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“Invitation to the Dance” on Warner Archive DVD

Just released on Warner Archive’s on-demand line of DVDs is Gene Kelly’s ambitious ballet film Invitation to the Dance. The film’s third segment, “Sinbad the Sailor,” is a half-hour combination of live-action and animation, the latter directed by MGM’s team of Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera. The film has never been on DVD before, and if not necessarily a classic, the combination of Kelly, Hanna and Barbera makes for some fun moments.

The delightfully grouchy Ed Benedict, who I interviewed in 2002 for Animation Blast #8, spoke about his involvement in the film and why he disliked it:

“That was a miserable project. I was at home…[Fred] Quimby called and briefly described this project that he wanted me to come over and work on. I got the impression that I would be designing this so I was excited. I was quite enthusiastic about it and felt challenged. I went over and started fumbling around, making scribbles, trying to find a style. But they weren’t the designs that I originally did. I just turned my back away from the whole thing as much as I could. I got Don Driscoll, a friend of mine who worked at Paul Fennell’s, to paint the backgrounds. He had the ability but he wasn’t the painter. Anybody could have painted the backgrounds because they didn’t have anything on them.

Invitation to the Dance was a farce and I was shocked because if you look at a lot of the old MGM musicals, they used Lautrec, Cezanne and a lot of different styles of backgrounds, just great stuff. Gene Kelly is running the show more or less on those type of decisions and he’s over there making the approvals on this stuff. There’s samples coming from the art department on the main lot, others besides myself were handing in ideas, and nothing took place.”

See some of Ed’s development art from the film HERE.

  • mara

    i can see what ed was talking about on the backgrounds…theyre pretty much non-existent or just blurs of color. i would’ve loved to see how this would’ve been if his development art had been used. surely a lot more exciting and colorful.

    but anywho, i like the animation of kelly’s partner. very flow-y and nice.

  • As a big fan of both Kelly and cartoons, I was super excited to hear about this film finally being released to dvd. So I bought it. And watched it. And was suuuuper disappointed. It’s plodding, pretentious and pretty much a sure-fire cure for caffeine.

    You know those scenes in Singing’ In The Rain and An American In Paris where the studios begrudgingly let Kelly shoot 10 minute long mini-ballets that brought the plot to a screeching halt and contained none of the energy or wit apparent in the rest of the film? Invitation To Dance is like one of those…stretched to an hour and a half. It’ll sap even the most forgiving viewer of all their patience reservoirs, and should only be shown to today’s ADD-afflicted kids if said kids are currently resting comfortably in comas.

    If you really want to see a fun blending of Kelly and cartoons, YouTube the clip from Anchors Aweigh where Gene dances with Tom & Jerry‘s Jerry.

  • uncle wayne

    and it all preludes the tv special “Jack and the Beanstalk”….a (made-for-tv) spectacular i’ll never forget!

  • Roland Denby

    Hilarious comments, Ju-osh. Thanks for the laugh. I saw clips of this film, as I have never seen it before and wasn’t too impressed with it. Seemed kind of boring to me. Just Gene Kelly running around. I think I’ll pass.

    I recall hearing stories about another HB/Gene Kelly live/animated project, “Jack and the Beanstalk,” produced for TV in the 60s, in which Kelly was a royal pain in the ass for Hanna & Barbera. I wish I could remember the details. I have seen that sepcial, though and thought it was cute. Slow in points, especially when Kelly was on screen in certain scenes. But I enjoyed the animated portion.

  • top cat james

    Great. Now get busy releasing the remaining Popeyes and Looney Tunes.

  • John A

    This was available on laserdisc years ago. The snake dance sequence is a little more stylized, but a just as unsatisfying, for all the reasons given above. Once you get past the amazing technical accomplishments (crane shots? Disney kept the camera rock solid for the combination sequences in Mary Poppins) the artwork is fairly ordinary (but so was the artwork for Pochahantas, over forty years later)I sorta chalked up the dullness of the overall look of the production to the fact that it was handled by Bill and Joe and their fairly routine directoral style.

    I would have LOVED to have seen what a director like Tex Avery would have done with the sequence.

  • dbenson

    I recall Barbara’s memoir was pretty rough on Kelly vis a vis “Jack and the Beanstalk”, claiming that Kelly was furious with the final result — but went up to accept an Emmy for it, including a condescending remark about the “little hands” that drew it.

    Hanna’s bio remembered Kelly and the special much more warmly, if briefly.

    I saw the show and remember it as OK — not in a class with the movie work, but maybe a bit better than “New Adventures of Huck Finn”, the HB series built around live kids in an animated world.

  • You can’t blame the animators for this dog. I admire Gene Kelly as a dancer, but this movie desperately needed a creative vision, and Kelly wasn’t it.

  • Salt

    This may play on the boring side today but a ton of hard labor went into it. This was the longest live action/animated sequence that Hanna and Barbera ever did at MGM. It has been said that this sequence took a year and a half to make and it seems possible due to the sheer pencil mileage. Those endless slow-motion roto scenes represent plenty of pain for the MGM assistant animators and inbetweeners, long used to working on snappier stuff. The live action sections of “Invitation to the Dance” were shot in Britain for tax reasons and the animation done here in Culver City. The completed film was delayed for a couple of years on the release schedule, possibly to studio politics, though Wikipedia states that the studio had doubts about its commercial viability, and when finally released it indeed proved financially underwhelming. The movie had been conceived at a point when rural American masses didn’t get the chance to readily watch much ballet. By the time of its release ballet was all too common on television, so the novelty aspect was gone. Gene Kelly’s status as a major screen star had also slipped a few notches between the days of “Singin’ In the Rain” and this. He apparently had enough clout to get it made but insufficient muscle to get it promptly into the Loews theaters. If you get the chance to see this on a large theater screen you’ll be shocked at how much line warping is present. The drawings were close together, hand-inked with quill pens and probably not the most fun stuff to work on. Carol Haney was the live action/roto model for much of the sequence. This thing certainly remains a curio.

    • Roland Denby

      Well, after all that it makes me want to actually watch the film now. Thanks for the info. Perhaps I will check it out. :-)

  • The 10 minute ballet sequence in American in Paris drags the film to a halt and doesn’t have the energy or the wit of the rest of the picture?! Yow! That comment sets a record for turning the world on its head! I could watch that sequence over and over forever and still be amazed and entertained. I bet that commenter thinks the ballet in the middle of The Red Shoes is boring and stops the movie dead too.

    The best part of Invitation to the Dance is Mike Lah’s brilliant animation of the dragon. Think about the challenge of making a character with no legs dance in synchronicity with Gene Kelly. Everyone talks about how brilliant it was for Kaa in Jungle Book to make arm and hand gestures with his coils… Well, try to make him dance along with one of the greatest dancers of the 20th century!

  • Roland Denby

    I enjoyed “Huck Finn,” quite a bit as a kid. The character designs by Iwao Takamoto are favorites of mine. I wish WB would restore the prime time series, complete with live-action wrap-arounds onto DVD. I’d like to see “Jack and the Beanstalk” again too. It’s been years.

  • John A

    Jack and the Beanstalk has been out on video for about 10 years. I’m sure a copy can be located somewhere.

    • Roland Denby

      Thanks. Yes, I have the video but switched to DVD so I cannot watch it. I meant I was hoping for a DVD release. Who knows? Warner Archive has been releasing some interesting stuff — stuff I never thought would see daylight for their vaults.

  • Amid, didn’t our friend Gene Hazelton ultimately do the designs for this animated sequence?

    • amid

      Yikes, how’d I forget that. You’re right Scott, more of Gene’s designs ended up being used than Ed’s. I think Gene wanted to have the harem girls be different colors, like tints of green and blue, but they ultimately played it safe.

  • uncle wayne

    that’s what i luv most about this heavenly site: the hot fresh gossip of decades ago!!!

  • Alexander Rannie

    Hugh Fordin’s essential book “M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals: The Arthur Freed Unit” [DaCapo Press, 1996] provides the following information about the “Sinbad the Sailor” segment:

    [Gene] Kelly returned home the first week of August [1953–having already been shooting on “Invitation to the Dance” for a year], very anxious to start work on the cartoon sequence, the final ballet in the film. When he met with [Roger] Edens [musical arranger/composer and right hand man to producer Arthur Freed] to discuss adapting a work of one of the acknowledged great composers, Edens had already made up his mind: Rimsky-Korsakov. Kelly went straight into rehearsal.

    After two days he was requested to write a synopsis. He called it “Sinbad the Sailor.” This got the whole project off the ground with Edens adapting the music; William Hanna, Joseph Barbera and Fred Quimby cartooning; the live portion designed by Randall Duell; David Kasday as the Genie and Carol Haney as Scheherazade. In front of the blue backing Kelly demonstrated his choreography for the animators, with Haney and [Jeanne] Coyne [assistant to Kelly] doubling for the characters to be drawn in.

    Edens spent many hours on the rehearsal stage, bringing with him [musical arranger/orchestrator Conrad] Salinger, who had the task of adapting Rimsky-Korsakov.

    At the end of two months the sequence was prerecorded under the baton of Johnny Green. It took Green three full days to record this twenty-one-and-a-half-minute section, with the live portion still having to be postscored. “Sinbad,” with Joseph Ruttenberg at the camera began shooting on October 3. “Gene is an adrent professional,” says Ruttenberg. “He figured out mathematically all the different angles for the animation. Everything has to be on counts and he did this dancing with little animated images, which weren’t there yet, and then Barbera and [Irving G.] Ries [special cartoon effects] had to match everything. It was very tedious work.”

    The sequence was shot in ten days at a cost of $947,659 (animated portion: $323,025).

    For the next three and one-half years the picture was intermittently tampered with: cut and recut, dubbed and redubbed. […] And there it sat until 1957.

    One might question why it took M-G-M so long to release “Invitation to the Dance.” Most likely the answer can be found in a number of adverse circumstances.

    What was the sales potential of the picture? As an art film it would play–at best–to limited audiences. Even though the divorcement between theatre ownership and motion-picture studios had not yet been put into effect by Loew’s, Inc., as distributors of M-G-M products, their major outlets were theatres seating two thousand plus. These houses were not feasible for a ballet picture with Gene Kelly as the only big name on the marquee. There was the opportunity of booking into independent chains and theatres, but the distribution division was confronted with a lack of interest.

    Another negative aspect was the rapidly declining motion-picture attendance, which shook the industry and with it the management of M-G-M. At the end of 1956, [studio president] Dore Schary was dismissed by Joseph Vogel, recently elected president of Loew’s, Inc. Vogel assigned Ben Thau to administer the operation.

    It was under Thau’s new regime that “Invitation to the Dance” was taken off the shelf and premièred at the Plaza, an art theatre, in New York, on March 1, 1957. By this time the accumulated cost was $1,419,105. It grossed $615,000 ($200,000, domestic, $415,000, foreign).

    # # #

  • I agree that this was a failed experiment. But at least Kelly was willing to experiment. Perhaps it would have been more fun if Stanley Donen were involved.

    In any case thanks for the heads up, I might want to purchase it anyway.

  • gene schiller

    There are moments in the Sinbad the Sailor sequence that capture the lyricism of the music (Rimsky’s “Scheherazade”) quite nicely. It beats Kelly and the “mouse” for my money.

  • TsimoneTseTse

    Yes this is one where the legend supercedes the results.
    From the clip alone, it just screams “ME, Look at MEEEEEEE!” and I had the sound off.

    But it did allow me to focus on her scarf which seems to have been the best H-B animation I’ve seen & the leaves appeared on par with Disney’s 40’s output.

  • Jed G Martinez

    I’m surprised that nobody mentioned that a portion of the ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ sequence was featured in MGM’s “That’s Entertainment! Part II” (1976).

    Having seen “Invitation to the Dance” on local network TV – many, many years ago – I was more disheartened when said animated sequence was interrupted for commercials (due to its length of time). It was more entertaining when it was seen (uninterrupted) on PBS.

    Granted, ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ doesn’t rank amongst the best live-action/animated scenes in motion picture history, but in a world generations before ‘state-of-the-art’ technology gave us such films like “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, “Stuart Little”, “Alvin and the Chipmunks”, “Yogi Bear”, and upcoming fare like “Hop” and “Smurfs”, “Invitation to the Dance” stands out on its own merits.

  • Jonathan Hill

    Reading the comments on this page I am surprised by the amount of negative feedback on “Sinbad the Sailor”!I ordered the “Invitation to the Dance” knowing that the animated Sinbad was the most praised part and I skipped the first two segments to watch it and I was so delighted to see how much fun it is!! there are backrounds that have a beautiful oreintal look and others that are like U.P.A. modern style which seem appropiate for the comedy of the palace guards! Kelly as Sinbad and the princess dance in front of beautiful oriental arabian backdrops before they kiss and the scene changes to clouds and flowers with the Scherizade theme! It is a fun, funny romantic cartoon! And I would say it is much better(and more entertaining) then any of the new animation in Fantasia 2000! The other 2 dance stories before this are less impressive but have good moments. Sometimes people expect to much and can be over critacal but Sinbad the Sailor is a lot of fun!! I love the belly dancing snake!! The 3 reviews that praise this film, giving it a “thats good stuff” rating, and they appear on the musicals page of Archive Collection, are much more accurate about the quality of this film! It’s not perfect but it gets better as it moves forward and the last story is fun, charming, and an imaginative version of Rimsky Korsakov’s Scherizade music! I’m glad I have it! I’m also a hand drawn animater so I appreciate it’s quality!