Friday, February 16, 2007

The Mysterious Vera Ellen

I've always admired Vera Ellen, who was born on this day in 1921. I watch her every year in White Christmas and marvel anew at the extreme thinness of the woman, and yet the supreme strength contained in her little body as she taps and twirls and leaps across the dance floor with the wonderful Danny Kaye.

A little research reveals, however, that Vera Ellen is a rather mysterious figure in Hollywood lore, and that when her career ended rather prematurely in the 1960's (after her second divorce and the loss of a baby to SIDS) she holed up in her house, rather like Greta Garbo, and died much too young in 1981.

Because Vera Ellen "disappeared" from the public view, she is perhaps not as famous as women who kept a high profile, although she will always be one of my glamour favorites. My brother, after about 45 years of watching her dance in black and white movies, is still as in love with her now as he was as a boy.

(image: www.geocities.com)

62 comments:

Keith Raffel said...

I appreciate your opinion but she's no Cyd Charisse.

Julia Buckley said...

See, I always thought Cyd was overrated. She seemed very popular with men. Agreed, her legs were about five miles long. But I didn't think she had that much charisma.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Julia,

I love watching Vera Ellen in White Christmas as well. I remember watching the movie in the theater when it came out, then going home and begging my mom for a glass of buttermilk (never acquired the taste) and jammies like Vera Ellen. I'd never looked her up like you did. Facinating info. Thanks, Lonnie

Julia Buckley said...

I love the whole buttermilk scene. And don't you love the way both girls wore full make-up to bed, like they were about to go onstage? :)

honeyman said...

Just a SMALL correction: Vera-Ellen only appeared in 2 of her 16 movies in 'Black, and White'; and one of them,"The Big Leaguer"-1953, she didn't dance!
The other B/W movie was a Harpo Marx story[starring the Marx Bros., and Marilyn Monroe had a small part].This 1949 flic ws,"Love Happy".
My source for this is the biography of Vera-Ellen by david Soren,"Vera-Ellen-The Magic, and the Mystery"
Part of the mystery of her life is whether she was anorexic[BEFORE the term was 'coined']There is conjecture as to whether she was anorexic, or just on a strict diet because of MGM's 'weight restrictions'---Ask Judt Garland!

Julia Buckley said...

You are so right, honeyman, and I thought of that after I posted--but aren't movies like White Christmas colorized? Or were they made in techni-color?

I know about the anorexia debate, and about the "premature aging" comments, but I didn't really want to get into that. I guess I have an idealized version of Vera.

Melody said...

White Christmas has been a perrenial favorite of mine since childhood. My mom remembers seeing it in a Chicago theater in 1954. (BTW, WC was the first movie in VistaVision, so yes, it was made in color, as were many films since the late 1930's. Ted Turner was acually taken to court for colorizing classic B/W films.) I have a DVD copy with Rosemary Clooney narrating. She gives some insight into Vera-Ellen, who I think looked like a Barbie doll even before Barbie was invented. Who was the first to suggest she was anorexic?

Julia Buckley said...

I'm not sure, Melody--I just know I've read bits and pieces about this "secret" of her anorexia.

I didn't know there was a Rosemary Clooney narration on the DVD--I'll have to check that out!

Rich said...

Vera Ellen was indeed an anorexic before the term was coined. It affected all of her life. If you notice the high collars she wore, it was to hide the damage to her neck caused by the illness.

Infamous Angel said...

A late comment on this, as the movie (White Christmas) is on now and I thought "What even happened to Vera Ellen!", which led me here.

I believe the anorexia story (it is certainly oft repeated). If you look at her legs in White Christmas you can see how extremely thin they are (unlike the healthy picture you have of her). There are several pictures of her on a web page that show her... well.. maybe in her 50's where she is so frail looking and yet so sweet...

No matter the causes, she was a terrific dancer who should have had a much longer career.

Julia Buckley said...

Rich and Angel,

I guess if it looks like it, it probably is anorexia. It's such a shame that this affects people--then and now. How much of it is public pressure, I wonder, and how much of it is spurred by private demons. Or an obsessive personality?

Aimez said...

I agree! Vera Ellen has always been to me a walking talking barbie doll. And she DOES have charisma. The way she looks next to Danny Kaye. Im only 13 but i grew up on old movies; Meet Me in St. Louie, Gone With The Wind, Wuthering Heights, The King and I and so many more. White Christmas was like a tradition for my family every year we watch it. In fact when me and my cousins were younger we did the sisters dance with our little blue fans and one year our uncles got up and did it! It was funnier then in the movie because they were so much more awkward then bing and danny!!

Julia Buckley said...

That's hilarious, Aimez! What a fun family tradition. These films just warm the heart year after year.

Anonymous said...

Funny, we've always used White Christmas to show our kids what NOT to do on stage. If you watch Vera-Ellen, in stills and movies, you will notice that she rather consistently looks at the camera. It can ruin a good scene. Does anyone know anything about her Ohio family before/after movies?

Julia Buckley said...

I always assumed that was the director's fault. If an actor is looking into the camera, it's either because the director told her to or because they weren't smart enough to say "stop doing that."

Anonymous said...

Both Cyd Charisse and Vera are my favorite female dancers from the "golden age" of musicals. While I think Cyd was amazing, there is something about Vera that strikes me a little more. Someone mentioned that she had a tendency to look into the camera. I think this helped her more than hurt her--as a dancer I know the importance of acknowledging your audience. She didn't really do it when she was acting, just when she was dancing. I've also somewhat suffered from anorexia (not as badly as Vera did), and it comforts me to know that I'm not alone. I look past her anorexia and focus on her dancing. How incredible. It's a shame there's isn't more footage of it to ago around. She motivates me to be the best dancer I can be, to exercise and stretch, even when I don't feel like it. It's a shame that she's not more well-known, and that the people that do know of her have trouble getting past the anorexia.

Julia Buckley said...

I agree that she had that mysterious something that made her compelling--then and now.

I'm sorry to hear of your struggles with anorexia, and hope that you are feeling healthy and happy now.

Susan said...

People say that she started having anorexia at around she made "White Christmas," but I would argue she was already there by the time she made "On the Town" five years earlier. She was horribly thin, and to think the camera added 10 pounds to her figure. She looked about half as big as Ann Miller and Betty Garrett, neither of whom was overweight. Compare how she looked in that film compared to "Words and Music" a year before. She was far more of normal weight then. I doubt Vera-Ellen weighed much over 90 pounds when she made "On the Town."

Julia Buckley said...

Wow--a sad and shocking thought.

Karen said...

Vera Ellen was sick when she was younger, so maybe she was sick from the same. Either way, I love her! My sister and I watched White Christmas over and over, repeating lines, lol. We even [itched in together and bought the VHS to share cause we didnt have enough money to buy two. And we were children of the 70's and 80's just to show how long this movie has endured.
She was a fabulous dancer and super beautiful. I love her blue dress in the scene with "The best things happen while your dancing" song.
As far as looking into the camera, these people were stage performers first and were taught to look at the audience. As a fellow dancer in many forms, Im sure this is where this comes from. In the scene where she looks into the camera with the white outfit on dancing "Mandy" she is supposed to be looking into the camera since they are putting on a stage show. You should show your students what an unbelievable dancer she is and teach them how lost this fantastic art is. Vera Ellen was a beautiful STAR! :) Karen

Julia Buckley said...

Great points! And I do share my admiration of her with all who will listen. :)

Laura1943 said...

An amazing talent...LOVE watching her dance...so mesmerizing !!!

Julia Buckley said...

I agree--I wish they'd make some movies today with some of the classic dance numbers of the 40s and 50s.

jay said...

I watched White Christmas and fell in love (anew) with Vera-Ellen. Her eyes, expression, slithery body movement and..oh, those legs.

Julia Buckley said...

There's just no one like her in movies today (or in movies back then).

jay said...

What do we know of her 40s and 50s? I know that she, reportedly, had arthritis and much sadness in her life.

Anonymous said...

Vera Ellen was the best all-round, versatile dancer Hollywood ever was blessed with. The fact that she looked into the camera when dancing is a definite plus in the accepted manner of the motion picture musical..especially spectacular to see in the flashing eyes of this marvelous goddess of terpsichore.

Anonymous said...

I am really late in joining in on these comments, but, found your site after watching White Christmas (for the first time, I'm young, sorry), anyways, my comment is in regards to Vera Ellen's dancing, especially the dance she does onstage in that pretty yellow outfit. First, her legs are beautifully tanned. And, they are thin, yes, but, very muscular! You can tell she is dedicated to her dancing. She must live to dance, not dance to live. At any rate, the guy she is dancing up there with is perfect for her. They are in perfect unison! Who in the world is he? Is he an unknown? And here is one more thing I want to say, then I'll get outta here. Try watching the DVD of her dancing, especially in this number, in SLOW MOTION. You will truly be mesmerized! Her smile will make you drop dead! Every move she makes is PERFECT! Try it, you'll see!

Julia Buckley said...

The guy is the wonderful Danny Kaye, who was quite famous in his time, mostly for comedies. But he was a great singer and dancer--underrated, I think--and later in his life he went on to conduct orchestras.

GREG said...

White Christmas is on as I type...The number Vera dances with the white dress...wow! Those long legs go on forever..beautiful!

Julia Buckley said...

Greg--I was just watching it on video when I read your comment!

Yes, she is remarkable--though I find she often looks different from scene to scene, which I find to be part of her mystery.

Anonymous said...

Who is the man Vera-Ellen is dancing with in White Christmas that is not Danny Kaye? He's a very good dancer, too.

Anonymous said...

The same gentleman in West Side story who played Bernardo. George Chikiris, I believe.

Julia Buckley said...

Ah yes--the one who sings in the "Mandy" number!

Anonymous said...

Interesting comments. The incomparably talented Vera- Ellen underwent a startling change of body shape during her career. In the mid 40's, in such films as "The Kid from Brooklyn" and "Carnival in Costa Rica", she had a almost chubby (but very fit and athletic)and apple-cheeked look, by the late 40's she was very slender, and by the time of "White Christmas" you'd never know it was the same person from 1946 - however she looked great throughout. Perhaps the very noticeable slimming down and change in her body shape was PARTLY due to maturity, along with apparently extreme dieting. She certainly didn't wear high collars in the mid 40's.
The recurring and superb male dancer with her in White Christmas was John Brascia. He danced with Cyd Charisse in "Meet me in Las Vegas." Don't know much about him (hes at IMDB) but he was certainly in the Fred Astaire/Bob Fosse category as far as sheer dancing talent, but with an extremely masculine athleticism that the other two men didn't have. Vera- Ellen must have loved working with him.
The word Anorexia was used in the 1944 film "Between Two Women," a Dr. Kildare feature starring Van Johnson. Gloria DeHaven plays a young woman who has an aversion to eating due to emotional trauma. So, the idea that the term was virtually unknown in 1953/54 when White Christmas" was made is incorrect although it was indeed probably not a term well-known to the general public.

Anonymous said...

I, too, think that Vera-Ellen is an underrated and overlooked talent. I became curious about her because she had starred in two of my favorite musicals, but was never remembered or discussed as were others of the era.

On a COMPLETELY different subject-- what do you make of the rumors of an affair between Danny Kaye and Laurence Olivier ?? This was in a biography of Viven Leigh, that is supposed to be an "authorized" biography.

Julia Buckley said...

Wow. I had never heard that, and I read a biography of Vivien Leigh (obviously not the one you spoke of!).

But I had heard rumors that DK was gay, and that his wife was merely his "beard" at the time.

I guess many talented actors that we look back at now--those who were especially gifted in the arts--were probably gay. But it was never a big deal to me either way.

The Kaye/Olivier thing is new to me.

fgbrunner3 said...

I love White Christmas. Vera Ellen was a wonderful dancer, and she was simply gorgeous. She looked like a real life Barbie Doll.

Julia Buckley said...

So true!

Shields Templar said...

Re the "other guy" dancer with Vera Ellen in "White Christmas": his name is John Brascia-who, coincidentally was also in "Meet me in Las Vegas" (as was George Chakiris-billed as "George KIRIS!")John dances the Specialty Dance number,"Frankie & Johnny" with Cyd Charisse, narrated by Sammy Davis, Jr,

Penvronius Miles Cambrensis sfo said...

I think Vera Ellen was a very nice lady - I have two autographed postcards which she dedicated to persons other than myself- the care she took over the messages she wrote indicate a person of great sensitivity - she epitomizes the 'girl next door'with whom every young man would fall in love if he had a heart. She is exquisitely attractive in 'The Kid from Brooklyn' there was nothing pretentious about her. It was such a great tragedy that someone so nice a person should lose her only child. Life can be so unfair to the best of people. Losing someone one loves can be too devasting for some persons and especially those without a strong faith and good kind friends to support them. How sad to be so hurt when so vulnerable.
Even if she did not according to some become a great star in this life - I would hope she is one in the next. And still dancing!

Julia Buckley said...

What a lovely sentiment--I so agree!

Megan Hussey said...

I'm chiming in late here, but I've admired Vera-Ellen ever since I was a little girl. I loved her character in White Christmas, as I too was the bratty but funny and well-intentioned little sister. lol I've looked up more of her films and enjoyed those as well; she was one of a kind. As an interesting trivia tidbit, she once dated Rock Hudson and almost got engaged to him!

Julia Buckley said...

Megan, she does have that relateability, doesn't she? I was the little sister, too. :)

I was quite the Rock Hudson fan as a kid; we used to while away afternoons watching old Doris Day movies, and I loved the ones with Rock the best.

knightindullarmor said...

Vera-Ellen had a body? Never even noticed it. Her gorgeous face and coy-yet-extremely animated facial expressions must have distracted me. In White Christmas, I never noticed her looking into the camera - but wasn't that during the 'stage routines'? If so, she's portraying a performer who is looking at the audience (camera) - where is the problem? Isn't that what a stage performer is supposed to do? Anyway, the only actress who could hold a candle to her was Hepburn in films with Grant. Again, quirky attitude & animated expressions. I guess Hepburn was anorexic, too - but I never even realized she was thin until others mentioned it. Likewise, I fell in love with her expressiveness & personality, not her hips & waist.

Julia Buckley said...

Good point. And I think an expressive face is what the camera captured, while it downplayed a too-thin body.

Susan Rosser said...

My favorite movie for Vera is On The Town - it was actually the first movie I ever saw her in and I remember being struck with how tiny she was - but it never occurred to me it was anorexia. I guess I figured someone that was in the throes of annorexia would have a hard time dancing like that! Either way, she was awesone - could do it all. I also love Cyd Charisse and consider the 2 of them to be the best our there!

Julia Buckley said...

Susan, I never considered it then, either--and if you look at stars like Joan Fontaine, they are almost as thin. Perhaps what I now think of as The Hollywood Syndrome--that is, the pressure to be thin for the camera--existed long before this era.

Anonymous said...

I noticed that nobody mentioned Call Me Madam. Her dance routine "The Ocarina", I feel, was her best performance. She was an outstanding dancer and underrated. I consider her the best, except for maybe, Ginger Rogers. However, Cyd Charisse is also up there on top, but Vera is still the best.

Anonymous said...

I can watch Vera-Ellen "Dance to the Music of the Ocarina" over and over again and never get tired of it. She was, by far, the best that there have ever been.

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching White Christmas on Netflix. One of the most mesmerizing portions of the movie was in the "Choreography" number in which she was able to tap either foot in such a rapid succession as she was lowered to the stage.
I was also struck by the toning of her legs. I saw the musculature in the back of her legs only briefly during one of her numbers.
And yes, she is the primary reason I enjoy watching this movie.

Anonymous said...

Its pink

Julie said...

I too was wondering who she dances with in the Abraham number where she wears the yellow dress. I think that is who Anon is referring too, not Danny Kaye.

Cindy said...

Her dress was pink......Ms. Clooney wore the blue dress. I loved Ms Ellen's white outfit as well. Actually.....I loved all the dresses in that movie! Ms. Clooney's black dress (velvet i think) was simply stunning!

Sandra Akridge, Dallas, Tx. said...

Vera-Ellen was the most respected star of movie musicals, and my favorite throughout the 1940s and 1950s. I'm in my 70s now and I saw all of her movies then, and have them all on DVDs now including the "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" scenes with Gene Kelley. Thank you for these wonderful tributes to Vera-Ellen. Sandra Akridge, Dallas

Anonymous said...

I love Vera-Ellen and all the other wonderful actors,dancers and singers in White Christmas. It is one of my all time favorite movies. I have always loved watching the older movies. To me the actors and actresses had a lot more character than they do today. Maybe it was because of the times then. I love them all.

ScottishRose13 said...

I completely agree that Vera Ellen was THE most underrated female dancer of her time. While Cyd and Eleanor Powell got all the press, Vera dances as if she were lifted off the floor. It's a shame that only 14 movies showcase her amazing talent. As for the question of anorexia, whether she suffered from that or was just naturally unusually thin, her talent stands out in every single frame filmed of her.

Elwood Blues said...

I think I've watched White Christmas every year since the 1980s. And I've always been impressed by Vera-Ellen: her beautiful partnerwork with Danny Kaye on "The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing", her straight-up kicks on "Mandy", her fast tapping on "Choreography", but most of all "Abraham" where she and John Brascia danced off several pounds that she couldn't afford to lose. Word on the street is that she's the only woman who could keep up with Fred Astaire when he rehearsed; not even Eleanor Powell could do that. IMHO, however, her not-as-flashy performance in On The Town was better, more artistic. Might have been Gene Kelly's choreography for her. But Vera-Ellen left show business on top. Far better than to keep going after her baby died, and moviegoers watch her dancing deteriorate; she didn't allow that to happen. And I would have loved to have danced with her on "Abraham" . . . um, but I'm not as good as Brascia . . .

Julia Buckley said...

I have to agree with all you last commenters. I just watched WHITE CHRISTMAS again and was struck by the fact that there was a time when a performer had to be multi-talented (maybe a holdover from Vaudeville): she had to sing, dance, be funny, be lovely. Vera could do it all.

Anonymous said...

Vera ellen is clearly a man

OTE admin said...

In "White Christmas," there are numbers where she is fit and her legs are muscular, and there are other scenes where her legs are like toothpicks. Her weight wildly fluctuated in her movies. Moreover, it isn't her neck that aged--it was her face that aged her before her time.

Anonymous said...

What style and genre is the dancing? in the Mandy dance in white christmas film