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By Phil Hall | July 21, 2006

Heather Lyn MacDonald’s “Been Rich All My Life” profiles the Silver Belles, a troupe of former showgirls who performed at the Apollo Theatre and other Harlem hot spots during the 1930s and 1940s. Now in their 80s and 90s, they are still active and still in demand as show-stopping dancers.

This documentary follows the Silver Belles through seemingly endless rehearsals and in performances where they inevitably knock out their audiences with their ageless style and endless spirit. Yet it is hardly all song and dance – genuine tragedy strikes two dancers, one with a happy ending (89-year-old Cleo Hayes suffers a broken knee and arm from a tumble down a subway station staircase, but she eventually heals up and returns to the stage) and one with a sad ending (the group’s driving force, 96-year-old Bertye Lou Wood, begins the film sitting out the dances and is later hospitalized with a broken hip, which then leads to confinement at an old age home).

Each of the Silver Belles has her own distinctive story to share, and a mix of personal photographs and archival footage shows these ladies at their glory days peak seven decades ago. Much of their life’s work was marked with racism and sexism, not to mention ageism (where does a middle-aged showgirl go when the cabaret circuit vanishes?).

If the Silver Belles today are not as spry and kinetic as they were in the past, they clearly have plenty of energy and sass to share; their concept of growing old is to not grow old, but to keep living with the enthusiasm and passion of youth. It is a marvelous philosophy which the Silver Belles sell with gusto.

But not unlike the Silver Belles themselves, the film is a bit loose-limbed and creaky around the edges; this would’ve been an ideal 60-minute film – at 81 minutes it sometimes feels padded and repetitious, particularly with the numerous rehearsal scenes. The film also cheats a bit on just where the Silver Belles are performing today. We enjoy several of their performances before audiences, but it is never stated where these performances are taking place.

Nonetheless, “Been Rich All My Life” is a treasure in celebrating remarkable women with a unparalleled zest for life. With their humor and vibrant personalities, the Silver Belles are clearly the classiest women in movies this year.

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