Invitation to the Dance – 1956 – dir. Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly was, of course, a major creative force behind some of the most commercially successful, critically acclaimed, and enduringly loved movie musicals of all time. His most popular films – particularly On the Town, An American in Paris, and Singin’ in the Rain, all released within a few years of one another – still regularly play repertory cinemas and remain must-sees for classic film buffs and musical fans. But Kelly’s lesser-known projects tend to be fascinating too. Whether it’s the cult movie The Pirate, which was far too underappreciated upon initial release, or the deliciously satiric and often underrated It’s Always Fair Weather, Kelly’s filmography has quite a few hidden gems.
One of the most intriguing, if little seen, titles in Kelly’s oeuvre is Invitation to the Dance, which consists of three vignettes told entirely through dance and pantomime. The film has no dialogue and was a passion project for Kelly, who was committed to bringing dance – especially ballet – into the mainstream of American popular culture. The behind-the-scenes story of the film is largely one of compromise – an uneasy studio, a modest budget, and other challenging production conditions made it difficult for Kelly to realize his initial vision on film. But Invitation to the Dance nevertheless possesses a laudable spirit and a great many pleasures.
Shooting for Invitation to the Dancewas completed mainly at MGM’s studio in England, rather than its home base in Culver City, in 1952 and 1953. In what may seem like a curious decision, Kelly had decamped to Europe following the completion of Singin’ in the Rain. The move was partially motivated by a new tax break being offered to Americans living in Europe, but was likely also influenced by the continued rise of the blacklist in Hollywood. (Kelly’s wife at the time, actress Betsy Blair, was blacklisted for her political activities, and the famously liberal Kelly was regarded with considerable suspicion as well.) Thus, Invitation to the Dance’s production was a bit quixotic – and clouded – right from the start, an ambitious project kicking off without the support and resources that it needed to truly flourish. To wit: the studio also pressured Kelly into appearing in all three of the film’s vignettes against his original wishes, and a planned fourth segment of the film was scrapped entirely.
Still, Kelly’s dedication to this unusual project remains a moving thing, and the film itself has some hauntingly lovely moments. The first section, “Circus” (which has to be the only place where one can see Kelly as a despairing clown) features dancers Claire Sombert and Ygor Youskevitch casually ignoring gravity as they share a pas-de-deux that makes creative use of an acrobat’s net, and Kelly teases some memorable images out of his simple story, including a heartbroken harlequin getting lost amid a buoyant sea of dancers.
The second section – my favorite – is “Ring Around the Rosy.”A take on Arthur Schnitzler’s play La Ronde, it follows the exchange of a bracelet between various pairs of lovers. The bracelet can be read as a metaphor for venereal disease (a reading bolstered by the plague connotations of the section’s title and the repeated use of “Ring Around the Rosy” as a motif in the Andre Previn score), which suggests that dance can not only express things that can really only be felt (to paraphrase the trailer from An American in Paris), but perhaps also some things that it simply isn’t polite to discuss. In any event, it’s a sly segment that offers some fantastic moments, including a uniformed Kelly’s spellbinding pairing with Russian dancer Tamara Toumanova, and an appearance by the wonderful Tommy Rall. The section also has a particularly fanciful look and feel – a femme fatale comically peers out from behind too much hair; a crooner opens his mouth to sing and the sound of a trumpet comes out, while his audience of swooning women sway in unison. “Ring Around the Rosy” at times puts one in mind of the “Broadway Melody Ballet” sequence from Singin’ in the Rain, but its pleasures are very much its own.
The final sequence “Sinbad the Sailor” – a mostly-animated story of the title characters’s strange, Arabian Nights-inspired adventures – feels the most familiar out of the three vignettes, if only because Kelly appears in a sailor suit (see also: Anchors Aweighand On the Town) and continues his interest in mixing live action and animation (as he did in Anchors Aweighand a later TV special, Jack and the Bean Stalk). Yet the crowd-pleasing short is also a great deal of loopy fun, and a technical marvel, considering that the innovations of the animation landmark Who Framed Roger Rabbit? were still decades away.(Of interest to serious musical buffs is the fact that Kelly’s longtime dance assistant Carol Haney makes a rare film appearance as Scheherazade in this section, and also danced the part of one of Kelly’s animated partners for some reference footage.) “Sinbad the Sailor” is perhaps the section that strays furthest from Kelly’s original plan to showcase a myriad of great dancers other than himself, since he gets the most screen time here, but seeing Kelly hoofing onscreen is always a joy.
And while the film’s fate must have been gut-wrenching for Kelly – it was shelved for years, than mostly-ignored upon its release in 1956 – there’s a silver lining in the fact that the film still inspires interest today, and audiences who set aside their preconceived notions about the film’s failings will doubtlessly find much about it to admire. Critic Jeanine Basinger wrote in her 1976 book documenting Kelly’s career that Invitation to the Dance “represents an intensely personal work by a man who was of the utmost importance to his profession and did more than nearly anyone else to popularize the art of dance,” and I don’t think she was being hyperbolic. Invitation to the Dance gets to the heart of Kelly’s work as an artist. It’s title could double as the title for his distinguished career.