Vera-Ellen is one of the sweetest girls in pictures, and I didn’t enjoy watching her bump, bounce and bruise her way down the stairs.
And when she landed at the bottom, I could have punched the director when he said, shaking his head, "Sorry, honey girl, but we’ll have to do the whole thing over again."
Vera-Ellen had picked herself up and was rubbing her bruised elbows. "What did I do wrong this time?" she asked, her pretty face screwed up in pain.
"For just a second, dear, you turned your head while you were falling," she was told.
"Oh, yes," said Vera-Ellen. "I’ll try to do it right this next time."
With that she started upstairs again. I staid on that stage just long enough to watch her repeat the perilous tumble down those stairs. But once again. the director shook his head.
That’s when I left. I couldn’t take any more, not wishing to see my favourite girl dancer break her neck. However, I did watch her take a fall for a third time. That was when the movie the scene had been made for , Words and Music, came out. Vera-Ellen’s terrific tumble, of course, supplied the melodramatic climax for the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number which she danced with Gene Kelly.
It is safe to say that no one who saw that picture has forgotten that wild dance done against a slum background.
The other day, when I interviewed Vera-ElIen, I mentioned that I’d watched the number being made. "How many takes did that bard-hearted director make you do before he said, "okay?’ " I asked.
"Twenty-three:’ Vera-Ellen told me, laughing and shuddering at the same time. "And I felt bruised and battered-for weeks afterward. I’ve been told by many people that “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” made movie history. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before.
"It also did something to me, that dance. It changed me completely, or haven’t you noticed?"
When I nodded, she asked, "How would you describe that change?"
"You’re sexier:’ I said. "Yes, some year ago, ‘when you interviewed me for MOTION PICTURE’S Stars of Tomorrow series, though I was married at that time, I still felt, looked and behaved like a teen-ager. Doing that one number with Gene Kelly not only changed my whole career in pictures, it also changed me as a person."
Vera-Ellen grinned, and went on, "Until I did Slaughter, I had done only light taps and other frothy kinds of dancing in pictures. Nevertheless, Gene asked MGM to get me for the number.
"At first, I wasn’t sure whether I should take it. 1 knew I could do the steps, but I ,vas going to have – to portray a girl who was a floozy. It shocked me a little, I’ll admit."
Once more, Vera-Ellen grinned, "But Gene, the old master, when I told him about my doubts, sent me down to see Marie Bryant, a coloured dancing teacher, who lives in the heart of the Negro section, on Central Avenue.
"Her whole place smelled of stale beer, and there were burned-out cigarettes everywhere I looked. I’d gone down there wearing a rehearsal outfit with puffed sleeves.
"Marie Bryant shook her head. ‘Honey: she said, ‘you can’t wear that dress if you’re gonna do the kinda dance Mr. Gene Kelly told me to teach you. 1 can’t see your body in such an outfit. I gotta see it, ’cause you talk with your body in this dance. I gotta see it to know what you’re saying with your body as you move around.’
"Marie brought out a couple of kerchiefs, which I put on. Here and there! I worked hard all that day. But when we finished, she said, ‘You’re dancing fine, honey, but what are you thinking about?’ I told her I was just thinking about the steps. She said that was no good, not enough. I had to think of what that sexy dance tried to say. ‘If you don’t think of men and sex while you’re dancing: she told me. ‘your body won’t say anything about those things to the folks watching you.’ "
Vera-Ellen went down to Marie Bryant’s house on Central Avenue every day for a month. She learned to think sex while doing the dance.
There was a complication when she began to rehearse with Gene Kelly. He taught her to dance like a man, instead of a dainty little ballet girl, to dance forcefully, with more power and strength. So while dancing like a woman thinking of love, she also had to dance like a man.
Her work was so sensational that they lengthened her part in the number. In the original script, Vera-Ellen was supposed to be killed early in the dance. The director and Kelly kept changing her death to a spot later and later in the dance.
"One of the difficulties of that fall down. stairs:’ Vera-Ellen explained, "was that I had to land at the bottom precisely right, with my head on an exact spot that had been shown me – because they were taking a close- up of my head, at the end of the fall. I was black and blue all over after all those falls- and I do mean all over." The change in Vera-Ellen, both professionally and as a person, was immediate and amazing, she says. While she was working on Slaughter, she went with her mother to church one Sunday. "Unconsciously I begin to slink along the street, as I was doing in the dance. My mother laughed, and said, ‘This is church we’re going to, deal’, not MGM. Watch yourself!’
"The minute the Hollywood wolves saw Words and Music," said Vera-Ellen, laughing again, "they began calling me up. Wolves who’d never dreamed of phoning me for a date before that. And the boys I went out with seemed to expect a more – shall we say. Liberal standard of conduct of me. However, I soon straightened them out.
"But I always have done a more wicked rumba since then. And I got more dates, went out more often to night clubs. People who knew me said, ‘What’s happened to you? My God, you’re sexy now!’ I always tell them the same thing, that I was sexy before, but they’d never noticed it.’After the bigwigs at MGM saw the rushes of Words and Music, they signed Vera-Ellen to a long-term contract. She danced with Fred Astaire for the first time in “Three Little Words” and costarred with him again in “Belle of New York”. In between the two pictures she danced again with Kelly in “On the Town”.
I asked Vera-Ellen what it was like, to dance with the two greatest male hoofers in the world, what were the differences between them.
"The only difference is what you see on the screen:’ she told me. She declined to amplify this but I think she had in mind that Fred is always the well-brought-up gentleman dancer, while Gene Kelly is the whiz who spent his youth on a street-corner, She did say, however, that Astaire is the more detached of the two.
"Both are versatile, and each can do everything the other does. Both are very consistent and hard workers:’ she went on" "Each has a tremendous admirtttion for the other one, I was rehearsing with Fred the day after he’d seen Gene’s magnificent ,work in “An American in Paris”. ‘Before we started he said that morning, ‘we’ll have to congratulate Gene on that one,’
"Fred has great humility toward his work, like all artists. He worries about each step, like a beginner, Gene, too, is a perfectionist. Early in my career I found that the best way to dance in pictures is to follow the boy. then you’re different in each movie, because you’re following his style.
"I’m getting better parts all the time now, “Give Every Girl a Break” and “Ghost of a Chance” are next on my schedule at MGM, But I’ll never have a dance I loved more than “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”, I’ll never stop being grateful to Gene Kelly for having given me my chance at doing it with him.
"They play the music of Slaughter over the air even now. If I hear it while driving I have to stop the car, pull over on the side of the road – and listen to it, hearing that music makes me shiver and quake, I get goose-flesh at the memory, though we rehearsed it for six weeks, it lasted exactly seven minutes on the screen, the greatest seven minutes of my professional life."
From the American magazine
"Motion Picture and Television Magazine"
Written by Charles Samuels