Saturday, June 27, 2009

Sammy Lee at MGM 1929-30

It's time for a lighter post consisting of rare clips from even rarer movies. I have chosen a bunch of numbers made during the musical craze of 1929-30 featuring some of the most bizarre choreography ever to be produced on film during the early days of talking pictures. This was just before Busby Berkeley introduced a more cinematographic approach to dancing on film. The routines carried out often seems really awkward but are still very enjoyable, sometimes almost psychedelic in their craziness. The performers often had very limited dance training and the choreographers didn't always have the required experience, especially not transferring something that might have worked on stage to the screen. Usually there wasn't very much time for rehearsals and the production schedule was often very tight.

One of the more experienced choreographers however, was Sammy Lee, dance director at MGM. He started his career as child dancer in one of Gus Edward's Kid acts. He came to New York to work for the great Ziegfeld and became dance director of the highly successful Ziegfeld Follies of 1927. After contributing dance routines for Ziegfeld's famous productions Rio Rita (1927), Showboat (1928) and the last of the Midnight Frolics (1929), he signed with MGM studios early in 1929.

Let's start our Sammy Lee exposé with a color sequence taken from It's A Great Life one of his first movie musicals opening in December 1929. The number is The Hoosier Hop, written by Dave Dreyer and Ballard MacDonald, performed by Rosetta and Vivian Duncan. Behind them we see the MGM chorus with Ann Dvorak in pole position. Rumor has it that this specific number also was choreographed by miss Dvorak herself, even though Sammy Lee got the credit as dance director. Ann Dvorak was Lee's assistant choreographer in most MGM musicals produced between 1929-31.

Let's move on to the fall of 1930 and Good News with music and lyrics by Brown, DeSylva and Henderson. Here we find Ann Dvorak again center stage. This number one of the most wonderful early talkie scenes I know. It's raw, unpolished and full of pep. The tune is a smash, there's a lot of creative cinematography that even includes a short animation sequence. Dorothy McNulty (who later changed her name to Penny Singleton) goes bezerk at Tait Collage among with her fellow students. The number is of course The Varsity Drag.

Good News had its final reel, shot in Technicolor, a reel that today is missing from all known prints of the movie, making it almost impossible to show it in public. This is very sad as it is one of the better musicals made in 1930.

Two weeks later saw the premiere of Love In The Rough, a golf musical starring Robert Montgomery, Dorothy Jordan, Benny Rubin and Penny Singleton (again). This time We have to look at two numbers both written by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh.
First out is Dorothy Jordan in I'm Doing That Thing (Falling In Love). Watch out for Bob Montgomery's bare legs and speciality dancer Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker in the second half of the clip.

Now it's time for Robert Montgomery to both sing and dance!
I'm Learning A Lot From You, a number featuring some especially funny routines from Benny Rubin and Penny Singleton. I don't believe Robert Montgomery did much more singing or dancing than this. Good choice Bob!

Dorothy Jordan was cast as Honey Hale in Flying Down to Rio (1933) but backed out of the role to go on her honeymoon with Merian C. Cooper. This gave way to Ginger Rogers who got the role instead, her first with Fred Astaire.

Sammy Lee was nominated twice for an academy award for best dance direction, in 1935 for "King Of Burlesque", and 1937 for "Ali Baba Goes To Town", both at 20th Century Fox. He would return to MGM after a stint at RKO (1937) and directed shorts and choreographed war time musicals. Smaller studios benefited from his talents in 1944 and 1945. During this time he choreographed Columbia's "Carolina Blues" and Republic's "Earl Carroll's Vanities" before he retired with Paramount's 1945 release, "Out Of This World". Sammy Lee's productive career spanned an impressive sixteen years in Hollywood, and gave us many of cinema's most entertaining moments!
Sammy Lee left us in 1968, aged 77.

Thanks to Richard Unger, who contributed with info on Sammy Lee's career.


KING OF JAZZ said...

Oh my, this kind of article is directly linked to my brain, and it's so refreshing to find a kindred soul who presents it in such a good natured way! Somewhere in my DNA the '20s and thereabouts remains a constant.

Another superb overview!

Raquel Stecher said...

Excellent post on Sammy Lee! I am so glad that you posted the Varsity-Drag Clip as Utoobe keeps pulling it. Some people criticized the dancing in that clip on my blog, but I think it's wonderful how Penny Singleton/Dorothy McNulty just throws herself into the dance. The choreography seems fresh and new and youthful, even though we may not appreciate it today.

OH MY GOODNESS! Thank you for talking too about Love in the Rough, a splendid little golf musical.

Terence Towles Canote said...

It's rather sad Sammy Lee isn't as well known as Busby Berkley. He did create some very good pieces of choreography. The Varsity Drag from Good News was sheer genius!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for info on Sammy Lee's work, and some great clips. Love that "Varisty Drag".

Lolita of the Classics said...

I've given you an award! Check it out here:

Juliette said...

Thatnks for posting the bit from Good News-- I've only seen the remake, but this was great!

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you all! I was sure to get some comments on Robert Montgomery's singing and dancing but the Varsity Drag apparently came in the way.

The 1930 version of The Varsity Drag is one of my all time favorite moments from the early musicals as well.

Raquelle, Oh yes! Love In The Rough is inedeed a splendid little golf musical. I also think it contains some of Benny Rubin's funniest moments.

Thank you for the award!

Louie said...

I sent you an award!

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you for the award!

Related Posts with Thumbnails