Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: Dancing With the Stars

I've been a serious movie fan since my pre-teen years, and the films which first captured my interest were musicals, most especially MGM musicals. I've seen a majority of MGM musicals multiple times, though there are still a few I haven't caught up with yet.

I was thus delighted to have the opportunity to review Norman Borine's book DANCING WITH THE STARS. No, it's not about the TV show...the autobiography, which was published posthumously this year, chronicles Borine's years as a contract dancer performing in the chorus at MGM and other studios. Borine's book illuminates an area of Hollywood's golden age which has received very little attention from film historians and thus makes a valuable contribution in that regard.

(Dancer-choreographer Robert Sidney's autobiography, WITH MALICE TOWARDS SOME: TALES FROM A LIFE DANCING WITH STARS is in my "to read" stack, but I'm hard pressed to think of similar titles regarding film choreographers or background dancers.)

Borine danced in MGM films such as TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, THE PIRATE, ON AN ISLAND WITH YOU, and RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY. He also swam in an Esther Williams film. At other studios, he backed up Yvonne DeCarlo in SONG OF SCHEHERAZADE, Vera-Ellen in CARNIVAL IN COSTA RICA, Susanna Foster in THE CLIMAX, and Betty Hutton in INCENDIARY BLONDE. Borine also had bit parts in dramatic films, such as appearing in a dream sequence in HER HIGHNESS AND THE BELLBOY and playing a soldier in COURAGE OF LASSIE, which starred Tom Drake.

I'm pretty sure I spotted Borine as a square dancer at a society party in the 1949 MGM film EAST SIDE, WEST SIDE, which I'm watching this evening. It will be fun looking for his face in the background of future movies.

The book's production is of high quality, with glossy pages and numerous black and white photos; many of the photos are presented as attractive full-page spreads. I especially liked the photos of chorus dancers in various film sequences where the author is pointed out with an arrow; I would have liked seeing even more of those types of photos. It's fun being able to pick him out of the crowd backing up Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in "This Heart of Mine" from ZIEGFELD FOLLIES or wearing a top hat and tails standing behind Judy Garland in TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY. Many of the other photos included in the book are movie star portraits personally autographed to the author by a wide variety of stars from the '40s and '50s.

Borine tells many interesting behind-the-scenes anecdotes about working at MGM and other studios which musical fans will enjoy. I glossed over some of the stories regarding his personal life, as it was TMI (too much information) for me to feel comfortable reading, but others may feel differently about that aspect of the book.

As a reader and film fan, I would have found it of great interest if the book had included a filmography, but since the book was published posthumously, perhaps it wasn't possible to put together a complete list of Mr. Borine's film credits. The book does contain a useful index of film titles and actors.

In the interest of offering a thorough review, I note that the book does contain a few minor errors and typos scattered throughout, such as transposing the words in the title RICH, YOUNG AND PRETTY to YOUNG, RICH AND PRETTY, or misspelling Susanna Foster's name as Suzanna on one page; Hedy Lamarr's last name appears as LaMarr. A good proofreader with a knowledge of film history could have picked up these goofs and helped the publisher present a more polished final product. However, the errors do not detract overly much from the book as the author's personal chronicle of a unique slice of Hollywood history.

Including the index, this hardcover book is 234 pages. It was published by Fideli Publishing. It should be noted that the only copy listed at Amazon is a paperback which is 248 pages; that edition is linked here (click the title of this post).

More information about the book can be found at the DANCING WITH THE STARS official website.

Someone should put together an oral history with chorus dancers from movie musicals. Around 1980, I had the unique opportunity to chat with a woman who'd been an MGM chorus dancer in films such as MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS and THE HARVEY GIRLS. (I'm not 100% sure without hunting down old notes, but I believe it was Dorothy Tuttle.) It was fascinating being able to ask her some questions about her career.

The chorus dancers may have been nameless to the public, but they were witnesses to big pieces of movie musical history, and Borine's book helps document some of that history for future generations.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Hi Laura,
Since it is a joy to learn of new biographies and histories of musicals and the stories of this period's forgotten artists and craftsmen, I wonder if you might know anything about one of the loveliest, yet most obscure players of that period, Lucille Bremer?

All I know is that according to a book on the Arthur Freed unit at MGM, she may have been a girlfriend of the legendary producer for a time and the statuesque redhead who appeared with Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis & The Harvey Girls as well as Yolanda and the Thief with Fred Astaire, eventually married the son of a prominent Mexican family and retired from movies. Thanks for any guidance to any books you might know.

Btw, have you read People Will Talk by John Kobal? It's a wonderful collection of legendary and forgotten figures from the studio era. I'm sure that you'd enjoy it. Thanks so much for bringing this book to my attention.
All the best,

3:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Moira,

That Freed Unit book is one of my all-time favorite books on film. :)

Unfortunately I have found very little published about Lucille Bremer over the years, other than basic information contained in books on musicals. She and her husband lived in La Jolla, CA, for many years, where she owned a children's dress shop; at least one source I read said she called it Yolanda's, but otherwise she seems to have turned her back on Hollywood after her marriage. While James Robert Parrish and Ronald Bowers' MGM STOCK COMPANY (another great book) says that she had five daughters, her NYT obituary and IMDb listed two sons and two daughters by name.

Like you, I would love to know more about her life story. I really enjoyed her work and am very partial to both MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (one of my favorite movies) and YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, which I think is underrated. (She wasn't in HARVEY GIRLS, though...perhaps you're thinking of TILL THE CLOUDS ROLL BY?) If anyone knows more about Miss Bremer, please share!

I haven't read PEOPLE WILL TALK and will make it a point to look for it. Thanks for the recommendation! I do have Kobal's book on musicals, GOTTA SING, GOTTA DANCE -- one of my favorites when I was a teen first learning about musicals -- and several of his portrait books, so I know he does quality work.

So glad I could call your attention to DANCING WITH THE STARS. If you get the opportunity to read it, let us know what you think!

Best wishes,

5:25 PM  
Blogger Moira Finnie said...

D'uh! Sorry about misplacing Ms. Bremer in The Harvey Girls, (wishful thinking on my part). That's what I get for trying to write a response on the fly at work (with no time to check on IMDb, which of course, is never wrong, right!;))

I hope you enjoy the Kobal book!Thanks for responding.

4:43 AM  

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