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New York dancer and future superstar choreographer and director Bob Fosse had idolized Fred Astaire but wanted to be the next Gene Kelly. Had he been born twenty years earlier, he might have become a big star, but when he arrived in Hollywood to be in Give a Girl a Break (1953), MGM was at the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood, a time when musicals were losing popularity and the industry as a whole was losing viewers to television. Studios were cutting stars from their roster and downgrading productions in an attempt to save money. Give a Girl a Break is one such example.
Originally intended to be a major MGM film starring Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Ann Miller, the unavailability of the stars and the changes occurring at the studio turned it into a much smaller production for MGM's young star Debbie Reynolds, the dancing team of Marge and Gower Champion, and the newly arrived Fosse, who had quit the Broadway production of Pal Joey to come to Hollywood.
As Martin Gottfried wrote in his book, All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse, "There were residual elements of the big project it had once been, a score by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin [their only collaboration] , for instance, direction by Stanley Donen and musical supervision by Saul Chaplin. The screenwriters, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, were estimable too, although in this instance they had written a slender story involving three unknown actresses competing for a Broadway role that becomes available when the star walks out."
Rehearsals started in September 1952, but, as Gottfried wrote, "The Champions [Marge and Gower] and Debbie Reynolds, having played small parts in previous MGM movies, snobbishly formed a clique and sniffed at the newcomer....Donen and [the film's musical director] Saul Chaplin, and Fosse were left to become a trio of pals. In fact, Stanley and Saul were to be Bob's only close friends during the lonely, infertile, and frustrating year that lay ahead."
Fosse had rented pal Buddy Hackett's Hollywood home and bought a red sports car, but he was still unhappy. He realized that his looks were not those of a leading man, and that he did not want to end up a musical star "wearing a toupee". He also knew, as did everyone else on the picture, that it was not going to be an important film, as Stanley Donen later said, "The idea for the story is so puny that it's not worth spending a year of one's life on it." Still, Fosse put his all into it and as Gottfried wrote, "Donen gave him a good-sized role in Give a Girl a Break, almost as big as Gower Champion's, and the two young dancers had several numbers together. Bob was also to dance with Debbie Reynolds, and Donen found him not only cooperative but 'the hardest worker I've ever known". Like almost everyone who ever worked with Fosse, Donen was awed by his perfectionism, the tireless repetition until he got something right. If there was any problem, it was a back flip that Donen had decided would be the climax of one of Bob's big numbers, and Fosse was scared to try it. The young man had not yet discovered his particular dance style "but when he did," Donen said, "it would be delicate and small with no major physical or athletic moves. He didn't want to do the back flip, but I staged the number doing what I knew, not what he did." A back flip is a backward somersault achieved without touching the ground, "just throwing your feet up in the air," Donen said blithely. It lends the illusion of momentary suspension, the head hovering above the ground, and Donen practiced with Bob for hours, holding an arm behind the small of his back as he flipped. Finally, the director said, "Okay, we're going to do it for the camera, the whole dance right up to and including the flip." And for the one and only time, with nobody behind him for support, Bob did the flip and it was perfect. They had it on film, and that is how it appears in the movie. Donen never did know that Bob flew to New York and spent two days working with Joe Price, an acrobatic teacher, to get the flip right before coming back to do it on camera that one time."
Donen also resorted to tricking Kurt Kasznar to get what he wanted for the Nothing Is Impossible number. Donen wired Kasznar so that he would not fall when he bends over so that he is nearly touching the floor with his nose. Donen also nailed Kasznar's shoes to the floor so that he could not move, and had the stagehands drop a sandbag above his head that would stop right before it hit him. As Donen remembered, "He almost had a heart attack, but it got him to move."
Predictably, the critical response to Give a Girl a Break was lukewarm, but the most devastating criticism seems to have come from Ira Gershwin's wife Leonore, as Stephen Silverman wrote in his book Dancing on the Ceiling, "True, the picture was nowhere near Academy Award nomination, but it wasn't this bad," said Ira Gershwin in regard to MGM's denying the picture a New York opening and national reviews. Others shared the studio's opinion. "On leaving the studio projection room after seeing a rough cut of the film, my wife asked me if I owned any stock in the film company." Gershwin did, one hundred shares, which he had purchased the previous year, and this he reported to his wife, Leonore. Her response: "Sell it."
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Stanley Donen
Screenplay: Vera Caspary, Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editing: Adrienne Fazan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Burton Lane
Cast: Marge Champion (Madelyn Corlane), Gower Champion (Ted Sturgis), Debbie Reynolds (Suzie Doolittle), Helen Wood (Joanna Moss), Bob Fosse (Bob Dowdy), Kurt Kasznar (Leo Belney).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Dancing on the Ceiling by Stephen Silverman
All His Jazz: The Life and Death of Bob Fosse by Martin Gottfried
Stanley Donen by Joseph Andrew Casper