Gotta sing, gotta dance? Not a problem for newbie tapper, Channing Tatum

It can’t be easy to upstage George Clooney but I think Channing Tatum’s done it in Hail, Caesar! the Coen brothers’ new movie about Hollywood in the days when it churned out a combo of musicals, westerns, biblical epics, soap opera and aquatic dancing.

Tatum plays the role of a song and dance man who taps and sings his way through a musical number with all the style and much of the pizazz of the tap dancers who made their name in Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s.

That’s remarkable because Tatum had never tapped before the movie was filmed. As he told the TV host, Jimmy Kimmel, (see the clip below), he trained for three and a half months for six minutes of dancing on film.

In Hail, Caesar!, Tatum’s character, Burt Gurney, leads a group of dancers reprising those sailors-on-shore-leave movies of the mid-20th century starring Gene Kelly and other great tappers of the day, including the brilliant Donald O’Connor*.

The Hail, Caesar! number is called No Dames! (yes, exclamation marks are everywhere in this movie!).

The joke is in the title as the sailors, we soon see, have no need of ‘dames’. They prefer one another.

The word ‘dames’ was part of the vocabulary for Broadway-Hollywood shows from the 1930s to ‘50s with the song, Dames, a highlight of the score of the movie, Dames, and the song, There is Nothing Like a Dame, a big number in the musical, South Pacific.

Hail, Caesar!’s tap scene brings together familiar elements of the Gene Kelly era when the dancers gathered in a bar, leapt on to table tops, tapped up and down stairs, danced with brooms and irritated the barman, a stock figure whose role was to keep chaos to a minimum.

The standard bar scene evolved from Fancy Free, a ballet choreographed by Jerome Robbins in 1944. Fancy Free became a musical, On the Town, which in turn became a movie, starring Kelly and Frank Sinatra.

Hail, Caesar! is set in the fictitious Capitol Studios in Hollywood in the 1950s, in which several films are being shot in different sound stages.

The concept meant the Coen brothers could make fun of many film genres in the first half of the 20th century.

Clooney as Caesar parodies Charlton Heston as the star of a Bible blockbuster, while Scarlett Johansson, dressed in a mermaid costume outsplashes Esther Williams in the role of DeeAnna Moran, bobbing up and down within a giant pool in the studio, accompanied by a synchronised swimming ensemble making Busby Berkeley’s patterns in the water.

In another sound stage Ralph Fiennes, plays the role of the sophisticated English director, Laurence Laurentz, (who speaks with the precision of Laurence Olivier.) ‘Laurentz’ is the director of Merrily We Dance, a drawing room comedy with Noel Coward-like banter and women wearing satin ballgowns. In the fake western movie, the actor, Alden Ehrenreich, plays the role of Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy, who twirls a lasso, plays a guitar and makes a girl swoon under the moon.

The Hail, Caesar! choreographer is the award winning, Christopher Gattelli, who has choreographed many musicals on Broadway, including a revival of South Pacific.

If there was an Oscar for best choreography in a movie, Gattelli would take home the golden statue at next year’s Academy Awards.

* “To call Donald O’Connor a song-and-dance man is like calling Shakespeare a strolling player”, the dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff, wrote in The New York Times when the Film Society of Lincoln Centre saluted him in 1997.

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Channing Tatum and dancers in the No Dames scene, Hail, Caesar!

Scarlett Johansson as DeeAnna Moran in Hail, Caesar!

Channing Tatum and dancers in the No Dames scene, Hail, Caesar!

On the Town poster