Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Strange Case of Buttons the Dancing Dog and "Alien"

Eleanor Powell and Buttons
The Forgotten Eleanor Powell

While Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire were becoming legends at RKO, a very different dancer, now largely forgotten, enjoyed a successful career over at more prestigious MGM.

No, it was not Buttons the Dancing Dog. It was a human tornado named Eleanor Powell. To call Powell a tap dancer would be like calling a Bear in your kitchen a pest.

Eleanor Powell wasn't gorgeous, couldn't sing, and wasn't much for acting, either. The technicians and publicists at MGM had their work cut out for them to make her acceptable for the big screen. (The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger includes Powell as a fascinating case study.) And Powell's salary demand was crazy-high under the circumstances. Louis B. Mayer offered her $1000 a week for Broadway Melody of 1936. She turned it down and countered with $1250.

He accepted. Mayer was a genius at knowing a good investment when he saw one. The gawky kid in costumes sewed by her mother could dance like nobody before or since.

Not as in "as good as," although she was fabulous. Eleanor Powell literally did things you can hardly believe even when you see them today. Her numbers might include ballet en pointe, acrobatics, stupefying high leg kicks and low back bends, and, of course, tap. Those pile-driver legs tapped Hell out of the dance floor as her smile lit up the screen.

Watch the jaw-dropping, if trippy, finale to Born to Dance (1936) - a tribute to America's Art Deco battleship fleet. Here, the incredible athleticism of Powell is displayed to full effect. (Just as odd, low-angle closeups of her grinning face unaccountably highlight her lack of movie-star beauty.)

Dancing Alone with Fred Astaire

Ginger Rogers
It was a nightmare of Fred Astaire that he would become half of another "dance couple." He had already had a successful career on stage with his older sister Adele. Fate and RKO, however, would bless us with "Fred and Ginger." While Powell rarely danced with a partner, Ginger has only one solo number, to the Bear's knowledge. Fred could more than hold his own, but they are remembered today because of the magic they could only create together.

A mere human partner would just slow Eleanor Powell down.

Powell was paired with Fred Astaire to make "Begin the Beguine" memorable in Broadway Melody of 1940. However, while Fred always had praise for her, it comes across as though he felt a little intimidated by her "mannish" strength and energy. He may have resented being forever an "and" with "Ginger," but one senses a tacit admission of what Ginger gave him that Powell could not.

Ginger knew her job, and it was not just dancing, it was acting. It was to make dancing with the incredibly talented, but balding and comical-looking Fred look like the most sublime experience a woman could enjoy.

Powell, on the other hand, was an equal to Fred, tap for tap.

Buttons the Dancing Dog

It was only with Buttons, a dog she trained herself, in a number shot in her living room (where the dog was used to dancing) for Lady Be Good (1941) that Powell found her perfect partner. Note, in the video below, Powell's hair all a-flop, something the studio normally took care to avoid. But, she was a stickler, and insisted that a "rehearsal" number look like one.

Tap had it's day, and Eleanor Powell retired quietly and became a Unity minister. She died in 1982 at the age of 69. She is not much remembered today, which is a shame, even if tap is not your thing (as it is not the Bear's).

The Alien Connection

Oh, what is the connection between Buttons and Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien?

Eleanor Powell.

That first MGM movie, Broadway Melody of 1936, featured the song "Lucky Star." Apparently, at the end of Alien, besides stripping down to her skimpies, Sigourney Weaver fights some sort of monster while nervously singing "Lucky Star." (Thanks to the Bear's driver, bodyguard and factotum, Red Death, for that amazing catch.)

It was Weaver's idea, but Scott took the heat for the expense of the music rights.

And here they are: Eleanor Powell and Buttons. Go ahead and smile. They don't make 'em like this anymore.




14 comments:

  1. Oh, that's wonderful! I never saw that clip, and it's sublime. To be a tap dancer makes you an expert in rhythm and percussion, she was both. Her taps are so fast you can't see them, it's astounding. I wonder if that was filmed in one take, if I had done anything like that I would have kicked the dog into space or at least stepped on him. Buttons is amazing! You have to be a good dog trainer to get all that out of a dog.
    These old films, they are so dear. It's joyful and more than a little heartbreaking to watch them.
    I remember that dance in another film that Eleanor Powell did, the one where she spins and spins? Dizzying just to watch.

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  2. Are you a dancer, Kathleen?

    Yes, they do bring a tear to the eye these days.

    Her figure-skating-fast spins were a signature; maybe in one or both of Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935, confusingly) and Born to Dance (1936).

    She received only a short formal training in tap. The method involved attaching sand bags to her legs to keep her taps low. Contrast her technique (and poise) with Warner Brothers Ruby Keeler, the other notable tapper of the era. It's not pretty for Ruby.

    About takes. One of the adjustments Powell had to make from stage to screen was that a number didn't get filmed in one take. Add making it look like it did to the talent of all involved.

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  3. I liked the hair. Hair movement on a woman is very alluring. She was quite a talent. The dog was very good too. It was probably the cause for the various takes.

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    1. Yes, Powell is never more attractive than here looking quite contemporary and natural compared to a half-dozen years earlier with all the glitz. I agree about her hair. It is very unusual in Golden Age Hollywood and, interestingly, MGM was particularly concerned with altering Powell’s hairstyle in 1935 to assure that it would stay in place during her numbers, which presumably was an issue.

      Veronica Lake became famous when a blond lock fell over her eye on a shoot and someone realized it was a feature not a bug. Audiences found Lake’s loose hair incredibly sexy (loose morals).

      The original “beekaboo bangs” craze was cut short by WWII when it was unsafe for women entering the defense industry. Typically, publicists capitalized on this by giving Lake a new, pulled back style to set a good example for the ladies, making Veronica Lake some sort of vital element in the American war effort!

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  4. That "Begin the Beguine" number from Broadway Melody of 1940 with Astaire is, in my opinion, the finest tap duo number in film history. When I close my eyes, or turn my head from the screen and just listen, I hear only one set of feet tapping. They are that precise. Fabulous! Thanks, Bear.

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    1. Only because technically Buttons didn’t tap. But, yeah, two of the very best.

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  5. And, I don't hesitate to say, the best gift ever.

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  6. Brought a tear to these aging eyes, indeed. A tear of sadness for the lost age of films that actually included people of great talent in acting as well as other arts. Another example might be the great tabletop tap sequence with Bob Hope and James Cagney in "The Seven Little Foys."

    And today, the best we can come up with, apparently, is "La La Land." My dear bride of 38 years and I did enjoy that movie, as it had some entertaining numbers and a reasonably good story. However, in reading several critiques of the film after having seen it, I realized that in fact none of the lead performers displayed more than a fraction of the talent routinely shown by nearly everyone on camera in the "Golden Age" Hollywood musicals. While Ryan Gosling deserves much credit for having actually learned how to play jazz piano for his role, in which he played everything himself, he can' sing a lick and his dancing was mediocre at best. Emma Stone can sing, at least, and didn't make a fool of herself in the mild dance numbers, but next to Eleanor Powell or the Great Ginger, she wouldn't even move the needle. Oh, well.

    Many thanks for posting this. I will be watching it again...and again.

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    1. That reminds me of Channing Tatum's competent but homosexual-subtext tabletop dance in Hail Caesar, which I found disappointing. Unlike most people, I don't see it as an homage to Golden Age Hollywood, but a nasty send-up. Yeah, the writers are a bunch of pinkos, but I viewed it not as an admission, but so over-the-top it could only be a lampoon of the very idea. Problem is, despite the legend of St. Dalton Trumbo, there WERE a bunch of pinkos - just ask Jimmy Stewart and Ginger. (Bear got a little jealous when he read in her autobiography that Stewart was one of her favorite dance partners, and her account of our encounter was COMPLETELY MISREPRESENTED.) Bear is a big George Clooney fan (whose good looks cause people to underrate him as an actor with great comic chops) and really wanted to like it, but, oh well. (My review is available through the search box.)

      Powell deserves to be remembered, but she seemed content to retire and marry Glenn Ford. They had one child and divorced. Deanna Durbin comes to mind as another phenom that chose to cleanly cut her ties to Hollywood. I think of Ginger's many marriages and childlessness and it's a little sad. Bear wishes she had retired after Vernon and Irene Castle and lived happily ever after. (Bear thinks he could have lived without Storm Warning.)

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    2. "Bear is a big George Clooney fan". Really? I can't stand him so I don't watch him in any movies. I made mistake once and watched a movie he was in. It was Dusk to Dawn. Terrible movie. Matt Damon is another one who I won't watch due to what he professes.

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    3. O Brother Where Art Thou and Michael Clayton. Didn't see Dusk to Dawn. When it comes to the opinions of "cattle" (as Alfred Hitchcock called actors) I don't pay much attention, although it's nice to see Hollywood exceptions like Jon Voight & many other fine actors.

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