Saturday, May 08, 2010

Remembering Two Awesome Blondes: Vera-Ellen And June Christy

Today, this blog pays tribute to two particularly creative, stellar, wonderful and underrated artists who stand out among the numerous awesome blondes in 20th Century show biz: dancer Vera-Ellen and jazz singer June Christy.

Their careers parallel each other; both absolutely blazed in the 40's and 50's, leaving prolific artistic legacies behind, before health issues led to early retirement - and neither came close to living long enough to enjoy the fresh rounds of accolades, respect and admiration that accompany "master/elder stateswoman" status. Too bad.

Here's Vera, doing the physically impossible in her first film, Wonder Man.

Last Christmas Eve, several friends and I were simultaneously (and very unfortunately, not together) watching the ritual TV broadcast of the 1954 Michael Curtiz-directed musical White Christmas. The e-mails and Facebook postings we subsequently exchanged tended to echo each other, along these lines:

  • Vera-Ellen is AWESOME!
  • That's not a stunt double, that's freakin' Danny Kaye - he's actually dancing with Vera-Ellen and keeping up!
  • Oh dear, Vera's waist is disturbingly small. Make that frighteningly tiny. Yikes, my ankle is bigger!
  • Vera-Ellen is AWESOME!

Indeed, Vera is awesome in all the clips I've seen of her.

Unfortunately, a bonafide starring vehicle, helmed by the best directors in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's "Arthur Freed unit" (IMO, Vincente Minnelli and the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen), eluded Vera. . . this excellent dance number from On The Town notwithstanding.

As it turned out, a subsequent career as a character actress was not in the cards for Vera, and her last appearances on movies and TV were in the late 1950's.

No doubt, Vera also found herself on the lethal horns of the dilemma for athletes and dancers (and faced by such silver screen stars as Doug Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd): where to go and how to segue to the next phase once those stressed-to-the-max bodies can no longer do impossible feats all day long.

June Christy may be the most underrated jazz singer of her era.

One could compare her to a superb outfielder who just happened to be playing major league baseball when Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron were tearing it up.

It was obvious from her stint as vocalist with Stan Kenton's big band that June, like Ella Fitzgerald with the Chick Webb Orchestra and Frank Sinatra with Tommy Dorsey and Harry James, was light years beyond the standard band singer of the era and possessed chops beyond her years.

June's solo career hit the ground running in the 40's with such recordings as "Supper Time" and "Prelude To A Kiss" (which revealed startling depth for a vocalist in her twenties), and kicked off a series of great albums, matching and raising the bar line set by The Chairman Of The Board, as well as fellow Capitol stars Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr. and Bobby Darin.

Add to that list such inspired and original vocal talents active at that time as Ella, Mel Tormé, Tony Bennett, the Lambert-Hendricks-Ross group, Anita O'Day, Sarah Vaughan and singer-trumpeters Louis Armstrong, Chet Baker and Roy Eldridge - and the extent to which that era was indeed a "golden age" of jazz singing becomes clear.

Here's June, personifying relaxed yet uptempo swing on The Nat King Cole Show.

And on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore's classic TV show, "Not Only But Also", in 1965.

It was just one of those things that June Christy would be merely one brilliant, incandescent and memorable shining light among many in those days, and arguably under-appreciated. We can be thankful that she at least got the opportunity to record albums and tour prolifically.


Carol L. Skolnick said...

Rats, the second video was removed. But the first - oh my! She never even breaks a sweat!

paul etcheverry said...

Duly noted and I have substituted a terrific excerpt from On The Town. The removal of the other clip doesn't make sense, as a poor quality version of it, as well as other production numbers from White Christmas are still up on youtube.