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Roseland (1977), Merchant Ivory's first contemporary film, came into being by pure chance. James Ivory had wanted to direct a film adaptation of his collaborator Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's short story How I Became a Holy Mother, but the financiers weren't interested. However, they did like a scene in the script that took place at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. While the team was brainstorming, Don De Natale, who had played the Apache dancer in Merchant Ivory's film The Wild Party (1975), convinced them to go to Roseland, where he worked as a part-time master of ceremonies (which he played in Roseland), and an idea for a film was born.
Jhabvala spent several weeks at the ballroom, observing and speaking with the dancers and from that, she fashioned a screenplay; a three-part story of a group of people who frequent the club - one is obsessed with the past, some are searching for love, and another just needs a dance partner for a contest. The first sequence, "The Waltz" starred Teresa Wright as a widow who still fantasized about her late husband while being courted by Lou Jacobi. Christopher Walken (in what New York Times critic Vincent Canby called his "best role to date") plays a gigolo in the second sequence, entitled "The Hustle". In it, Walken has to please Geraldine Chaplin, Helen Gallagher, and Joan Copeland who are all in love with him. The final sequence, "The Peabody" starred Lilia Skala (who was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award for her performance) as a Viennese refugee who works as a domestic to fund her trips to Roseland. Her dream is to win the Peabody contest, but her partner, played by David Thomas, is no Fred Astaire. Skala was not the first choice for the role. Said Ivory, "Bette Davis was intrigued enough to agree to talk about it over the phone with us. I made Ismail [Merchant] take her call (or make the call, I can't remember which) while I listened in on the line. He made his pitch, and then she gave her reason why she couldn't, or wouldn't, play the part, while I hovered spellbound by another phone. She wasn't ready for that, she said - which I think meant dying as she spun around on the Roseland floor, a pathetic old woman in a bedraggled gown. To hear her speak was to be taken back to my adolescence - that voice, its familiar rhythms; I could imagine her puffing away on a cigarette. It was as if we were talking to President Roosevelt, so deeply was that voice embedded in my consciousness, as his is."
Called "The World's Greatest Ballroom", Roseland began as a dance hall in 1919, and everyone from Joan Crawford to Fred Astaire danced there to bands like Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Louis Armstrong, Harry James and Fletcher Henderson. In 1956, the Roseland moved from 1658 Broadway at 51st Street to the current location at West 52nd St. Ivory was allowed to shoot inside the club on Wednesdays only since it was the second most crowded night at the club (Saturday being the top night) and the floor would be full of dancers. Scenes not on the dance floor were shot during the day and the production crew was not allowed to change anything inside the club, not even the pink light bulbs. This lead to a battle with the local Teamsters Union who demanded that Ivory hire a scenic artist and an art director, which Ivory argued made no sense given the restrictions by the club. Nevertheless, the Union began to picket the production until a scenic artist and art director were hired to sit around and do nothing. Then, the Screen Actors Guild thought there were too many shots of the Roseland regulars, who were not in the Guild as extras. Ivory had to sign a contract that he would not have a non-Union extra be shown in a medium-shot or a close up with a SAG actor.
When Roseland was premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 2, 1977, it received good reviews. Vincent Canby, writing for The New York Times, called it a "funny, moving, imaginative new movie [...] Considering that most of the earlier efforts of the Ivory-Jhabvala-Merchant team (Shakespeare-Wallah , The Guru  and Bombay Talkie , among others) have been set in India, the success of Roseland is all the more dramatic. Most remarkable to me is Mrs. Jhabvala's ear for New York speech, such as the genteel mannerisms affected by someone like May (Teresa Wright), a middle-aged widow who bores everyone with stories about her late husband, Ed. [...] The ear is accurate, but the effect of the film is less real than surreal, less slice-of-life than so romantic that Mr. Ivory makes us accept, in the concluding episode, an explosion of outrageously overblown sentiment. Don De Natale, Roseland's real-life master-of-ceremonies, a young man with a patent-leather look and the kind of patter that Pal Joey would have admired, hovers over the show, so persistently cheerful that, finally, he becomes macabre, which is, I suspect, exactly what Mr. Ivory intended."
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (story and screenplay)
Cinematography: Ernest Vincze
Music: Michael Gibson
Film Editing: Humphrey Dixon, Richard Schmiechen
Cast: Teresa Wright (May, The Waltz), Lou Jacobi (Stan, The Waltz), Don De Natale (Master of Ceremonies, The Waltz), Louise Kirtland (Ruby, The Waltz), Hetty Galen (Red-Haired Lady, The Waltz), Carol Culver (Young May, The Waltz), Danny Shearer (Young Eddie, The Waltz), Geraldine Chaplin (Marilyn, The Hustle), Helen Gallagher (Cleo, The Hustle), Joan Copeland (Pauline, The Hustle).
by Lorraine LoBianco
Canby, Vincent "Film Festival: 'Roseland' Casts Spell Over Lonely Fox-Trotters" New York Times 2 Oct 77
Long, Robert Emmet James Ivory in Conversation: How Merchant Ivory Makes its Movies
Long, Robert Emmet The Films of Merchant Ivory