BOOTLEG FILES 328: “Black Tights” (1960 French dance film).
LAST SEEN: Available in its entirety on Amazon.com.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It was released by Kino on Video in 2000, though it appears to be a public domain title.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A fully restored version of the original French production would be most welcomed, though it seems unlikely at the moment.
I recently received a DVD collection of old-time movie musicals from Mill Creek Entertainment. All of the films in the collection are public domain, and some of the films have been covered in this column. However, I was surprised to see one film in this mix: the 1960 French production “Black Tights.”
I was unaware that “Black Tights” was a public domain title. I recalled that Kino on Video released it on VHS and DVD in back in 2000, and it is not a title that turns up in the offerings of labels that specialize in public domain dupes. But Kino has released public domain films, and it also received much criticism in 2000 for presenting a faded, splicey, scratchy print of this production.
“Black Tights” was created at a time when filmmakers tried to marry ballet and cinema. Ballet sequences were not unusual within movie musicals, most notably the Oscar-winning “An American in Paris.” But creating a full-length feature focusing only on ballet was fairly unusual. Gene Kelly attempted to achieve that feat with “Invitation to the Dance,” but that 1952 was shelved for four years by MGM out of fears that movie audiences would not accept a film that was all dance and no talk. That film was a major flop when it was finally released, and no other Hollywood studio was willing to take a chance on the concept.
However, the French production company Talma Filmes thought this was a risk that was worth taking. A film consisting of four ballets choreographed by Roland Petit was created, with Petit using his celebrated ballet company. Petit also performed his works, and his on- and off-stage leading lady, Zizi Jeanmaire, was to be prominently featured.
Yet from the perspective of film box office, there was a bit of a problem. While Jeanmaire was rightfully famous among ballet lovers, she was relatively little known to moviegoers. She twice tried to secure a niche in Hollywood, with “Hans Christian Andersen” (1952) and “Anything Goes” (1956), but her unique talents didn’t quite click in the film world. To ensure a stronger degree of marquee value, a pair of better known film dancers were recruited: Cyd Charisse, the leggy star of MGM musicals, and Moira Shearer, the red-haired Scottish star of the ultimate cinematic dance experience, “The Red Shoes.”
A big budget was prepared, with Technicolor and the 70mm Technirama process used to highlight the performances and the opulent production values that included costumes by Yves St. Laurent and Christian Dior. For no clear reason, British director Terence Young – who had no previous experience directing opulent musicals – was brought in to helm the work.
The film’s four stories were well-regarded works from the Petit canon: “The Diamond Cruncher,” with Jeanmaire as a pickpocket who eats diamonds and Dirk Sanders as a truck driver who steers her away from her unusual miscreancy; “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with Petit as the large-nosed swordsman/poet and Shearer as Roxanne; “A Merry Mourning,” with Charisse as an unhappy wife who celebrates her husband’s death in a duel by wearing a black dress that he refused to buy her; and “Carmen,” with Jeanmaire and Petit as the ill-fated lovers immortalized by Bizet.
Lacing his way around the proceedings was Maurice Chevalier, using his Parisian boulevardier persona to introduce each work via a direct in-the-camera narration. His presence helps warn the viewer about the weirdness of “The Diamond Cruncher” and the surprising lack of remorse in “A Merry Mourning.” Yet his input here is often intrusive, to the point of offering silly soundtrack observations while the dances are in full swing.
So what did I think of all of this? It is hard to say, because I kept falling asleep while watching “Black Tights.” I didn’t come to the film overtired – I had earlier taken my doggie on a mile-and-a-half walk and finished viewing a World Cup match before putting on the DVD for this film. Yet throughout the movie, I constantly found myself nodding off, and it got to the point that I had to repeatedly readjust my sitting position to avoid a complete snooze. By the time the “Carmen” segment came around, I had to shut off the film because I was too close to a premature sleep session.
Is “Black Tights” so boring that it can put someone to sleep? The answer is yes, and I am sorry to say this because I enjoy watching ballet performances. But Petit’s work – at least presented here – came across as unimaginative and enervated. “Cyrano de Bergerac” was particularly dismal, with Petit offering a smaller-than-life interpretation of Rostand’s hero and a conspicuously too-mature Shearer doing very little except looking regal at the proceedings. Jeanmaire’s screen presence was also less-than-thrilling, while Charisse’s charisma barely compensated for the chaotic tumult that surrounded her number. Young’s direction barely helps – the camera is either too far back or too close, and rarely in the proper distance – and the crummy quality of the duped print that I watched only made things worse.
The film had its premiere at the 1960 Venice Film Festival under the title “Un, deux, trois, quatre!” However, it did not go into commercial release until 1962 with a new title. For the U.S. market, the art house distributor Magna put it in theaters. But it wasn’t particularly well-received. Bosley Crowther, who reviewed the film for The New York Times, wrote,” “The over-all effect of the picture, apart from its meaning for those who are stringent ballet students or lovers and have particularly keen eyes for techniques, is that of a great big package of dance numbers from a musical film – nothing else, just ballet numbers. For our personal taste, that’s too much.”
I assume the U.S. version with the Chevalier segments is in public domain; the badly duped copy I saw appeared to be the same worn-out print that Kino used 10 years ago. The original French version, which did not use Chevalier, has not played on this side of the Atlantic and is still under copyright protection. Perhaps some day, that version can be made available – in a fully restored 70mm version, which will enable ballet lovers to see the work as it was originally intended to be presented. Until such time, feel free to dance away from “Black Tights.”
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!