Roseland (DVD)

“Don’t think so much.”

The famous New York dance palace known as Roseland (or, formally, the Roseland Ballroom) was the setting for a 1930 Vitaphone short of the same title, featuring popular singer of the time Ruth Etting. Dance palaces were a not-uncommon feature of films of the 1930s and even the 1940s, but Roseland itself was not featured again until Merchant/Ivory made Roseland in 1977. This effort was composed of three vignettes built around different dances — “The Waltz,” “The Hustle,” and “The Peabody” — and came about more by chance than anything else.

James Ivory and Ismail Merchant wanted to make a film based on Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s short story “How I Became a Holy Mother,” but financial support fell through when the proposed backers, two brothers from Portland, Oregon with money made in the lumber industry, cooled to the script. There was, however, a short sequence in it that was set at Roseland, which led to the idea for the Roseland film that the brothers did agree to back.

With that in place, Jhabvala prepared a script after absorbing the Roseland atmosphere in person over a number of weeks. The significant proportion of elderly clientele at Roseland was a key factor in the nature of the final screenplay, whose three vignettes tended to focus on individuals looking back rather than forward. In “The Waltz,” a widow, played by Teresa Wright, rekindles memories of her late husband when she dances with a rather uncouth gentleman portrayed by Lou Jacobi. “The Hustle” focuses on a young gigolo (Christopher Walken) who juggles a dance instructor (Helen Gallagher) who admires him and sees an opportunity for regained glory in dance competitions, a rich older woman (Joan Copeland) who is Walken’s main meal-ticket, and a younger woman (Geraldine Chaplin) who is now on her own and sees the young gigolo as a cure for her loneliness. Finally, “The Peabody” relates the story of an elderly Viennese woman (Lilia Skala) who wants to win the Peabody dance competition, despite its reputation for being too physically demanding and dangerous health-wise for someone of her age.

As one might expect, the stories play themselves out almost entirely within the confines of the Roseland building, with only “The Gigolo” introducing exterior scenes of any significance. This was somewhat of a difficulty for the actual filming, since the filmmakers were faced with rather stringent rules covering when they could film, and a refusal to allow any changes in the dance hall whatsoever during the course of the shooting. These restrictions caused production difficulties with the scenic artists union and the Screen Actors Guild that resulted in additional budget costs. Even so, the production was completed for only $375,000.

The opening vignette essentially serves as an introduction to Roseland itself and to one type of typical attendees. The story of an aging widow who sees her youth and the appeal of her late husband seemingly come to life when she dances with a rather objectionable widower conveys a bittersweet tale. Dancing with her late husband takes on an idyllic glow in her memory, but it is an experience that she can only rekindle now by dancing with someone who is her husband’s antithesis. There is a certain appropriateness in having Teresa Wright play the role of the widow, as so many of her roles from the 1940s presented her as a level-headed woman whose eventual marriages seemed so hopefully right.

Of the three stories, “The Hustle” is the longest and most fully-developed. It provides an excellent opportunity for Christopher Walken, who had just started to really generate attention with his role as the brother in Annie Hall. He offers the wide-eyed, almost puppy-like look that characterizes much of his early work, and it works very effectively here as he tries to please all three of the women, each interested in him for different reasons, without alienating any of them. Each of the three women is well portrayed, but there is a pathetic nature to each of their lives, and the futures that seem likely if they continue to depend on Walken’s gigolo are well implied by the vignette’s title.

“The Peabody” has an air of foreboding about it, despite some amusing incidents, and concludes much as we anticipate it will. Lilia Skala provides a memorable performance as the aging but seemingly tireless woman, but she is matched by an understated effort by David Thomas as Arthur, the partner with whom she is forced to make do. Her character’s final dance is as much symbolic of Roseland as it is her character’s own last hurrah.

The overall effect of Roseland is that of providing a fitting epitaph to a once-great venue. The 1970s saw the end of Roseland as a major live-dance center as it briefly was rejuvenated by the Disco era. The building still exists as Roseland, but now is more a location for special media events to be held and national touring acts, particularly rock bands, to perform.

The DVD release of Roseland is part of Home Vision Entertainment’s Merchant Ivory Collection. The source material appears to have been in pretty good shape; the resulting 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is almost flawless in terms of clarity and the lack of age-related speckles or scratches. The color is somewhat uneven, however, with occasional instances of softness or muddiness. The mono sound is in very decent shape. There are no supplements other than a reasonably informative background essay contained in the eight-page insert booklet.


I suspect that Roseland will not appeal to a wide audience, but it is a good entry in the Merchant/Ivory oeuvre and is worth at least a rental.

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