"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Monday, May 16, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon - On Your Toes

Original movie poster
 1939 was certainly an incredible year for movies, more truly great masterpieces released than any other year in film history. On Your Toes was one of those movies. A great movie? Not really – it’s a fun story, wonderful cast, particularly a marvelous assembly of beloved character actors. However, On Your Toes is the vehicle for one of the greatest musical numbers of stage and film. It was the first of its kind, a jazz ballet which is a part of the story itself. I’m talking about Slaughter on 10th Avenue, composed by the great Richard Rogers. If only for this, On Your Toes takes its place in film history. As an interesting side-note, famed choreographer George Balanchine is said to have created the ballet. I found a couple of sources that claimed it was actually his ballerina wife, Tamara Geva, who starred in the original play, who choreographed the ballet. I guess we will never really know, but I would love to know what went on in the Balanchine household over this issue!

Rogers and Hart

Ray Bolger

With music and lyrics by the successful duo of Rogers and Hart, story by George Abbott, On Your Toes was originally intended as a starring role for Fred Astaire, but Astaire felt that his debonair image would not be a good fit, and he was absolutely right. The main character, Phil Dolan, Jr., called Junior by everyone, is a dancer, but not a debonair white-tie-and-tails type. The character of Junior grew up on the vaudeville stage, is a dancer and comic, and also a gifted composer. On Your Toes premiered on Broadway in April, 1936, and made a real vaudevillian into a major star -- the marvelous Ray Bolger. It ran on Broadway for 315 performances and was a great success.

Warner Brothers and executive producer Hal Wallis obtained the rights to the play and it was released to movie theatres in 1939. As Hollywood commonly does, some changes were made to the story. However, an unexplainable decision was made to omit all of the songs except for Slaughter on 10th Avenue and another short ballet scene. The music from the songs can be heard as part of the background score, but there is no singing at all. In all my research, I was unable to find an explanation for this baffling decision. The songs from the play had become well-loved standards such as “There’s a Small Hotel,” “It’s Got to be Love,” “Quiet Night,” and even the title song itself, “On Your Toes.” Without the songs, the movie version of On Your Toes was reduced to a typical screwball comedy with one fantastic number. I was really disappointed that I could not find a video of the original ballet from the movie, but this little trailer will give you some glimpses:

Eddie Albert
 The story itself is simple and holds no real surprises until the final number. Junior Dolan (played as a young boy by a future great, 14-year old Donald O’Connor) is part of the family dancing team with his parents Phil and Lilly Dolan (James Gleason and Queenie Smith). He has a crush on a little ballet dancer, Vera (played by Sarita Wooten, who also played Cathy as a child in Wuthering Heights). After he is grown, Junior (now played by Eddie Albert) takes off on his own to be a composer. Through a series of comic circumstances, Junior becomes entangled with a Russian ballet troupe touring America. The troupe’s dictatorial owner and director is Sergei Alexandrovich (Alan Hale), and he is wonderful as the emotional, fist-pounding, slippery eel with no money who manages by pure bullying to get the whole floor of a first class hotel to house his people. The loveable Hale is as funny as ever, but this is not a loveable guy!

Vera Zorina
Junior is reunited with little Vera, now a ballet star with the Russian troupe (Vera Zorina). One short ballet sequence, Princess Zenobia, showcases Eddie Albert as an unintentional part of the cast, giving it a comic element that the audience loved. Sergei is infuriated, but Junior is a hit. The upshot of the plot is that we come to the troupe’s premiere of Junior’s piece, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, with Sergei having arranged for 2 Russian hit men to actually shoot Junior on stage at the end of the ballet, when their real shots will be masked by the fake gun Junior will use to “kill” himself in the ballet. Of course the plan is discovered and the men are arrested before they can do the deed. All of this plot line bleeds into the ballet as it is being performed, with a comic appearance by Junior’s friend trying to warn him to keep dancing and not use the fake gun until the police come. At the end of the movie, Junior and Vera are together and in love.

I believe that the most significant reason that the movie is fun to watch is the cast of familiar character actors who give their all as comic characters. Pictures are the best way to recognize these actors, who are not often known by name.

Alan Hale in his most likeable
role, Little John in Robin Hood

Frank McHugh as the
frazzled stage manager, Paddy Reilly

James Gleason as
Junior's father

Leonid Kinskey as Ivan,
shown here as Sacha the
bartender in Casablanca

Queenie Smith as
Junior's mother

Erik Rhodes as Konstantin,
a bad ballet dancer with a big ego
The Slaughter on 10th Avenue ballet has everything – unsurpassed music, a lurid bar, a stripper and prostitute (Vera), her pimp, two hilarious barmen who move as one person in their duties, three policemen who raid the bar wearing dark sunglasses and sniffing the floor to the tune of “Three Blind Mice”, while all the time telling the story of the prostitute and a man (Junior) with great pathos, love and lust. The pimp shoots a man who tries to get on stage to grab Vera. Junior pays the pimp for Vera, and their dance reveals not only the lust, but the beginning of feelings for each other. The bar closes for the night, the lights go off, and we see the man look at the girl with incredibly lustful determination to have her. He gives her a drink, she teases him with dance and flings herself onto a table on her back. The man leaps on top of her, but the inevitable outcome is interrupted by the pimp, angry and jealous. He pulls out his gun, the girl throws herself in front of the man, and she is killed. The man goes after the pimp and kills him. He dances around the pimp’s body, flipping it over, looks at the dead girl, and picks up the gun to shoot himself. It is at this point that Junior has to keep the orchestra re-playing the final part several times and keep dancing. Finally, he sees the police have come, lets the number end, and shoots himself with great relief.

 Vera Zorina, usually billed just as “Zorina,” was a star ballerina with the Ballet Russe. She had a brief career in Hollywood, and she was a perfect pick for the part, with her incredible dancing talent and beautiful appearance. She shines in the part of Vera. She was also George Balanchine’s second wife – Balanchine must have felt he needed to marry his ballerinas. He was certainly on his toes with that (I know, it’s a real groaner!) Yet another strange decision by Warner Brothers was to cast a young and handsome Eddie Albert. Eddie Albert as a dancer? He’s a wonderful comic, but an odd choice for the part. However, a quote from John Reid found in the Internet Movie Data Base explains: “Albert is no dancer…but with the aid of a visual double for one or two shots, plus post-synched taps, he actually manages rather well, and even duets with the great Zorina with reasonable facility.” Not a bad critique for a non-dancer, especially when you see the demands of his part.

The Slaughter on 10th Avenue ballet was filmed long after the Hayes code had taken effect, and its explicit sexual content is a little surprising. Zorina’s dancing as a stripper, the totally obvious lust of the man played by Junior, prostitution shown as an aspect of love, dance moves between the man and the girl, Zorina on her back with Albert looming over her – perhaps they got away with it because of Zorina’s fame as a classical dancer, or because it was a piece created by the formidable Richard Rogers and someone named Balanchine, or maybe the censor was taking a nap. However it came about, it was a piece of luck for audiences. The original On Your Toes has been revived on Broadway twice, and the musical suite of Slaughter on 10th Avenue has taken its place with the classics on the repertoires of many symphony orchestras.

In 1948, Slaughter on 10th Avenue was again performed as part of the movie Words and Music, a highly fictionalized biographical story of Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart. This time around, it was done in a shorter, truncated version, comic parts removed, not attached to a story as in the original, and in a more sanitized manner. Nine years earlier, the ballet was quite controversial as discussed above. Perhaps it isn’t so strange – movies were becoming more and more conservative as they moved into the 1950’s. Still, it is fantastic. Gene Kelly did his own choreography and danced with stunning Vera Ellen. I was lucky enough to find the number on its own on YouTube, and present it here. Even with the differences in presentation, it retains much of the feeling, and the music is, of course, sublime. I hope you will take the mere 7 minutes to experience a remarkable achievement in dance.


  1. A wonderfully thoughtful and entertaining review! Isn't it amazing that Hollywood would take the trouble of getting the right to a musical and then not use most of the music! The Rogers and Hart score is delicious, so it it a shame, but at least they kept the ballet! Loved your comments and pictures and thanks for posting Kelly's version. Although it's not Balanchine, it's darn great (and steamy, too). Congrats to you for an enlightening and informative entry!

  2. Becky - Fascinating and the usual well researched review. This film is one I am completely unfamiliar with but as you point out is interesting if for no other reason than the jazz ballet as well as Rogers & Hart and any musical number that can be described as steamy! (LOL). It is amazing how many times over the course of its history Hollywood buys a project and then changes it. Musical numbers have suffered this fate many times with songs being dropped and new ones added.

  3. Thanks for a great review, and the background information. It does seem odd that they'd scoop up a Rogers & Hart show and then not use most of it, but Hollywood did that sort of thing a lot. Great cast.

  4. Becky, another marvelous review (and your standards are pretty high!). I have not seen ON YOUR TOES, but it sounds like fun overall and the "Slaughter in 10th Avenue" ballet is apparently one of those things all film buffs should see. But the part that appeals to me most is the impressive supporting with Alan Hale (yes, I always think of him as Little John, too), the reliable James Gleason, and Erik Rhodes (who was a scream in THE GAY DIVORCEE as the "correspondent" Tonetti).

  5. Becky, your review was enchanting and entertaining, as always! You had me with "Frank McHugh"! :-) Seriously, he's one of Team Bartilucci's favorite character actors, known and loved in our home as "Annabelle's Husband" after his role in ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (another movie I must blog about sometime). I wonder if the paucity of musical numbers came about because Rodgers & Hart wanted more money to use all the musical numbers, or maybe vice-versa? Show-biz folks -- who can figure them out? :-) In context, I got a kick out of the line: "Finally, he sees the police have come, lets the number end, and shoots himself with great relief." I have nothing against Eddie Albert, but I'm very pleased that you chose to include WORDS AND MUSIC's version of the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" number, with the ever-awesome Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen. Nice work, Becks!

  6. I came across "On Your Toes" near the end on TCM once and figured out what it must be by the familiar strains of "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue". Everything else was extremely confusing. Why would anybody want to shoot Eddie Albert? Thanks for clearing all of that up for me. Eddie Albert singing I'd pay money for, but a dancer?!? Sometimes you have to wonder about those studio bosses.

    The next time it comes around I can approach the movie with the confidence of an expert thanks to you.

  7. I was looking for this movie review more than anything. I love the "On Your Toes" score, but the movie was low on musical star talent. However, after this review, this is another film I want to catch!

  8. I haven't seen this movie, but I did catch a Broadway revival of the show once - can't believe the film didn't use those great songs! Never heard about the possibility of Zorina having choreographed the ballet, that's fascinating to know - This movie seems a little hard to find (is it on DVD?), but I really want to see it after reading your post - still, I would have loved to have seen Ray Bolger in the film (what a great dancer he was!), but the supporting cast of character actors sounds like fun. Thanks for a great article - and for all your great work on the Blogathon!

  9. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Eric Rhodes (especially in THE GAY DIVORCEE and TOP HAT) and I LOVE LOVE LOVE Leonid Kinskey and James Gleason. GREAT character actors. Loved reading about this film which I must have seen sometime, at some point but which I'd forgotten about.

    I have always been crazy about the SLAUGHTER ON TENTH AVENUE music - since I was a kid. It might be my favorite Rodgers piece. I've always been curious about how it appears to have slipped away into the myths of time.

  10. I think I've seen this, but don't remember much about it, I'm afraid.

    Seems to me one of those head scratching moves that the studios use to make. Buy the rights to a Broadway show and then throw out everything that made the show a hit.

    Still, I enjoyed this post, and found the background information fascinating. Well done, Becky.

  11. becky...I do not know how you can produce such a fine blog with such a sub-par movie...I am confused too...EDDIA ALBERT...ZORINA???..but I would like to see it for the full ballet score of "SLAUGHTER ON 10TH AVENUE"

  12. Becky,
    I have to confess that I haven't seen this film but I don't think you've seen "The Gorilla" so hopefully I'll be forgiven.

    I adore the beautiful Zorina and I've loved Eddie since seeing him in Roman Holiday so hopefully I'll have the chance to see this one sometime.

    I'm pretty darn surprised that Slaughter managed to escape Haye's wrath but I'm sure it's better for it. Thanks for including those great clips too.

    Your posts are always so well researched and beautifully written. This one did not disappoint.

    Your partner,

  13. Becky, I had never heard of (Vera) Zorina until recently when I watched I Was An Adventuress, and I watched the film primarily because it teamed Peter Lorre and Erich von Stroheim. The film was a light romantic comedy, but it was memorable mainly as a showcase for Zorina’s talents as a ballerina. The triple threat of James Gleason, Frank McHugh and Erik Rhodes certainly is temptation enough to watch On Your Toes, but I am fascinated by the blend of ballet and jazz. You mention the apparent flaunting of the production code, which is fascinating during this period; with such strict prohibitions it is amazing how much adultery, alcoholism, pregnancy without benefit of wedlock and good old fashion licentiousness found a way into films. Thank you for your entertaining and informative presentation of a film that has made it onto my list; I’ll keep Zorina’s films in mind next time one airs on television.

  14. I've never seen "On Your Toes," and your excellent review has piqued my interest. If anything, you hooked me by mentioning that cast of great character actors. Even without seeing it, your analysis was thoughtful as always.

  15. Great post Becky! I'm a big fan of the classic musicals but this one I've never seen. I'll be looking for it now thanks to your enticing review.

  16. My dear readers, I like to respond individually to everybody who takes the time to read my stuff. I'm afraid this time around the blogathon has been a busy time for me in putting it together, writing myself, and more importantly, visiting every wonderful blog to thoroughly read and comment on each one. I have great respect for teh opinions of each of you, and I'd just like to tell you all that your compliments are food for my soul! It was fun to write about a so-so movie with one thing about it that is truly phenomenal. I wish I knew why the songs were omitted, but just couldn't find out why! And I certainly agree that the wonderful character actors carried the show itself. The jazz ballet was so ground-breaking, and I'm surprised the movie is not shown more often just for that if nothing else, especially on TCM! If you ever get the chance, try to find it. I grew up listening to the symphonic suite of Slaughter on 10th Avenue (my Dad played it all the time with our other favorite classical music), so it's always had a special place in my heart! You are wonderful, all of you, and I thank you so much!

  17. I have not seen the film, On Your Toes. Your excellent review makes it sound like one of the best musicals to have ballet as part of the plot.

  18. Love this post, Becky, you really cover the film and the back story beautifully and in detail. I haven't seen "On Your Toes" for ages but I'm in the mood now.
    And you're so right about the cast of characters - which includes two of my all-time favorites, James Gleason and Frank McHugh.

  19. Thanks so much, Dawn, the jazz ballet is really something -- hope you get to see it sometime.

    Eve, Frank McHugh is probably my very favorite of the male character actors, but frankly (pun intended), I love 'em all in this movie! I appreciate your enjoyment of my review -- I loved doing it!

  20. I've never seen this movie, but after reading your review, it is definitely a must-see now (Eddie Albert dancing? Gotta love it!). I enjoyed reading your in-depth analysis of "Slaughter"--it sounds like a sexy, beautiful moment (personally, I'm delighted any time it appears that filmmakers were able to "sneak" innuendo past the Code!).

  21. Thanks, Brandie! Eddie Albert does surprisingly well, especially dancing with a prima ballerina! And I too love a good "sneak past the censors" scene! I am a really big fan of pre-code movies!

  22. I'm glad you came to visit CMAS (my abbreviation for your name!). Thank you for coming over, and for your nice compliment. Photos were not easy to find for this movie, and I love to have pictures in my posts. I sure wish I could have found a clip of the original On Your Toes version of Slaughter, but it just wasn't available. I hope you visit my blog again -- you are most welcome!