Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Unfinished Dance (1947) on Margaret O'Brien's Birthday

Film fans always talk about The Omen or The Bad Seed as if the characters that those kids played were truly disturbing children. Poppycock, I say. So what if Damien's presence on earth was a sign of the coming apocalypse and if Rhoda Penmark's blond sweetness masked a murderous soul? 1940s child star Margaret O'Brien could act rings around those kids with one pigtail tied behind her back, break your heart neatly in half in the process, and make you wish that you could thank her for that privilege. When seven of her films air this Friday, January 15th on TCM in honor of her 73rd birthday, you may be able to catch at least a few of them. While I'm sure we'd all like to call in sick and spend a gray January Friday in the company of Ms. O'Brien, for the purposes of this brief piece, I've tried to narrow my focus a bit, looking at one extraordinary film out of several exceptional ones featuring this actress. And yes, friends and readers, spoilers abound... Let's see if I can describe the disquieting effect of The Unfinished Dance adequately for those who haven't been exposed to it. The formula for The Unfinished Dance (1947-Henry Koster), a rarely seen film that will be aired at 1:15pm on January 15th, is a heady brew, composed of mysterious elements drawn from this creative vein:
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Take the early adolescent intensity of Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944), as played by Elizabeth Taylor, (who was apparently channeling Diana the Huntress and Aphrodite on the half shell). Carefully mix in some of the Machiavellian deviousness of Mary Tilford in These Three (1936), as performed with a chilling calculation by Bonita Granville, then add a generous dash of Marcia Mae Jones' vulnerable roller coaster personality when she played Renfrew to Granville's manipulative Draculetta in that same film. Don't forget to add some atmosphere to the movie that borrows from the hormonally tense Mädchen in Uniform (1931 or 1958 versions) and, for added measure, just a little soupçon of Louise Brooks' "cheerful" school days in The Diary of a Lost Girl (1929). For artistic atmosphere borrow a bit of Maria Ouspenskaya's hauteur as a ballet martinetinstructor in Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) and Waterloo Bridge (1940).
Blend these explosive, decidedly distaff ingredients with care, seasoning with a dollop of schmaltz (courtesy of Danny Thomas as O'Brien's hapless guardian) --and you'll have some idea of the potent power of this unhinged but fascinating MGM movie set in the ballet world "...of those who love, of those who hate--and one who loved too much …"...more on the TCM Movie Morlocks
An appreciation of fellow cast member in The Unfinished Dance, Cyd Charisse, can be seen here on this blog.

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