The film musical continues to be popular genre in Hollywood. Since the advent of motion pictures with synchronized sound, the musical holds a fond place in the hearts and minds of audiences. They are always fun, memorable and often iconic. Over the last 90 years, an untold number of dance sequences have been captured on film. Names like Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Gene Kelly remain staples of the popular genre.
Here’s our Top 10 favorite dance numbers in classic Hollywood…
1.) Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “The Continental”: The Gay Divorcee
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers still stand as two of the best remembered dancers of the classic Hollywood era. The duo worked together in nine films, spanning the 1930s and 1940s.
As such, Fred and Ginger shared dozens of dance numbers over the course of their lengthy and illustrious partnership. Each one features the smooth technique, charisma and genius for which the duo are known. “The Continental” comes from The Gay Divorcee, their second film together.
The number is a fun, upbeat sequence. It is an interesting hybrid, stepping away from Astaire’s usual ballroom dancing roots to incorporate some upbeat tap elements. Furthermore, the team look to be having a blast, and their enjoyment radiates from the screen. Be sure to watch through the applause break, the second half of the number shows the two dancers at their professional peak. It’s a moment not to be missed.
2.) Vera Ellen and chorus, “Abraham”: White Christmas
White Christmas is a movie not known for its dancing. The film features Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney, two of the biggest vocalists of the post World War II era. While Crosby could do a passable soft-shoe, Clooney tends to be danced around in her movies. The film is probably most notable for its title song penned by Irving Berlin (and sung by Crosby), which stands as one of the biggest selling record singles of all time.
Actress Vera-Ellen (who was famously not a singer) features in the film, and carries much of the dancing weight on her shoulders. While she partners with co-star Danny Kaye in a number of sequences, she also steps out on her own to spectacular effect. This number partners Vera-Ellen with dancer John Brascia. “Abraham” is a short, but dynamic music number. The two charge through the sequence flawlessly, which features only a handful of cuts to break the action. It’s a fun and challenging number, spotlighting one of the greatest female dancers during the post World War II era in Hollywood.
3.) Marge and Gower Champion, “I Won’t Dance”: Lovely to Look At
Marge and Gower Champion rose to fame in Fred and Ginger’s world. The married couple largely featured in supporting roles during MGM’s powerhouse musical years of the 1940s and 1950s. The Champions’ are probably best known to contemporary audiences for their role in the fondly remembered 1951 version of Show Boat. While their film career was rather brief, the two established themselves firmly in the New York theater community. Marge (who turns 98 this year) worked as a choreographer and dance teacher. While Gower established himself as a notable theatrical director and choreographer. He took home 8 Tony Awards for his work on such legendary stage musicals as Bye Bye Birdie, Hello Dolly and Mack & Mable.
“I Won’t Dance” features in the 1952 musical Lovely to Look At. The movie is a solid entry from the MGM stable, and features great performances by its A-list cast. The movie is a starring vehicle for MGM’s resident comedian Red Skelton, as well as its popular operatic duo, Katherine Grayson and Howard Keel.
The number is light and fun, and the couple’s (who married in 1947) comfort and chemistry with each other sells the song. The dancing is strong and dynamic and their vocal performances are adorable. It’s a shame their film career was so short.
4.) Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds,”Good Mornin’”: Singing in the Rain
Singing in the Rain is a classic of Hollywood musicals, and is fondly remembered by fans and critics alike. The 1952 musical is packed full of fun and catchy music numbers like the title song, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Good Morning”. The film makes amazing use of the talents of star Gene Kelly, whose reputation as a dancer rivals legends like Fred Astaire. Furthermore, the film also highlights its talented supporting cast made up of Donald O’Connor and then newcomer Debbie Reynolds.
“Good Morning” is an updated take on the Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed song, which first debuted in the 1939 musical Babes in Arms. Initially sung by Judy Garland, the song is turned into a group number for Singing in the Rain. It stands as one of the few numbers in the musical where all three stars perform together.
The music number is light and fun, reflecting relief as the film’s main characters finally find their way around one of the on-going problems of the plot. Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor absolutely shine on screen. Their performance is especially impressive in the number which was reportedly daunting to shoot. The newcomer Reynolds keeps up with her two more experienced co-stars, even while dancing herself into a nasty case of exhaustion.
This is only one of a plethora of stellar songs from this classic musical. Any fans of the genre who haven’t seen Singing in the Rain, add this to your list.
5.) Rita Moreno, George Chakiris and Chorus, “America”: West Side Story
West Side Story is a legendary and highly influential movie. The record breaking, critical darling of the 1961 movie season features multiple music numbers which continue to inspire popular culture.
“America” occurs early in the rather lengthy movie, and is one of the few instances where we see “The Sharks” simply being themselves. The sequence features stellar work by Rita Moreno and George Chakiris, both of whom won Academy Awards for their roles.
Everything about the intensive dance number works, from the performances to the intensive choreography. The number is probably the most complex of those shown here. In a genre which (especially at this time) is associated with a certain level of fluffy entertainment, the song constructs a challenging message. Through its characters, the lyrics pose some complicated questions about the status of immigrants in the United States at a time when “the American Dream” was still a considered obtainable to everyone.
6.) Donald O’Connor: I Love Melvin
Donald O’Connor is a name tragically under remembered outside of film history circles. The talented performer began his rise to fame as a child star in the 1930s and 1940s (after having been raised on Vaudeville). He stands as one of the best and most dynamic performers in the musicals of the 1950s.
I Love Melvin is a b-musical coming out of MGM during the early 1950s. The musical stars Donald O’Connor and his Singing in the Rain co-star Debbie Reynolds.
While the musical is not one of the best or most memorable, this sequence is unique and innovative for Hollywood cinema of the era. The dynamic and athletic choreography showcases O’Connor’s talent to the fullest extent. He showed his unique skills a year earlier in the classic routine ”Make ‘Em Laugh”, and this continues the pattern. O’Connor is one of the most athletic dancers to grace Hollywood screens, and this number shows just how talented he is.
7.) Ann Miller, “Shakin’ The Blues Away”: Easter Parade
Ann Miller (like Vera Ellen above) established herself as one of the go-to female dancers during the heyday of Hollywood musical. She possessed a powerful and dynamic tap-dancing style. During the era, it is widely written that Ann Miller held a record for her tapping speed. Studio publicity hyped that the actress could tap faster than a typewriter.
Ann Miller’s name is seen often inside the musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. The number above comes from the Fred Astaire and Judy Garland classic, Easter Parade. She features as Astaire’s former dance partner, who’s struck out on her own with remarkable success. Miller shines the brassy and independent Nadine Hale, contrasting nicely opposite Garland’s more homespun Hannah Brown.
While the number above is standard for a 1940s/1950s number, Ann Miller’s distinctive and dynamic style sets it apart. She is one of the most powerful dancers of the era, and it shows in this flashy and well staged number.
8.) Chorus, “Beautiful Girls”: Dames
It’s difficult to look into the musicals of the 1930s without examining the work of filmmaker Busby Berkeley. The director/choreographer found himself one of the go-to boys working at Warner Brothers during the 1930s. The fantastical, escapist musicals of Busby Berkeley rose to iconic status in the grim days following the Great Depression.
This number is one of the most spectacular “dance” sequences to come out of Berkeley’s popular stretch of musicals during this time. While Berekely’s numbers are less dance sequences (with the exception of the work of James Cagney and Ruby Keeler); he does a stellar job making his visuals dance.
This number is typical Berekley. He choreographs kaleidoscopic works of brilliance on screen, and it’s difficult to remember that the designs on the screen are being created by troops of showgirls. It’s fantastical, escapist and few filmmakers have duplicated his iconic style.
9.) Bobby Rydell, Ann-Margret and Cast, “Lot of Livin’ To Do”: Bye Bye Birdie
Bye Bye Birdie hit theaters in 1963, completing the propulsion of relative newcomer Ann-Margret to stardom. The film is based on the Broadway musical of the same name, which opened in 1960.
Despite the presence of a strong dancer like Ann-Margret, the film is not noted for its dancing. In fact, this number is the most extended dance sequence in the film. Watching the song, it’s fascinating to watch how the dance choreography serves to set up not only Kim (Ann-Margret) and Hugo’s (Bobby Rydell) characters, but also where they are in the scene.
The number is constructed with a theatrical aesthetic in mind. The shots are very fluid and mobile. They track across the club setting, almost mimicking an eye line. This style allows viewers to follow multiple characters in any given shot, tracking not only where they are, but also their thoughts and eyeline. With few exceptions, the shots remain quite wide, and it’s easy to envision how the number might look on stage.
10.) Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, Ballet: Singing’ in the Rain
Like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly remains one of the greatest dancers to grace the silver screen, and this extended ballet sequence from Singing in the Rain shows once again how strikingly versatile Kelly was, not only as a dancer, but as a performer in general.
“The Broadway Melody Ballet” partners Kelly with dancer Cyd Charisse. Charisse was on a slow rise to prominence throughout the 1950s, but by the middle of the decade had cemented herself as one of the most talented female performers of the era. She stands as one of the few female dancers to regularly pair with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.
The number is a striking work of ballet, using its talented performers to their full, peak potential. Everything about this number works from the dreamy choreography, to the costumes and even the minimalistic set design. In a film with so many classic musical numbers, “Broadway Melody” easily stands as one of the best scenes in Singing in the Rain.
So that was our Top 10 list of our favorite Classic Hollywood dance numbers. What are some of yours? Shout them out in the comments.