Film In Depth

Forgotten Oscars: Best Dance Direction

The reasoning behind the short lifespans of some of Oscar’s retired categories is obvious: Best Title Writing, for instance, required films to actually have written intertitles; Best Assistant Director, while a noble effort to reward the hardworking crew, probably wasn’t a sexy enough award for a black-tie gala; and the need for a Best Engineering Effects award was really limited to the year Wings was nominated. But Best Dance Direction—aka the award for outstanding choreography in a motion picture—is one recognition that seems like it should have lasted for much longer than it actually did. As it was, the Academy only gave it out for a range of a few short years, from 1935 to 1937, and thus completely missed out on rewarding a couple decades’ worth of phenomenal dance staging from choreographers like Fred Astaire, Busby Berkeley, Michael Kidd, or really any of the big names from the height of movie musicals.

The award was intended to honor a single choreographer for their contributions over the year, rather than for their work in one particular picture, and as such, the nominees for those first few years are often recognized for more than one film. That was the case for the winner of the first award, Dave Gould, who won in 1935 for both “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling,” from Broadway Melody of 1936, and “Straw Hat,” from Folies Bergere. I haven’t seen Folies Bergere, but “Feeling” is an intoxicatingly staged number, taking particular advantage of the camera by incorporating new techniques unavailable to stage choreographers, which heightens the richness of the scene. Dancers appear out of thin air, and disappear just as quickly, change dresses in an instant—all thanks to the magic of film editing and camera work.

The 1936 award went to Semour Felix for the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number from The Great Ziegfeld, an intricately staged set piece that takes place on an enormous, spinning spiral staircase (later seen in films like Ziegfeld Girl—in that version, Judy Garland perches at its peak like the topper of a wedding cake). The scene is filmed in a single, remarkable shot in which the platform rotates to reveal the various diorama-like tableaus, instead of the camera itself actually moving. In that regard, the first half of the number, spectacular though it is, is fairly similar to what one might have seen on stage. However, the second half of the number elevates the scene to an appropriate place in film history, as the camera is suddenly raised on a crane in order to “climb” the steps of the staircase, which continues to spin as we move upwards. And once we reach the top, the camera pulls back to reveal the whole grand spectacle as a whole, instead of the individual segments we’d been exposed to previously. So, it’s in this combination of editorial framing and camera movement that we get that great, purely cinematic choreographic experience.

The final Best Dance Direction prize was awarded to Hermes Pan in 1937 for his work on the “Stiff Upper Lip” sequence from A Damsel in Distress. This is a very fun, inventive, and cleverly staged number, featuring the incomparable Fred Astaire, Gracie Allen, and George Burns dancing in a carnival fun house. The choreography makes good use of the fun house set, incorporating the moving platforms, spinning tunnels, and distorted mirrors. I particularly love the moment when the female half of the chorus are standing on a circular, spinning platform, with the men forming a stationary ring along the outside, and one by one the women twirl off the platform into the arms of their partners. We see a lot of these “fun house” elements in musicals around this time (although usually a bit more hidden), but Pan’s staging in A Damsel in Distress is done so impeccably well, and he has a great trio of dancers to make it work. It’s also worth noting that Astaire himself choreographed some of this number, though as it was uncredited, it was unrecognized by the Academy.


Though these are all wonderfully staged numbers, I think, in these early days, the Academy was understandably leaning towards rewarding choreography that harnessed film technology in an interesting, cinematic way, rather than considering the pure staging of the dances themselves. That’s why it’s unfortunate that this award was retired after 1937, at which point technology was continuing to improve and many of film’s greatest choreographers were rising to prominence. In 1937, Fred Astaire hadn’t even gotten his first official credit as a choreographer, Gene Kelly was still looking (and failing) to find work on Broadway, and the eponymous eventual head of MGM’s esteemed Arthur Freed unit was still scribbling out lyrics as a songwriter. Though it would’ve been impossible to predict the resurgence of musicals that occurred during the war years and beyond, it’s certainly unfortunate that most of those talented names never received their due rewards.

amparis-levantkellyTo a small extent, the Academy did recognize at least a few of these later masters, by giving out three more—what else?— honorary awards that were technically meant to include choreographic contributions. Gene Kelly got the first of these in 1951 “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.” This coincided with his performance and particularly brilliant and vivacious choreography in An American in Paris. I also love that the Academy felt compelled to give Kelly an honorary award less than ten years after his on-screen debut, which seems like a pretty incredible endorsement in a short amount of time—clearly they recognized it was a travesty to have him wait any longer, which I approve. The second honorary award was for Jerome Robbins in 1961 “for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film;” he also received the Best Director award for West Side Story that year, and I think it was a correct estimation of the wonderfully iconic and memorable dancing from the film that he won a choreography prize too. The most recent honorary award—given in 1968—was for Onna White and “her outstanding choreography achievement for Oliver!.” I’ve actually never seen Oliver!, but based on the wonderful company she’s in, I’ll have to assume that the dancing is brilliant and add it to my queue.

Still, it’s disappointing that there are so many names left off the list that were never officially recognized by the Academy. Busby Berkeley was nominated for all three years that the award existed, yet never won—though he seems to have done fine for himself, despite that setback. There’s not nearly enough musicals happening nowadays to justify the award’s continued existence, of course, but it would have been amazing to have an official record of the outstanding choreography contributions throughout the 1940s and ’50s, even as a technical award. I suppose it’s up to history to determine these “winners,” which, in the end, might just be the best way for them to be remembered.

This is part of the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. To find out more info, visit the blogathon home page. All my Oscar entries are/will be tagged under 31 Days of Oscar.

8 thoughts on “Forgotten Oscars: Best Dance Direction”

  1. Hey, I never knew there was such a category! I can see why it might have faded in time–as musicals became more scarce. But one would think it would have lasted longer.

    1. Yes! I was actually intending to do an entry complaining about the lack of the category… then discovered it actually did exist, albeit for only a brief shining moment!

  2. Really enjoyed your enlightening article.

    As we wend our way through Hollywood musicals we may find wonderful production numbers hidden away in lacklustre films. A list of nominations in such a category might have helped discover some hidden gems. Oh, well. We’ll just have to explore on our own.

    1. Definitely—just looking at those first few years of nominations, I was surprised at how many of the films I hadn’t even heard of yet… and will have to be checking out now!

  3. What a wonderful post! I must admit that I didn’t know such a category ever existed but I’m so glad it did – I love the videos you included. I have mixed feelings about Gene Kelly’s honorary Oscar; whilst I think it’s incredibly well-deserved it comes across as a bit of an after-thought, and it’s such a shame his efforts weren’t rewarded at the time.

    1. I didn’t really know it existed either, ’til i started researching it! And regarding Gene, I almost wonder if they hadn’t given him the honorary Oscar at that (relatively) early point in his career—before Singin’ in the Rain, It’s Always Fair Weather, Xanadu ;) etc.—if he wouldn’t have earned a well-deserved one himself in the years following. I guess it’s hard to justify nominating someone for an Oscar (and thus, denying someone else) when you just gave them a special one!

  4. Wonderful article. There are so many different types of dance in film and you highlighted one of my favorite dance scenes. The dancers are really athletes. Great to recognize those artists who don’t get enough of the limelight.

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