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Moments of Grace


misswonderly3
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Nope, not about Miss Kelly.

 

The other night I watched a fairly light-weight little film featuring Lew Ayres and a very young, almost unrecognizable Lana Turner. (Actually, it wasn't all that light-weight - it had quite a sad side-story about Marsha Hunt's character...)

 

Anyway, Lana's character was what they called back then a "taxi dancer". So naturally, she was a fairly experienced and impressive dancer. There's a delightful scene where she starts dancing with an equally talented boy, not at her taxi-dancer job, but at a college's "house party", full of ebullient young students.

She and her impromptu partner turn out to be pretty darn good; what makes this scene so enjoyable is that you aren't expecting a semi Fred and Ginger number to pop up in the middle of the film like that. (Ok, they aren't as good as F and G, but they're good.)

 

It good me thinking about a phenomenon I always enjoy when it occurs in a movie or television show: sudden, unexpected ability. The sight of someone - not a professional - doing something, anything, well.

It could be somebody exhibiting a talent for dancing, but it could also be as simple as a character making perfect scrambled eggs, or fixing a tap, or riding a horse. It's about a person demonstrating a hitherto unrevealed skill or talent for something that exceeds the average.

 

Another example, not in the movies, but from the acclaimed television series "Mad Men", is an episode in which a young couple unexpectedly performs a perfect, joyful, rendition of the "Charleston". In the same episode, another character, equally unexpectedly, mixes a couple of drinks with the speed and deftness of a professional bartender.

Somehow the sight of someone doing something really well, whatever it may be, especially if it reveals a side of their character the audience may not have been aware of before, gives me pleasure. It's like a little piece of elegance and grace that's a part of that character we've never seen before.

Anyone else know what I'm talking about here?

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An actor playing an instrument (usually a piano) most often provides a moment of grace for me. Fred Astaire was a great piano player, unfortunately, there were only a couple of times he played in films. Other favorite moments of piano playing include Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, Miriam Hopkins in The Smiling Lieutenant (the way she flicks her cigarette is some of the best business in movies), and Ann Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain.

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I don't know if this is exactly the phenomenon you're referring to, but one of my favorite movie moments is the one in GYPSY where Natalie Wood (whose character Louise had been seen as the more plain and untalented sister) looks in the mirror in the burlesque theater dressing room and says "I'm a pretty girl, Mama," seeing for the first time how beautiful she is.

(The audience already knew this, of course, since she was played by Natalie Wood.)

She then goes on to make her her debut as "Gypsy Rose Lee," followed by the "Let Me Entertain You" sequence that traces her rise to burlesque stardom.

 

The Lana Turner movie you mention is THESE GLAMOUR GIRLS, which features one of my favorite actors from that period, Tom Brown.

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Hi, Holden...........I have to agree with you on that pivotal moment in "Gypsy". I first saw the film when I was about 10 years old, and that scene stuck with me, and I still enjoy it today as much as I did then. Even at 10, I realized what was happening to this young woman.........and the tune that is played as Louise leaves the dressing room to go onstage for the first time is fabulous; it stuck in my head for a long time!

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Thanks, people - good suggestions, all.

 

Yes, one sees this type of thing most often in terms of music or dance. Another dance moment I recall like that is from *Vivacious Lady*. Ginger Rogers teaches her husband's mother to dance. The older lady actually catches on fairly quickly, and the two of them have quite a fun time, dancing away up in Ginger's room until some stodgey person interrupts them (that's the way I recall it, anyway.)

 

You also see this kind of "moment of grace" scene sometimes with athletics or sports.

For instance, in the 1940 *Pride and Prejudice*, Mr. Darcy attempts to teach Elizabeth archery. He is chagrined and we are amused when we see her gracefully and effortlessly shooting an arrow into a perfect bulls eye.

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MissW, would Danny Kaye's dexterity with a sword in THE COURT JESTER qualify?

 

Basil Rathbone, who had taken up duelling as a hobby 20 years before making this film with the comedian, was apparently amazed at Kaye's skill, in addition to the speed with which the comic learned the choreography of the duelling sequences, which, I assume, requires something of a dancer's grace.

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Hmm, I'm not sure about that, Tom, baby.

Maybe.

I like Danny Kaye, and really enjoy his graceful, deft, hilarious performance in *Court Jester*. But I was thinking more along the lines of a character in a film, not the actor himself, demonstrating hitherto unexpected talent in some area.

Actually, though, Kaye's virtuosity with a sword is unexpected, because, when he's under Mildred Natwick's spell he transforms, amazingly, astonishingly, from a timid inept (albeit lovable) bumbler to a jaw-droppingly talented fencer - not to mention poet and lover. ( ! )

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I always find it astonishing the way THELMA RITTER neatly folds that sheet in REAR WINDOW while not missing a beat in delivering her lines to be a moment like that. And folds it near perfect! I lose track of what I'm saying to my wife while folding sheets half-azzed at home.

 

Most actors and actresses in earlier times go through rigorous training in many endeavors while studying drama, and find or develope "hidden talents" that take their careers in a different direction for a while. ROBIN WILLIAMS studied drama at Julliard but built his fame as a stand-up comic before breaking into movies. HARRISON FORD took time off from an early lagging career to be a carpenter for some time, and showed off THOSE skills in a few movies. JACK LEMMON was a fairly good pianist, as is RICHARD GERE. Really, none of this stuff should be too surprising to anyone.

 

Sepiatone

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I would say that the scene in "Picnic" when William Holden is trying to teach Susan Strasberg a specific rhythm so they can dance together. Strasberg is having trouble picking it up and here comes Kim Novak nailing the rhythm perfectly. The scene evolves into her and Holden slow dancing to a mashup of "Moonglow" and the "Picnic" theme.

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In a later episode of the BBC mini-series The Jewel in the Crown, Charles Dance folds a number of garments very neatly over a significant duration all the while relating a story about something or other. I remember being so fascinated about how well he was doing with that, it was necessary for me to go back and replay the scene in order to find out what he said.

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Love Affair, of the Case of the Missing Switchboard Operator, has a scene showing Eva Ras, as Izabela, making a strudel from scratch, which is one of the most delightful passages in film. There is another magical instant where, while washing dishes, apropos of nothing, she blows a huge soap bubble in her hands.

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You guys clearly "get" what I was talking about. Even folding clothes, or a sheet (as Thelma Ritter did), can demonstrate a kind of "grace", if it's done well.

And yes, the "Moonglow" scene from *Picnic* is a great example of two ordinary people - again, I'm not talking so much about the actors as their characters - showing skill, along with an intuitive ability, that rises above the average and gives both the other characters in the film and the audience pleasure to watch them.

 

I don't know much about Buddhism, although the little I do, I respect it as a belief system. Anyway, I wonder if what I'm thinking of with all this business about doing something with focus and excellence, whether it's a mundance task like folding sheets, a domestic gift like making strudel, or a sense of understanding music and rhythm, like the many dance examples cited here, is what is called "zen". Being "in the moment" and paying careful attention to whatever task one is performing.

There are so many moments like this in movies, I wish I could think of more. As I said, I always enjoy it when it happens.

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In *The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes* Basil Rathbone / Holmes impersonates a musical hall entertainer and does a great routine singing an dancing to "I do like to be beside the seaside" . Its a side of Basil Rathbone we seldom got to see in his movie roles.

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There is a scene where Kim Novak visits Eleanor Parker in Man With The Golden Arm and Eleanor is starting to unravel into a jealous rage, beyond excited, spewing out her lines like a fire truck and all the time working on her scrap book, putting her pictures and newspaper clippings together. Acting schools teach a "Meisner" technique and whenever I watch that scene, I think (wonder) if it was something she learned in early classes and/or stage work.

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