Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dancing in the Dark: the Irreplaceable Tommy Rall

Today, with movie musicals largely a thing of the past and Broadway shuttered for the foreseeable future, I can’t help worrying about the talent we won’t be seeing anytime soon. Who will follow in the footsteps of terpsichorean masters like Tommy Rall, the stage and screen dancer of the 1950s who passed earlier this month at age 90? (Rall breathed his last in Santa Monica, my home town, which boasts several major hospitals and seems to be—alas—a good place to die.)

 Until recently I didn’t know Tommy Rall’s name. But when I discovered he was one of the seven Pontipee boys in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, he was (to quote Cole Porter) all right with me. Seven Brides, which had once seemed like good family fun, is less appealing now, given its nod to the mythological rape of the Sabine women in explaining how six rollicking redheaded backwoods Pontipees (faced with a distinct female shortage) manage to find marriage partners by abducting the local ladies and holding them prisoner until winter melted into spring. The MGM production is at pains to keep sex at bay and make clear that these young women really love these guys, despite their wild and crazy ways. Still, in an era when we’re focusing on sexual coercion, the storyline remains a tad disturbing.

 The glory of Seven Brides, of course, is its dancing, epitomized by the barn-raising sequence in which the townsmen vie with the Pontipees to show off their masculine charms. All the dancers, as choreographed by Michael Kidd, are marvelously spirited and agile. (They include Russ Tamblyn of West Side Story fame, as well as New York City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise. A young Julie Newmar, billed as Julie Newmeyer, is the tallest bride-to-be.) But in re-watching this delightful footage, it’s clear that Tommy Rall (as the hot-headed Frank) is the first among equals. He’s the one with the bright red shirt, the tall black boots, and the look of furious intensity. As a stage and screen dancer, Rall could be not only balletic but acrobatic, shedding none of his machismo while moving to music. It didn’t hurt that he was a capable singer too.

 Scrolling through the invaluable YouTube, I’ve located clips of Rall in such Fifties musicals as Kiss Me Kate, where he romances Ann Miller’s spritely Bianca and vies with none other than the young Bob Fosse for her hand. (Check out Rall’s comic duet with Miller to Cole Porter’s “Always True to You in My Fashion.”) There’s also a primo competition dance, full of leaps, twirls, and tapping, between Rall and the smaller, slighter Fosse from 1955’s musical version of My Sister Eileen.

  Needless to say, Bob Fosse moved on from Hollywood to evolve into a major Broadway choreographer and director, ultimately winning an Oscar for his work on Cabaret and becoming a legend in his own time. Addicted to drink and drugs, he burned out in 1987 at the age of sixty. Rall, who played a quieter role in the entertainment world, lived thirty years longer. Though the Fifties was his great era, he was still flourishing in 1968, showing both his classical poise and his ability to keep a straight face while partnering Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl’s hilariously unorthodox version of Swan Lake.

 His talents earned the respect of such great movie dancers as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. And his name meant enough on Broadway that someone named Frederick Brame borrowed it without permission to try to advance his own dance career. Hail and farewell to the real Tommy Rall.



  1. Great post! I would enjoy rewatching this ... problematic for the kids though. Maybe a "teachable moment??"

  2. I think it could be managed, if you do some 'splaining in advance. I hope you checked out all the other links. I certainly had fun researching (on YouTube) Rall's career. The kids would certainly like the Swan Lake parody.