the latter's athletic modern ballet borders on a novelty act—in a good way!—and is augmented further by an eroticism that's downright brazen for 1953.) The first phase of the film also gives us a boys' number, easily its least-ambitious, a silly bit of fluff where the male leads sing "Nothing Is Impossible"—in reference to the task of rewriting a show for a new star when they don't even know who she'll be yet (and somehow "rewrite it to star all three" never once occurs to them)—but it's charming as the men get tangled together and Kasznar, obviously not anything besides a comic character actor, gets the exceedingly cool denouement anyway, with an anti-gravity lean that would become a lot more famous when Michael Jackson did it decades hence. (In deference to Jackson, he did it without using editing to cheat.)
Fosse and Reynolds have their falling-in-love duet, "Our United State," a funny (arguably annoying) song devoted to a lot of clumsy civics-themed wordplay. Annoying or not, it's at this juncture that Fosse begins to justify why he's in the movie in the first place. (Afterwards, this lowly gofer becomes a part of every personnel discussion at Felix's theater, a status shift that Donen hopes you won't notice.) Fosse and Reynolds get the plottiest thread of the film—Bobby keeps stupidly thinking his bosses have chosen her, and more stupidly still, he keeps telling her so—and, in frankness, the only thing that works totally about Fosse and Reynolds's dialogue scenes is that they're both of similar size, Fosse appearing to have based his performance on Dick Powell's old musicals, only twerpier. And yet the miscalibrated combination of stammering shoegazing and creepy leering that Fosse's determined equals "romantic co-star" gets a much sturdier context in "Our United State. It's what I mean when I say this story depends on dance, for sometime between the beginning of their frolic around a riverfront park and the end of it, Fosse and Reynolds manage to conjure real magic for their forced romance, and it's much easier to find them charming together once Fosse's done a backflip for joy and concluded the number by falling into the river. It is not exactly prototypical Fosse, even so: that backflip was one of the few instances where Fosse attempted to emulate the high-flying athleticism that otherwise rarely entered his delicate, anatomically-fragmented aesthetic—he did so at Donen's insistence and trained desperately to pull it off—but there are small moments, particularly in the extended denouement of their walk home, like when Fosse Spider-Mans his body into a doorway between the handle and the frame, as if this was the most casual thing in the world, that you can see the jagged, modern style he'd become famous for.
This exhausts the okay-to-good complement of the film's numbers, and what we have remaining is exclusively all-time great. The people most responsible for that, obviously, are the Champions; Give a Girl a Break was one of just two movies they headlined for MGM, rather than being shuffled off into their specialty corner, and its commercial failure dashed the studio's hopes that they could turn them into box office draws. That's a shame: to the extent Give a Girl a Break manages to transcend the sharp limitations of its manufacture as a bauble is entirely down to them. Donen deserves credit for much of the film's joyous experimentalism, but it's the Champions who inject real feeling into it. Some of this is, in fact, even regular old screen acting; Ted and Madelyn have actual dramatic emotions, not just cartoonish simulations, and I'd daresay that the Champions are quite up to the task of playing what amounts to counterfactual lovelorn versions of themselves (particularly Marge, who laces a brittle vulnerability into her performance that's genuinely compelling). But, naturally, it's their two dances together that make the film.
Their first—a wordless number, unassumingly titled the "Challenge Dance"—brings Ted to Madelyn's apartment. He's had a chance to ponder his old flame coming back into his life; she's had a chance to develop second thoughts and wonder if her talent's grown stale in her years away. Confronting her with her own insecurities, Ted flings Madelyn across her balcony in a twirl, needling and attacking her until she responds with an anger of her own, first matching him step for step, and finally leading a reckless dance from rooftop to rooftop while Donen's whirling camera barely keeps up. The shock of Gower's forcefulness with his wife, the symbolic violence of the characters' relationship, and Marge's resurgence in the face of it, not to mention the gorgeousness and sexual charge of the Champions together, is the kind of dancing that can give you actual chills. It does the character work so the screenplay doesn't have to.
The film's centerpiece triptych arrives as the three men fantasize about their preferred star, one after the other, and this is Donen's laboratory. Bobby's the first to drift off, into a bizarre and juvenile daydream revolving around Fosse and Reynolds ascending a very large and very nondescript stage that climbs into the rafters, while Bobby imagines offering fame to the woman he loves, as patterned on, I guess, a cross between a tickertape parade and child's birthday party. Donen gets nuts: manipulating time and running the camera backwards (while Reynolds and Fosse dance backwards) and party balloons appear out of thin air, it's just too wild for words, all of it very primitive artifice and not exactly hiding it, but sitting in an uncanny valley of in-camera unreality that's positively thrilling to behold. The middle part, then, involves Leo and Joanna (the closest Give a Girl a Break gets to any kind of feminism, I suppose, is when Leo confirms that he still thinks his muse is the best, even when it becomes clear he can't sleep with her), and this is still pretty excellent: Kasznar presumes to control Wood with a conductor's baton that acts more like a magic wand, until she gets ahold of it and turns the tables; their section is perhaps the most varied, ranging from starchy ballet to a jazzy routine made extraordinary by the strongest of Helen Rose's costume designs, an outfit fringed with dozens of little wings on the arms and legs so that when Wood twirls, it makes her body look like a black tornado.
The culminating section belongs, naturally, to the Champions, and for all that "Challenge Dance" was about nurturing anger, "It Happens Ev'ry Time" is as far in the other direction as it's possible to go, a heartrendingly expressive pas de duex amidst a dreamspace filled with black bars that imply the lovers' separation (and also make for excellent props on which to spin). In this symbolic universe, Donen's editing and the Champions' dance merge to create a meeting place between Ted's hope and despair, ending as Ted finds himself lost in darkness, dancing with a dozen would-be stars while trying to make his way back to the only one he ever cared for. There are very few numbers in any of these movies that force a tear out of my eye all on their own, but this is one of them, confirming my opinion of the Champions as maybe the best dancers-as-storytellers in cinema.
It still has that awkward third act to get through after this, and there's no denying that Give a Girl a Break has fully blown its load. Everything afterward is sort of flailing and unsatisfying; and that's a pity when up till this point it has done everything mid-century musicals should do, but didn't manage as often as you think. The great is really, really great, however, and a mediocre ending doesn't override that. (And besides, at 84 minutes, how much of a mediocre ending could it even have? That's arguably even a problem: the Champions' plotline barely concludes before fading to black.) Still, like Cummings and the Champions' Lovely to Look At, it deserves better than it ever got, another nearly-forgotten obscurity that, if the world were fair, would rank in the top-tier of its whole era.
*Technically, this title belongs to Gene Kelly's ballet anthology, Invitation To the Dance, insofar as the dancing content of that film is effectively 100%. However, as an outlier that can't be interestingly compared on this metric to the rest of its genre anyway, it doesn't count. Belle of New York also beats it, though not very honorably.