Putting the Pow in Powell

Here, courtesy of eleanorpowell2007 YouTube channel, is MGM’s best-kept secret from the golden age of Hollywood musicals:

One of the great unsung dance routines from the glory days of the MGM musical is Eleanor Powell’s “Tallulah” number from 1942’s Ship Ahoy—a routine that in its sheer exuberance will make you feel like hauling the old carcass out of the recliner and taking a whirl or two on the floor yourself.

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Powell was an MGM musical star from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s, known not only for her blistering footwork (voted the “World’s Greatest Tap Dancer” in 1965), but for how she combined tap, ballet, gymnastics (having been trained in all these disciplines) with a leggy, athletic sex appeal.  Today, however, except probably to tap-dancing aficionados and regular TCM viewers, she’s almost forgotten.  Per film critic David Shipman, Powell’s ‘problem’ was that “she could only do one thing—tap-dance; [which] had gone way out of fashion.”

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I think that’s an unfair, and limited assessment.  In looking at Powell’s accomplishments, she was not “just” a tapper, but a dance and film pioneer.  Not only did her dancing combine several styles, expanding tap’s expressive potential, she also choreographed her own solo film numbers, becoming, per Wikipedia, “the creative voice for her own movement and rhythm.”  She also participated in editing and cutting her film numbers, “believ[ing] that one must understand dance to understand how it should be shown to an audience most effectively.”  Like Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Powell was the auteur of her routines, fashioning them as statements on how dance could perform not only in front of, but with the camera—embracing cinema’s technical potential in presenting a three-dimensional art form.

That movement and rhythm, dance-and-film combination, is on dynamic display in “Tallulah.”  The few cuts in the number’s long takes pass by our perception almost invisibly, the dance streaming before us seemingly without a break.  Powell traverses the set (loungers around a shipboard swimming pool) in roughly a circle—from the bandstand to the pool, to a jump into a partner’s arms, to a whirling series of turns around the perimeter, then back to the bandstand, each ‘zone’ marked as an individual dance space.  Along the way Powell interacts with other actors and dancers, including Red Skelton, Bert Lahr, several corps women, several partners, and master drummer Buddy Rich, with whom she begins and ends the number.  She’s like an orderly cyclone, an engine of motion and rhythm; the routine’s momentum spins out from her to enfold other performers, and spaces, but it always returns to Powell as its source and center.

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The movie surrounding Powell’s dance is a WW2-themed comedy, in which Powell as the eponymously-named Tallulah, who’s sailing by ocean liner to Puerto Rico, is recruited, apparently by U.S. government agents, to transfer incognito an underwater mine to the island.  Turns out the ‘agents’ are foreign spies, using Powell as an unsuspecting dupe to sneak the mine past real U.S. agents.  On board Powell runs into nebbishy thriller writer Skelton (whose magazine serial about a beautiful spy’s antics gave the the foreign agents the mine-sneak idea in the first place!), as well as Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra (with a young, uncredited Frank Sinatra as lead singer), and Lahr as Skelton’s sidekick.  The film is slight, charming, and endearingly silly, incorporating slapstick routines, romantic mix-ups, last-minute tie-ups, and several musical numbers, including Powell’s well-known ‘Morse code’ dance, during which she taps out the details of the spies’ plot to a genuine agent and saves the day.

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But the “Tallulah” routine (in keeping with military phraseology) seems to have slipped under the radar.  It’s not featured in MGM’s three anthology That’s Entertainment! movies, nor in the companion piece That’s Dancing!  But I’d rank this number right up there, with the Powell-Astaire “Begin the Beguine” duet, or with any of her slam-bang, cast-of-thousand finales from her Broadway Melody film series.  Not only is it rhythmically and technically complex, “Tallulah” is also just plain fun.  It’s a solo showcase for Powell’s amazing dance and choreographic skills, highlighting her speed, virtuosity, and razzle-dazzle brilliance as a performer.

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Like most Hollywood musical routines, the number begins with a song, structured as a rhyming exchange between Dorsey, Lahr, and Skelton.  The first two men are praising a series of women by their names (Dolores, Olivia, and so forth), to which Skelton responds (his ardor accented by his quavery croon) that not one can measure up to his adored Tallulah, whom he loves “trulah.”  The rhyme scheme is oddly child-like (“Fatimah/Is a Schemah!”), but it playfully combines unexpected syllables and sounds, emphasized by the song’s Latin-ish beat.  Then the song changes, seamlessly, into the dance itself, as Powell, like a relay runner, takes up the music to start her number.

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Which Powell also begins as an ‘exchange,’ with Buddy Rich.  A seated Powell taps a phrase with her feet, and a grinning Rich answers with another, beaten on his drums.  A more unconventional exchange has Powell and Rich, fleetly and flawlessly, tossing drumsticks back and forth to each other (how many rehearsals did that take?).  And then Powell takes off:  Like a tempest, she sweeps through the set, breathlessly varying steps and combinations—fast, grounded taps on the diving board, an acrobatic leap across the pool, somersaults over furniture, a swoop with a partner, even a swing on a trapeze.  She blends in ballet moves, such as a sort-of renversé (across a table!), traveling turns, (turned-in) entrechats, even a fish dive.  And there’s her play with props, as when a ring is thrown to her out of nowhere, which Powell, without a hitch, catches and throws back.  Everything winds up with another fast exchange between Powell, Rich, a small drum, and more hurled drumsticks, for a socko climax.

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All to which only one reaction suffices:  Wow.  Just—Wow.

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In between all this pizazz, Powell finds time for several offbeat, charming moments—a sinuous suggestion of a hula (she had danced one in her earlier film Honolulu), or a sweet-cheeky bit when she smilingly turns down an ice-cream soda from Lahr.  And watch (and listen) when she taps out a rhythm between the floor, a table, and a chair, how the motion flows, unbroken, through instep, ankle, knee, and thigh.  It’s like the bones themselves could bend.  There may never be another tap dancer like Powell.  Or another dancer like her, period.  She seemed one of a kind, sui generis, dazzling us at a time when Hollywood could seek out, and embrace, a talent like hers.  No wonder it’s called a golden age.  Trulah.

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This post originally appeared on my Grand Old Movies’ Tumblr site, and has been reprinted here in expanded form.

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