Horseshoe Shuffle

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THE HARVEY GIRLS is like the ultimate film of entertainment, with memorable songs, lovely actors (and John Hodiak, a cartoon wolf), elegant dance and camera moves, sumptuous colours, and a huge amount of good-natured fun.

I’m really glad to be discovering George Sidney at this belated stage of my life — I had seen some of his work before, but had given no thought to him. One of the not-so-good things about the auteurist approach is it could cause one to miss out on a good Sidney or Charles Walters film as one concentrates on a lesser work by Minnelli or Donen. Now, those latter gentlemen are more significant artists, but the other exponents of the Freed Unit style are no slouches.

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One moment I want to dwell on, amid countless terrific movements and moments. Virginia O’Brien gets one number of her own, shortly before she disappears from the film almost completely (she’d gotten pregnant, and she actually wears a smithy’s apron during her big song to disguise a little bump).

During her song, Virginia, who has dialled down the googly-eyed zombie act she first found fame with, and might have been moving on to more substantial and less gimmicky roles had parenthood not diverted her, prepares a horseshoe for applying to a hoof. The shoe is deposited in the fire, and after a rare cut (the sequence consists of only a few, very long, shots) it’s extracted with tongs and beaten with a hammer. Sparks and glowing makes it clear that this is now a real red-hot piece of iron.

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Then Virginia picks it up with her bare hands. Sings a line or two. And drops it in a barrel of water, which emits an explosive hiss of steam.

The mystery/joke of O’Brien’s asbestos fingers forced us to rewind to see what the trick was. And it’s a very simple one — Virginia hangs up the glowing shoe, steps screen right, forcing a small reframing, and while the shoe is offscreen, evidently some property man with tongs of his own or real asbestos fingers, grabs it and substitutes for it a fake shoe painted red to simulate glowing. He achieves this during a two-second moment when the shoe isn’t on camera. the horseshoe is still swinging when the camera re/discovers it. The jet of steam from the barrel is a practical special effect.

It’s a lot of trouble for a joke that doesn’t make any sense — what are we to make of Virginia’s superhuman flame-retardant properties? Is she a Shadrach or Johnny Storm of the Wild West? In a way, it’s not even a joke about that, but about the deceptive nature of the continuous take, about MGM and George Sidney’s ability to pull the wool over our eyes and make us smile at our inability to see what’s in front of us.

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5 Responses to “Horseshoe Shuffle”

  1. Love Virginia O’Brien — with or without horseshoes. And Sidney is a formidable force here — and in Showboat, Viva Las Vegas and Bye Bye Birdie as well. But when you’re talking Freed you’re talking Kay Thompson and Roger Edens. Those two created the vocals for the “Atchison Topeka and the Santa Fe” number. Johnny Mercer who wrote the song reportedly didn’t care for what Kay and Roger had done with it — but critics and audiences certainly did.

    I used to have a laser disc with commentary by Sidney in which he marveled at the way Judy Garland got it all in the first take of that number — which requires the maintenance of a steady rhythm while moving about and delivering the song to the other actors — who serve as a kind of audience.

    She was Genius at its most pure.

  2. That commentary been ported over to DVD, thankfully.

    Bye Bye Birdie I’ve never seen, and clearly must.

  3. Such a great movie with striking costumes and fun songs. I didn’t know that Virginia was pregnant at the time of filming. May her tough-as-nails persona and asbestos fingers live on forever in cinema!

  4. Recall reading a book for magicians ages ago. It briefly discussed performing magic on television, with the advice to make sure it’s shot so both hands are always well within frame — otherwise viewers will assume dirty work has been done off-camera.

  5. Movie magic works, often, like a locked room mystery — perform the trick when the audience isn’t anticipating it, then present it as a fait accompli.

    The swinging horseshoe is an exact echo of Thatcher’s wobbling top hat in Citizen Kane, which betrays the fact that a table has been slid into place before the retreating camera…

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