Wow. What a Legend.
But I have never seen him dance in all these years. Good thing for the Internet, we can see Mr. Bojangles on video.
He had a fun scene dancing on stairs in a Shirley Temple movie (I wish he would have sung more!!). But we get to hear him sing (and see him dance) in a classy sequence from the 1943 movie “Stormy Weather,” in which he sings “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” with Lena Horn.
“Let’s Scuffle” is a short subject — a single song-and-dance number — that appears to have been cut from a feature-length movie: to be precise, a ‘race film’. (This was the term used by American cinema exhibitors in the 1940s and earlier for any movie with an all-black cast, intended primarily for distribution in black neighbourhoods at a time when many American cinemas were segregated.) The song-and-dance performer here is none other than the great Bill Robinson, but while he’s dancing there are repeated cutaway shots to spectators: all of them black, but none of them doing anything interesting enough to warrant cutting away from Bill Robinson’s dancing. It would make sense if these spectators are the lead roles in some larger film drama, with Bill Robinson merely performing a guest spot. However, I haven’t been able to verify the existence of any feature-length movie from which this sequence might have been excerpted.
Robinson wears his trademark outfit here: brown oxfords with wooden tap plates, brown bowler, tailored brown double-breasted suit. He’s standing in what appears to be a soda shop, and he begins by singing (not dancing) a ditty about a new dance cried the Scuffle. The lyric is vaguely impressive. Like a few other spectacular dancers, Robinson was an underrated singer, so it’s interesting to hear him trying to sell a tune with just his voice, his personality and his infectious grin, without the benefit of those tapping feet.
But then Bill Robinson stops singing the Scuffle and starts dancing it, and that’s what we came for! Robinson tended to repeat himself much less than other dancers (even the great Nicholas Brothers were sometimes repetitive and predictable), and here he performs some of his most interesting and distinctive steps. I’ve read that Robinson had set a speed record for running the 100-yard dash backward, so I was intrigued to see him here performing some of his steps while moving backward on a level surface … more typically, he tended to dance backward only during his famous staircase routine.
Robinson had a penchant for alternating very easy steps with very difficult ones. He does that here, doing some easy nerve taps which any first-year tap student could copy, but then suddenly breaking into an airplane step with treble ball taps. Delightful! And of course, throughout his performance, he’s got that happy contagious smile. Another distinctive Robinson trait was his habit of standing absolutely still while his feet moved in rapid energetic steps: this is much more difficult than it looks, yet he does it gracefully.
For some reason, several parts of Robinson’s dance sequence in this movie are filmed in medium shot, so we get to admire his neatly-buttoned suit but we can’t see his feet! There are only two ways that dancers should be photographed: either with their entire figure in the frame, or with their feet in close-up. There are some welcome shots of Robinson’s dancing feet here, but these are interspliced with those ridiculous medium shots.
“Let’s Scuffle”, only a few minutes long, is a delightful example of Bill Robinson’s singing and dancing technique, marred only by those bizarre decisions to frame him in medium shot and to cut away from him. My rating for this one: 9 out of 10.
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And his step dance is fun; I like the sound quality a lot. The dance clip is from 1932 and is done to the song “Swanee River.”
He dances in a boat in a fun scene from “Stormy Weather.” I love the jazz band in the scene, too.
His funeral procession (seen in a 45 second video clip) through the streets of New York were formal last respects to a hero. His pallbearers were (the video said) Joe Dimaggio, Joe Louis, Darryl Zanuck, Irving Berling, Duke Ellington, Bob Hope.