|Original movie poster|
|Rogers and Hart|
Warner Brothers and executive producer Hal Wallis obtained the rights to the play and it was released to movie theatres in 1939. As Hollywood commonly does, some changes were made to the story. However, an unexplainable decision was made to omit all of the songs except for Slaughter on 10th Avenue and another short ballet scene. The music from the songs can be heard as part of the background score, but there is no singing at all. In all my research, I was unable to find an explanation for this baffling decision. The songs from the play had become well-loved standards such as “There’s a Small Hotel,” “It’s Got to be Love,” “Quiet Night,” and even the title song itself, “On Your Toes.” Without the songs, the movie version of On Your Toes was reduced to a typical screwball comedy with one fantastic number. I was really disappointed that I could not find a video of the original ballet from the movie, but this little trailer will give you some glimpses:
I believe that the most significant reason that the movie is fun to watch is the cast of familiar character actors who give their all as comic characters. Pictures are the best way to recognize these actors, who are not often known by name.
|Alan Hale in his most likeable|
role, Little John in Robin Hood
|Frank McHugh as the|
frazzled stage manager, Paddy Reilly
|James Gleason as|
|Leonid Kinskey as Ivan,|
shown here as Sacha the
bartender in Casablanca
|Queenie Smith as|
|Erik Rhodes as Konstantin,|
a bad ballet dancer with a big ego
The Slaughter on 10th Avenue ballet has everything – unsurpassed music, a lurid bar, a stripper and prostitute (Vera), her pimp, two hilarious barmen who move as one person in their duties, three policemen who raid the bar wearing dark sunglasses and sniffing the floor to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, while all the time telling the story of the prostitute and a man (Junior) with great pathos, love and lust. The pimp shoots a man who tries to get on stage to grab Vera. Junior pays the pimp for Vera, and their dance reveals not only the lust, but the beginning of feelings for each other. The bar closes for the night, the lights go off, and we see the man look at the girl with incredibly lustful determination to have her. He gives her a drink, she teases him with dance and flings herself onto a table on her back. The man leaps on top of her, but the inevitable outcome is interrupted by the pimp, angry and jealous. He pulls out his gun, the girl throws herself in front of the man, and she is killed. The man goes after the pimp and kills him. He dances around the pimp’s body, flipping it over, looks at the dead girl, and picks up the gun to shoot himself. It is at this point that Junior has to keep the orchestra re-playing the final part several times and keep dancing. Finally, he sees the police have come, lets the number end, and shoots himself with great relief.
The Slaughter on 10th Avenue ballet was filmed long after the Hayes code had taken effect, and its explicit sexual content is a little surprising. Zorina’s dancing as a stripper, the totally obvious lust of the man played by Junior, prostitution shown as an aspect of love, dance moves between the man and the girl, Zorina on her back with Albert looming over her – perhaps they got away with it because of Zorina’s fame as a classical dancer, or because it was a piece created by the formidable Richard Rogers and someone named Balanchine, or maybe the censor was taking a nap. However it came about, it was a piece of luck for audiences. The original On Your Toes has been revived on Broadway twice, and the musical suite of Slaughter on 10th Avenue has taken its place with the classics on the repertoires of many symphony orchestras.
In 1948, Slaughter on 10th Avenue was again performed as part of the movie Words and Music, a highly fictionalized biographical story of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. This time around, it was done in a shorter, truncated version, comic parts removed, not attached to a story as in the original, and in a more sanitized manner. Nine years earlier, the ballet was quite controversial as discussed above. Perhaps it isn’t so strange – movies were becoming more and more conservative as they moved into the 1950’s. Still, it is fantastic. Gene Kelly did his own choreography and danced with stunning Vera Ellen. I was lucky enough to find the number on its own on YouTube, and present it here. Even with the differences in presentation, it retains much of the feeling, and the music is, of course, sublime. I hope you will take the mere 7 minutes to experience a remarkable achievement in dance.