My first memory of tap dancing was an episode of "Full House." The episode featured Stephanie teaching young Michelle how to tap-dance. Stephanie does a nice little "tea for two" ditty, and tells Michelle to try it. Michelle just stomps back in forth quickly, yelling "TEA FOR TWO, TWO FOR TEA!" over and over. It was humorous, to be sure, but also showed how quickly tap dancing can go from delightful to annoying. Fortunately, the examples provided below are all delightful instances of creative numbers with famous feet.
But why focus on tap dancing this week at Saturday Matinee? Actually, I intended on writing about the Silly Symphony "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod." Writer's block led to me shelving that cartoon and perusing through YouTube to clear my mind. This led to me watching one of my favorite clips: MGM star Ann Miller as she taps to "I Gotta Hear That Beat" from the 1953 film Small Town Girl. It's quite a surreal number - choreographed by Busby Berkeley and featuring Miller tap dancing in a soundstage with bodyless arms playing various musical instruments. I'd seen the number before in That's Entertainment!, but never in the context of the actual film.
I began looking up even more of Miller's famous 500-taps-a-minute numbers (a claim used mainly for publicity, though I'm sure Miller could have easily done it), such as "Shaking the Blues Away" from 1948's Easter Parade and "Hallelujah (Reprise)" from 1955's Hit the Deck. Eventually, I stumbled upon a clip I had never seen before, but was glad I finally did: Ann Miller, at 66 years old, still tapping away to "42nd Street." Best part? She was doing so for the grand opening of Disney-MGM Studios!
Miller was one of the many celebrities who hosted/appeared in the NBC special - which originally aired April 30, 1989 - and her "42nd Street" number was appropriately shot right on New York Street. The number was one of several that helped garner a Best Choreography Emmy for the television special, and you can see that even at 66 years old, she's still got it. Then again, she never lost it. While Miller largely retired from Hollywood motion pictures after 1956, she continued to work in television. She made appearances on various talk and award shows, along with television specials, including this one.
After watching Ann Miller tapping the night away, I decided to watch another favorite YouTube clip. This one featured Gene Kelly (another MGM staple) with Julie Andrews in her November 28, 1965 television special, "The Julie Andrews Show" - not to be confused with her weekly variety series, "The Julie Andrews Hour." This was Andrews' second television special, as she previously co-hosted "Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall" with Carol Burnett in 1962. Andrews performed a variety of songs and skits, co-starring Gene Kelly, and also featuring a guest appearance by the New Christy Minstrels.
One of the best moments in the special is a casual sit-down with Gene Kelly. She tells the audience of a game they played during rehearsals, in which one person taps out a song. Kelly, she points out, does so with his feet rather than with his knuckles. Kelly goes first, tapping out "Yankee Doodle," which Andrews whistles back to him and jokingly says is "Rule, Britannia!" Kelly then prompts her to do one, and she taps out "By the Beautiful Sea," which the two sing and tap together. Andrews goes again, and taps out "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious," which sounds eerily similar to "Yankee Doodle." The audience applauds, and Andrews and Kelly then sing the entire song together. The two then get up for one more tap number, a spirited piece with the two of them perfectly complementing each other. Disney and MGM never looked better than they did in 1965.
Of course, the above two examples of tap-dancing are only tangentially connected to Disney. It would be hard to ignore some of the best tap-dancing done at Disney Studios. I speak, of course, of the 1936 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Thru the Mirror." The short pays tribute and is partly inspired by "Alice Through The Looking Glass," which a sleeping Mickey is seen to have been reading. He dreams that he enters another world through his mirror. He encounters a variety of living furniture, eats a walnut and shrinks, then makes friends with a telephone, which leads to him doing a little tap dancing. He gets a top hat of his own (but sadly, no coat-tails), and dances atop an actual top hat, then later with a pair of gloves.
After being kicked across the table, Mickey leads a troop of playing cards in a joyful march, in which he orders them to shuffle and cut. Mickey then deals them out into colorful peacock patterns. The cards then start doing their own Busby Berkeley-inspired kaleidoscope dancing, while Mickey begins to sashay across a checkerboard with a Queen of Hearts playing card. This bothers the King of Hearts, who slaps Mickey and prepares to duel him with swords. Mickey plays along, taking a thread needle as his foil. He defeats the king, pushing him into an inkwell. The king then calls for the other cards to capture him.
A mad chase ensues, and Mickey does everything to avoid capture. He turns on a fan, which instantly blows many away. As Mickey runs across a globe, he slips and falls into the water, where the latitude-longitude lines act as a net. Poseidon shoves him out of there, and Mickey runs towards the mirror. He goes through once again, and reunites with his sleeping self. The alarm clock rings away, waking Mickey. He answers, believing it to be the friendly phone from his dream. Upon realizing it's the alarm clock, he shoves it in the drawer and goes back to sleep.
I couldn't find any definitive information on who animated Mickey's tap dancing, although DisneyShorts.org includes a submitted comment that credits Carl Barks with the in-between work. Barks is best known for his work with the Disney comics, expanding upon Donald Duck's family and backstory through the creation of many of the characters/ideas for Duckburg, including Scrooge McDuck, Junior Woodchucks, the Beagle Boys, and Magica De Spell. I wasn't aware that Barks did animation work, as I only knew his name from the comics. Either way, Mickey's tap dancing is one of the highlights of the short, greatly reminiscent of dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire. The actor was best known in the 1930's for his pairings with Ginger Rogers in a variety of films for RKO. Even Mickey's dancing with the Queen of Hearts seems to scream "Fred and Ginger." And is it just me, or does the Queen of Hearts look slightly like a caricature of Ginger Rogers? Maybe because she's blonde. I wouldn't be surprised if that was intended.
The non-Disney tap dancing examples I mentioned above - Ann Miller in "The Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park Grand Opening" and Andrews/Kelly in "The Julie Andrews Show" - aren't available anywhere on DVD. Disney rarely puts their television specials on DVD, making the former understandable, but still unfortunate. I have no explanation for the latter, although I assume whoever holds the rights to the special doesn't see any commercial value in its release. However, you can still find a variety of Ann Miller films on DVD, either in general release or through the Warner Archive Collection. The ones mentioned in this article include 1948's Easter Parade, 1953's Small Town Girl (Warner Archive Collection only), 1955's Hit the Deck, and 1974's That's Entertainment! (also on Blu-Ray).
Disney's "Thru the Mirror" is available from a variety of Disney DVDs and one extremely well-made Blu-Ray. The short first appeared in "Walt Disney Treasures: Mickey Mouse in Living Color" (2001). It later showed up as a bonus cartoon in "Alice in Wonderland: The Masterpiece Edition" DVD (released in 2004). The short was also included in 2009's compilation disc "Walt Disney Animation Collection, Volume One: Mickey and the Beanstalk," then re-reappeared again in 2010's "Alice in Wonderland: Special Un-Anniversary Edition" DVD. Finally, it's available on - yep, you guessed it - the "Alice in Wonderland: 60th Anniversary Edition" Blu-Ray, released in 2011. Disney sure loves pairing the two together, and for good reason.