The best movie dance scenes are not easy to hone down to just ten. After compiling my choices, I felt a sense of guilt for omitting at least a dozen more that could easily qualify among the best of the best. However, because of my own tastes, my preference for Broadway musicals and lack of appreciation for just about every movie dance scene from the past 40 years, here are my choices:
1. An American in Paris (1951) won a score of Academy Awards, and featured a 20-minute dance sequence to Gershwin’s magnificent title song that no other musical film has ever topped. Gene Kelly in character as artist Jerry Mulligan starred in and danced several other great Gershwin numbers in the film, and each was superior enough to make any top ten list of best film dance scenes. However the fantastic, no-dialog ballet with Leslie Caron at the end of the film is a classic for all times.
2. Sweet Charity (1969) is Shirley MacLaine at the height of her great dancing career in this film. As a tried and true Broadway hit before it was filmed, it included many great dance numbers, and it is difficult to choose the best. I believe Shirley’s march through New York streets in “I’m a Brass Band” is the most brilliant. Dressed in a bright red drum major’s costume, she struts and spins magnificently through the streets, followed by her company of marchers and musicians. Of course, many people would elect the cynical “Hey, Big Spender” as the better number in the show, and I almost agree. But nothing could match the energetic Shirley’s streets of New York dance romp.
3.Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is obviously a highly romanticized biography of the song-and-dance immortal, George M. Cohan, but when Oscar-winning Jimmy Cagney tells you to believe, you’d better believe. The film has many great dance numbers, but the best has to be Cagney’s dance to the title tune. Although already well into his 40s and should have been long past his dancing days, Cagney does an amazingly acrobatic turn as he sings and recites the lyrics with a crowd of singing ladies and dancing jockeys behind him. I often go into YouTube and play the number, just to remember when music wasn’t all noise, and dancing made entertainment sense and to make my day a little bit sunnier.
4. The Little Colonel (1935) featured six-year-old Shirley Temple dancing up and down the steps with immortal hoofer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Although, as in all early films, the black Robinson’s character was required to be a servant, the friendly equality and conversation between him and the white child was highly unusual for the time of strict racial inequality. The popularity of the number was so great, the pair did an even more lively, dance challenge version in a sequel made later in the year, “The Littlest Rebel.”
5. Babes in Arms (1939) is one of a dozen song-and-dance movies made by the partnership of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. Judy was about to enter film immortality the same year as 12-year-old Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz’, but in this movie she could be her normally, gee-whiz 16ish self. Like many of my choices for best film dances, this musical within a musical had been a Broadway hit before MGM made it into a movie for its most popular teen stars. Their energetic rendition of “Good Morning” was a show-stopper, and also was featured a dozen years later in “Singin’ in the Rain”.
6. A Chorus Line (1985) takes a lot of getting used to, because it features many of the audition problems of wannabe Broadway dance stars. Disappointment, rejection, favoritism and age discrimination are rampant. However, it all comes together in the final fantastic dance sequence, “One” when the survivors of the auditions put on their costumes and do the triumphant precision number.
7. Singin’ In the Rain (1952) has what is often called the greatest dance number in the history of film. And who can argue when Gene Kelly sings and splatters the title song at night on a rainy Hollywood street? I often watch this dance on YouTube, and it always has nuances I hadn’t seen before, and makes modern film dances look like amateur night. The rest of the film is great, too, including Donald O’Connor’s fantastically funny singing and dancing, “Make “Em Laugh”, which also would be at least an honorable mention on my list of best movie dance sequences.
8. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1951) is also the movie taken from a Broadway hit, and suffers a bit because the original star, Carol Channing wasn’t sexy enough to compete with the two movie sex symbols of the time, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. However, say what you will about Marilyn’s singing talent, she did a fantastic job in the suggestive number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend”, and made up for with pouting lips and hip-wiggling for any lack of warbling skills.
9. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967) continues my prejudice for Broadway hits becoming the best musical movies. It has many great songs and dances, but the one I enjoy listening to and watching over and over is “The Brotherhood of Man”. It’s an energetic all-guy song and dance number, except for an operatic interruption and blending by a hefty contralto. Maybe I like the premise of the film’s clownish parody of office politics and the song lyrics of this equally disrespectful dance number, because I spent 25 years working in a similar corporate despotic monarchy.
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939) has to be on my list, otherwise a house might fall on me for making such a criminal omission. It is probably the only movie in history to have a so-so debut, and then, because of Christmas and TV, go on through the generations to become one of the most popular films ever made. OK, I’ll admit that the dance number, “We’re Off to See the Wizard” is beautifully staged, featuring the antics of Judy Garland (Dorothy), Ray Bolger (Scarecrow), Jack Haley (Tin Man) and Bert Lahr (Cowardly Lion) and Toto, too, on the Yellow Brick Road is a memorable piece of film history.