Friday, February 23, 2018

31 DAYS OF OSCAR BLOGATHON: Best Dance Direction nominee, She (1935)

It's that wonderful time of year! Paula's Cinema Club, Outspoken and Freckled, and Once Upon a Screen are our hosts for the 31 Days of Oscar BlogathonDay 1Day 2, Day 3.  

During his Hollywood career, Merian C. Cooper produced a variety of quality films, but is most revered for the creation of King Kong. 1935s She follows in that adventure mode, being an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's 1886 lost world novel. The first film version of the story was an 1899 short by Georges Melies, and numerous adaptations have followed including one in 1925 on which Haggard collaborated. Our version from RKO changes the setting from Africa to the top of the world, beyond the ice caps, and was directed by Irving Pichel (The Most Dangerous Game) and designer Lansing C. Holden (The Garden of Allah).

Note: Screen captures are from the colourized version released in 2006 by Legend Films, supervised by Ray Harryhausen. The film was originally designed to be filmed in colour until RKO withheld the funds from the budget.

Nigel Bruce, Samuel S. Hinds, Randolph Scott
An unbelievable story on a dark and stormy night.

On a wild night in England, a wild tale is told by a dying man to his nephew. It is the legend of a long ago, look-alike ancestor who was destroyed after finding the sought for flame of immortality. An ancient letter and a golden statuette are tokens of the truth in the tale. The young man is intrigued and Leo embarks on his own quest retracing the steps in the story. He is accompanied by Professor Horace Holly. On their journey through the inhospitable polar region they pick up a greedy and foolish prospector Dugmore and his adopted daughter Tanya. Only Leo, Holly, and Tanya will reach their goal.

Nigel Bruce, Helen Mack, Randolph Scott
Strangers in a strange land.

Our party reaches the land of Kor and in the cave entrance are beset upon by cannibals. Rescued by the ruler's guards, the trio finds things much different at the palace. The land is ruled by She aka She Who Must Be Obeyed. She has ruled for centuries through terror and imagination. Her will is all.

Helen Gahagan
If She looks familiar, yes, production designer Harold Miles also worked on Walt Disney's 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

She is convinced that Leo is her lover of time past reincarnated and returned to her side. Upon the advice of her high priest played by Julius Adler, She will allow the outsiders, Leo and Holly, to observe a secret ceremonial dance in the Hall of Kings. Leo and Holly are not aware that the dance culminates with a human sacrifice, and the intended sacrifice is Tanya, of whom the queen is justifiably jealous.

I enjoy Ms. Gahagan's sense of entitlement as an immortal, Mr. Scott's stalwart adventurer torn between reality and fantasy, and Ms. Mack's sincerity and spunk. 

1936 award nominations: Best Dance Direction, Benjamin Zemach for Hall of Kings from She

The set designers at RKO, under Van Nest Polglase, outdid themselves on this production. A breathtakingly beautiful art deco world is ours to enjoy. Eleanor Fieldhouse is credited for the wardrobe which is truly magnificently highlighted by the colour treatment given She. The Hall of Kings is a massive and impressive setting and Max Steiner's score provides an ominous and rhythmic background for the dance created by Oscar nominee Benjamin Zemach.

We begin in the Hall of Kings with masked dancers surrounding a cauldron holding what we assume is symbolizing the Flame of Life. Max Steiner's score of minor chords, draws us into the spectacle and the horror.

Hundreds of dancers are used in the number and their work is mesmerizing.

It is not only the choreography, but the way the dance is shot that adds to its intensity.

I am hoping this shot gives an accurate impression of the massive and impressive set which Benjamin Zemach used and filled to great effect.

A dancer is lowered on a rope into the cauldron where the flame will be retrieved and shared.

An athletic dancer swings from the top of the statues that surround the hall.

The beautifully costumed processional moves to the great entrance to the hall.

As the sacrifice comes closer to her fate, the music quickens in joyous anticipation.

Groupings of dancers in different costumes, with various routines which tell the story behind the dance are presented in the great hall.

Tanya, her identity hidden from Leo and Holly, is brought to the cauldron.

Come the dawn! Leo finally clues into She's plan.
Note: the flames that array the bottom of She's gown.

All Hell breaks loose!


Learn about the fascinating creative life and soul of Benjamin Zemach in these excerpts from the New York Times obituary for She's Oscar-nominated dance director (February 1, 1901 - June 18, 1997).

Benjamin Zemach, 95, Dancer; Worked in Theater and Films

Benjamin Zemach, an American modern dance pioneer who specialized in Jewish themes, but also worked on Broadway, in the theater, and in films, died on June 18 in Jerusalem. He was 95.

Mr. Zemach was a young actor in the Habima Theater of Moscow when the American impresario Sol Hurok brought the company's Hebrew language production of The Dybbuk to New York in December 1926. The troupe founded by Mr. Zemach's brother, Naum Zemach, was reorganized in what was then Palestine after this engagement, but Benjamin remained in New York. He later worked in Los Angeles as a choreographer, play director, and teacher. Among the actors who studied with him were Lee J. Cobb, Alan Arkin, Herschel Bernardi, Sam Jaffe and Adeline Gibbs.

In the late 1920s Mr. Zemach quickly became part of a circle of dancers including Martha Graham and Michio Ito who were involved in experimental productions at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York. He also went on to work in the commercial theater. In the 1930s he choreographed the musical Pins and Needles and directed plays including Salome at the Pasadena Playhouse. In 1941 he directed Natural Man for the American Negro Theater.

During his first stay in Los Angeles, from 1932 to 1935 he created two dance pieces for the Hollywood Bowl, Fragments of Israel and Victory Ball which aroused debate because of its antiwar message. In 1935 he did the dances for the films She and Last Days of Pompeii.

After working in Los Angeles, Mr. Zemach returned to New York in 1936. While continuing to dance,  he choreographed Pins and Needles and a Max Reinhardt production The Eternal Road. In 1945 he coordinated a festival African Dances and Modern Rhythms which Eleanor Roosevelt attended as guest of honor at Carnegie Hall.

Mr. Zemach was based again in Los Angeles from 1948 until his move to Israel in 1971. In 1989 at the age of 87, he directed and choreographed an English version of Abraham Goldfaden's musical The Witch for the Jewish Repertory Theater in New York. Richard F. Shepard in The Times called it "a treat for the eyes, particularly eyes attuned to graceful movement."

Mr. Zemach is survived by a daughter, Amielle, and five grandchildren.


Oscars Best Dance Direction Award

This was the first year for the category of Best Dance Direction. The category would be dropped after two more film seasons. In 1937 the award was given to Seymour Felix for A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody from The Great Ziegfeld. The 1938 ceremony would see the prize going to Hermes Pan for the Fun House number from Damsel in Distress. Musicals would continue to be an important genre in Hollywood, so I don't see the sense in eliminating such a category. However, the history of the Oscars is filled with bizarre decisions.

Best Dance Direction, 1936 ceremony

Dave Gould for I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling from Broadway Melody of 1936 and Straw Hat from Folies Bergere de Paris

LeRoy Prinz for Viennese Waltz from All the King's Horses and Elephant and It's the Animal in Me from The Big Broadcast of 1936
Bobby Connelly for Playboy of Paree from Broadway Hostess and Latin from Manhattan from Go Into Your Dance
Busby Berkeley for Lullaby of Broadway and The Words Are in My Heart from Golddiggers of 1935
Sammy Lee for Lovely Lady and Too Good to be True from King of Burlesque
Benjamin Zemach for Hall of Kings from She
Hermes Pan for Piccolino and Top Hat from Top Hat


  1. That's a pretty good color job. I just got through reading an essay on the colorization controversy in the 80s, which apparently was as much about money (SHOCKING, I know) as artistic integrity, but this is a case where the film was intended to be in color all along and wasn't. That dress with the "flames" on the bottom, and the light reflections from the real flames... I'd say this movie is probably improved with the addition of color.

    1. I first saw this movie in B&W, and it felt old and creaky. The colour gave it the vibrancy that was intended. I wouldn't say it was an entirely different film, but it felt livelier.

      Oh, those earlier colourizations were dreadful. Mary Bailey with purple lipstick in It's a Wonderful Life. Rick's jacket was yellow in Casablanca. Garry knows a guy who worked on colourizing the early episodes of McHale's Navy. He grew to hate looking at Ernest Borgnine!

  2. THIS is why I love this blogathon. I always learn new things about old (and sometimes new) movies. You included so many interesting tidbits and background history here. Thanks so much for another fascinating piece- and of course thank for joining our blogathon again!

    1. Thank you so much. It was my pleasure to share the story of the dance in She. We will never get bored in our exploration of classic movies.

  3. I usually despise colourized films, but I think I would enjoy this one. The screencaps you posted are quite beautiful. It looks worth of the Oscar attention.

    When I track down this film, I'll be sure to make it the colourized version.

    1. I generally feel the same way about colourization, but the name Harryhausen attached to it, and finding out that it was originally designed for colour made all the difference. My DVD came with both. It's the only way to fly!

  4. What a neat topic! I've never seen this movie, but the screen caps are stunning. What a shame this category was dropped after a couple years. I'm sure we can all think of musicals that came later that would be sure candidates for this award. Thanks for introducing us to this movie and Zemach's work.

    1. My pleasure, and thank you.

      The Academy is an interesting entity it its changing categories and confusing award choices. They obviously knew quality in the case of Mr. Zemach, but future choreographers were denied the pleasure of saying "I was appreciated."

  5. Wow, judging from your photos, you would have thought it would have at least been nominated for art direction, too. (I enjoy the Hammer remake, but it clearly lacks the required budget to be opulent.) Also, this was a very informative post as I never even knew there was a category for dance direction!

    1. I agree entirely. Only three movies were nominated for Art Direction, Top Hat, The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, and the winner, The Dark Angel. My goodness, just thinking about 1935 releases, there are so many outstanding films in that category, including the worthy She. The ways of the Academy are mystifying.

  6. Whenever I see "SHE" I think of the God-awful 1960s version starring Ursula Andress. I almost had a fit when I thought it was somehow, someway nominated for an Oscar!! Anyway, PHEW!!!

    I've never seen your SHE, but it sounds like it's right up my alley. Your screen shots are gorgeous and the information you offer fascinating. I absolutely adore this entry. Thank you!


    1. I've tried to watch the Hammer version a couple of times, but I never get very far. Randolph Scott will carry me a long way! I'm glad he took me to the Hall of Kings, and I'm glad you enjoyed the entry.

  7. I've recently written about Snow White and got to know the movie She - one that is now on my watchlist. I love crazy dance sequences from 1930s' movies - and this is probably a blast.
    Although I don't see the Best Dance Direction as a useful prize toady, I think it should have lasted longer in the Oscars - maybe up until the 60s?
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. So many musicals were produced up until the 60s, that it is odd to me that the Academy didn't continue to honour those artists. I think you'll enjoy She.



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