Musical Monday: Give a Girl a Break (1953)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Give a Girl a Break (1953)– Musical #189

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Stanley Donen

Starring:
Marge Champion, Gower Champion, Debbie Reynolds, Dolly Sharp, Bob Fosse, Kurt Kasznar, Richard Anderson, Lurene Tuttle, Donna Martel, William Ching, George Chakiris (uncredited)

Plot:
When the star of a Broadway show walks out after a tiff with the show’s choreographer Ted Sturgis (Champinon), the show publicizes that they are looking for a newcomer to “give a girl a break.” Three girls with varying talents: professional Broadway dancer Madelyn Corlane (Champion), sophisticated ballet dancer Joanna Moss (Sharp), and young, inexperienced tap dancer Suzie Doolittle (Reynolds).

Trivia:
-Musical numbers staged by Gower Champion and Stanley Donen, though Bob Fosse coregraphed his own dances.
-Gower and Marge Champion dancing together
-Gower Champion was dubbed by Bill Lee

Highlights:
-“Give a Girl a Break” montage of various women wanting to audition
-“The Balloon Dance” performed by

Notable Songs:

-“Give a Girl A Break” performed by Marge Champion, Dolly Sharp and Debbie Reynolds
-“Applause, Applause” performed by Gower Champion and Debbie Reynolds
-“In Our United States” performed by Bob Fosse and Debbie Reynolds
-“It Happens Every Time” performed by Marge Champion and Gower Champion

My review:
“Give a Girl a Break” isn’t a film often discussed today. It’s colorful and fun, has great dancing, but I think that’s largely forgotten when it comes to MGM’s catalog of 1950s Technicolor musicals.

Why is that? It’s directed by Stanley Donen, co-stars Debbie Reynolds (post-Singin’ in the Rain), has costumes by Helen Rose and dances choreographed by Bob Fosse and Gower Champion.

Dancer Gower and Marge Champion

It’s probably because the film stars (then) husband and wife dancers, Marge Champion and Gower Champion as it’s leads. While Fosse and Reynolds are in the cast, they are very much secondary characters.

But don’t get me wrong, I love the Champions. I think they are likable on screen and are some of the best dancers to grace the silver screen. But for some reason they never caught on with fans. MGM signed the married dancers in 1951 for the film “Show Boat” with the hopes of making them the next Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They only made three films with MGM and left the studio in 1955. “Give a Girl a Break” did poorly in the box office and lost MGM $1 million. After they left in 1955, they appeared on other TV shows but no more film roles to the significance that they had at MGM.

While they may not have been well liked by audiences, the Champions are some of my favorite dancers. In fact, I think Gower Champion is a better dancer and choreographer than Bob Fosse. There, I said it. I’m glad I got that off my chest.

There is even a dance that Champion and Fosse do together and I think Gower out dances him in the “Nothing is Impossible” number. Though I’ll admit that Bob Fosse’s “Balloon Dance” is of fun. I just don’t know why Gower is largely forgotten while Fosse is revered. Maybe it’s because Gower saw several flops in the 1970s while Fosse flourished with shows like Chicago and Pippin (which I star relevant today, I know). Or maybe people are enamored with the fact that Gwen Vernon and Fosse were married.

Anyways, I digress. I just would like to hear about Gower Champion occasionally, when great choreographers are discussed.

Bob Fosse, Gower Champion and Kurt Kasznar in “Give a Girl a Break”

One thing I like about this film is that it focuses on three women trying to get a role and we get to learn each girl’s story. That type of plot is more intriguing to me because, while Marge Champion is the most featured of the three, the “leading lady” is less defined. For me, it’s hard to decide which girl I would want to cheer for to be picked for the Broadway show, because each one has her traits that are interesting and could work.

Marge Champion, Dolly Sharp and Debbie Reynolds in “Give a Girl a Break.”

If you love colorful musicals, give this one a whirl. You may have never heard of it, but I think you will want to.

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Classics in the Carolinas: Stanley Donen

Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live and work).

Stanley Donen in 1950

Stanley Donen in 1950

He directed and choreographed some of the most famous musicals of the 1940s and 1950s.

And he’s from my birthplace

Stanley Donen and I were both born in Columbia, S.C.-the capital of South Carolina.

Donen was actually born on this day in 1924 and is still living.

While only three years of my life were spent in the Columbia area, Donen left the south for New York when he was a teenager.

Donen described his childhood as an unhappy one in a 1983 book by Joseph Andrew Casper.

His parents were of the Jewish faith. Though Donen did not identify with the religion, he was taunted by anti-Semitic classmates in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Due to the taunting he endured in his youth, Donen is rather bitter towards the city today.

“It was sleepy, it was awful, I hated growing up there, and I couldn’t wait to get out,” Donen said in the book Stephen M. Silverman, Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley Donen and His Movies.

In his 2006 Turner Classic Movies Private Screenings interview with Robert Osborne, Donen described Columbia as a “small town.”

At the time, Columbia was probably a small, but now, is the largest city in South Carolina.

“My family and I were Southerners,” Donen said in Silverman’s book. “Really, really Southern, and really, really American. My mother was born in Columbia, South Carolina. My father was born in Augusta, GA, which is just over the border. His father died in Beaufort, SC, and my mother’s mother and father–that is, my maternal grandparents–are buried in the same town where they were born, Columbia, SC.”

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in "It's Always Fair Weather"

Donen and Gene Kelly watch Michael Kidd sing in “It’s Always Fair Weather”

Donen would have been named after his grandfather, Issac, but his mother felt Issac would make for a bad life in the south, so he was named Stanley instead, according to the book.

“Columbia was a town with a wonderful group of Jewish people. It’s just that there weren’t too many of them,” said a childhood neighbor, Betty Walker in Silverman’s book. “They were really outnumbered.”

After school to escape from his unhappiness, Donen went to the movies.

“I saw Fred Astaire in ‘Flying Down to Rio’ when I was nine years old, and it changed my life,” he said in the Casper biography. “It just seemed wonderful, and my life wasn’t wonderful. The joy of dancing to music! And Fred was so amazing, and Ginger— oh, God! Ginger!”

After watching Astaire and Rogers, he started taking dance lessons in Columbia and performed at the Town Theater.

His mother encouraged him to move to New York and in 1940, at the age of 16, he found himself as a chorus boy in “Pal Joey” with Gene Kelly as the lead. Kelly asked him to be the assistant choreographer and the show’s stage manager.

In 1943, Donen went to Hollywood and helped choreograph the film “Best Foot Forward” starring Lucille Ball. Donen was the stage manager for the play on Broadway, which starred Rosemary Lane. When the film rights were bought by MGM for the play, Donen went to Hollywood along with some of the play cast which included June Allyson and Nancy Walker, according to Allyson’s autobiography.

Donen’s Hollywood choreography career continued with movies like “Cover Girl” and “Living in a Big Way.”

The first film he directed in Hollywood was “On the Town” (1948). He continued on directing some of the most famous Hollywood films including “Singin’ In the Rain” (1952), “Seven Brides For Seven Brothers” (1954) and “Charade” (1963). Stars he directed include Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Sophia Loren.

Deborah Kerr, Stanley Donen,  and Robert Mitchum

With Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum for “The Grass is Greener”

Though Donen’s life in Columbia wasn’t a happy one, he influenced one woman with her dance career. Naomi Calvert studied under Donen as well as Tim McCoy, who helped Vera-Ellen.

Calvert co-owned a reputable dance studio in Columbia called Calvert-Brodie, along with Ann Brodie, for over 30 years.

My oldest sister attended Calvert-Brodie and looking back on home videos of dance recitals, the recitals were like a mini “revue” or “follies.”

These weren’t children bouncing their hip and shaking their finger at the audience. These were themed dance recitals, such as a patriotic theme and a circus theme. They would begin with an opening number and a main number. The circus show was complete with a person on a trapeze, and the patriotic show had little girls tap dancing with drums. My oldest sister, Erin, had a tap solo.

Clearly Mr. Donen influenced her craft.

Though my father grew up in Columbia as an Army brat and we lived there as a family for six years, it isn’t the Pickens family’s favorite place either.

Though it’s the capital of the state, many people call Columbia “the arm-pit of the South.”

After all, it’s the home of the USC Gamecocks, and we are Clemson Tiger fans.

However, it’s unfortunate that Donen experienced a traumatizing youth and feels bitter towards his hometown. Anti-Semitism was just as much of an issue in the South as Civil Rights.

The end. On the set of "Indiscreet" with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

The end. On the set of “Indiscreet” with Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant

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