Please To Enjoy…#4

The Dance “One Alone” from Deep In My Heart (Donen, 1954)


As the musical was such a successful genre for MGM in the 40s, they looked for new and different ways to exploit it. The idea of a review based on the work of a given songwriter or songwriting team wasn’t necessarily new, particularly on stage, but it was appealing to a studio with a flock of musical talent under contract. Instead of a musical starring two or three such people doing 10 songs, you could have 10 or 12 stars combining to do one or two each. So far so good; where things got perilous was when they decided to tie the songs together by turning the films into biographies of the songwriters in question, which they could hang the songs on – “And then Rogers and Hart wrote this, and then they wrote that, etc.”

These were typically not very interesting people to make movies about, and in those areas where maybe they were a little interesting (say, the sexuality of Lorenz Hart or Cole Porter) the films had to ignore or whitewash. There was Til The Clouds Roll By for Jerome Kern songs, Words and Music for Rogers and Hart. The Ziegfeld Follies was along the same lines. By 1954, as the MGM musical was getting a little passe, they were scraping the dramatic bottom of the barrel, trying to make us care about the life of composer Sig Romberg in Deep In My Heart. At least he was dead and didn’t have to watch Jose Ferrer’s cavortings in his name. Frequently the subjects of these things were still living. A lot of the big MGM names that had peopled these films in the past had moved on or had bigger fish to fry at the studio – No Judy Garland, no Fred Astaire. People like Tony Martin and Jane Powell were supposed to take up the slack, but it wasn’t the same. Although he composed some lovely things, much of Romberg’s music sounds a little old fashioned, even within the realm of old Hollywood musicals. Much of it is rendered in the style my wife happily calls “scream singing” – a sort of faux opera approach.

The dancers fare a little better. Gene Kelly appears, hoofing onscreen for the first and only time with his brother Fred. And Cyd Charisse dances a pas de deux with James Mitchell. This is the piece I want to highlight. Ignore the rest of the film if you must – you won’t miss much. But I think this Charisse/Mitchell sequence is one the very top tier achievements of the MGM musical. It’s obviously not as ambitious as half the stuff from Singin’ In The Rain, An American in Paris, The Bandwagon – but the simplicity itself is part of what I feel makes it the equal or near-equal of anything from any of those films.

Simplicity, plus some straightforward excellence in costuming and set, and something quite unexpected – eroticism. Again, this is MGM. This is not not NOT in a million years where you’d expect to see the likes of this. Maybe some hotblooded Mediterranean musical cinema that never quite existed, but not MGM. Romance sure, but not sex – not the studio of the virtually sexless Garland, Astaire, both Powell girls, Kelly, Rooney, Reynolds, O’Connor, and on and on.

Cyd Charisse was the exception. Whenever partnered with Astaire or Kelly, they always looked a little scared to death of her, Astaire especially. She looks like she’d eat them alive, which of course is the vibe they play up and which made her famous in Singin’ In The Rain. She’s partnered here with James Mitchell, who did lots of small dance parts and supporting work in the 50s, but was never what you’d call a star. I always associate him with playing the Chamberlain, Yul Brynner’s main man in The King And I. I’ll bet he wished he could have had a crack at playing the King himself. He’d probably have made a pretty fair job of it. There’s two parts to this number – first Cyd sings “One Alone”, taken from Romberg’s Broadway show and film “Desert Song”. I say she “sings”, but as usual she’s just lip-synching to what someone with the actual skill set had already recorded. The singing part is over quickly, James Mitchell enters and then we get to the business:

I don’t really know many details of the story for Desert Song, or if it’s representation here is even trying to be faithful. Either way, what’s happening on screen isn’t hard to interpret. The Woman arrives at this grand residence in the desert. She removes her cloak, moves around the place, waiting (which enables the song). The Man arrives, no doubt keeping a date. I suspect their meeting is supposed to be on the downlow.

Sultry dancing, back and forth. Well, it looks like dancing, but is there much chance it’s representing anything other than fornication?
Eventually he seems to lose interest in her. He lies back prone on the floor, contemplating the ceiling. If he had a cigarette, he’d undoubtedly be smoking it right now. After a moment’s pause, she seems to accept that. She retrieves her cloak and leaves, back into the desert night.

I feel wholly on my own rating this as high as I do. I can’t find anyone championing this number as being overly special. And three whole volumes of That’s Entertainment! didn’t come within a million miles of sniffing at it. I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like. As luck would have it, I think it probably is art.


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