Retro Actor Spotlight: Vera-Ellen

Giving Classical Hollywood Cinema’s players another chance to shine in the limelight

Now Featuring: Vera-Ellen

I can’t remember the exact moment when I saw Vera-Ellen on-screen for the first time but it was clearly a positive experience because I was unable to forget her after that. Not only did she have a beautiful face and a gorgeous designer wardrobe, Vera had some of the best dancing skills that I had ever seen. She could do any kind of dancing and make it look stunningly effortless: ballroom, tap, ballet, modern, and so on. After becoming more acquainted with film musicals and getting to know other big screen dance talents, I kept feeling the desire to know more about Vera-Ellen, in particular to see more of her body of work and to find out more about her life. As it turns out, there was little readily available information and the little that existed was very underdeveloped. I was lucky enough to get my hands on a copy of pretty much the only publication available on Vera (the title for which I will list below) and it went well beyond answering my initial questions. What I learned from my readings and viewings of her films is that Vera-Ellen is an enormous talent who was sadly underused in roles and underpublicized by studio heads. The result is that she is, more than most, largely forgotten today and even in her heyday not given the recognition she deserved.

Vera Ellen Westmeier Rohe was an only child born in Norwood, Ohio, on February 16, 1921. For many years, it was believed that she had been born in 1926 but it was discovered that both Vera and her mother had mutually decided to shave 5 years off of her age. (This was a common practise of the day initiated by actors themselves or by their agents/studios.) This was wholly unnoticeable until Vera reached her early 30s due to the fact that she had a relatively small, almost frail-like structure that made her appear much younger than her peers. She started taking dance lessons as a girl, learning to dance alongside another blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl later to be known as Doris Day, but they were never friends outside of the dance studio or later on in Hollywood. Vera started out dancing professionally in Broadway stage productions were she was spotted and signed by Samuel Goldwyn in 1944.

If you aren’t familiar with Vera’s work, here is handful of some of her defining films:

  • Wonder Man (1945)

This film marks Vera’s first on-screen appearance. She co-starred with Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo in this musical comedy and though Kaye was an untrained dancer, they were nonetheless partnered on the dance floor. Some of the dance numbers are dated and, frankly, seem a little strange but you must understand that the duets were catered to Kaye so that his lacking dance skills would be unnoticeable.

 

  • The Belle of New York (1952)

Vera had previous teamed with Fred Astaire in the 1950 film Three Little Words. The two dancers complimented each other so well that they were thought to be the perfect dance couple and Vera was proclaimed to be Astaire’s ideal partner. With this, more joint projects were on the horizon but were almost immediately scraped after The Belle of New York’s box office failure. Critics blamed the storyline as well as the age difference separating Astaire and Vera-Ellen – he was 21 years Vera’s senior. Oddly enough, Astaire would be paired 3 years later in the film Daddy Long Legs with Leslie Caron, who was only 23 years old compared to Astaire’s 55 – a whopping 32 year age gap.

 

  • Call Me Madam (1953)

Vera is paired this time around with Donald O’Connor and the result is quite nice because they are physically complimentary of one another and have much chemistry on the dance floor. They were both versatile dancers who were able to adapt on a whim and perfect different dance styles. As with the Astaire/Vera-Ellen pairing, plans were made for Donald and Vera to appear in more movies together but, true to fate, they would never work together again.

 

  • White Christmas (1954)

This marks one of Vera’s final screen appearances and the last collaboration she would have with a major studio. Vera is cast as the half of a performing sister act alongside Rosemary Clooney. Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby play their respective better halves. She has quite a few notable dance numbers that really show off her talent but with the passing years, most of her work in the film has been overshadowed by comments on her very thin frame. It had been rumoured that Vera suffered from an eating disorder (mainly anorexia though bulimia was sometimes mentioned) which explained both her weight and her specific costume choices used to cover-up her damaged body.

Donald O’Connor was originally slated to co-star with Vera but due to illness, he withdrew and was replaced by Danny Kaye, with whom she had a believable on-screen chemistry. Despite the back stories behind the movie, White Christmas is a delightful film. It is indeed corny and sugary sweet in parts but, at the same time, those aspects also contribute to its overall charm.

 

Here’s looking at you, Vera

Main Studio: She was first signed by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn and later by MGM Studios.

Movie Trademarks: Trying to make her voice sound deeper and sultrier; always smiling when performing a dance routine, even when being thrown high in the air; dutifully giving her best performance even when partnered with someone who had few dance skills; sadly usually having her singing dubbed despite being capable of holding a simple tune.

Famous Relationships: She casually dated Rock Hudson in the early 1950s and there was speculation that the two would marry. Her second marriage was to Victor Rothschild, a millionaire in his own right and part of the famed Rothschild family.

Recommended Reading: Vera-Ellen: The Magic and the Mystery by David Soren

Mr. Soren put his heart and soul into writing and publishing his book. Many thanks to him! 🙂

 

Part II: Spotlight on Vera-Ellen’s Dancing