What's Wrong With Waking The Dead: Gene Kelly And Donald O'Connor, Cut Out We consider a commercial starring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, and why perhaps dancers should be left where they are: in their dances.
NPR logo What's Wrong With Waking The Dead: Gene Kelly And Donald O'Connor, Cut Out

What's Wrong With Waking The Dead: Gene Kelly And Donald O'Connor, Cut Out

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I don't know why I had such a visceral, angry response to this Volkswagen Jetta ad in which the cut-out bodies of Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor "dance" "in the back seat" of a Jetta.

It's not like cutting out famous dead people and inserting them into commercials is anything new. I remember Fred Astaire for Dirt Devil. Diet Coke did a couple of ads like this in the early 1990s — remember this one, where Elton John is joined by a very enthusiastic Louis Armstrong?


Or, to hit a little closer to the target, how about this one, with a young Paula Abdul dancing with ... well, Gene Kelly? (Who was not dead then, but ... same technology.)


If you like your ads tougher, there's always John Wayne for Coors Light.


I've always looked on this kind of marketing as tacky and dumb, and it caused plenty of consternation at the time (check out this Salon article from 1997), but it's never really troubled me.

But there is something about that Jetta ad.

It's partly that it's so unconvincing and cheap-looking, I suppose. If you're going to use legends who are dead, even if we posit that this is an acceptable thing to do, you owe them better than this. Kelly doesn't look awful in that Paula Abdul ad, except that Paula Abdul has been inserted into it. Fred Astaire is still Fred Astaire, if you can ignore the Dirt Devil.

But Kelly and O'Connor look awful here. It doesn't look good; it looks phony. This isn't the Avatar of commercials; it looks more like an outtake from a TV movie on SyFy, like Sharktopus or Mansquito.

Perhaps the limitations of digital technology back in the 1990s — because that technology wasn't advanced enough to suggest that one could completely transport a filmed dance from one setting to another, one physical environment to another, one kind of lighting to another, one era to another — made it necessary to hold back a little before. Maybe they didn't try to change so much.

What's particularly odd is that this ad is so awful-looking that I assumed it was far more Frankenstein-ed together than it actually is. I learned from a fan of the ad that it comes from about the 5:45 point in this performance that Kelly and O'Connor did on a TV special, where you'll see much of what you see in the ad. All they did was remove all the context.

That's the funny thing about Gene Kelly, and really all the big dance scenes of the time — they were all context. That's what they learned in those old musicals, was that there was only so much you could watch a guy tap-dance, even if he was Gene Kelly. It became about what he could interact with. What could he play with? What could he manipulate with feet and hands? That's why he played in the water, you know.

That's why he danced on roller-skates, it's why he danced with that cartoon mouse, it's why he danced with a newspaper and a squeaky board in a simple dance that almost makes me mist up, it's so pretty. It's why he and Donald O'Connor danced on desks and with lamps and in chairs and with curtains in what is almost surely my favorite filmed dance number of all time.


Dancing in movies in this era was largely about where you were, and about touching real things. Other people, of course, but also feet on the floor, feet in the water, umbrella in hand, hat rack as partner, and by the way, if you want to defy gravity, you'll have to turn the room.

It's part of tap-dancing in the first place, after all. If you don't hit the floor, there's no tap. The floor is part of the dance. If there's no contact, there's nothing. If there's no world outside you, you don't get rhythm. If there were just your body, cut out like a paper doll, you'd lose much of the reason for the dance to exist.

I am not a Luddite about special effects. I have nothing against them at all — neither did Gene Kelly, or he wouldn't have done the cartoon-mouse bit in Anchors Aweigh. But something seems tone-deaf and disrespectful about removing everything that affected the physics of the dancing, from the floor to the chairs, replacing the music so they're interpreting something entirely different, and concluding that you can still get an expression of these two men's talents as long as you have their floating, context-free figures moving as they did in 1960.

I understand that we can now replace faces, to make Armie Hammer play scenes with himself in The Social Network as the Winklevoss twins, or to put Natalie Portman's face on a professional dancer in Black Swan. I understand there's no need in many cases for anyone to interact with real things. If that's the way you want to go, and if you can get away with it, then that's fine, I suppose. Maybe Kelly blew a take dropping the umbrella — maybe now, they'd just graft it on from a time when he did it right.

But things that were initially built on the interaction of a real human being with a real physical object — in this case a chair — shouldn't be haphazardly rewired to look like the second-rate first effort of a third-tier special effects company. And as hard as I'm sure they tried, when you cut a dancer from a dance, that's what you get.

You want to prove you can dance in the back seat of this car? Is that the point? Then get dancers. Get real dancers, and have them dance in the back seat. That would be a cool ad. This just looks stupid. And because it looks stupid and ugly and fake, it does these fantastic artists a disservice, because if this is all you see of them and all you know of them, you will never understand what they did.