The Beloved — whom I celebrate today and all the other days and nights — told me about Hal Le Roy. He was another gap in my swing education, but this could be remedied by multiple viewings of this Vitaphone short film, HIGH SCHOOL HOOFER.
Once seen, Le Roy is completely unforgettable, an electifying dancer. His style is so eccentric, so vigorous yet graceful, that I find myself thinking, “How did he do that? — and that? — and that?” Everything is in blissful motion — his long legs, his pompadour, that goofy grin. He was 18. Le Roy is the visual equivalent of a previously unheard Bix solo, or the 1932 Bennie Moten band in an outchorus: life-changing. (Ron Hutchinson, the great Vitaphone scholar, tells me that Le Roy made other shorts before becoming “Harold Teen” in a film series beginning in 1934. Unfortunately, Hal didn’t seem to be one of those “ingenues” who made an easy transition to adulthood on screen; he retired from films when he was 37 and spent the rest of his life in musical productions in dinner theatres.)
And although the acting in this film is unsubtle and the comedy is heavy-handed, I also delight in the details: the suits that the upper classmen wear, Le Roy’s business with some piece of uneaten food; the lively dance music that plays throughout.
I confess I have a crush on Eleanor(e) King, who was 27 in this “high school” film. She isn’t a great actress at the start, as a foil to “Bill,” given that wooden comeback about “sunburn” by the script, but she grows as the film goes on: her toughlove “Honey,” just before she urges a stuttering, uncoordinated Le Roy to go out there and wow ’em — two years before FORTY-SECOND STREET — is very convincing. The script also makes her an effective early life coach: turn CAN’T into CAN, and separate your ego from yourself. She has something there, and any life coach who could enable Le Roy to so utterly shed his terrors and be himself is a wow.
The film fulfills all our fantasies: the poor freshman who is doing menial chores in the cafeteria is nervous, obsequious, has a stammer. But he can dazzle the crowd and win the heart of the girl who has a real loving interest in him. Music hath charms! Fidelity triumphs; swing is in the air.
Haughty Bill disappears, as does the ominous fellow who threatens Hal with exile (ostracism, high school style) if he fails. It all ends with a broad joke: offstage, dizzied by love, Hal is a terrible dancer. But his enraptured girl, Georgia May Tate, doesn’t mind at all.
My high school experiences were far less glorious, so I cherish this film as a what-might-have-been-in-another-life experience. My more recent experiences in ballroom dancing have been, shall we say, confined, another reason HIGH SCHOOL HOOFER is a delightful dream.
And its point is clear: the love our Beloveds offer gives us the power to fly — in public — rather than confining ourselves, timid and insecure, amidst the dirty dishes.
May your Valentine’s Day — and all the others — find you triumphant, loved, and loving. Love can make us light on our feet, not only on February 14.
May your happiness increase.