In Thrall of Tommy Rall

In Thrall of Tommy Rall

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jun 27th 2018

Fans of high-stepping, lighter-than-air screen choreography have a veritable feast of new Blu-ray release choices this month, what with Warner Archive’s fabulous restoration of the beloved Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) leading the charge, bestowing a revitalizing 1080p sheen to Michael Kidd’s legendary dance sequences. Lest the Academy Award®-winning tale of brawny backwoodsmen and their beautiful belles take up all the oxygen in the musical marketplace, it’s instructive to point out that also new to the format in June are Twilight Time’s banner array of showcases for delectable terpsichorean delights, crafted by such masters as Jack Cole [Let’s Make Love (1960), starring Marilyn Monroe], Hermes Pan [My Gal Sal (1942) starring Rita Hayworth] and Bob Fosse [My Sister Eileen (1955), starring Janet Leigh and Betty Garrett]. It also offers a fine occasion to hail a key player linked to both Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and My Sister Eileen: the virtuoso dancer and later operatic tenor Tommy Rall, still among us at age 88½. In the former, he’s rambunctious brother Frank Pontipee; in the latter, he’s hotshot reporter Chick Clark; in both, the Kansas City, MO, native hoofs up a storm with amazing agility. 

Four years ago, Rall told ModernTimesMagazine.com’s David Fantle and Tom Johnson about his gravity-defying Seven Brides barnstorming sequence leaps and bounds: “During the challenge dance on the wooden planks between the sawhorses, I really split open my leg in rehearsals,” Rall said. “The trick to that number is that we began the various steps with the planks laid flat on the ground and as we became more assured, we raised the planks a foot, then another foot. When we finally shot that part of the number, the planks were three feet off the ground suspended between the two sawhorses.” He was also, quite literally, up to the challenge when collaborating with pal Fosse (alongside whom he merrily danced in 1953’s Kiss Me Kate) on Columbia’s My Sister Eileen, “where they squared off against each other in a ‘challenge dance,’ a dizzying showcase of each dancer’s athletic prowess and precision. ‘Harry Cohn, head of the studio, came down to the soundstage where we were rehearsing and asked to see the number,’ Rall said. ‘Bob and I pulled out all the stops and really killed ourselves performing it for him. At the end, as we were practically passing out from exhaustion, Harry said: ‘That number is all wrong! What you need to give them is a little of the old soft-shoe.’ He then proceeded to do some lame shuffle steps to show us. I was ready to lunge at this throat, when Bob took me aside and said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll talk to him and convince him that our number is better.’” Fosse’s persuasion won the day, and the two rivals’ duet is one – among many – of My Sister Eileen’s signature sequences, all of which demonstrates that June’s not just a month for brides but sisters as well, with the invaluable Rall (whose swell singing chops can be heard on the Broadway cast recordings of Milk and Honey and Cry for Us All) serving as the common thread – and uncommon talent – linking both. Give My Sister Eileen a spin – or whirl, or cartwheel – on TT hi-def Blu-ray and be in thrall of the marvelous Rall. Should the urge arise to see the Fosse/Rall teamwork on the big screen, high-tail it to the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s double-feature screening of Kiss Me Kate and My Sister Eileen Saturday August 25 at the Billy Wilder Theater in Los Angeles during its month-long Fosse, Fosse, Fosse! A Retrospective celebration. Find details here: https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/events/2018/fosse-a-retrospective.