Marika Rökk and Germany's Race To Be The Most Glamorous in Film...

If you've never looked up any Marika Rökk, you really should. She was kind of like Germany's Eleanor Powell + Ginger Rogers. The woman could sing, tap dance, and act! The triple threat, she was the result of the UFA's (the principle film studio in Germany) drive to create a female star that would rival that of America's top Hollywood stars.

Born in Egypt to Hungarian/Austrian parents, she started her dance career with The Hoffman Girls at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. She also trained briefly on Broadway, eventually returning to Europe in the late 1920s. By the mid-1930s, the German government had her in their sight to become a new sensation, and by 1935 she was a household name.

At the time, Germany, and in particular the Third Reich's Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, were looking to re-create the glamour and excitement of Hollywood musicals, but at home on German soil and with German language. Goebbels felt that Hollywood films presented a threat to Germany's film industry, and that the best way to combat the lust for American films was to create films that matched, if not exceeded the luxury and glitz with German-made musicals, starring an irresistible sweetheart of the screen, which they found in Marika Rökk. According to Wikipedia,

"Though few of her movies featured open Nazi propaganda, she fulfilled her task to embody a
leading woman in the Third Reich and to entertain the German people throughout World War II as intended by Joseph Goebbels. After the war, she initially received a Berufsverbot (profession ban), but was rehabilitated in 1947 and could continue her movie career in West Germany and Austria. In 1948 she was among the first recipients of the German Bambi media award. Rökk became one of Europe's most famous operetta singers, performing on stage until 1986. "

So, was Marika secretly a member of the Nazi party? She never claimed to be, and it appears she was most likely just a scapegoat and pawn:  
Positioning herself as entirely non-political, she claimed allegiance only to art, laughter,
and entertainment. By the time Hitler rose to power, she was already a star, internationally acclaimed for her revue appearances in New York, London, Paris, and Monte Carlo. Her film career (launched in 1934), made her an idol for an entire generation - even after the war. 
The Nazi regime was celebrity-crazy. It paid court to its "Aryan artists" and exploited their vanities. After the expulsion of the Jewish artists, it took stars like Marika Rökk, popular names, public endorsements and other such reassurances to prove that the German nation's entertainment industry and cultural achievements would continue under the Nazi swastika. 
Excepting Zarah Leander, "the Rökk", as she was commonly referred to, was the most prominent female "morale booster" of the terrible war years. In a system that allowed no art without ideology, Rökk's upbeat cheerfulness became an invaluable contribution to both the regime and the people, not only on the home front but also in the theater of war. At her concerts, whether on the front or in the German cities suffering more and more bombings, Marika Rökk presented herself as a merry whirlwind even in the face of imminent defeat, offering an artistic sedative against the grim toll of the bombings and the shattered economy, particularly her revue films with their stereotypical and idealized world-view counteracted the grueling reality of the German war. These movies offered people their last escape into illusion. 
After 1945, she suffered a brief fall from grace. Rökk hadn't appeared in any propaganda films. "So what did I have to pay for?," she asked rather rhetorically and bitter after she was banned from public appearances until 1948. Her inclusion on the black list, however, was quickly counterbalanced by her performances for the American occupying forces. Allegations that she had been a Nazi spy were soon dismissed, and a court of honor of the actors' union provided her rehabilitation. Her talent was independent of any political system or ideology. It wasn't just a Nazi dictator who loved her, but the Americans and Russians too, especially in the newly established democratic Austrian republic. She was, indeed, a star for all seasons and would soon divert her audiences again, this time from the daily routine under Allied occupation and life between the ruins left by the relentless bombings of war.
The clip I am presenting today is from a 1938 film of hers, "Eine Nacht im Mai", which translates to, "A Night in May".


The Jeanette Hackett Girls Swing It Southland Style...

Today's blog post focuses on a a group that was led by famous vaudevillian dancer, Jeanette Hackett.
According to IMDB.com, the dance group appeared in film three times in the 1940s:
  • Cowgirl Polka (1946)
  • Hawkeye Hoedown (1946)
  • Southland Swing (1944)
*Note - upon further research, I discovered another clip not mentioned on IMDB - from a 1945 film called The Sparkle Strut, where the Janette Hackett Girls appear in "skimpy burlesque queen outfits" in a wild west saloon type setting.
The following information comes from The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville, which you can purchased on Amazon.com:

Janette Hackett, most likely in the early 1920s 
 Janette Hackett (sometimes billed as Jeanette), was born into a theatrical family in 1898. Her brothers were also stage performers, and her mother was a silent film actress. She danced in the chorus line of The Passing Show, as well as dancing as a solo act.

Janette eventually teamed up with (who would later become her husband) Harry Delmar, to form the vaudeville act Hackett & Delmar.
Together, they formed a dance revue in the early 1920s, although it's believed it was primarily the creative child of Janette, who had the better dancing skills. Janette had a chorus girl group that would dance, and she was known for performing in scantily clad costumes.

In the late twenties, she and Delmar split, and she eventually married another Vaudeville star, in 1930.

Upon further research, I couldn't find any information on who the individual chorus girls are in this clip, and it seems that the other soundies they appeared in are not online.

* Reasons this clip rocks:
1) It features an all female band, The Swing Sirens. What a great name!
2) I love the outfits - the tall feather head pieces, the black sparkly spanks, the cute little corsets. I won't deny though, that the fact that all the women physically (hair color and everything) look the same is a little creepy, though.
3) Even though the dancing is nothing complicated, I love how the drapery on the costumes really compliments the movements, which is particularly noticeable around 1:08-1:15.

Once the music picks up at around 1:20, the movements get a bit more jazzy. I love the cute way they do their Boogie Backs, and the SUPER high kicks at 2:30. Seriously, when you pause on the high kicks, they are kicking higher than their heads!

At first I wondered if it isn't Jeanette Hackett dancing front and center in this clip, as you can see moments when the girl on the left side of the screen is clearly kind of watching her for tips out of the corner of her eye... But then I realized that by the time this soundie was made, in 1944, Jeanette would have been 46 years old. Not an impossibility, but DAMN would she be a good looking woman at that age if it WAS her...

One thing that does seem evident, however, is that the studio that produced this soundie just placed random clips they liked together, and didn't actually play the dance routine in order. They repeat the same movement (you'll notice when you see it), multiple times, but I don't think that was purposeful or in the original choreography. The girls will be in one formation one second, and the cut to a frame where they are in a completely different location/formation. Such a shame really. It would be a fun routine to re-create.

So now... for your viewing pleasure, please enjoy, from 1944, Southland Swing:

 

Josephine Baker - A True Chorus Girl Legend....


Many folks only know of Josephine Baker as "the banana skirt" lady, but few realize the beginnings of her career. She began, as one can imagine given it's an article on this blog.... as a chorus girl.

A little bit about Josephine, from Wikipedia and this documentary:

Baker was born Freda Josephine McDonald in St. Louis, Missouri, the daughter of Carrie McDonald. Her estate identifies vaudeville drummer Eddie Carson as her natural father. After her death, one of her foster children explained that it was believed that her father had been a white man, most likely of the German family whom her mother, Carrie, had worked for. Her mother let people think that Eddie Carson was the father, and apparently Carson played along.... (but) Josephine knew better. 
Baker dropped out of school at the age of 12 and lived as a street child in the slums of St.
Shuffle Along (1921)
Louis, sleeping in cardboard shelters and scavenging for food in garbage cans. Her street-corner dancing attracted attention and she was recruited for the St. Louis Chorus vaudeville show (with a group called "The Dixie Steppers") at the age of 15. She then headed to New York City during the Harlem Renaissance, performing at the Plantation Club and in the chorus of the groundbreaking and hugely successful Broadway revues Shuffle Along (1921) with Adelaide Hall, and The Chocolate Dandies (1924). Even though she was only 15, she had already been married twice - the second husband is the one who's name she used the rest of her life - Baker. 
She performed as the last dancer in a chorus line, a position where the dancer traditionally performed in a comic manner, as if she were unable to remember the dance, until the encore, at which point she would not only perform it correctly but with additional complexity. Baker was then billed as "the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville". 
She traveled to Paris, France, for a new venture, and opened in La Revue Nègre on October 2, 1925 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In Paris, she became an instant success for her erotic dancing and for appearing practically nude on stage. After a successful tour of Europe, she reneged on her contract and returned to France to star at the Folies Bergères, setting the standard for her future acts. She performed the Danse sauvage, wearing a costume consisting of a skirt made of a string of artificial bananas. 
Her success coincided (1925) with the Exposition des Arts Décoratifs that gave birth to the term "Art Deco", and also with a renewal of interest in non-western forms of art, including African. Baker represented one aspect of this fashion. In later shows in Paris she was often accompanied on stage by her pet cheetah, Chiquita, who was adorned with a diamond collar. The cheetah frequently escaped into the orchestra pit, where it terrorized the musicians, adding another element of excitement to the show.
 There is SO MUCH MORE that can be written about and said about how amazing Josephine Baker was. About her political activism and fight for civil rights. About her love and devotion to her many adopted children. About her outlook and hopes for the world....

One fact is undeniable, however.... and that fact is that she was an INCREDIBLE performer on stage.

So, I'd like to share a few of my favorite clips of her....

Plantation Dance (1927)
A scene from the film, La Revue des Revues



Another scene from the film La Revue des Revues. I LOVE her fierceness in this film. The way she seems to growl as she spanks the floor. Such amazing lines in her dancing!



And finally, I absolutely obsessively love this scene of her dancing in Princess Tam Tam (1935). In this film, Josephine plays the role of a Tunisian woman, brought to Paris and paraded around as a "Tunisian Princess".... I can almost feel the fire inside of her as she watches the performers on stage, and is so enthusiastic about the performance that she feel she must JUMP onto the set and dance, as though she may burst into flames if she resists any longer.

Opulence & Elegance....

I'm currently working with my chorus girl team here in Calgary, The Sugar Sweets, to put together an autumn cabaret, with a theme of Opulence & Elegance. What better role model to look to than Florence Ziegfeld, and the Ziegfeld Follies. This piece of cinema, titled "Glorifying the American Girl", from 1929, was made just three years before Florence Ziegfeld's death in 1932.

Florence Ziegfeld was perhaps best known for his theatrical shows, which occurred between 1907-1931. Ziegfeld's numbers were always lavish and over-the-top, with beautiful
Florence Ziegfeld, circa 1915
women whom he chose himself. He often used already-known actresses in his theater shows, but elevated their celebrity status even higher by featuring them in his plays.



According to Wikipedia:

At a cost of $2.5 million, he built the 1600-seat Ziegfeld Theatre on the west side of Sixth Avenue between 54th and 55th Streets. Designed by Joseph Urban and Thomas W. Lamb, the auditorium was egg-shaped with the stage at the narrow end. A huge medieval-style mural, The Joy of Life, covered the walls and ceiling. To finance the construction, Ziegfeld borrowed from William Randolph Hearst, who took control of the theater after Ziegfeld's death.
The Ziegfeld Theatre opened in February 1927, with his production of Rio Rita, which ran for almost 500 performances. This was followed by Show Boat, which had the "largest advance ticket sale up to that time" and became a "substantial hit". "When the stunned opening night audience reacted to the show in near silence, Ziegfeld was convinced his gamble had failed. The rave reviews in the papers and long lines at the box office the next morning proved otherwise." It was a great success, with a run of 572 performances. In May 1932, after Ziegfeld lost much of his money in the stock market crash, he staged a revival of Show Boat. "By Depression standards, it was a hit", running for six months.

In this film, Glorifying the American Girl, we see a number of famous early jazz-era performers, including Rudy Vallee, Helen Morgan, and the famous blackface vaudeville actor, Eddie Cantor, who we have featured in another post on this blog. This particular film is pre-code, so we see much more suggestive nudity (if not "practically-nude") that you would in the following years in film, particularly at around 0:41 into this clip, when the curtains open to a scene of a Botticelli's Venus type stage set.

The costumes are no doubt breathtaking and stunning. In true classic Ziegfeld form, you have women with the most elaborate headdresses, practically dripping with sparkle and beauty. At around 1:28 into the clip, a group of women make their way down a staircase with the most elaborate white peacock feather head pieces, almost like angels presenting a singer who has an even MORE elaborate and giant feather costume arrangement.

This clip, for me, is really not about the dancing, but it is more about the mystique and fantasy that Ziegfeld creates in his stage design and costume.

BTW, if you haven't checked out the book, Jazz Age Beauties - The Lost Collection of Ziegfeld Photographer Alfred Cheney Johnston, I HIGHLY recommend it. I have a copy myself, and it has some of the most stunning photos ever!

And now, for your visual pleasure, I present the 1929 masterpiece, "Glorifying the American Girl"

Every Chorus Doll Wants to Be A Kitty!

If you've ever seen the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls, then you know about the two amazing chorus girl numbers featured in the movie - both actually performed by the Goldwyn Girls chorus girl group. One fact I didn't know (until I researched for this blog), was that this was actually the last film appearance with the final group of Goldwyn Girls. You may remember the Goldwyn Girls from my previous blogs about the Minstrel Man clip and from the We Want Ice Cream routine - BOTH from the film, Kid Millions (1934). You may ALSO remember that a LOT of famous actresses started out as Goldwyn Girls, including Lucille Ball.

These clips star Vivian Blaine, who plays the starring role of Adelaide, the "long suffering, perpetually engaged chorus girl," a role which she actually played on Broadway before acting the part again for the film in 1955. Vivian Blaine, born Vivian Stapleton, in New Jersey in 1921. I was impressed to discover that she was actually quite the short chorus girl, at only 5'2" (a height I can relate to!). A little more about Vivian from IMDB:

Ms. Blaine also originated roles on Broadway in "Say Darling," and "Enter Laughing."
She also starred on Broadway in "Hatful of Rain," "Company," and, briefly, in "Zorba." She starred in many national tours, including "A Streetcar Named Desire," "Don't Drink the Water," "Hello Dolly," and "Gypsy." Before going to Broadway, Ms. Blaine was a starlet at 20th Century-Fox, appearing in many musical comedy films, including Jitterbugs (1943), Greenwich Village (1944), and State Fair (1945). In the mid 1950s, Ms. Blaine reprised her role as Adelaide in the film version of Guys and Dolls (1955) with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. After her Broadway appearance in "Company" in 1972, she appeared on national television at the 25th Tony anniversary special. This led to a revival of her TV career, and she continued to appear in guest roles on TV and in independent films and theater until her retirement in 1984. 

Clearly a fantastic voice actor, you can see her singing here in the 1945 film State Fair, where she dons stunning red hair and a deeply beautiful singing voice.  According to Wikipedia, she was in over 21 films and 40 stage shows, not to mention other tv shows and spots. You can also watch her here, on her appearance on "What's My Line," where she is nothing but adorable and charming.

Now on to why this clip is worth writing about.... talk about fun and lighthearted! Who doesn't love beautiful chorus girls dressed up as cute cats? And I love how classic and sweet these costumes are, as far as chorus girl cat costumes go... I mean, have you seen the Footlight Parade (1933) cat costumes? I mean, the are a little excessive... Another little interesting fact is that this song and number were written SPECIFICALLY FOR the film version, and never before were in the Broadway play.

Goldwyn Girl chorus dancers featured in this film include
  • Barbara Brent
  • Jann Darlyn
  • Madelyn Darrow - was a top California based model, and was voted Miss Rheingold of 1958. Married tennis legend Pancho Gonzalez in 1960.
  • June Kirby - eventually became involved and worked in wardrobe on many films over the course of 40 years
  • Pat Sheehan (who I'm convinced is the tall blonde one who enters in the first group of 4 girls) Click her name to read more about her life!
  • Larri Thomas 
  • etc. 
The costumes are fantastic, the dancing is impressive in such high stiletto heels, especially the jump rope section. There are definitely some elements that could only be produced in the movies - like whenever the tails straighten to a point, by use of (what I can only assume) fishing line from the overhead rafters (see 3:40, for example). At about 1:50 in, there are some fantastic lines in the dancing with the long legs and cross-steps, not to mention the super high kicks, which are repeated again at 3:58.

Oddly enough, I couldn't find any information on who the dance choreographer was for this film (missing from the film credits). Apparently, it wasn't until a couple of years after this movie, starting around 1957,  that films started to name choreographers in the credits. Finally, after a lot of hunting, I found that Michael Kidd was not only the choreographer for the 1951 Broadway show (and won a Tony for his choreography), but that he also staged the dances and musical numbers for the 1955 film.

Overall, this routine is fun, playful, and cute, and now I present for your viewing enjoyment, "Pet Me Poppa," from Guys and Dolls (1955).

 

Spring is here, and so are The Charlot Girls!

I was wracking my brain trying to think of an appropriate spring-time chorus girl clip to post about. I couldn't think of any clips with bunnies, or birds for that matter. The closest clip I could think of is this one of The Charlot Girls dancing, from the 1930 British film, Elstree Calling. Maybe it's because this clip is filmed in Claude Friese-Greene colour - a 2-color process, in this case, being yellow & orange. The yellow dresses definitely give a sense of happiness and spring daffodils, so this clip came to mind. Do we know what color dresses they were REALLY wearing? No, and unfortunately, we probably never will.

The film is essentially a giant vaudeville show, with 2 numbers performed by The Charlot Girls, who (apparently) got their name from one of the directors of the film, Andre Charlot.

Charlot was born in Paris, and eventually became an assistant manager of multiple big-name theaters, including the Folies Bergère and the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, before relocating to London in 1912.

Not much is known of The Charlot Girls. On this YouTube clip, one viewer made a comment below: "Love This! My grandmother, Marie Link, was a Charlot Girl (and before that with the Mistanguett and Maurice Chevalier in the Folies Bergeres in Paris)."

According to IMDB, they are credited with performing in 3 films, all produced in 1930. Here, they dance dressed as "ladies maids", with yellow dresses, aprons, and pink-ish bonnets. The routine consists mostly of clean formation changes and solid kick-lines, making it easy to see a comparison to the Charlot Girls and the popular American dance troupe of the time, the Missouri Rockets (later to become The Rockettes).

One of the most charming part of this clip is around 1 minute in, when the twelve gals grab the tips of their bright and flowing skirts and kick along as they skip through formation changes, revealing cute little frilly tap shorts under their skirts. SO DARLING! Another wonderful moment occurs around 1:40, when the girls jump into a circle formation, linking arms behind one another, and kicking in a circular motion, reminiscent of a daffodil opening. The kick-line exit off stage is flawless, with the dancers performing a little tap-cross-step in conjunction with the movement, giving a ballet feeling to the flow.

Overall, this is a delightful little clip, so now I present, for your enjoyment, The Charlot Girls, in Elstree Calling (1930):

Before Gene Kelly was Singin' In The Rain....

Did you know that the timeless and handsome Gene Kelly was NOT the first man to belt out the theme song of the classic 1952 film (and most arguably the most musical of all time), Singin' In The Rain?

The song, Singin' In The Rain, was actually popular for much longer than that, starting back in 23 years before what we often associate the song/movie with. The popular 1952 film was based on the song, but the script had to be written around it separately so the songs could fit into the film, of course. In fact, by the time MGM used it in the Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds/Donald O'Connor classic, it had been used in 5 other films for the big screen.

*FUN TRIVIA*
Cliff Edwards would later become famous for his voice
work as Jiminy Cricket in Disney's Pinocchio
One of the first accounts of the song being performed was by Cliff Edwards, also known as "Ukelele Ike" in 1929.  He performed the song in the MGM film, The Hollywood Revue of 1929, along with The Brox Sisters, and American trio of singing sisters who were quite popular during the 1920s/1930s. The film was only MGM's second feature-length musical, shot partially in Technicolor. With no plot to the script, the film is instead a long list of variety acts, featuring a number of former vaudevillian performers. The song, Singin' In The Rain, is actually performed twice in the film - once by Edwards & The Brox Sisters, and a second time as the grand finale of the movie with all of the cast.

Edwards has such a lovely singing voice and seems to easily romance the audience with the pickins of his ukelele. The film set is an whimsical setting of shadows and light, featuring a giant wheeping willow tree that seems to sparkle with dripping beads. Perhaps what is the most hypnotizing visual aspect of this clip, however, is the continuously falling rain on a mirror-like flooring, which reveals the entire backdrop like a reflecting pool of water.

The Brox Sisters
Even though though this clip is not strictly limited to dancing ladies, I think it is a great example of classic chorus line formation changes. The entire first section of the clip of chorus lines is all about marching band precision and movement. The moves themselves don't change - just the formations - which shows how much creativity you can have with one traveling movement in choreography.

Around 2:50 into the clip, things get a little psychedelic with a strobe light. Maybe it was meant to mimic lightening in the storm? At around 3:10 enters the adorable Brox Sisters, dressed all in one raincoat, like a 3-headed set of conjoined triplets. Finally, the female and male chorus lines return. In total, I think the girls do about 3 or 4 steps in this entire number, but again, the focus is on the lines and formations instead of fancy footwork. One wonders if perhaps this wouldn't have been an early influence on Busby Berkeley?

The clip linked below also features the grand finale with all of the cast, shot in technicolor. After release, this film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture.

So now, for your viewing pleasure, I present 1929's "The Hollywood Revue":

What it meant to be a chorus girl

Being a chorus girl in the early 1900s-1940s (and certainly before that) was difficult work and long hours. Often times girls practiced until their feet bled. Eventually, with the popularity of the chorus line, women were limited for jobs based on their waist measurement, height, and weight. And with the demand for large production numbers, those women saw a decreasing pay rate.

I ran across a fantastic article online about the history of chorus girls in London. I'll highlight a few specific interesting facts here:

Busby Berkeley weighing his chorus girls
  • Many women heard stories of chorus girls working on stage and finding rich socialite husbands, allowing them to retire to a life of luxury, and this, of course, made the idea of becoming a chorus girl attractive. For most, however, it was a life of hard work, many privations, and very little glamour.
  • The pay being offered for chorus girls fell as the competition for places increased, since managers could then pick and choose and could get all the girls they needed at the meagrest of wages. Soon, only the prettiest and most talented could find regular work at all, and then it was a life of hard work and plenty of it. For most of those who persevered it would be not so much a life as an existence, a daily hand-to-mouth struggle to get by. 
  • Even when they had a paid gig lined up, their pay would not begin until the show opened to the public, and there
    Dancers getting their talents measured for a
    spot in the Theatre Revue on Broadway, 1937
     
    may be as many as six or more weeks of rehearsals before then. 
  • Between engagements, some might be lucky enough to earn a few extra shillings posing for photographic portraits or find some other work to help them get by. For others it was no uncommon thing to pawn their few possessions, everything except their clothes in fact, in order to pay for food and lodging.
  • The pay was hard labour. In any given production it would be the chorus girl who did three-quarters of all the labor, whilst the named actors and actresses garnered nine tenths of all the money. 
  • One girl might commonly make five or six changes of costume in an evening, and figure in ten or a dozen numbers in which she did more work than the man or woman who sang the song.
  • Chorus girls had to provide all her own tights and dancing shoes out of her own slender stipend.
Even to this day, some of these facts still hold true. To audition for The Rockettes, you must be between 5'6" and 5'10.5" tall. Guess that counts me out!