The musical is one of cinema’s great expressionist genres. Character and emotion aren’t portrayed just through narrative and dialogue in these films, but through song, dance, and colour. The genre’s about taking the figurative and making it literal, about showing Gene Kelly’s joy at saving The Duelling Cavalier by having him splash about in all those puddles. It is, in other words, a genre of movement: of the mouth, of the body, of the soul.
Conversely, this focus on movement can also exist in the absence of movement, as a number from Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 adaptation of Gypsy proves. Focusing on a shy young woman named Louise (played beautifully by Natalie Wood), the film follow her transformation from struggling vaudeville entertainer into burlesque sensation. Along the way, she falls out with her mother and sees her sister elope with Tulsa, a handsome young dancer who plays a part in the vaudeville act. Before then, however, he and Louise share a song and dance sequence, and it’s this that I want to concentrate on here.
‘All I Need Is The Girl’ is Tulsa’s big scene as he confides to Louise his plans to form his own act. He’s got everything planned out, he just needs a partner to join him. He shows Louise some of the steps and, of course, she eventually starts dancing too. But what truly makes the moment work is everything Natalie Wood does (and does not do) before she starts dancing.
Watch Wood carefully during the first three quarters of this sequence. She’s sat down through most of it, not doing very much at all, but that’s the point. As Tulsa warms up, she sits almost motionless, her hands together and placed between her legs. She’s utterly insular, unable to even open out her body, never mind her heart and soul enough to dance the way Tulsa is.
But she wants to, and Wood tells us that through the smallness of her movement. Watch her tilt her head at the 1:05 mark, gently moving it as she falls under the spell of this song. She’s hanging on Tulsa’s every word, desperate to be the girl he needs, not necessarily because she wants to be his girlfriend, but because she wants the kind of confidence he has, she longs for the kind of love and excitement he’s talking about.
As Tulsa’s routine becomes more complex, the camera strays away from Wood, but you never forget she’s there (she is, after all, who Tulsa’s performing too) and you wish LeRoy would return to her more often, so magnetic is her quiet. Then finally, at 2:40, she moves, standing up as Tulsa imagines the girl of his dreams appearing. He talks of taking the girl’s hand and – crushingly – Louise, stood behind him, raises her hand, almost apologetically, in answer. She reaches out to him, moving her arm just a little bit, and tilts her head again, watching Tulsa intently.
The yearning in this small moment, in these invisible movements, is almost unbearable. He longs for a partner, she longs for a partner; he’s stood with his back to her, she can barely muster the confidence to reach out to him. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking, and it gets more crushing as Tulsa dances with his invisible partner while Louise, still behind him, sways gently along to the music. If only she could break out of her cage and fill in the role.
This being a musical number she eventually does, of course, and it’s a majestic, stirring moment of bravery and self-realisation. But it’s sold through the build-up: the slow, quiet yearning Wood shows us by not moving. The musical may be a great expressionist genre, but so often expression is about what we don’t say, as well as what we do. And by not singing, not dancing, not moving, Wood expresses with silence as much as the greatest of Hollywood’s musical stars do with their most elaborate routines.