Thursday, August 3, 2017

The Death of the Swan : The Unfinished Dance ( 1947 ) and Ballerina ( 1937 )

This weekend Christina Wehner is hosting the En Pointe Blogathon, a three-day event celebrating films that spotlight that beautiful and centuries old form of dance known as ballet. One of the most overlooked Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films of the 1940s The Unfinished Dance - just so happens to revolve around ballet, and so I have chosen to call attention to this rarity as well as to Ballerina ( 1937 ) which is based on the same story. 

Both pictures are about a ballet student who accidentally cripples a famous ballerina when she throws the switch to the onstage trap door, plummeting the dancer to her career-ending doom. 

"Is she dead?"
"She broke her leg..... For a dancer, it is worse than death"

In The Unfinished Dance ( 1947 ), Margaret O'Brien stars as Meg Merlin, the passionate little dancer who quickly becomes wracked with guilt for the dreadful deed she committed in haste. This orphaned child loves ballet and, particularly one ballerina - Ariane Bouchet ( Cyd Charisse ) whom she worships as an idol. When La Darina ( Karin Moore ), a guest ballerina, arrives to perform the lead in "Swan Lake" in place of Bouchet, Meg plans to humiliate the prima ballerina by turning off the lights during the performance, leaving Darina to grope in the dark. Instead, she - oops! - pulls the wrong switch causing Darina to literally perform her swan song. Meg, then, struggles with her conscience and attempts to muster the courage to confess her crime to La Darina, the woman she once hated but is quickly coming to love...especially when she discovers that Bouchet isn't the grand idol she thought she was. 

The Unfinished Dance was based on a novella by Paul Morand entitled "La Mort du Cygne" ( "The Death of the Swan" ). This intriguing story was first filmed in 1937 as La Mort du Cygne aka Ballerina, a French production directed by Jean Benoit-Levy and Marie Epstein. It was a box-office sensation in Europe, won the Grand Prix du Cinèma francais award, and earned equal critical acclaim in America. Over the years, a legendary aura has been cast around it, primarily because it was considered a lost classic; it was only in 2000 that a surviving print was discovered. 
While The Unfinished Dance bears some resemblance to the original film, it cannot - and should not - be compared to Ballerina as a remake. They are two separate films with marked differences. One major contrast between them is the underlying theme of the pictures. In Ballerina, it is all about the dance. To dance is to live; to dance is to breathe.

"The Dance is greater than all our personal troubles," remarks Karine in one scene. 

In The Unfinished Dance, Meg's guilt takes center stage. Ballet becomes Meg's redemption. Director Henry Koster did a wonderful job of creating a disquieting atmosphere of tension in all of the scenes featuring O'Brien. Meg is a hapless victim of a foolish and childish prank that she herself conceived and her guilt causes her to see the jail bars closing in on her. Every whisper is a personal threat to her safety. Every policeman an agent of Justice out to capture her. Margaret O'Brien plays out the psychological tension that Meg feels with great skill, especially considering she was only nine-years-old at the time of filming, while Koster treats these sequences as though it were Robert Mitchum on the screen, running from another thoughtless crime he committed in haste. 

However, audiences didn't appreciate this peek into the mind of a child criminal, and the film lost nearly $1,800,000 upon its release. It was the only Joe Pasternak production to ever lose money. This may have been due to false marketing. Posters displayed happy images of O'Brien and Charisse performing grand jetés while the subtitles heralded "Romance! Spectacle! Music!" Audiences were undoubtedly expecting a saccharine MGM musical featuring the always adorable Margaret O'Brien and, in the opening sequences, this is what they were treated to....but then, the real story of The Unfinished Dance begins to unfold and the film becomes a unique blend of a Technicolor family drama and a Columbia Pictures film noir. It was a mixture too heady for youngsters, and too juvenile for adult audiences. 
Ballerina, on the other hand, was marketed as a haunting melodrama, which indeed it was. Ballerina evokes, through long shadows and striking camera angles, the atmosphere of the Opera de Paris as the dancers saw it. It was not the glittering Parisian palace that came alive only at night, but a working studio where the dust of wood shavings and talcum powder filled the air. Blanche-Levy had the cast and crew live at the Palais Garnier for weeks prior to filming so that they could feel that majestic atmosphere that the ballerinas felt and convey it to the screen. The result is an engrossing peek at the all-consuming world of ballet. 

Throughout the film, we are given scenes of the backstage life: "flies" in their perches, crewmen setting a stage, and ballerinas in class and in their dressing rooms stretching, leaping, flexing their feet, and adjusting their shoes and tutus. In one scene we witness prima ballerina Yvonne Chauviré placing padding on her toes and then slowing tying her pointe shoes. 

Ballerina also contrasts against The Unfinished Dance by portraying the children as unsentimental little savages - which they are. In the tradition of the Opera de Paris, young student ballerinas are referred to as "rats", and Meg Merlin is here cleverly named Rose Souris ( souris meaning mouse in French ).

Rose is no mere child who accidentally moves a wrong lever. She is a twelve-year old girl who deliberately sets to put an end to the career of Karine ( the character of La Darina in The Unfinished Dance ), slowly moving the heavy wooden supports that keep the trap-door closed and then waiting to hear the music of the swan as Karine approaches the trap. After her deed is done she feels occasional pangs of guilt ( this is eerily conveyed to the audience through the sound of a violin-solo playing the Swan theme ), but she has no desire to confess her crime to her victim. It is only when Karine discovers what she did via an anonymous letter that Rose asks for her forgiveness. Seeing the grand ballerina hobble on her cane every day is her punishment. 
Perhaps in order to satisfy the Hayes Code, MGM made the lead character much younger and dampened her act of viciousness by making it an accident. The screenwriters also attempted to give reason to Meg's consuming adulation of Mademoiselle Bouchet by making her a motherless child. In the French film, Rose lives with her mother. Meg's only relation is her flighty aunt whom we glimpse just twice. To atone for this lack of parental guidance there is "Uncle" Paneros ( Danny Thomas in his screen debut ), a kindly Greek who operates a watch shop below Meg's apartment. He becomes a father figure for Meg while we are to assume that Mlle. Bouchet - and, later, La Darina - is the mother that Meg wishes she had. 

"In you, I'm going to dance again. You're not going to fail me, are you?" - La Darina
"I'd die first." - Meg
Danny Kaye was originally cast in the role of Mr. Paneros and indeed would have been ideal because he would have lent some comedy to the film, which it sorely needed. The dramatics are too heavy in certain scenes. In spite of the noir tone of the original Ballerina, that film's drama was interspersed with bits of typical French humor. Instead, Danny Thomas was given the opportunity to perform and he quickly steals every scene he is in, adding warmth to the picture if not comedy. He also boasts a fine singing voice. 

Most of the dancing in The Unfinished Dance focuses on O'Brien ( a merely adequate dancer ) and Cyd Charisse, a true ballerina turned actress. She displays her spectacular terpsichorean talent in six production numbers, including a performance of David Rose's "Holiday for Strings". Charisse's best dance is to the music of Bedrich Smetana's "The Bartered Bride", where, among a gold-and-purple corps de ballet, she makes a grand entrance in a gold costume pirouetting into the camera. 
Karin Booth was not a dancer and so, in her two ballet sequences, a professional dancer took her place for the long shots. La Darina's highlight performance is "Swan Lake" which was a pastiche of the second and fourth "white" acts of Tchaikovsky's classic staged to create an ethereally beautiful effect with a bevy of Cygnus-like ballerinas dancing atop a mirrored floor. David Lichine was the choreographer for all of the ballets in The Unfinished Dance. 

In Ballerina, the dance sequences are exceptional, which is not surprising considering all three principal characters were portrayed by celebrated ballerinas. Janine Charrat ( Rose ) was a child prodigy, choreographing her first ballet at age 14. She had a long career as a dancer and choreographer. Charrat was only 13 when Ballerina was made. 

Yvette Chauvi ( Mlle. Beaupre ) was a famed étoile of the Paris Opéra Ballet and still considered by many to be France's greatest classical ballerina. Mia Slavenska ( Karine ) was an international star and a renowned ballerina from the 1930s-1960s, after which time she became a much sought-after ballet instructor here in the States. In 2014, PBS aired Mia: A Dancer's Journey, a fascinating documentary by her daughter Maria Ramas, which is well worth viewing. 

Considering that these dancers had no formal acting training they are quite good in their roles in Ballerina. However, Benoit-Levy should have filmed them in a more natural continuous style of filming. Instead - like most pictures of the 1930s - he uses close-ups excessively. In many scenes, it is obvious that these close-ups were filmed separately from the medium-shots. These abrupt edits block the fluidity of the film. And, unfortunately, an additional twenty minutes was cut from the original print for the US release, so connecting elements of the story are missing. 

Nevertheless, Ballerina is a classic in its genre, noted for being one of the best ballet films of the 1930s. Ballet enthusiasts today are grateful to be able to see performances from Slavenska and Chauviré captured for posterity on camera. 

Both The Unfinished Dance and Ballerina showcase the art of ballet in a wonderful manner and hopefully have inspired audiences then and today to embrace this beautiful form of dance. Personally speaking, these two titles alone have elevated my appreciation of ballet to new heights and introduced me to dancers I was previously unaware of. 

Ready to explore more ballet films? Check out all the great posts at the headquarters of the En Pointe Blogathon being hosted by Christina Wehner. Also, take some time to watch the two films you just read about: The Unfinished Dance ( also available on DVD through Warner Archives ) and Ballerina aka La Mort du Cygne. 

10 comments:

  1. Wonderful post! I've only seen The Unfinished Dance and really found your the comparisons between the two films fascinating. I also learned a lot about the French film and the dancers in it.

    Where did you see Ballerina? I've been really curious to see that one, but have been unable to so far. But it sounds so worth it. It's always great to see films featuring actual ballet dancers and it sounds even better, since those dancers are some of the most celebrated French dancers.

    So glad you could join the blogathon!

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    1. Thanks Christina. It was a great idea hosting a ballet blogathon. These dance films need more spotlighting. If you click on the blue link above that reads "Ballerina" ( just below where I placed your banner ) you can watch the film....but it is not in its entirety. The original movie was 100 minutes long, the US cut version 85 minutes, and this posted one is about 80. So twenty minutes are missing. Too bad. But it's good to be able to see it anyway. After you watch it, stop back here and let me know what you thought!

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    2. That's so true about these dance films, especially films like Ballerina! I hope they put it on DVD sometime.

      Oooh, thanks so much for the link! I'll be sure to stop back after seeing it!

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  2. It is fascinating to discover how one story can inspire two different films. I've only seen The Unfinished Dance and consider its core theme to be the loneliness of young Meg. The ballet certainly is an all-consuming passion that can take the place of so much else in life.

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    1. That's an interesting observation, CW. I hadn't noticed it, but you're quite right...loneliness is probably the reason that Meg turns to dance in the first place ( a lot of dancers are introverts, believe it or not ). I never read the story so I'm curious as to how deep the original novella goes.

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  3. Marvelous post! I think my favorite part of The Unfinished Dance is Danny Thomas. He does such a good job and his scenes with Meg just melted my heart. Cyd Charisse does well, too.

    Thanks for bringing such a wonderful, comprehensive piece to our blogathon!

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    1. Yes, Danny Thomas was wonderful in the movie. I especially like the song "I Went Merrily Merrily On My Way" which he sings to O'Brien while making eggs. :-)

      Thanks for hosting this event, Michaela.

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  4. Beautifully written! I love The Unfinished Dance, will check out Ballerina now as well.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed our post, Simoa...and I hope you like Ballerina.

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  5. Enjoyed the post. I've never heard of either but looking forward to seeing them. I got to see Margaret O'Brien at the TCM Festival a few years ago.

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