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December 8 – January 21

The World of Bob Fosse

“Remembered today for his spectacularly entertaining films and dance sequences, Bob Fosse (1927 – 1987), in his work from the 1950s to the 1980s, revealed his world to be a place of bright lights and deep shadows, with his subject often show business itself. Spending his life as an entertainer, he recognized both the positive and negative powers of entertainment. The world of Bob Fosse is perhaps most of all a world in tension: spectacular pleasure versus cynicism, exploitation, alienation and hypocrisy. Lying at the heart of his work, that tension was Fosse’s ongoing, evolving comment on the postwar US of the 1960s and 70s.

In an age that preferred smooth movements and grand gestures, Fosse’s choreography—a repository of American popular dance history—often referred back to dance of the first half of the 20th century. Recalling the eccentricities he had seen from vaudeville performers, his dancers would often slouch or exhibit strange postures and shapes, emphasizing small gestures and movements, which were typically repeated. These gestures were borrowed directly from everyday life, as well as from the worlds of work, of machinery, of sports, of puppetry and ventriloquism, even of the military, often turning his dances into a kind of social satire of the US after World War II. All of these movements that he would import, quote and transform remind us that dance and the body are imbedded in both in history and in the society around us, and vice versa.

In the early 20th century, popular dance acts would perform in theaters all over the US in revues referred to collectively as vaudeville. Through the Thirties, talking pictures, the Great Depression, and the rise of the radio combined to kill vaudeville. What had been a family entertainment was now a form of theater frequented primarily by men: men traveling for work and young single men. The dance acts now included erotic dancers and strippers, who were the main focus of the audience; vaudeville became burlesque. Other, more wholesome acts were often interspersed between the titillating fare.

And so it was in burlesque theaters in Chicago in the early 1940s that a teenaged Fosse first started performing publically in these interstitial dance numbers. The tawdry atmosphere backstage at the burlesque theaters—where he sometimes felt uncomfortable as a teenager among older women who performed by taking off their clothes—would infuse his later work. Yet the aspect of his work for which he is most famous—the erotic display of the body—he remained extremely ambivalent about, often including it in his critique of the manipulative nature of entertainment.

His talent as a dancer brought him first to New York and then, in 1953, to Los Angeles. Fosse arrived in Hollywood in the wake of the rise to fame of Gene Kelly, whose virile dancing was perhaps at the peak of its dominance. Kelly was known for striking athletic poses and emphasizing the power and prowess of the body, but Bob Fosse’s early choreography was instead inspired by the concentrated elegance of Fred Astaire and the more eccentric moves of the vaudeville performers he had loved as a boy.

One of the earliest sequences Fosse choreographed that announced his mature style is in Stanley Donen’s The Pajama Game (1957), a musical about American labor unions. His number “Steam Heat” features dancers with a typically nostalgic Fosse look—bowler hats, spats and suits—imitating steam valves and dancing in unison to form a kind of human locomotive. In place of Kelly’s clean, clear athletic lines, the body in Fosse’s dances is more twitchy and bears the marks of the world of machines and work. While the athletic dancing of the typical postwar American musical was often meant to express a kind of rugged individualism, Fosse’s dancers (one of whom is a woman) all wear exactly the same costume and often move as if they were all parts of one machine.The gestures of the dancers also refer to the movements of laborers. These movements are quotations, not the expression of the dancers’ individual selves.

A likely inspiration was a scene from Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), which takes place in a factory. Chaplin’s gestures with his hands take on a life of their own, as they do so often in Fosse’s choreography. In this film, Chaplin’s job is to tighten bolts with a wrench on an assembly line. This is the essence of alienated labor—labor that takes physical effort but no thought, tending to separate the mind from the body. When the assembly line breaks down, Chaplin’s body unthinkingly continues to repeat the one gesture he has learned. In the repeated gestures of Chaplin and his coworkers, their bodies at work become a dance.

Fosse’s first film as a director, Sweet Charity extends this concern with alienated movements from labor—the body at work—to sexuality and show business. At the same time that the choreography is wildly entertaining and funny, it is also stripping away any illusions that what goes on in the dance hall is anything other than hard work as alienating as any other assembly line. In fact, the work of the dancers has dissociated their bodies from their heads: the women’s bodies are fiercely expressive and their faces blank. Part of the humor of the “Hey, Big Spender” scene is that they’re clearly just going through the motions, as they have done hundreds of times before. And part of the pleasure of the scene is that, if the gestures and movements are old to the dance hall girls, they’re brilliantly new to us.

Quintessential Fosse combines entertainment and its critique. Entertainment here is alienated labor, as surely as Chaplin’s on the assembly line. The dance hall girls are using their bodies, but their minds are elsewhere. And we as the spectators are similarly split: we watch and absorb the spectacle but remain motionless in our seats, without having to use our bodies.

The dancers may exhibit individuality, but it is an individuality that does not originate inside them. Instead, they are projections of male fantasies—hence the irony and alienation of their gestures and movements. They seem a bit otherworldly with their dead eyes and their repeated dialogue that is meant to be flirtatious. They resemble puppets, or even zombies, who might at any moment turn violent and attack the men who are paying to dance with them.

Avoiding the notion of dance expressing individuality, Fosse’s dancers are often sexy but not unique. In Sweet Charity, Fosse is satirizing popular American dances of the late 1960s, like the Frug, exaggerating them so that the dancers end up expressing not individuality but conformism.

When Sweet Charity was made, in 1969, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Funny Girl had all been recent successes for Hollywood. A number of other musicals, however, had failed to reach audiences, primarily because of changing tastes in popular music and youth culture. Sweet Charity met a similar fate, and it was a few years before Fosse made his next film. When he did, it was a film that revealed him at the height of his powers: Cabaret. In Cabaret, Fosse’s themes mature from social satire to an urgent critique of show business as both distorting mirror and dangerous distraction.

During one of the film’s centerpieces, “Mein Herr,” performed by Liza Minnelli, the movements and gestures of the chorus girls around her begin as erotic poses, but they become more uncomfortable, even degrading, and finally they end up both animalistic (women on all fours) and militaristic—the women beating with their hands on the stage as if they were marching feet. Thus we see in miniature a society in transition, from sexual freedom to military dictatorship. 

The fact that Fosse was able to say all of this with staging, gestures and poses illustrates his newfound mastery of filmmaking. Fosse loved cinema for its ability to isolate parts of the body in close-up and thus reveal the smallest movements. And after Cabaret, Hollywood loved him back, awarding him the Oscar for Best Director in 1972, even over Francis Ford Coppola, nominated for The Godfather. Cabaret’s sophisticated editing, transitions between scenes, and use of the handheld camera affirmed that Fosse had successfully integrated many of his cinematic influences—from Fellini, whom he had long admired, to Stanley Donen. 

Donen came to Hollywood as a collaborator with Gene Kelly, and the two ended up co-directing a number of important musicals, including On the Town and Singin’ In the Rain. Later in the 1940s, he directed such innovative musicals as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Funny Face, as well as The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees, both with Fosse’s choreography, and at this point, despite Fosse’s antipathy for Kelly, Donen and Fosse became friends, with Donen acting as Fosse’s mentor. As Donen’s own filmmaking career evolved, he was influenced by Hitchcock and, later, the French New Wave. He imparted these influences to Fosse, whose first non-musical film, Lenny, draws from the New Wave and from American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes.

Fosse’s biopic of Lenny Bruce provides another instance of his critiquing a society that chooses to escape into meaningless entertainment rather than acknowledge its corruption and alienation. A similar theme permeates the Broadway version of Chicago, which opened in 1975: the inability of a society obsessed with fame to tell the truth from the lie. Fosse foresaw the ways that show business and politics were already intertwining and had been since at least 1920s Chicago and 1930s Berlin, so that justice and facts took a back seat to whatever people could be tricked into believing in. In a way, Fosse was issuing a warning about the kind of collusion between entertainment and politics that would eventually produce a President Trump.

In any event, the stress of finishing Lenny as he was rehearsing Chicago led to a heart attack, open heart surgery and a second heart attack. It was these events from which Fosse would draw for his next film, the autobiographical All That Jazz. Here the social critique takes a back seat to Fosse’s exploration of his own life. But the film still has some tart things to say about the sexual revolution of the 1970s.

In one scene, the Fosse character has been struggling to choreograph a silly song for the Broadway show he has been working on, so to give the song an impact, he adds an erotic edge to the dance. Initially, the choreography has all the hallmarks of the Fosse style: groups of dancers moving as a unit, slouching bodies, bucking hips, hats and gloves, repeated gestures. But after a break in the action, the movements are less frenetic, more poetic and flowing, suggesting the potential of the sexual revolution to release the body’s ability to express itself. As the dance progresses, the tempo speeds up, and the number culminates in frenzy after all, with an orgy of repeated gestures and movements, as this coupling turns out to be as alienating as what came before. It ends with the dancers lined up and staring out at the audience threateningly, hearkening back to the dance hall girls of Sweet Charity.

Fosse’s choreography is always both a celebration and a critique. Even as he criticized entertainment as mere “razzle dazzle,” meant to distract and misdirect, he never stopped trying to show us how musical entertainment could also reveal to us this very alienation. Fosse introduced the idea of a gap between the body and the self, showing that dance is not always the expression of the self; it can be ironic, or the exquisite expression of a no-self. – David Pendleton

The World of Bob Fosse is dedicated to David Pendleton who delivered a presentation on Fosse this past summer at the Chungmuro International Musical Film Festival in South Korea.

Special thanks: Hannah Prouse—British Film Institute


Friday December 8 at 7pm

Sweet Charity

Directed by Bob Fosse. With Shirley MacLaine, John McMartin, Ricardo Montalbán
US 1969, 35mm, color, 149 min

After successfully staging this Neil Simon-scripted musical on Broadway, Fosse was given free reign as director and choreographer to bring it to the screen. The bittersweet results, based on Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, chronicle the exploits of an eternally hopeful dance hall hostess—read: prostitute—who only wants to be loved but seldom meets with fortune in her relationships with men. A box-office failure at the time, Sweet Charity stands today as a highly enjoyable, beautifully stylized time capsule of the psychedelic Sixties, replete with zealous use of the zoom leans, interludes of still images, and Sammy Davis Jr. memorably singing-preaching “Rhythm of Life.” Print courtesy Universal Pictures.

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Friday December 15 at 7pm
Monday January 15 at 7pm (restored version on DCP)

All That Jazz

Directed by Bob Fosse. With Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking
US 1979, 35mm/DCP, color, 123 min

Often compared to Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, this semi-autobiographical film chronicles the physical and mental disintegration of Joe Gideon—a Broadway director brilliantly portrayed by Roy Scheider—who is unable to confront the challenges and addictions of his personal life. While juggling the direction of a Broadway musical, the editing of an ill-fated film, the seduction of a host of women, and the needs of his daughter, Joe is forced to come to terms with his imminent mortality, personified by the character of the sympathetic Angelique. The musical numbers, from the explosive “On Broadway” to the sobering “Bye, Bye Life,” are tours-de-force of set design and Fosse choreography.

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Special $5 Saturday Matinee Admission
Saturday December 16 at 3pm

White Christmas

Directed by Michael Curtiz. With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney
US 1954, 35mm, color, 120 min

Celebrate the holiday season with the Harvard Film Archive’s screening of one of the biggest box office hits in 1954, the Technicolor musical spectacle White Christmas. What could top the Oscar-winning Irving Berlin song; an all-star cast of Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; costumes by Edith Head and direction by Michael Curtiz—famous for Casablanca, Mildred Pierce and Yankee Doodle Dandy? It’s Bob Fosse, the uncredited choreographer of Paramount’s first VistaVision musical, indisputably demonstrating that “The Best Things Happen While You're Dancing.” Print courtesy Swank.

Also screening as part of Saturday Matinee series.

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Saturday December 16 at 7pm

Lenny

Directed by Bob Fosse. With Dustin Hoffman, Valerie Perrine, Jan Miner
US 1974, 35mm, b/w, 111 min

Fosse’s raw and immediate black-and-white film is a stunning portrait of his friend, the infamous 1960s stand-up comedian and iconoclast Lenny Bruce, persecuted in his time for his “obscene” and topical acts. Destroyed by show business and the legal system, Bruce was only celebrated after his death from a drug overdose. Like other Fosse films, Lenny is told in flashback to illustrate the insight gained from hindsight. It is also another Fosse statement on the theme of the stage as a forum for exposing the underbelly of life. Hoffman is brilliant in the role of Bruce, and Valerie Perrine—as Honey, the stripper with whom Bruce embarks on a tumultuous marriage—provides strong support.

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Saturday December 16 at 9pm

Star 80

Directed by Bob Fosse. With Mariel Hemingway, Eric Roberts, Cliff Robertson
US 1983, 35mm, color, 103 min

Partly factual, partly—for legal reasons—evasive, and always speculative, Fosse’s final film is his most explicit and grim meditation on the downside of fame and the violence perpetrated by machismo. The film deals with the meteoric rise to stardom of naïve girl-next-door type Dorothy Stratten, Playboy’s Playmate of the Year in 1980, who was murdered by her estranged and narcissistic husband-manager. Cliff Robertson is cannily believable as Hugh Hefner, symbol of the artificial world of Southern California glitz and glamour, while famed Swedish cameraman Sven Nykvist minimizes that world’s luster with his earth-toned cinematography.

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Sunday December 17 at 7pm

My Sister Eileen

Directed by Richard Quine. With Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, Betty Garrett
US 1955, DCP, color, 108 min

Arguably Richard Quine’s most delightful film, My Sister Eileen is a musical scored by Jule Styne and Leo Robin and based on the same source material as Comden and Green’s irresistible Broadway show Wonderful Town. The film follows two sisters from Ohio who are newly transplanted to Greenwich Village and struggling to find work and love in the big city. The first film for which Bob Fosse received screen credit as a choreographer, My Sister Eileen is also perhaps the film in which Fosse appears onscreen for the greatest amount of time. A welcome alternative to the somewhat more formal MGM musicals of the period, the film possesses a charm and intimacy of scale that remains as appealing today as it was at its first release.

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Monday December 18 at 7pm
Sunday January 21 at 7pm

Cabaret

Directed by Bob Fosse. With Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey
US 1972, 35mm, color, 123 min

Fosse won an Oscar for Best Director for his masterful handling of sociosexual and political themes in the form of a musical, a genre previously reserved for lighter subject matter. Liza Minnelli stars as Sally Bowles, an émigré aspiring to stardom in a decadent Weimar Germany nightclub full of crossdressers, gay men, lesbians, and members of Berlin’s middle classes enjoying unprecedented sexual freedom. Just as the world affects the body (as Fosse’s choreography tells us), implanting gestures and movements, so show business is not immune from changes in the political order, even if—or especially if—it seems to be completely separate from the outside world. Minnelli and  Joel Grey, as the devilish master of ceremonies, also earned Academy Awards, as did Geoffrey Unsworth for cinematography.

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Special $5 Saturday Matinee Admission
Saturday January 20 at 3pm

The Little Prince

Directed by Stanley Donen. With Richard Kiley, Steven Warner, Bob Fosse
US 1974, 35mm, color, 88 min

Of course only Stanley Donen, famous for his 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain, could come up with the idea to turn Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s beloved 1943 novel into a campy Technicolor musical. He joined forces with the famous lyricist and librettist team Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, of Brigadoon (1954) and My Fair Lady (1964) fame, and trusted on the talents of two stellar sidekicks—Bob Fosse as The Snake, and Gene Wilder as The Fox. Fosse, who had complete control over his “moonwalk” dance routine, certainly inspired Michael Jackson when he slithers all in black. And Wilder, all in orange, has one of the film’s most memorable scenes when he tells the little prince that “It's only with the heart that one can see clearly; what's essential is invisible to the eye." Bring your parents to this astounding piece of widescreen storytelling, because “All grown-ups were once children ... but only few of them remember it.”

Also screening as part of Saturday Matinee series.

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Sunday January 21 at 4:30pm

Kiss Me Kate

Directed by George Sidney. With Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller
US 1953, 35mm, color, 109 min

“From this Moment On” was not only a Cole Porter musical number in George Sidney’s 3D, musical version of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, it was literally from this moment on, that Bob Fosse’s career flourished (though not in way he had originally envisioned—that he become the next Fred Astaire). Playing Hortensio, a role so small that the name does not even receive a mention, Fosse convinced Hermes Pan to choreograph his jazzy dance scene with Carol Haney, and the result—which is under a minute long—is so memorable that it attracted not only the audience’s attention, it led to Fosse’s choreographing the dances in The Pajama Game. The HFA will screen the 2D version of Kiss me Kate, where feuding divorcees reunite as co-stars, everyone quarrels offstage, and gangsters help you “Brush up your Shakespeare.”

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Harvard Film Archive • Carpenter Center • 24 Quincy Street • Cambridge MA 02138 • 617-495-4700