Angela goes to dance camp

(It’s the morning of Groundhog Day 2023. American families: do you know where your marmots are?)

The late Angela Lansbury, starring in a glitzy television production as the introduction to the 1973 Academy Awards show: a 7-minute extravagant celebration (in three parts) of show business glamor.

Now, the Academy Awards shows are already spectacles of Hollywood’s rapturous self-congratulation, always teetering on the edge of self-parody, but for a while in the 1970s and 1980s, the brakes on spectacle were off, and we got Oscar openers that could, just barely, be read as fabulously glamorous, but were always open to being interpreted as camp — earnest, usually unintended, but definitely camp.

Sometimes, as in 1973, surely intended.

In any case, the star vehicle for the 1973 opener was Angela Lansbury.

(#1) AL’s 1973 Oscars apotheosis: Star Descending a Staircase, packing into a few moments a whole fabulous universe of allusions to stage musicals, extravagant choreography, movies, stylized glamor, carnival, and flagrant camp

I’ll start with a brief 2016 review of the show, go on to some chat between Aaron Broadwell and me last October on the show as profoundly gay, and take it from there, with a special tribute to AL as one of the great character actors of all time.

The 1973 show. From the Splinter site, “A look back at history’s tackiest Oscars opening numbers” by Molly Fitzpatrick on 2/26/16:

Nowadays, Oscars opening numbers (when we have them) are strictly played for laughs … But once upon a time, it wasn’t that way at all. In the ’70s and ’80s, these musical acts were utterly, sometimes painfully sincere. They were unabashed spectacles.

1973: Angela Lansbury

Eleven years before Murder, She Wrote would premiere on CBS, Angela Lansbury opened the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony. “Make a Little Magic” is a googly-eyed, seven-minute paean to show business, and it is so earnest it makes my teeth hurt.

Disembodied voices shout-sing about various aspects of the filmmaking process as Lansbury navigates through various crew members and cameras to get her hair and makeup done and attend music and dance rehearsals for some kind of unspecified ur-movie.

Finally, a chorus of leggy showgirls in cotton candy skirts and towering silver headpieces flounce around for a while before the then-47-year-old Dame Lansbury herself descends the staircase (of course there’s a staircase) in sequins and fur. It is part Mame, part Gentleman Prefer Blondes, part fever dream.

The show comes in three parts: a backstage intro (hair and makeup); the song-and-dance rehearsals (the professional at work); and the apotheosis of the star. (With the obvious sexually metaphorical understandings: backstage as preparation and foreplay; song-and-dance as the sexual acts; and apotheosis as climax.) Screen shots from the middle section:

(#2) Rehearsing the song at the piano

(#3) Dance instruction, one on one

(#4) Dance rehearsal, in ensemble

You can watch AL opening the 45th Oscars (hereafter, AL-73) in this YouTube video. (For what it’s worth, the 1973 winners were heavily centered on The Godfather and Cabaret.)

The musical number in AL-73, “Make a Little Magic”, was written by Billy Barnes, choreographed by Carl Jablonski, and sung by Angela Lansbury. (Billy Barnes (1927-2012), creator of  the satirical musical show “The Billy Barnes Revue”, was an openly gay composer and lyricist who was rhapsodically in love with the movies.)

On AL as character actor. Important background to what is to come, from Michael Schulman’s piece in The New Yorker, “Angela Lansbury Shimmered Through the Decades: The actress, who died this week at ninety-six, revealed every facet of her talents” on 10/12/22. The Schulman piece was reproduced earlier today in the posting “Death of a character actor” on this blog, from which I draw the lesson that:

AL was one of the great character actors of all time, her genius being her ability to fully inhabit whatever part she was playing, to be that character, with no hint of showing off how wonderfully she was playing that part.

It follows that if she appears to be guying us, wink-nudging her acting ability at us (something that Meryl Streep, for one, is inclined to do), then that’s because that’s the character she’s playing, that’s who she is in the scene we’re watching; she’s showing us that her character is an impersonator.

The critique of AL-73 through gay eyes. My eyes and Aaron Broadwell’s, on Facebook on 10/24/22. Two distinguished linguists and analysts of culture responding to that video.

(In case you don’t know about AB, the University of Florida website tells us that he’s George Aaron Broadwell, Elling Eide Professor of Anthropology and chair of the Department of Linguistics there, a “linguistic anthropologist with primary research interest in syntactic theory, language documentation, and historical linguistics. Area specialization … Native American languages, with a particular research focus on Choctaw, Timucua, Copala Triqui, and Zapotec”.)

On FB about the video:

— AB: This is the gayest thing I have ever seen — and I have seen a lot of gay stuff!

— AZ: Quite remarkable piece of camp. AL is a woman playing a dead-perfect female impersonator, and she’s totally inhabiting her part. Meanwhile, all those chorus boys are flashing big stage smiles — instantly recognizable as not real smiles (no smiling with the eyes), as deliberately artificial, and their performance is perfect too. But AL is mostly intent and focused in her absurd, eventually gauzy, pinkness, until she breaks out in genuine, whole-face, whole-body smiling. (And it’s all an act, and we know that, so we applaud her like crazy.) It’s all profoundly false, and it’s pitch-perfect in its artificiality, so it’s monumentally wonderful. (That was 1973. I suspect some inspiration from Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies”, which opened on Broadway in 1971 — in particular from its “Beautiful Girls” number.)

… I’m a great admirer of Lansbury’s craft in all things, and of monuments of camp too, but I’d missed the 1973 Academy Awards, where these two things came together so excellently (by 1973 I was too sophisticated to get pleasure from the Academy Awards ceremonies, even when they careened into self-parody, as they so often did, so I no longer watched them; as a teenager, I watched them with my sweetly glamor-struck mother, who adored every cheesy moment).

Further resonances with AL-73, beyond those already mentioned.

For the backstage segment, a very personal resonance for me, a memory from my childhood: the American radio soap opera Mary Noble, Backstage Wife (1935-1959) and its parody Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife. From Wikipedia:

Each episode opened with the announcer … explaining:

Now, we present once again, Backstage Wife, the story of Mary Noble, a little Iowa girl who married one of America’s most handsome actors, Larry Noble, matinée idol of a million other women  —  the story of what it means to be the wife of a famous star.

… The program was parodied by Bob and Ray as their continuing satirical soap opera, Mary Backstayge, Noble Wife, serialized for such a long period of time that it became better known to many listeners than the show it lampooned.

For the song-and-dance segment, there’s Debbie Reynolds’s character Kathy Selden doing the song and dance numbers in Singin’ in the Rain. From Wikipedia:

Singin’ in the Rain is a 1952 American musical romantic comedy film directed and choreographed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, starring Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds and featuring Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell and Cyd Charisse. It offers a lighthearted depiction of Hollywood in the late 1920s, with the three stars portraying performers caught up in the transition from silent films to “talkies”.

And then the image of the dancing queen. From Wikipedia:

“Dancing Queen” is a Europop and disco song by the Swedish group ABBA, released as the lead single from their fourth studio album, Arrival (1976)

… Lyrically, the song concerns a visit to the discothèque, but approaches the subject from the joy of dancing itself. [One reviewer writing that it] “bottles the out-of-body euphoria that accompanies dancing for dancing’s sake, with no agenda or motive other than pure joy.”.

Then from my 6/3/22 posting “The compounds of commerce and the comics”, about, among other things, a One Big Happy strip in which kids disagree as to whether dancing school is to be understood like acting class ‘class for teaching acting’ (Ruthie) or like jumping frog ‘frog that jumps, frog given to jumping’ (James):

Writing about N + N compounds in which N1 is a nominal gerund (a use of the Vprp verb form) immediately afflicts me with a terrible ABBA “Dancing Queen” earworm, which I will now share with you (in part because it’s the best ABBA hit ever, in part because the title leads to more understandings of NomGer + queen compounds).

… The title compound is similar to James’s understanding of dancing school …; in the song, the woman is a metaphorical queen (paired with her king) who dances, likes to dance, is inclined to dance.

For dancing queen out of context, the head N2 queen can be understood in a variety of ways — for instance, as ‘the most outstanding woman in some sphere or group’ (‘queen of dancing, most accomplished dancer’) or as ‘an ostentatiously effeminate gay man’ (‘femmy gay guy who dances’) or as the second element in a snowclonelet composite (either of the enthusiasm variety, ‘enthusiast of dancing’, or of the sexual-preference variety, ‘gay man who seeks dancers as sexual partners’). Just a sampling, and just from Type O compounds. If we get into Type X compounds, then there’s no end; dancing queen could refer to some femmy gay guy you first met outside of a dance studio. (This is the lesson of pumpkin bus and canoe wife.)

For the apotheosis segment, there are two components: the grand staircase entrance — star descending a staircase — and the accompanying choreographed spectacle at the foot of the stairs (both visible in #1).

The TV Tropes site has an entire (sizable) entry for “Grand Staircase Entrance”, including some notable examples from the movies and tv:

— Eliza Doolittle’s official debut at the ball in My Fair Lady

— the Carol Burnett Show‘s famous skit parodying Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind

— a tragic version in Sunset Boulevard, as Norma Desmond is breathtakingly attractive only in her own mind — “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my closeup”

For the choreographed spectacle, the model is unquestionably Busby Berkeley. From  Wikipedia:

Busby Berkeley (born Berkeley William Enos; November 29, 1895 – March 14, 1976) was an American film director and musical choreographer. Berkeley devised elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley’s works used large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances.

I fell in love with the fantasy world of BB’s choreography as a child being taken to the movies on Saturday by my grandmother. I was no doubt the only boy in my circle to have such a fixation, so I kept my tastes to myself, rather than invite further harassment as a fairy boy. But my fairy-boy affection for BB spectacles has never flagged. (A fair number of them have the choreography paired with a grand staircase entrance.) Not long ago, I escaped pain, despair, and rage by watching The Gay Divorcee (1939) for, oh maybe the 30th time. In addition to the BB numbers, it has Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, plus the prissy-man stock actors Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

At greater distance, BB’s choreographed spectacles resonate with the elaborately costumed parades of carnival (celebrating the body and its pleasures, reaffirming life) and of winter festivals like the Mummer’s Parade in Philadelphia (and other raucous and licentious displays affirming life against the dark of winter). From Wikipedia:

The Mummers Parade is held each New Year’s Day in Philadelphia [when the weather is almost always cold and sometimes deadful]. Local [all-male] clubs (usually called “New Years Associations” or “New Years Brigades”) compete in one of five categories (Comics [clowning], Wench Brigades [cross-dressing], Fancies, String Bands, and Fancy Brigades). They prepare elaborate costumes, performance routines, and movable scenery, which take months to complete.

As a child — I regularly watched the parade on television from Philadelphia — I thought of the Mummer’s Parade as a sort of Carnival with the risk of frostbite. Fabulous to watch, but meteorologically inexplicable. Especially since on tv, it was followed by the Rose Parade in Pasadena (pleasurable in its own way, but utterly devoid of carnival spirit). We didn’t get tv coverage of Carnival in New Orleans then, but I longed for it. (And all this was many years before Pride parades.)


3 Responses to “Angela goes to dance camp”

  1. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Speaking of Groundhog Day, I recently saw a similar joke (that I now can’t find again) — something about people sad about having no valentine on Valentine’s Day should check their privilege, because hardly anyone has a groundhog for Groundhog Day.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Annoyingly, I now have a similar joke recollection but can’t retrieve the source.

      • Stewart Kramer Says:

        It’s been around since at least 2019, and FB has many copies of this tweet (including some that FB friends have liked), but usually as pictures of text, so (since I can’t filter for posts that I’ve previously seen) I’ll assume the FB algorithm randomly showed it once and then moved on:

        Oh you don’t have a valentine on valentine’s day? Some people don’t even have a groundhog on groundhogs day. check your privilege
        10:39 AM · Feb 10, 2019

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