Spotlight: The Greatest Stories Ever Rolled

August 25, 2021
Spotlight: The Greatest Stories Ever Rolled

September 9, 16 and 23 / 11 Movies

Roller skating, which had its origins in theater productions of the 18th century, emerged as a popular recreational activity beginning in the 1880s, and roller-skating scenes were included in movies from the early days of silent film. Our Spotlight features the art of roller skating in all its various iterations: dance, derby, sport and leisure. We offer a sampling of cinematic skating through various decades of the 20th century, with highlights shown below.  

The Rink (1916) is a silent short in which Charlie Chaplin shows off his roller-skating skills for comic effect. Chaplin, who also wrote and directed the short, plays a clumsy waiter who happens to be a virtuoso on skates. The film features some of Chaplin’s funniest slapstick, and the final sequence – a free-for-all on skates – is especially hilarious and impressive.

Shall We Dance (1937), the seventh of the 10 movie musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, includes a delightful number in which the pair dances on roller skates to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.” The scene is set in the Central Park skating rink and was choreographed by Astaire and Hermes Pan. Capturing the tricky combination of skating and tap-dancing was said to have involved some 150 takes and lots of bruises for the two stars.

It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), an MGM musical starring Gene Kelly and directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen, includes what many consider the best dancing/skating routine ever put on film: Kelly’s “I Like Myself.” The upbeat number, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green with music by André Previn, was staged as a New York City street scene with passers-by reacting to Kelly’s virtuoso skating.  

Funny Girl (1968) has Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice hilariously sabotaging a skating routine in which she is a member of the chorus, “Roller Skate Rag.” This number was not in the Broadway show, which also starred Streisand, but was written for the film by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Streisand practiced diligently to be able to skate so badly in the number, which leads into her vibrant solo on “I’d Rather Be Blue” – with the star still on skates but moving more gracefully now.

Roller Boogie (1979), a frenetic festival of roller-skating stunts that has emerged as a cult favorite, stars Linda Blair of The Exorcist fame and real-life competitive skater Jim Bray. They play young roller-boogie enthusiasts who fall in love as they prepare to perform in a contest at their favorite disco skating rink. A time capsule of its era, this one was chosen by Golden Raspberry Award founder John Wilson as one of the 100 most enjoyably bad movies ever made.

Solarbabies (1986, TCM premiere) is a futuristic sci-fi flick that’s also in the “so-bad-it’s-good” category. Set in a time when water has become scarce, the story concerns a sinister post-apocalyptic government agency defied by teenage orphans who spend their time competing in Rollerball-like skating competitions in the desert! Lukas Haas and Jami Gertz have prominent roles, and the director is Alan Johnson, a choreographer who often worked with Mel Brooks (this movie’s executive producer).

Other films in our roller-skating retrospective are Modern Times (1936), I Love Melvin (1953), Kansas City Bomber (1972), The Unholy Rollers (1972) and Rollerball (1975).