Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Hollywood choreographer Sylvia Lewis on Jerry Lewis, Singin' In The Rain and Nicholas Ray

Actress / Director/ Choreographer Sylvia Lewis has been dancing since the '40s in Hollywood.  She has worked with the likes of The Three Stooges, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Spike Jones, and Ray Bolger, most famous for his work as the 'Scarecrow' in the WIZARD OF OZ (1939).  In the '50s Lewis would appear on the landmark comedy television series The Colgate Comedy Hour and go on to work with directors like Jerry Lewis, Frank Tashlin, and Nicholas Ray.   Lewis played 'Miss Cartilage ' in the fantasy finale of the 1961 Jerry Lewis comedy THE LADIES' MAN.  She shares some of her stories with us here at TV Store Online....

TV STORE ONLINE:  How did you end up working for Jerry Lewis on THE LADIES' MAN?

LEWIS:  Well, THE LADIES' MAN wasn't the first time that I had actually worked with Jerry.    Before I tell you about THE LADIES' MAN, I just want to say that I think Jerry is a completely underrated and gifted performer.

TV STORE ONLINE:  He's a very underrated and gifted director too...

LEWIS:  True.  He was always very visual.  I just remember him telling me about how he would get visions in his head when we worked together.  He was one of those performers, writers, and directors that just saw it all in his head and if he couldn't figure out how to achieve it he would go to his crew members and he would pick their brains.  That was how he learned.  That was just how he gathered information and I think that over time in doing that he became one of the most well informed directors working.  He really is a comedic genius, but I think that he always wanted to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor too.   He is just a ball of talent and you can't limit him to any one particular medium.  There were times when he was difficult to work for, like when I was working with him on The Colgate Comedy Hour (1955) on television. I was married to Jerry's head writer there Ed Simmons.   I was barely out of my teen years when I did that with both he and Dean [Martin], and at that time I wasn't very focused on what they were doing, but only on the fact that there was this new four-camera thing that was going on in live television. 

By the time we got to THE LADIES' MAN, I had gotten to know him better and I saw all of these different sides of him.  I spent eleven weeks working on THE LADIES' MAN, and during those weeks I went into the studio every day hoping that I could catch Jerry to talk to him about the sequence that we ultimately did with the Harry James Orchestra.  I was there all day, every day for those eleven weeks and I never got an opportunity to talk to him or rehearse for the finale that I was hired to be a part of in THE LADIES' MAN.   

But I sat there for those weeks and I just watched him work, and this was when he had just invented the Video Asst.   It was a busy set, and it was fantastic.  There were tourists coming through, there were set visitors, and it was exciting because people wanted to see these technical innovations at work that he had created.  Jerry could wear all of the hats too.  He could at the same time, direct the scene and be in front of the camera as a performer and he did it with incredible ease.    

At the end of those eleven weeks, Jerry took me aside and we went over onto the set were we were going to shoot the sequence.  He had Edith Head design the costume for me.  We were standing on that set, and he told me about how he had envisioned the entire set as being done in all white.  

He had envisioned me in all black he said, with a white face and that red lipstick.    I was a creature to him.  He pointed up in the air and asked me to look at the chandelier.  He said, "I had that crystal chandelier made in the shape of your body."   You can't see it in the film completely, but it was those little details that he focused on that made that movie so wonderful.

He played me the track "Bang-Tail" by the Harry James Orchestra and he told me about how they were going to appear.  He said, "I've listened to this track a few times.  I just want you to follow me.  Do it as a dancer, but just follow me."   He put the track on and he started across the set.  I was literally just chasing him around the set.  What you see in the finished scene is literally just what he asked me to do.  We rehearsed it about half a dozen times, and then we shot it.  There was no choreography, there were just moves, and they were almost improvised.   He trusted me to do that with him.
TV STORE ONLINE:  How long did you have to hang upside down as we see you at the beginning of the scene in the movie?

LEWIS:  Well, we shot for two days.   I can't remember if that was done on the first day or second.  I just remember that I could barely walk in that black dress.  Harry James and the band were there on the set waiting, and Jerry started to talk about it.  Jerry said, "Get the casting people down here. I don't want Sylvia doing that.  It's too dangerous.  Let's get a stunt double."  So he gives instructions to have someone get four or five stunt girls from casting.  About four or five hours later, the casting people come and they bring about half a dozen gals with them. Jerry lines them up, he takes a look at them.  He seemed like he was starting to get annoyed because none of the girls looked like me.  I said, "Jerry. I can do this.  The guys will hold me up there!  This is really no big deal."     So two of the biggest and strongest guys you've ever seen pulled me into the air.  One guy held one ankle, and another my other ankle.  Jerry gave them specific instructions on how they should lower me right to his eye level.  We did a rehearsal of it, and then I went back up into the ceiling and Jerry had the cameras rolling the entire time as so there would be no danger whatsoever.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is it true that you also worked on SINGIN' IN THE RAIN (1952) as a dancer?

LEWIS:   Yes.  That was the second movie that I ever worked on in fact.   Do you remember the scene with Donald O'Connor where he sings "Make'em Laugh" and he does that back flip?

Of course!  That's my favorite sequence in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN...

LEWIS:  I was actually standing next to the camera as Donald was doing that.   I worked on SINGIN' IN THE RAIN for a long time, and as I remember it, it seemed like every dancer in Hollywood was working on the film too.   At the time I wasn't a very happy chorus girl, but I knew it was going to be a very good and long job, but we had no idea that the film would become a classic.   I had known Donald for a long time, because I had worked with him on television before all that.  Standing there, and watching Donald do "Make'em Laugh", it was impossible to have any awareness that what he was doing was instantly timeless and in the minute that he did that no less.  

TV STORE ONLINE:  You're going to call me out on my bullsh*t when I say that I think Jerry Lewis is just as good of a dancer as someone like Gene Kelly or Donald O'Connor....

LEWIS:  You're wrong for one reason, but that's not to say that he couldn't have been.   He didn't have the formal training that either Gene or Donald had, and that is what separates the men from the boys.   He could've been right up there though if he had wanted to be.   Jerry has always had perfect rhythm and a very good pitch when it comes to music. He has all the tools to be a great dancer except the training.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You also worked with Nicholas Ray on his film HOT BLOOD (1956)...

LEWIS:  Oh Boy!   Yes, I did work on that as a choreographer.   By that time, I was a fairly well known choreographer and my agent called me one day and said that Nick Ray would like myself and another choreographer [Matt Maddox] to come to see him about a job on his next film.    We went in there, and Nick was the most charming and adorable person that you could meet. He was so enthusiastic about his next project.  He had just come off of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955).  He started telling us about his idea for the movie and it was really his baby.   It was a project that he had been working on for a very long time.  He spent a lot of time researching these New York gypsies.  He said, "This is culture that is so interesting.  We don't know anything about them and they are incredibly fascinating."  This was during the pre-production for the film.   He hired Les Baxter to do the music for the film.  Things were moving really fast.  

Nick would have me come in every couple of weeks before they started shooting.  We would go over the scenes that involved music and dance.   As a good director does, he was filling us in on the ambiance of the culture of the gypsies.  Around that time he also started hiring his supporting characters for the movie.   He hadn't even hired his lead actors yet!   It got just a couple weeks before he was to start shooting and he still hadn't hired his leads.  I went in to see him and he said, "Well, we might have Cornel Wilde, but we're not sure.  I'm getting pressure from the front office also to use Jane Russell in the movie but she's not right for the role."    I will say that for Cornel Wilde, he had talents that we hadn't seen of him on the big screen yet up till that point, and he at least, looked right for the part.

In the final week before Nick was to start shooting he became very stressed out and unhappy.  He was being backed up against the wall because he was forced by Harry Cohn at Columbia to hire Jane Russell for HOT BLOOD.   He became very despondent and was forced to move forward with the movie.   Matt and I had only a week or ten days to teach both Jane Russell and Cornel, who were non-dancing actors, what we had come up with for the wedding dance, and that thing with the whip...  We tried to make the steps simple so that they would be able to learn them in such a short time.   Nick said, "You choreograph what you like and if necessary we'll just shoot you and Matt doing it and then we'll cut in."   We worked our asses off trying to teach Jane and Cornel those dances.   It was not an easy task.  As we got as far along as we could, Nick would come down and watch us.   He figured out how he wanted to shoot it as he was watching Jane and Cornel dance.   The long shots that you see of them dancing in HOT BLOOD were done by Matt and I, and the close-ups are obviously Jane and Cornel.  

Jane Russell and Nick Ray during HOT BLOOD
As Nick started shooting he got more and more frustrated with Jane and Cornel. It just wasn't working.  Nick was a very unhappy man, and he was drinking heavily during the shooting of HOT BLOOD, and it was so sad to see this man who had had this incredibly personal movie that he had envisioned, and then to have it taken away and dictated by the studio really drove him into a very dark state of being.

We did the wedding dance sequence as Nick had planned it out, and a week later the studio asked to see it.  The screening didn't go well.  They told Nick that they could clearly see where the dancers were Matt and I, and then when they were Jane Russell and Cornel Wilde.   They demanded that he re-shoot it.   So Nick had to go and re-hire all of the extras that he had used and get everyone back for it.   He was so pissed off that he purposely set the camera back as far away from us as he could get it (Laughing).   Matt and I are still dancing in the sequence but the camera is so far away that we look like two ants on the screen (Laughing).  

But, it didn't matter how far he got away with the camera, you can still tell when we are dancing and when Jane and Cornell are on the screen.   Jane and Cornell were both very sweet, and they really tried very hard to get it right, but they just weren't right for those parts.  I think that the both of them could tell that Nick wasn't happy that they were being forced on him.   It really was doomed from the start.  Had the studio left Nick alone to make the film that he wanted to it would've been something wonderful, because the script really was good.

Nick was living at the Chateau Marmont at the time, and on the weekends he would invite all of us over to his bungalow and we would have dinner and booze together.   Natalie Wood would show up, and some of the other members of the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE crew.  He would use the time to try to get over the trauma and the week-after-week torture that the studio put him through during HOT BLOOD.   He was a very quiet man, and he really was a wonderful director and I've always felt sad about how HOT BLOOD turned out for him.   

TV STORE ONLINE:  For every bit of criticism that HOT BLOOD has received, the one thing that really comes across beautifully in the film is Nick's attention to that gypsy sub-culture...

LEWIS:  Yeah, I would agree.   But going into HOT BLOOD you really need to be forewarned of that.  Any review I ever read of the film when it was released or since, no critic has ever picked up on that.  It's really in there but it's lost in a way in the movie.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You also worked on a little movie in the mid '70s that I adore called HEARTS OF THE WEST (1975)...

LEWIS:  I just recently saw the film for the first time since it was released theatrically.  It's a fun and delightful little movie.  The cast of it is so wonderful.

TV STORE ONLINE:  The musical number that you did in the film is my favorite moment in the movie...

You think?  There was so much of it that was cut out!  That number, how I came to do that number, it was a point in time where tap-dancing had made a brief comeback.  It had been gone from movies for decades and for some reason there was a resurgence.  The movie got a lot of publicity for the time because of how tap-dancing had become so popular again. One day when we were shooting, NBC came to the set with a crew, as they were planning on doing a special segment on tap-dancing which was to air shortly thereafter.  It was obviously a publicity thing connected with the studio.   They shot us doing the entire dance number from three different angles. When it aired on NBC they showed the entire dance number!  They didn't cut any of it.    When I went to the theater to see the movie I saw that they had actually cut a bunch of it out.  I was so mad.

HEARTS OF THE WEST had a flawless cast.  They couldn't do anything wrong.  I didn't get along with the director  Howard Zieff.  He was a very tiny details oriented guy.  He had done a bunch of very successful television commercials and he was very focused on the tiniest of details.   If an ashtray was out of place he would cut a scene and re-adjust it himself.   I had my own very specific way of putting together a dance number and he just couldn't understand my way of working because it clashed with his own.   I don't choreograph anything unless I have music to work with and for the life of me I just couldn't get him to approve a piece of music for that number in the film.  Finally, as a last resort, I started working with "Pagan Love Song" by Arthur Freed.  MGM owned the song.   I found a recording of the song done by Lawrence Welk and there was tap-dancing on the record.  I used that during rehearsals.   I knew that they wouldn't be able to use the Lawrence Welk version but I figured that they could just put a different version of the song over it during post-production.

They were able to do exactly that but they weren't happy that they had to do it, and when it came time to record the tap-dancing sound I had to go in and dance it myself.   I had to do it twelve times and I was very aware of where I was.   I did it on the same floor that Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly had danced on for post-production.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Of all the actors and actresses that you have worked with over the years...Who was the easiest to teach to dance?

LEWIS:  The easiest non-dancer that I ever worked with was Dick Van Dyke.  He was just like Jerry Lewis.  He wasn't trained but he had this natural ability that made everything so easy.  Everything that I showed him he picked up instantly.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Who was the most difficult actor or actress that you had to work with in your career in regards to teaching dance?

LEWIS:  Jane Russell!  I'm sorry...(Laughing)

TV STORE ONLINE:  Well, she's dead now...

LEWIS:  She was such a sweet person though.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Given your many years of experience in Hollywood and training those to dance ...What do you think of something today like Dancing With The Stars?

LEWIS:  I guess I'm an old grouch because I find the whole idea of competitive dancing very offensive.  I can't watch that show.   I did try to watch the show, but I had to leave it behind.  I will some times tune in near the end of the competition to see who is left and how far they have come along in their training. 

Having these non-dancers pushing themselves to see who can kick higher or push themselves to an end point is difficult to watch.  I still consider dance to be an art-form and I'm just not sure where that train of thought has gone today....I don't see that in anything in the mainstream today.   I've gone back to appreciating the classical "hoofers".   I even admire someone like Gregory Hines, and he's not here to show people the art form any longer.    I've gone back to enjoying the classic ballet because no one has tried to corrupt that all of these years later.   What is mainstream dance now - is not my cup of tea.

Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung
For more with Sylvia Lewis please visit her official website HERE: