The best things happen when she’s dancing: Vera-Ellen

General Waverly is out of step, out of touch, and out of luck. He’s invested his life savings in the Columbia Inn in Pine Tree,Vermont. Instead of the bustling ski lodge of his dreams, he owns what smart-alecky housekeeper Emma calls a “Tyrolean haunted house.” It’s 60 degrees in December, there hasn’t been any snow since Thanksgiving, and the forecast isn’t good. “Old Man” Waverly has what a lot of what our generation of displaced workers and investors would call a bad case of “Who Moved My Cheese?” What he needs—and what we need—is Plan B. And here it comes on a northbound train…

White Christmas is my hands-down must-see Christmas movie. I’ve seen it a jillion times and I laugh (and cry) in the same spots each time. Today, I’m going to turn the Movie Star Makeover spotlight on my favorite character in this Christmas classic, the one I most identify with (family and friends will read that and say “What? She’s going to talk about Danny Kaye??”). No, I’m talking about Vera-Ellen’s adorable turn as the irrepressible “Judy.”

Vera-Ellen is the embodiment of the Star Style Lively Girl-Next-Door. She’s got incredible energy and vivacity, and she’s heaps of fun. Like so many other cinemagraphic Girls-Next-Door (GND), Vera-Ellen is a “fixer”…she sees a problem and dives in, head-first, to fix it. In White Christmas, Vera’s GND personality gets an upgrade overlay to Sophisticated Ingenue, which is part of what we’ll be talking about today–GNDs, take note. But mostly, we’ll be examining how Vera-Ellen (and her character, Judy) can inspire us right out of our career doldrums. Did your job move off-shore? Do you have an impossible boss? Did the economic world just turn over for you? Here are a few of Career Coach Judy’s “How To Succeed In Business by Really, Really Trying” tips.

Little white (Christmas) lies

Because Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy (Vera-Ellen), the Haynes sisters, seem stuck in a one-trick nightclub act, little sister Judy decides to take things into her own tiny hands. She mails a letter to bigtime Broadway producers, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye). Why them? Well, Betty and Judy have a younger brother who was in the same army unit as the fellows—and Judy pens a note as her brother “Freckle Face Haynes, the Dogfaced Boy,” asking Bob and Phil to critique their act at Novello’s, a Florida nightclub.

Judy knows it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Her ruse works. She is breezily unconcerned about the blatant dishonesty, saying “Sometimes fate needs a little push.” She’s right. If you’ve got connections, use ‘em. If you don’t, consider faking them. Do whatever it takes to advance your goal.

Vera-Ellen herself lived by this credo. After she auditioned for a Broadway musical, a producer told her that while her dancing was great, she was so tiny, she’d look ridiculous in the chorus girl line up. Instead of letting that defeat her, Vera decided to find a way to GET TALLER! She worked up an exercise routine based on different dancing styles, incorporating stretching flat on the floor, hanging by her fingertips from doorways, and lots of balletic high kicks. She credited this routine for her growth from 4’6” to 5’4 ½”. Tall tale, fabulous fib or self-hypnotism? Who knows. What’s important is that whatever it took to get the job, Vera was willing to do it.

Network + footwork = allies

An unexpected bonus of Judy’s plan is Phil Davis, a goofy beanpole who is clearly and obviously perfect for her. While older sister Betty demurs and considers blabbing the truth to the fellows, smart Judy buttonholes Bob for advice (the number one way to flatter a man).

She doesn’t waste her hard-earned elevator moment. When that doesn’t hit paydirt, Judy cozies up to Phil, recognizing an ally and potential mole. Phil, dazzled by Judy (and face it, who WOULDN’T be?), falls for her. And Judy, no fool, pours on her girly, vixenish charm while flinging herself around into a bodice-hugging, sequin-spangled, petticoat-flaring dress of scrumptious peony-pink silk.

She dances for and with him in a graceful pas-de-deux that left this viewer longing both for Florida and a man who can match not only his suit to his shoes, but also his socks

By the end of the dance, they’re a solid team with a united goal. Now that’s networking.

Later, in the dining car, she annexes Bob with a grateful kiss on the cheek, but she wisely concentrates her attention on Phil. Once you’ve got an ally, don’t ignore him or trade-up in front of him.  

In real life, Vera-Ellen was no slouch in the “capitalize on unexpected face-time with the sharks” department. In the summer of 1940, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was billed ahead of Vera at a state fair. Bojangles failed to show, so Vera was being hustled up on stage when Bill rushed onto the stage ahead of her. He announced to the crowd that something very important had come up and he couldn’t dance for them, then said, “I have a little protégé of mine here with me who will dance for you in my place.” Vera had never seen him before, nor he her. She related “…something within me seemed to say, ‘You don’t have a chance like this every day so take advantage of it and give it all you got.’” You bet she did.

Smoke him if you’ve got him

Phil is drawn to Judy because they share a goal, but they also share a happy-go-lucky, opportunistic view of the world. They don’t wait for permission, they ask forgiveness. Phil saves Bob’s life in WWII, thereafter, he has only to rub his elbow and look mournfully at Bob to evoke guilt and get his way. Likewise, Judy uses her buoyant, bubbly charm and sunny smile to work her wiles.

She is wonderfully adaptable, though, and knows when to switch gears. She realizes one size doesn’t fit all in the business world and that a change in strategy often means a change in tactics. When Judy and Phil are stumped on how to jumpstart the older couple’s romance, Judy swings into Plan B, immediately and amazingly morphing from spritely pal to a femme fatale, much to Phil’s astonishment and dismay.

Clad in a wasp-waisted, horsehair-hemmed black-and-white plaid full circle skirt, red leather belt punctuated with gladiator medallions, and a mercilessly tight sweater, Judy seduces hapless Phil with a witches’ brew of red-lipped sex appeal, sidelong flattery, hauteur, and coquetry. Phil doesn’t know what hit him, but by the movie’s end, he doesn’t care. He only knows she’s for him.

Vera-Ellen knew a bit about morphing. Her big break came when Gene Kelly tapped her to partner with him in the Words and Music “dance noir” number (see it by clicking on the link) “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.”

During their time together, Gene revamped (pun intended) Vera’s look and attitude from Shirley Temple to Slinky Temptress.

Vera swapped her rehearsal gear from fluffy ballet skirts for tight turtlenecks and satin blue jeans. And everyone sat up and took notice. She teamed with Gene again in On The Town

…then Fred Astaire in Three Little Words and The Belle of New York (which mysteriously flopped).

A few years (and a few set-backs later—including not getting a promised lead in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers), she was once again co-starring with Danny Kaye in, yep, White Christmas.

Prior to her comeback role as Judy, in 1952, a nasty reporter chided Vera, saying “Somebody should award Vera-Ellen a special Oscar for being the worst dressed off-screen actress in Hollywood.” Vera took it on the chin, cried a bit, then went to Helen Rose (one of Hollywood’s top designers). Helen simplified Vera’s civvies from frou-frou to fabulous and made her one of Tinseltown’s most elegant women.

Be THAT good

Judy keeps her eyes on the prize. If she’s not building her dance career by somersaulting down a flight of stairs in a revealing costume, she’s spouting phony-baloney statistics to get her sister’s romance back on track.

Judy never takes a day off and her gung-ho drive is perfectly depicted by the blindingly brilliant “Abraham” number. (Click on the link to see her in action!) Her dance costume in this number is sheer Edith Head wizardry. A trio of arched olive green bands defines her 18” waist.

The bright daffodil yellow color rivals her wildly unraveling curly blonde hair. The high neckline and dolman sleeves camouflage Judy’s bird-like neck and arms, but her muscular slender legs are on full display by the undulating skater’s skirt. Judy is in tribal heaven and watch out boys, she’s going for the gold.

Every pose, every movement in this blistering hot dance shows another aspect to Judy’s (and Vera’s) personality. (Every time I watch this scene, I inevitably mutter the same phrase in tearful admiration: “Wow. She’s a pistol.” Ask my kids. Every year.) Judy’s THAT good, and isn’t about to hide her blinding light under a bushel, dammit.

Vera couldn’t keep her talent under wraps, either. In the Rockettes chorus line, Vera’s kicks were the highest, her steps the most innovative.The owner informed her she wasn’t cut out to be a chorine; she was just too much of an individualist. When Look magazine reviewed Vera in 1944’s Broadway smash Connecticut Yankee, they raved: “Baby-faced Vera-Ellen is…a rubber-boned dancer-comedienne who has that electric X-quality which enables her to project herself over the footlights and blaze!”

Bouncy. Joyous. Adorable. Sweet. Energetic. Dynamic. Refreshing. Sparkle. Bright. Cute. Young. Beguiling—Broadway critics piled on the Girl Next Door adjectives when describing Vera-Ellen. Thanks to all that vim and vigor, Sam Goldwyn contracted Vera-Ellen, primarily as a foil for his newest acquisition and golden boy, Danny Kaye. In their first teaming, Wonder Man, Vera got more fan mail than either Danny or co-star Virginia Mayo.

Even as the two-faced Goldwyn praised Vera publicly as “radiant, buoyant, wholesome, energetic, and ambitious,” he limited her to being a specialty dancer for just those traits. Ultimately, Vera needed to find a way to move beyond being that cute trick in the tights.

Take stock, then take action

As the Betty-Bob romance waffles, Judy recognizes the danger signs and calls in her favor with Phil: it’s time for them to declare their “engagement.” Despite Phil’s goofy—and rather insulting—reluctance, Judy presses her advantage and holds him to their agreement.

She trusts her power and knows when she’s got him in a clinch, nature will triumph. We get the feeling this isn’t her first rodeo. Judy’s semi-barbaric red nails, arm-party bracelets, and free-flowing hair tell us she’s fully aware of how to set the stage for seduction. She wears bridal white, too, just in case Phil doesn’t get the hint. Hmmmm….could she have planned this? Judy is amazingly resourceful and adaptive. Poor Phil. He hasn’t got a chance!

Edith Head clothed Vera in a heady mix of exotic, ultra-chic outfits that all possess elements of wildness. From her enviable travel ensemble of fit-and-flare camel coat with leopard-crowned toque and matching handbag to her Mandarin-collared pajamas, Judy’s wild-child-meets-sophisticate intensity is on alluring display.

Vera had stiff competition at M-G-M from the likes of Cyd Charisse, so during the inevitable layoffs between pictures, she kept busy with a daunting list of might-be-handy skills: she took typing, Gregg shorthand, and Spanish classes at UCLA, throwing in French, too, just in case her career rough patch became permanent and she would have to become a multi-lingual typist.

While laid-off, Vera reports: “I took stock of everything. Above all, I tried to learn what Hollywood was really like.” She’d been known as a dancer only when at Goldwyn. Her co-star roles with Danny Kaye and other films were secondary ones. She vowed to find a studio where she could shine as a star, to dance and act, to build herself into star material.

To keep Plan A (stardom) humming along, she studied “everything she could think of that might help…singing, dramatic courses, dancing in every form, speaking voice…I realized I had to get out of…being a specialty artist.”

Vera knew that the studios required more than a one-trick pony. Same is true for today’s work force: don’t get stuck being the go-to guy or gal for buggywhip repair.

All you have to do is pick the age, the weight, the size…

Let’s hope General Waverly was paying attention to Judy’s carefully executed battle plans for successful campaigns on the fields of commerce and romance. She uses every weapon at her disposal, every ruffle on her petticoat to win the day–or night!

Judy remains a delightful role model of dogged determination and quick-wittedness that inspires us to network our way into an interview, practice for that elevator encounter, make that upbeat, slightly sneaky cold call.

In real life, Vera-Ellen overcame competition, dull-witted bosses, empty promises, and a changing marketplace to finally triumph in her defining role of Judy–a hyper-talented, elfin woman who knew exactly what she wanted—and got it.

Merry Christmas, Vera-Ellen. You’re a pistol.

 

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(All quotes in this post are drawn from a terrific biography entitled: The Magic and the Mystery: Vera-Ellen by David Soren with Meredith Banasiak and Bob Johnston. I got my copy from Amazon, and if you’d like to know more of Vera’s inspiring, but often sad, backstory, I urge you to buy a copy. The authors just worship her, and share an amazing amount of information, photographs and insider info from folks who knew and loved Vera-Ellen.)

19 thoughts on “The best things happen when she’s dancing: Vera-Ellen

      • PS-No perfume articles for me, that’s outside my area of expertise. However, you might want to check out my friend Donna’s blog A Lovely Inconsequence, she often chats about fragrance! Enjoy! K.

  1. What a wonderful post – I swear I was smiling through every word of it. My favourite two Vera-Ellen films are White Christmas and Call Me Madam. In fact, the dance sequences with her and Kaye/O’Connor almost flow together in my head. Perfect foil to the older, wiser sister Rosemary Clooney in this and definitely made the film a hit.

    I last watched this in…June. Think it’s time I brought it out again just in time for Christmas!

    • Hi, Lucy and thanks for your very kind remarks! I agree that Vera-Ellen’s vivacity is perfect balance by Rosemary’s character. Say, I have never seen Call Me Madam but I’m itching to, as I love Donald O’Connor, too. Thanks for the visit and the comment–it’s so nice to know there’s someone out there! Love, Kay

  2. Between your post and Kimberly’s at GlamAmor, I’m dying to sneak away from the office and watch White Christmas instead of working! Absolutely love that movie, and Vera-Ellen and her fabulous costumes are a big reason why. Her character was so spunky, and it sounds like she had the same determination and tenacity in real life, too. :-)

    I love your blog so much, Kay! It always makes me smile when a new entry pops up, and I often browse back through the older posts. The other day I reread your posts on Desk Set, another holiday favorite. If only my upcoming office party would be as much fun as the one in that film. Then again, it would probably just cause me heartache, working in HR. ;-)

    Happy Holidays,
    Melissa

    • LOL…I know just what you mean…I love that Kimberly and I both found different ways to worship this movie, but it all comes down to EDITH HEAD and the wonderful work of the sassy Vera-Ellen. I DO adore the Desk Set and in fact, I’m actually costuming a community theater version of it in all its 1955 splendor! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, Melissa!!!

  3. Thank you, Kay! I love your take on this classic. My favorites are on Rosemary, so I really enjoy your sharing Vera’s perspective both on and offscreen. It’s all such a joy to look at and learn about, and makes WHITE CHRISTMAS a real treat during the holidays. You are like a sister to me, and wish you the happiest of holidays!

    • I thought we did a pretty darned good job of covering the Edith-front, as it were! I loved your take on this favorite holiday film, too, Kimberly…have a wonderful holiday and make it a GlamAmor one! Love, Kay

  4. Delightful post on the underrated, immensely talented, and lovely Vera-Ellen. I can only think of one other actress (Peggy Cummins) who combined sex appeal and the girl-next-door quality so successfully. Thanks for the info about the Vera-Ellen bio and, most of all, thanks for the incredible photos (several of which are from my fave dance number in WHITE CHRISTMAS, which I’ve also seen a “jillion” times!).

    • Thanks, Rick, for stopping by and yes, isn’t Abraham an amazing number? When I screened White Christmas at my White Xmas theme party this past weekend, my guests literally GASPED at the end of all Vera’s specialty numbers and applauded her. I like to think that somewhere, she’s appreciating the Yuletide love! Many thanks for your kind comments! K.

  5. What an inspiring post! I love the back story of what Vera-Ellen did during her “lay-offs”. Nuggets for today’s times! It’s those type of details that make stars seems so much more human! Love this little star (and the pj’s!!!)

    Emily

    • Those pjs are priceless, aren’t they? She looks so elfin in them and I LOVE when she folds her legs up like they’re pipe cleaners and tucks them into her bed covers…so dear!

  6. Oh, Vera! I only ever saw her in White Christmas but now I must watch her other films!! I She’s great. I love her sultry, dark voice. So delicious to listen to! And yes, her elfin body and face… Gosh! She’s just loads of fun!

    I loved that you put all of the photos of her in this post. The rumors of her having premature aged neck skin due to an eating disorder seem a bit contrived. I don’t think the costumers clothed her in high-necked ensembled during White Christmas for that reason. I’ve always thought it was to give her a bit of sophistication and age, and maybe play on her height a bit, especially next to a taller, seemingly more mature Clooney.

    • Well, Edith Head *did* have to alter Vera’s outfits a few times due to her dropping weight because she was dancing so much and so fiercely. But it was Vera who preferred high-necked blouses…she thought her neck looked too slender and wanted to camoflague it. Clooney was actually 7 years YOUNGER than Vera in this film, so Edith had to pile on the dowdier clothes to compensate for Rosemary’s youth!

        • Lots of biographies and articles! The book I mentioned actually covers a lot about her medical challenges and it’s the most balanced and comprehensive account, I think. Love her! K

  7. Her dance technique was unique and will never be duplicated. I loved her exuberance on stage. It was like she was in another world performing on stage. It’s a shame the art didn’t continue in Hollywood. It was pure Americana in it’s purist form. The American musical is truly missed in today’s entertainment and movies. I appreciated Cid Charise and Ann Miller and all the Hollywood femmes who could tap but Vera was the finest tap dancer of that era.

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