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Ken Russell omnibus classics

 



1966 Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

 

"Isadora seemed to embody the best and worst of an artist.  She had genuine talent, some mystical insight, but she was a bit bogus as well"
(Ken Russell in John Baxter's An Appalling Talent, 1973, ch 12)

The dancer Isadora Duncan "Isadora Duncan (1877-1927) was an American pioneer of dance and is an important figure in both the arts and history. Known as the “Mother of Modern Dance,” Isadora Duncan was a self-styled revolutionary whose influence spread from American to Europe and Russia, creating a sensation everywhere she performed. Her style of dancing eschewed the rigidity of ballet and she championed the notion of free-spiritedness coupled with the high ideals of ancient Greece: beauty, philosophy, and humanity" (from Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation, click here).

The film must have the fastest start ever in a film, Duncan dancing frenetically, her clothes falling off till she is carried off the stage still dancing and the audience go wild.  On the Monitor and Omnibus series nudes were mainly forbidden, but might be included in special circumstances.  Isadora Duncan was one of the exceptions because the scene was "highly stylised" (from Sir Huge by Paul Ferris, 1990, ch9).

After this typical Russell shock-start, with Isadora spelt out in letters, the films switches to a voice-over (compare Valentino) of Isadora´s life, then moves to traditional documentary stock shots of Greece and a historian talking. The commentary is typical BBC for the time and not typical of Russell "lack of fires and thin tunics make stoicism an essential part of the curriculum".

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Wild imagery is present throughout: the one-legged man (a cameo by Ken Russell) rescuing Isadora from the sea after her suicide attempt, Isadora kissing her lover in the hearse over the coffins of her two dead children as a band of musicians play on top of the hearse (above).  Eric Idle of Monty Python is one of the people in this scene.

Judith Paris in Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Judith Paris, who would become a Russell regular, as the young Isadora providing some gifted dancing otherwise lacking in a film about a dancer.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

The tractor in Russia could be from Ken's Monitor documentary Mr Chesher´s Traction Engines.

Vivian Pickles in Ken Russell Isadora Duncan The Biggest Dancer in the World

In the second half the film does begin to flag. There is little dialogue (mainly mime or speechmaking) but what dialogue exists is very bad (acting and writing) and the dancing is another problem. It becomes increasingly clear that Vivian Pickles cannot dance beyond running in circles and waving her arms in the air- this makes a film about one of the most famous dancers ever difficult and no editing and close up of hands can get around it.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Isadora's children drowned, here represented by the doll.  The image of a doll in the water comes back in Russell films such as Gothic.

The dancing with the masses of children is however joyful, the children are from Bellairs School of Dancing.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World  Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Isadora is presented with flowers and says "I lay this wreath on the grave of my hopes" (left) and the aging Isadora (right)- make-up is by Dawn Alcott.

Isadora's shocking death, her scarf caught in the wheels of a car strangling her.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

“… a great woman; a magnificent, generous, gallant, reckless, fated fool of a woman. There was no place for her in the ranks of the terrible, slow army of the cautious. She ran ahead, where there were no paths… her departure to Russia to found a school of dancing, in 1921… her fantastically ill-advised marriage… She died as she should die, dramatically and without warning” (Poor Immortal Isadora, Dorothy Parker, 1928).

Some regular Russell images occurs: the beach scene, water reflecting sun and out of focus, women dancing arms in air, fire and water, a doll in the water, a failed suicide (compare The Music Lovers), a film in a film (slide show).  The dancing children are similar to those in Ken's amateur film Amelia and the Angel. The Singer sewing machine would come back much later in Martinu, the pool scene in Lady Chatterley and the veils in Salome.


  Murray Melvin in Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Murray Melvin as a reporter with Vivian Pickles.

Anita Naughton Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Alita Naughton from French Dressing, has a brief appearance.

Shirley Russell and daughter Victoria Russell in Ken Russell's Isadora 

The nanny with Isadora's daughter, actually Ken's wife Shirley Russell and daughter Victoria.

This is one of Russell's favourite films. Rudolf Nuryev the dancer disliked the film and was one of the reasons there were problems starting Nijinsky (which never got made). Nuryev later starred in Valentino.  Vivian Pickles stars. Others include Alex Jawdokinov (who was also in Billion Dollar Brain, Music Lovers and Savage Messiah and would later act alongside Ken in The Russia House), Iza Teller (Dante's Inferno and the films Billion Dollar Brain and The Devils) and Alita Naughton of French Dressing.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

Ken directs and produces and the script was by Ken and Sewell Stokes, the co-author of Isadora's autobiography, who then re-did Isadora with Melvyn Bragg and Vanessa Redgrave.

"Russell, as usual, is not concerned with precise facts. His script, written with a friend of Isadora's, Sewell Stokes, tends to bind and “reshape” details of the dancer's history. All of it, however, is true to her free spirit, the warm‐hearted, lovable, exasperating creature soaring above mere facts.  Compared with this Isadora, the more recent Vanessa Redgrave portrait turns into a faded wallflower" (John J. O'Connor, New York Times, 5 May 1971).

Ken has a one-legged cameo on the beach (above).  Camerawork was by Dick Bush and Brian Tufano (Trainspotting), editing was by Michael Bradsell and costumes by Shirley Russell and Joyce Hammond.  The director's assistant Tony Palmer went on to be a director in his own right.  The historic scenes from Greece are by Leni Reifenstahl.

Filimg the scene with the children (from Late Night Line Up: Russell at Work on Russell at the BBC DVD).

The music includes:

  • Suite of Old American Dances, Robert Russell Bennett
  • Air on a G String, Bach
  • Daphnis et Chloe, Ravel
  • The Sewing Machine (from The Perils of Pauline), Frank Loesser
  • Trois Gymnopedies, Satie orchestrated Debussy
  • La Marseillaise, Rouget de Lisle
  • The Stars and Stripes Forever, John Philip Sousa
  • Lieutenant Kijé, Prokofiev
  • Marche Slave, Tchaikovsky
  • Narcissus from Water Scenes, Ethelbert Nevin
  • Ninth Symphony, Beethoven
  • Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, Wagner
  • Bye Bye Blackbird, Mort Dixon

A flawed classic.

Ken Russell Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World

"Russell, as usual, is not concerned with precise facts. His script, written with a friend of Isadora's, Sewell Stokes, tends to bind and “reshape” details of the dancer's history. All of it, however, is true to her free spirit, the warm‐hearted, lovable, exasperating creature soaring above mere facts" (John J. O'Connor, New York Times, 5 May 1971).

All images from the DVD of the film.
 


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