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Choreography by Jack Cole
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Choreography by Jack Cole - 9/10

* Robert Osborne and dance writer/critic Debra Levine will co-host this program

Known as the "Father of Theatrical Jazz Dance," Jack Cole (1911-1974) virtually created the jazz-ethnic-ballet style of dance that still prevails in concerts, Broadway shows, Hollywood movie musicals and music videos. His far-reaching influence may be prominently seen in the work of such dance legends as Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennett, Alvin Ailey, Peter Gennaro, Tommy Tune and Gwen Verdon, who was Cole's assistant for seven years. On film Cole was particularly known for his personality-defining work with such female stars as Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable and Mitzi Gaynor.

Born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, N.J., Cole studied with the Denishawn Dance Company in New York. He made his professional debut in 1930 but soon abandoned modern dance for a commercial career in nightclubs. In developing his own jazzy style he incorporated dancing techniques from India, Africa, the Caribbean and Harlem. By the late 1930s his company, the Jack Cole Dancers, were headlining in the country's leading nightclubs including New York City's Rainbow Room and L.A.'s Ciro's.

Cole choreographed many Broadway shows including Alive and Kicking (1950), Kismet (1953), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Foxy (1964) and Man of La Mancha (1965), for which he was nominated for a Tony award. But he's now remembered chiefly for his movie work, which began when his troupe made an uncredited appearance in the 20th Century Fox Betty Grable vehicle Moon Over Miami (1941). It would continue through more than 25 other films -- some credited, some not.

Despite his influence over other choreographers, Cole's look remains inimitable. His male dancers slither low to the ground before erupting into leaps, falls and his famous knee slides. His females are as suggestively sexy as strippers and are often dressed like them, in body-hugging sheaths, feathers and opera gloves that can be peeled off at the right moment. He had a keen instinct for group movements in his dances, yet was detailed enough to choreograph the lip-pursings of Grable and Monroe as they sang.

Cole first worked with Hayworth in Columbia's Cover Girl (1944), which co-starred Gene Kelly. He then doubled as her choreographer and dancing partner in Tonight and Every Night (1945), providing a spectacular display of his own dance skills as a sailor in the number "What Does an English Girl Think of a Yank?" (watch his entrance for one of those trademark knee slides) and guiding Hayworth through a spectacular samba in "You Excite Me." Although uncredited, Cole helped Hayworth make a stunning impact in her most famous film, Gilda (1946), by his sizzling staging of her big number, "Put the Blame on Mame."

During his stint at Columbia, Cole choreographed Ann Miller in Eadie Was a Lady (1945), in which he also performed as a dancer, and staged Hayworth's dance numbers in Down to Earth (1947).

As Hayworth helped establish Cole at Columbia, Grable did the same for him at Fox, where he first returned to choreograph On the Riviera (1951), a non-Grable comedy starring Danny Kaye and Gene Tierney. That movie was distinguished by the dazzling footwork of Cole himself and Gwen Verdon, who was Cole's muse before she became Bob Fosse's, as uncredited "specialty dancers." Cole put Grable through her paces for Meet Me After the Show (1951), The Farmer Takes a Wife (1953) and Three for the Show (1955). In the first two of these, Verdon again appears as an attention-getting background dancer.

At Fox, Cole also created some exciting routines for Mitzi Gaynor in The I Don't Care Girl (1953) and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), then followed her to MGM for the super-sophisticated George Cukor musical Les Girls (1957), which gave him a chance to work with Gene Kelly again. (Kelly himself choreographed his terrific duet with Gaynor, "Why Am I So Gone About That Gal?") Also at MGM, Cole did an acting/singing role in Designing Woman (1957), playing a choreographer in a show for which Lauren Bacall's character is designing costumes.

But Cole's masterwork for film was the creation of Marilyn Monroe the seductive musical star. "Anticipating the iconic Marilyn, he brought out her exceptional femininity through dance," Cole expert Debra Levine wrote in the L.A. Times. "Monroe copied him in return. A star was born." The Monroe/Cole collaboration began with Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) and he influenced not only the non-dancer's movement through musical numbers but also her line readings, delivery of lyrics, costuming and, some say, her very identity on film.

The great showcase for both star and choreographer in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," has Monroe moving sensuously through what Levine calls "a deceptively simple roadmap of walks, skips, shrugs and shimmies" that help her nail the number and turn it into a classic. She wears an outfit strikingly similar to Hayworth's in Gilda: a strapless, form-fitting evening gown with elbow-length gloves. (The major difference is that, while Rita's costume is all black, Marilyn's is hot pink.)

Although both were known as being difficult and temperamental, Monroe and Cole developed a bond of friendship, and he was impressed with her determination to learn. "Marilyn and I had never danced before; we were a pair of klutzes," costar Jane Russell told Cole biographer Glenn Loney. "Jack was horrible to his own dancers, but with us, the two broads, he had the patience of Job. He would show us and show us and then turn us over to Gwen." (This was during Verdon's time as his assistant.)

The collaboration between Cole and Monroe continued through four more films: River of No Return (1954), There's No Business Like Show Business, Some Like It Hot (1959) and Let's Make Love (1960). Music arranger Peter Matz would say, "The persona Marilyn showed in her film musicals was Jack Cole. He grabbed on to something in her. She followed everything he gave her. Phrasing! The gestures, the walk. All of it!"

by Roger Fristoe

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