When it comes to the movie musical, there are two giants whose presences are inescapable: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. The impact of these legendary men cannot be overestimated — from movies to TV shows to music videos to commercials, Astaire and Kelly are still influencing pop culture and reaching new audiences every day. However, they weren’t the only formidable dancing talents to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Below I highlight eight of the most delightful, incredible hoofers who have become unfairly forgotten over time. Admittedly, my criteria here is loosely defined. I want to shine a spotlight on a handful of less well-known names, so, although it’s a worthy topic, I won’t be covering actors who had stellar dance skills (Judy Garland, Dick Van Dyke, Doris Day, Ginger Rogers…) or extremely famous dancers-turned-actors like Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth. A few of the people I discuss may seem familiar, especially if you’re obsessed with classic film like I am, but hopefully this list will introduce you to some new faces who will soon become beloved favorites.
To appreciate Van, you need only look at his work in 1953. When I first saw him in that year’s Kiss Me, Kate, he won me over instantly, despite his relatively small role. As someone who could hold their own against the likes of Tommy Rall (more on him in a minute), Ann Miller, and the Bob Fosse, Van’s vivacity made me wonder, “Who was that?!” I was further mesmerized by his supporting part as Jane Powell’s best friend in another 1953 vehicle, Small Town Girl. There is nothing as endearing as his infamous solo “Street Dance,” which finds him literally hopping through town out of pure joy. (That moment, by the way, inspired Hugh Jackman’s opening number for the 2014 Tony Awards, an homage that proved way too obscure for many critics and viewers — but not for this girl!)
The final 1953 film that made me a die-hard fan of Bobby Van was The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, which reunited him with Fosse. As the titular character, Van’s boy-next-door charm radiates off the screen. While his dance numbers with Fosse are excellent, what bowled me over were his scenes with leading lady Debbie Reynolds. Their sweetly wholesome personalities meshed beautifully, ultimately resulting in one of the loveliest duets I’ve ever heard as their characters quietly sing “All I Do is Dream of You” to each other. It may be simple, but it gives me goosebumps every time.
Let’s all give a round of applause to the glory that is Tommy Rall. I’m not exaggerating when I say that his every move blows me away. There is so much power and intent and attitude packed into each kick, jump, and step. Rall could actually make dancing feel like a death-defying stunt — just watch him in the barn dance from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and tell me that you weren’t holding your breath the whole time.
Both athlete and artist, Rall is an exhilarating sight to behold. Like Bobby Van, I was introduced to him through Kiss Me, Kate, where numbers like “From This Moment On” and “Tom, Dick, or Harry” threw me for a loop. Another unforgettable moment came in 1955’s My Sister Eileen, when Rall and Bob Fosse try to one-up each other in the Fosse-choreographed “Alley Dance.” It is, quite honestly, one of the most dazzling dance routines I’ve ever seen.
A gorgeous woman with some of the fastest feet around, Vera-Ellen made only fourteen films, but you can bet that she made an impression in each and every one of them. Equally adept at sweeping balletic grace and jazzy beats, Vera-Ellen was truly one of the best. I cannot believe that White Christmas is her sole legacy for non-classic film fans — she just had so many great hits. Perhaps what I find most exciting about watching Vera-Ellen at work is the striking visuals she created while dancing. Whether twirling a voluminous skirt or being flipped around by chorus boys, she consistently crafted memorable images.
It’s hard to narrow down my favorite pieces from her. There is “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” (Words and Music ), which finds Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen as a wildly sensual couple looking for a good time until things take a tragic turn. The twosome are at it again in “Day in New York” (On the Town ), a sublime dream ballet that illustrates Vera’s ability to be both pin-up and girl-next-door. White Christmas, of course, has some of her best work, including “The Best Things Happen While You’re Dancing” with Danny Kaye and the mind-blowing tap number “Abraham.”
To get the full force of Vera’s talent, though, I highly recommend Three Little Words (1950). Called a “brilliant dancing star” by her co-star Fred Astaire, this film illustrates her versatility, thanks to an acrobatic solo (“Come On, Papa”), a romantic late-night waltz with Astaire (“Thinking of You”), a wonderfully creative comedic number (“Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home”), and more. To paraphrase White Christmas, the best things really do happen when you dance with Vera-Ellen.
I will never understand how Gene Nelson didn’t become a bigger star. He could sing; he proved his mettle as an actor in both comedic and rare dramatic roles; and he could dance like no one else. When this guy moved, it’s like his feet didn’t even touch the ground. And they often didn’t! In She’s Working Her Way Through College, he does a number in a gym that starts on a single dangling rope before seguing into basketball, gymnastics, boxing, and tap dancing. In Tea for Two, he flits up and down a staircase, including the railing. He just floats through the air in things like “The Farm off Old Broadway” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” What a ridiculously marvelous talent.
Proving that tap dancing wasn’t a man’s game, Eleanor Powell dazzled audiences in the late ’30s and early ’40s with her fierce athleticism and jubilant personality. As Astaire wrote in his autobiography, Powell “put ’em down like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.” One of the movie musical’s most iconic moments was born when Powell and Astaire danced to “Begin the Beguine” in Broadway Melody of 1940, their sole collaboration.
But the one thing Powell showed over and over again was that she definitely didn’t need a partner to shine. Her solo work is, in a word, divine. She could stomp out taps with poise and precision while the rest of her remarkably flexible body did flips, dips, and even the splits. Powell exemplified that a woman can be feminine without sacrificing her strength. You can see what I mean in the numbers “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “I’ll Take Tallulah,” “Lady Be Good” (where Powell dances with a dog — that she trained herself!), and “Broadway Melody,” just to name a few.
Marge and Gower Champion
She had been Walt Disney’s model for Snow White and Pinocchio‘s Blue Fairy. He would eventually become a Broadway giant. But together they were the magnificent dancing team of Marge and Gower Champion. The married couple had a brief career in Hollywood in the ’50s, making their routines all the more precious. Their chemistry is so deeply felt in their work that you can’t help but sigh over the romanticism and elegance of their movement. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is an enchanting expression of love, while numbers like “I Won’t Dance,” “Casablanca,” their Lovely to Look At finale, and “The Challenge Dance” display the couple’s playful eroticism and high energy.
Out of all of the dancers I’ve mentioned, Donald O’Connor is the one whose lack of recognition baffles and upsets me the most. His prolific career saw him go from adorable child star to charming leading man to reliable character actor and host. Funny, genuine, and an outstanding hoofer, O’Connor never gave a performance that was less than splendid. These days, his legacy is playing Cosmo in the masterpiece Singin’ in the Rain, which isn’t a bad way to be remembered by any stretch of the imagination. I mean, he almost steals the whole movie from Gene Kelly, for goodness sake.
However, O’Connor did a lot of fantastic work before and after Singin’ in the Rain. He’s the best part of the Deanna Durbin vehicle Something in the Wind, and he is great fun alongside Bing Crosby and Fred MacMurray in Sing, You Sinners. “De-Lovely,” a duet with Mitzi Gaynor, and “You Can Bounce Right Back,” an energetic routine with children, help elevate the somewhat-lackluster Anything Goes, while There’s No Business Like Show Business demonstrates O’Connor’s captivating chemistry with Marilyn Monroe.
My favorite film of his, though (aside from Singin’), is Call Me Madam. O’Connor himself said in a 1979 interview that it exhibited his best dancing. This might be because you’re able to see his considerable range, thanks to a virtuoso solo (“What Chance Have I With Love?”), an out-of-this-world singing duet with Ethel Merman (“You’re Just in Love”), two blissfully romantic dances with Vera-Ellen (“It’s a Lovely Day Today” and “Something to Dance About”), and one terrific acting performance.
IU Cinema screens classic Hollywood films in the City Lights Film Series and Sunday Matinee Classics Series. Upcoming titles include the cult favorite Two-Lane Blacktop on April 14 at the Cinema and Blake Edwards’s riotous musical Victor/Victoria on April 20 at the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Screening Room (free admission but reservations are required and can be made here).
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.