17 November 2014 | BrianDanaCamp
Unsung Hollywood classic steeped in the world of ballet
In all my years as a film buff, my only exposure to THE UNFINISHED DANCE (1947) was a black-and-white still image from it in a publication I don't recall. It never ran on television when I was growing up, it never played at revival theaters, and no one ever wrote about it or called attention to it in any of the thousands of articles and book chapters on classic Hollywood cinema I've read over the decades. So when I finally watched it, after recording it off TCM on October 8, 2013, I was astounded at how good it was. Why had no one remarked on this film before? Why is this not touted as, perhaps, Hollywood's greatest film about ballet? Everyone talks about Powell & Pressburger's THE RED SHOES (1948), made in England a year later, but no one mentions this film. Granted, THE RED SHOES is some kind of artistic milestone, when judged by its cinematography, sets, costumes, choreography and prestige cast, but it always left me a bit cold emotionally. It depicts a rarefied world with characters that seem more literary creations than drawn from real life. THE UNFINISHED DANCE operates on a much more expressive emotional plane and its characters seem much more real to me. These characters are truly passionate about dance and they live and breathe it every waking moment the way so many dancers in real life do. The young girls in the film who attend the ballet school come out of working-class New York and we can feel the hunger and the energy these characters bring to their chosen art. And the dance numbers, while not quite as long or lavish as those in THE RED SHOES, are all beautifully shot, staged and orchestrated, all in glorious MGM Technicolor.
What fuels this whole film, of course, is the intensity of Margaret O'Brien's central performance as Meg Merlin, a struggling ballet student who worships the company's prima ballerina, Ariane Bouchet (Cyd Charisse), and would, it turns out, do anything to propel her rise to stardom. When a visiting ballet star, La Darina (Karin Booth), is seen as a rival, Meg commits a surreptitious act that injures La Darina and threatens to end her ballet career forever. Meg's guilt drives the rest of the film, going so far as to ruin her close friendship with fellow student Josie (Mary Eleanor Donahue), and possibly derail her future in ballet. Eventually, she reaches out to La Darina and begins the journey to forgiveness and redemption. It's quite a stirring and emotional spectacle and showcases some wonderful actresses who dominate the narrative.
O'Brien, who was all of ten when she made this, gave closeups steeped in feeling like no other child actress. Every emotion that arises during the film plays out on her face. I don't know that I've ever seen another performance by a child star in Hollywood that comes close. One can make a case for Peggy Ann Garner's performances in JANE EYRE (1943) and A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN (1945), and even O'Brien's earlier performance in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944), but I think THE UNFINISHED DANCE has them all beat. Cyd Charisse and Karin Booth merely have to react to O'Brien to give fine performances. I've seen Booth in other films, but I don't know why she didn't have a more substantial career. She's quite good here, especially in closeup where her striking features are best appreciated, and more than adequate in those dance scenes where she's seen up close. She was, however, doubled in the long shots. As for Charisse, I've seen a number of her MGM musicals, but I've never seen her do the kind of furious ballet dancing she does here. It's quite breathtaking and I wish she'd had more opportunities to display this side of her talent.
Interestingly, the largest male role in the film goes to a then-newcomer who was "introduced" in this film, none other than future sitcom star Danny Thomas. He plays a Greek immigrant shopowner named Paneros who runs a clock store and is the sometime boyfriend of Meg's aunt, who's seen only briefly before heading off on a vaudeville tour and leaving Meg in the care of Paneros, an arrangement that would raise plenty of eyebrows if depicted in a film today. Thomas is certainly charming, but his accented performance is much more self-consciously "folksy" than it would have been if played by one of Hollywood's more skilled character actors at the time. Still, as someone who watched his sitcom ("Make Room for Daddy") as a child, I found his presence here quite comforting and it gave the film added resonance. Another future sitcom star on hand is Elinor Donahue (billed as Mary Eleanor Donahue). I had no idea she'd started as a child performer and it's a fun challenge to imagine how Josie, who knows Meg's secret and holds it over her like a dagger, leading to some vicious behavior, would morph into Robert Young's beloved and level-headed "Princess" on "Father Knows Best." Who knew? She's quite good here and I wonder what other good parts she had as a child.
I'm pleased to see that this film has other positive reviews here. I just wish it were better known and more widely seen. There is a DVD out from the Warner Archive, but it has no extras, not even an audio commentary. It would be great to get one from Margaret O'Brien while she's still with us.