The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there

Carmel Myers, originally uploaded by Chickeyonthego.

As I get older, I am more cognizant of the fact that the knowledge and experience that is bound up in each us is slowly but inexorably drifting toward oblivion.  Even when we consciously leave echoes behind in words and images, the key to unlocking a future reader’s understanding of our times—the context—can sometimes be lost.

When I re-focused my blogging on aviation and its Golden Age (1919-1939), I began to discover patterns and mysteries that are hard for a non-contemporary of the times to grasp.

For example, when poring through images of Hollywood personalities from the 1920s and 1930s, I began to notice that there was an awful lot of promotional photographs of various actresses attired for classical ballet, complete with pointe shoes and tutus:

Mary Pickford (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Norma Shearer (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Bessie Love (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Marceleine Day (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Bernice Claire (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Polly Ann Young (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Helene Costello (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Colleen Moore (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Elissa Landi (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)


Then as we look at studios’ promotional images into the 1940s and 50s, it appears that actresses only appeared in ballet costumes when their performing arts background specifically included dance, such as Cyd Charisse and Vera Ellen.

Cyd Charisse (Flickr: AliceJapan)

Cyd Charisse (Flickr: AliceJapan)

Vera Ellen (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)

Ronnie Cunningham (Flickr: Chickeyonthego)


Although the popularity of dance has remained at a relatively consistent level throughout North America (and its modern/contemporary forms are even undergoing something of a surge in acceptance due to shows like Dancing with the Stars), ballet has suffered from audience neglect in recent decades.

My reading has led me to believe that its period of greatest popularity was probably during the early to mid-19th century, when Marie Taglioni‘s pointe work in La Sylphide (1832) heralded the rise of willowy female dancers, pushing men into the background of what had until then been a male-dominated art.  Ballet’s drawing power peaked, then waned across Europe in the late 19th century, although it remained a prominent form of entertainment in Russia and Denmark.  Ballet then had a renaissance in western Europe around 1909, when Sergei Diaghilev founded Ballets Russes in Paris—which was at that time home to a large Russian expatriate community.  Following that, ballet gained wider appeal with American audiences in the 1930s—the upper classes gravitating toward classical ballet, and the lower classes appreciating it in highly bowdlerised forms through Vaudeville and burlesque.  (Robert Allen examines the claim that ballet desensitised American audiences to “leg shows”—which later evolved into burlesque—in Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture.)  Ballet had yet another great resurgence in the 1950s and 1960s as choreographers like George Balanchine recalibrated it for mass appeal to Baby Boom audiences.

What is difficult for me—as a non-specialist—to appreciate is whether this flurry of 1920s/30s ballet costuming in studio promotions, but a relative lack of same for the 40s and beyond, is a result of:

  • The studio cashing in on ballet’s genuinely prominent place in the popular imagination of audiences of that time.
  • The studio emphasizing the dance training or natural talent of that particular actress.
  • The studio promoting a dance sequence in that particular film.
  • A limited range of roles and archetypes on offer for young actresses in the occasionally stultifying Hollywood studio system (which was only dismantled in 1946); i.e. “you can be a dancer or you can be nothing”
  • A clever attempt at providing more revealing “cheesecake” type shots without arousing the ire of censors.
  • Some artifact of little-known cultural ephemera, perhaps dance training was compulsory for the non-headline actresses in studio pictures.
  • Some combination of all of the above.

There are many factors to consider, and without knowing in detail the history of each actress and her skill set, it is hard to know where to begin to explore any of the possibilities.  But these are the things one notices when exploring the past, and the context is hard to discover.

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