September 16, 2011
Their fans include Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in Stormy Weather the greatest musical sequence of all time. Over a career spanning eight decades, they starred in vaudeville and nightclubs, on Broadway and television, and made a huge impact in film. And yet the Nicholas Brothers are largely unknown today. And an important part of their legacy is in danger of disappearing.
According to Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum, the Nicholas Brothers—Fayard (1914–2006) and Howard (1921–2000)—were “the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.” Mr. Goldstein put together a compilation tribute to the team that received a standing ovation at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival; he’s repeating that program at the Film Forum on Monday, September 19. Grab any opportunity to see the brothers’ work you can, because not much of it is available.
The brothers grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents performed in the Nicholas Collegiates band in vaudeville houses. As Goldstein told me in a phone interview, Fayard could wander backstage and meet all of the great African-American acts of the time. “He’d watch them and copy them, then went home and taught their steps to his little brother.” Apart from some courses in acrobatics that Harold took later, the brothers had no other formal training. By 1932, with Harold not yet a teenager, the brothers were a featured act at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“We tend to think of them now as stunt dancers because of their acrobatics,” Goldstein said. “But that takes away from the fact that they were incredibly graceful, elegant dancers. They were great comedians, too, with a real chemistry between them, and Harold was also a wonderful singer.”
The Nicholas Brothers were a hit on Broadway in both The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms in part because choreographer George Balanchine was a big fan. “He had them doing amazing things,” Goldstein enthused. “I think Balanchine’s the one who came up with Harold sliding in a split through the legs of like ten showgirls at once. Amazing stuff.”
But the brothers never starred in their own movie, a source of frustration to them over the years. “Being black made them a specialty act in Hollywood,” Goldstein explained. “The Nicholas Brothers got big billing in most of their films for Twentieth Century-Fox, but they never got a featured role. They only made five films for Fox because the studio didn’t know how to use them.”
The brothers’ films at Fox included Down Argentine Way, where they could skirt around racial issues by pretending to be “Latin American,” and Stormy Weather, whose all-black cast also included Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. When Fayard was drafted, Harold performed solo in two movies. At Gene Kelly’s insistence, Fayard and Harold re-united on screen for MGM’s The Pirate.
“Originally in The Pirate they had speaking roles,” Goldstein said, “but the studio cut them out. You can see snippets of them in the background of shots, but basically they had one number, ‘Be a Clown.’ And it’s not their greatest piece because Gene Kelly couldn’t do what they could do.” But Kelly could copy them, and The Pirate features some of his most virile and stunt-laden work. Goldstein believes that Harold helped coach Donald O’Connor, his life-long friend, for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.
Fed up by racism, Harold left the country for Europe in the 1950s. But the brothers’ influence can still be felt throughout our culture. Bob Fosse modeled his first dance act on them, for example, and Joseph Jackson hired Fayard to help train his children, The Jackson 5. Both Michael and Janet Jackson were later students of the brothers. Fayard and Howard also taught at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Goldstein’s compilation clips feature some of the Nicholas Brothers’ best routines on film, a succession of jaw-dropping leaps, flips, and splits executed with flawless style. The tribute also includes selections from their home movies, a source of considerable worry for the programmer.
“I’m very concerned about the home movies,” he said. “No one seems to know where they are. Back in the 1930s, the Nicholas Brothers had a 16mm camera, and they filmed wherever they went. When they got to Hollywood in 1936, they filmed in front of all the studios, they took shots with their friend Joe Louis, and there’s a clip of them dancing behind a soundstage with Fred Astaire.”
According to Goldstein, the UCLA Film & Television Archive made video masters of the footage in the 1980s, but the films themselves appear to be missing. “Twenty years ago I had the 16mm prints in my hands, and now I don’t know where they are. They are such a valuable document, not just of their lives but of the entire era.”
September 7, 2011
As school boards across the country struggle with budget cuts, parents and students can find themselves fighting over issues more political than economic. Case in point: American Sign Language, according to a recent New York Times article, is the fourth most-popular language taught in colleges. (Read the entire Modern Language Association report.)
But as Monica Davey reported in another Times article, several states—including Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia—are threatening to reduce funding for state schools for the deaf, limiting the available options for deaf students who want to learn A.S.L. From the story:
Some advocates for the schools now worry that financial concerns could push the debate toward sending deaf children to “mainstream” schools, which would, in the eyes of some, ultimately encourage methods of communication other than American Sign Language.
The conflict between A.S.L. and what some refer to as “oralism,” or a listening and spoken language approach, extends back many years. Schools promoting oralism formed as early as 1867, and a 1880 conference in Milan, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, voted to ban sign language. Nebraska passed a law in 1913 outlawing sign language. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most insistent proponents of oralism.
That was the atmosphere behind a remarkable series of films made between 1910 and 1921, under the auspices of the National Association of the Deaf. Formed in 1880, the NAD fought to “preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people,” in particular in the “acquisition, usage, and preservation of American Sign Language.”
“The only way in which this can be done is by means of moving picture films,” wrote George William Veditz. Born in 1861, Veditz lost his hearing at the age of eight due to scarlet fever. Graduating from Gallaudet College as valedictorian in 1884, he became a teacher and later president of the NAD. The Association formed a Motion Picture Committee in 1910 with a mandate to film “excellent examples” of sign language and distribute these movies throughout the country.
The 14 films produced by the committee are now part of the George W. Veditz Collection at Gallaudet University. All of the titles have historical significance, according to Patti Durr, who blogs about deaf issues at People of the Eye. But Preservation of the Sign Language, which records a 14-minute speech by Veditz (above), may be the most moving. “Veditz is my hero,” Durr wrote me in an e-mail. “I totally adore his foresight and fortitude. If he were alive today he would without a doubt be involved in the exact same issues.”
Even if you do not understand A.S.L., Veditz is a forceful and persuasive presence in Preservation of the Sign Language. As Dr. Carol Padden (the first deaf recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship) wrote, “His hair is parted neatly in the middle, so his face can be clearly seen, and he is careful to sign precisely and in large gestures.”
Dr. Padden has translated Veditz’s speech into written English; Veditz wrote out his own version in a letter some years after the film was made. It was only by comparing the two that I began to appreciate A.S.L. Previously I had thought of sign language as a sort of literal translation of spoken English, with a one-to-one correspondence between spoken words and signs. But I now view A.S.L. as an actual stand-alone language, with its own vocabulary, its own grammar, its own rhetoric.
Take the following signed sentence as an example. Padden translates it as: “But for thirty-three years their teachers have cast them aside and refused to listen to their pleas.” “Cast aside” Veditz signs as “grab-hold-forcefully-push-down.” His written English equivalent: “For thirty-three years their teachers have held them off with a hand of steel.”
Watching Preservation of the Sign Language and the other films in the Veditz Collection connects us directly to battles that are still being waged today. It also gives us a glimpse at some remarkable people who found a way to utilize motion pictures for their own ends.