Sunday, 15 April 2012

Harem dancers: Susan Hayward and Sylvia Lewis in "The Conqueror"

Careful with that sword, Dr Freud
I recently reviewed Karla Rae Fuller's excellent Hollywood Goes Oriental: CaucAsian Performance in American Film for FilmWerk. (You can read my whole tedious ramble here.) One of the films Fuller singles out for shaming is the Howard Hughes-produced epic folly The Conqueror (1956), and it sounded so batshit insane that I just had to look it up. Also, it promised not one but TWO instances of harem dancing.

Fuller focuses on the horrifying spectacle of John Wayne in yellowface as Genghis Khan (I shit you not although he lobbied hard for the role at the time, when asked later in life what he was thinking when he accepted it, Wayne purportedly replied "I was drunk"), but I was delighted by the clips I've got lined up for you today.

The Conqueror was thoroughly vanquished at the box office, and went down not only as one of the biggest flops of the 1950s, but as one of the worst films of all time: which would have been bad enough, even if making it hadn't given cancer to nearly half of the people involved in making it.* Hughes, ever the man who would not be denied, insisted on filming in St John, Utah even though it was known to be just downwind of a nuclear test site.

Of the 220 people in the cast and crew, 91 of them went on to develop some form of cancer (including the director and stars Wayne, Agnes Moorhead and Susan Hayward) and, by 1981, 46 of them had died from the disease. A guilt-stricken Hughes, convinced that it was The Conqueror's location that was responsible for the spate of ill-health, bought every copy of the film for $12 million and watched it obsessively until the end of his life.

You put your right leg in, your right leg out...
And who could blame him? Despite the casual racism and stomach-churning misogyny (Wayne spends much of the film threatening Hayward with rape), The Conqueror does dance scenes in the way only CinemaScope extravaganzas from the 1950s can.

The lovely and hugely talented Susan Hayward died in 1975, from pneumonia that she contracted while battling a brain tumour. She left behind an impressive body of work that saw her win a Best Actress Oscar for the brilliantly titled I Want to Live!, a biopic of murderer Barbara Graham. (She won an Oscar for playing a real killer before Charlize Theron made it cool.) All up, she was nominated for five Academy Awards over the course of her career  not all harem dancers were flash-in-the-pan starlets or B-grade eye-candy! We can blame/thank John Wayne for dragging her into The Conqueror; they'd worked together before.

Here she is as Bortai, dancing with a sword. (The pic at right is from the excellent Peplums blog.) I love it when these cheesy scenes are enlivened with props!:


Sylvia Lewis appears in an uncredited role that we'll call "The Sultan's Lady from Sarakand." From the 1950s to the 1980s, Lewis was one of Hollywood's go-to choreographers for TV and variety shows. She retired from dancing in 1971 and is now in her 80s. Her filmography lists Harem Girl (1952) and Siren of Bagdad (1953), and if those movies don't see her harem dancing I'll eat my fez. If I can find clips I'll be sure to post them! 

This next scene from The Conqueror was actually cut from the original theatrical release because it was too raunchy. It's too bad so few people have been able to see this scene. Her costume alone is a thing of wonder. I could be wrong, but it looks Ballets Russes-inspired:



As an aside, one of the other uncredited dancers to appear in The Conqueror was a very young Barrie Chase, who I've posted about before.


*In fairness, I should note that there's no empirical proof to support a causal link between the The Conqueror and the cancers developed by the cast and crew Moorhead and Wayne, in particular, were famously heavy smokers.

5 comments:

  1. I've certainly seen worse veil routines performed by actual professional bellydancers!

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  2. this is good stuff! too bad they never got any Arab women to actually do any of the dancing...

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  3. @Foodycat - 'Aint that the truth. That "passing it behind the back" move is one I might steal.

    @Anonymous - Although it's true that being Arab doesn't make you any better at dancing than being French makes you good at cooking, I agree that these old films would be a lot less awkward/offensive without all of the white folks in ethnic drag!

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  4. Sylvia is brilliant - for more of her go to her own Internet site or videos of her parts in shows / films she has posted on youtube.

    Sandy

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  5. Couple of comments....first, I did get the very last screen credit on the film which surprised me as dancers rarely got credit for anything. Samarkand was my supposed homeland and the dance was only excised only in cities where the local censor (yes, we did have censorship then) decided the dance and the costume were too much for the poor viewers to handle. Happily, we shot the sequence at RKO studio in Hollywood, thus saving us gypsies from the Utah exposure. Thank heaven! I love your comments and I'm glad to still be truckin' at near 83.

    Sylvia

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