Cole was adept at using SPACE captured by the camera…he was able to push perspective further than any choreographer of his day, without 3-D glasses.
So wrote Professor-Emerita Emma Lewis Thomas, in an email, concerning “The I Don’t Care Girl.” Lew, who knew Jack Cole as a fellow UCLA dance instructor, puts into words what I respond to so viscerally when I watch Cole’s dance sequences.
Jack Cole aggressively advanced the art of choreography on film. This he did, I believe by instinct — that is, sheer talent — and not by design. Astaire’s great breakthrough was the medium shot which includes the dancer’s full body in every frame. Gene Kelly adhered to this paradigm. But Cole took off the gloves, ripping into his canvas — cinema’s rectangle. A creature of the atomic age, he fissured it like an bomb, a Pollack painting. He splintered the screen, and carved it with set design, costume, and choreography. Into a placid box he dappled dance activity from all sides. No space, or level, in the frame went unused by Jack Cole.
In the photo [above, click-able] from “The I Don’t Care Girl,” Cole inserts a staircase so that the dancer (Mitzi Gaynor, on steps) floats (as in space) at mid-frame. Cole layers men on the ground, populating the bottom edge of the frame. He regularly dispatched men, scrambling, across the frame bottom. He even extended beyond his frame; poking in and out of it. He had a keen eye for “decorating” this rectangle.
Thus Jack Cole moved far beyond Hollywood’s centered (and boring) way of presenting dance on film. His inside/outside, front stage/back stage camera work in the “Ladies in Waiting” sequence of “Les Girls” (MGM 1957, dir: George Cukor) remains thrilling and radical. Cole yanks the viewer’s eye away from the initial orientation (watching three women perform on a stage) to the opposite p.o.v., i.e., the focus flips — we now look upon the audience from the dancers’ perspective. Stage lights glare in our eyes. The camera then relocates backstage, and we peer upon the dancing women from the vantage point of the wing. Finally, the women, exiting the stage, physically burst into the camera’s space (backstage). It’s a dazzling, surreal, off-balance tour — much like what it is to perform.
Cole even goes farther. He includes a mirror; one hangs on the theater wall. So you get to see the performance reflected. When you consider that “Les Girls” was inspired by Rashomon, well, you begin to suss what a genius Jack Cole was. Has any single film critic ever even noticed this sequence?
Also in “Ladies in Waiting”: impeccable, hilarious and dirty choreography; Orry-Kelly costumes that garnered an Academy Award (and I’m sure Cole had huge input on them); plot advancement, in which the Taina Elg character dissolves into depression anticipating a suicide attempt; performances in which Cole brought non-dancer Kay Kendall to the level of her partners Taina Elg, a ballerina, and the great Mitzi Gaynor. Every element gets an A+++. No one — sorry, but no Gene Kelly and no Fred Astaire — could touch it. Jack Cole ranks with Balanchine (Cole lacked a patron like Lincoln Kirstein) a superb, genius choreographer whose every instinct is smart and correct.
The “Ladies in Waiting” number in “Les Girls” prefigured Bob Fosse’s work in “Cabaret” in which the camera swaps perspectives on performers. Jack Cole’s predates “Cabaret” by 15 years. Fosse won an Academy Award for film direction of “Cabaret” in 1973. Jack Cole died in 1974. That’s show business.
photo: courtesy larry billman, the academy of dance on film
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