You Don’t Know Jack

Nick Pinkerton on “All that Jack (Cole)” at the Museum of Modern Art

Howard Hawks, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953, 35 mm, color, sound, 91 minutes. Lorelei Lee (Marilyn Monroe).

TO THOSE UNFAMILIAR with the name Jack Cole, he is probably best introduced through some names that should be known by even the casual student of Hollywood razzle-dazzle. Cole was a performer and choreographer, today considered the father of American jazz dance, and a direct line can be drawn from him to Bob Fosse, who would marry Cole’s onetime assistant and collaborator, Gwen Verdon. In Hollywood, Cole established himself as a go-to for star-making routines for actresses, even or especially those who were untested as dancers. He was the architect of Rita Hayworth’s “Put the Blame on Mame” number in Gilda (1946) and Marilyn Monroe’s “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” in Howard Hawks’s Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the film that initiated a six-movie collaboration with Monroe, whose iconic proportions and wiggling walk Cole helped her to harness the power of. Writing on Cole in Vanity Fair in 1984, Jerome Robbins put the point quite plainly: “Jack Cole’s contributions were so far-reaching that without him present day theatrical dancing would not be the same… All commercial video dance reflects Cole’s work.”

Cole is now the subject of a two-week retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Eighteen films featuring Cole numbers will be screened, and various guests, including choreographer Wayne Cilento, drag artist John “Lypsinka” Epperson, and dance critic (and Cole expert) Debra Levine, will hold forth on the artist’s legacy. That this recognition comes from MoMA is appropriate, for Cole’s style, with its machine-tooled edges, combustible energy, bursts of skittering motion, jagged geometry, jackknife flash, precision stamp, and wiseacre attitude, embodied the very spirit of hard-and-fast modernity. In certain numbers, Cole even seems to blow a kiss-off to the Old World: “Diamonds” turns to big beat and shimmy-shake after a staid waltz overture, while in “What Does an English Girl Think of a Yank?” from Tonight and Every Night (1945), a placid park in Albion is invaded by a blast of brass and jazzbo US sailors, including Cole himself.

George Cukor, Let’s Make Love, 1960, 35 mm, color, sound, 119 minutes. Amanda Dell (Marilyn Monroe).

Cole was born John Ewing Richter in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1911. His divorced parents abandoned him to boarding school, and along his determined climb to the top of the showbiz heap during the Depression years he abandoned the family name, rechristening himself with a curt, hard new moniker. In Fosse, Sam Wasson’s superb recent biography, the author describes Cole, and Verdon’s first sight of him dancing at Slapsie Maxie’s. Per Wasson, Cole was “a terrible genius, witty, bitchy, crazy, a mean man who worked out of deep pockets of brilliance and anger—and it showed in his dancers… He gleamed like a piece of golden technology, and when he moved, he cut the air like a rain of knives. Erotic and exotic, Cole’s style drew from all aspects of world movement. When he danced, he spared no part of himself, slicing the air with the grace and precision of a ballet dancer, a beast in a gentleman’s body.”

Initially trained in ballet, Cole’s signature style developed through his study of folk dance from around the world—South America, Spain, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia—all of which he integrated with American vernacular jazz moves. He took notes on the dance floors of Harlem, studied Indian bharata nātyam dance with Ravi Shankar’s older brother, and a contemporary vogue for all things exotic vaulted him to the top of the heap of nightclub headliners with his so-called “Hindu Swing.” After conquering New York’s Rainbow Room and Chicago’s Gay Paree, Cole was invited to Los Angeles in 1941 by 20th Century Fox, who hired him to choreograph a Seminole ritual for a Technicolor Betty Grable vehicle called Moon over Miami, and he continued to work in the movie colony, often contentiously, until shortly before Monroe’s death in 1962. (In a signal of things to come, the Seminole number for Moon over Miami landed on the cutting-room floor.)

Richard Sale, Meet Me After the Show, 1951, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes. Delilah Lee (Betty Grable).

MoMA’s retro includes films by distinguished auteurs like Hawks, Vincente Minnelli, and George Cukor, as well as work by largely unremembered journeymen, but when the band strikes up and the music hits, Cole’s imprint is unmistakable, not only in dance style but in every aesthetic element, from camerawork to stark, minimal, often monochrome sets marked with details of particularly Californian midcentury-modern design. When Cole takes the wheel, he enlivens even the most basic programmer, as surely as Lau Kar-leung elevated assembly line Shaw Bros. films. MoMA’s program includes several of Cole’s variations on ethnic dance, like the Hindu jazz numbers in nonentity Walter Lang’s On the Riviera (1951) or “Not Since Niveneh” in Minelli’s Kismet, with sparkplug Reiko Sato setting the tempo of the cobra-head sway. Tonight and Every Night’s “You Excite Me” is a savage flamenco that returns Hayworth, born Margarita Carmen Cansino and trained in classical Spanish dance, to her Latin roots, stomping the stage with deadly authority. Time and again one finds Cole delivering images of radiant, imperial femininity, from Monroe’s declaration of principles in “Diamonds” to Hayworth’s simply and elegantly shot “Amare Mio” seduction in Gilda to Mitzi Gaynor headbanging her cockatoo plumage and massacring her backup dancers in “I Don’t Care” in The I Don’t Care Girl (1953). The archetypal Cole soloist performance may be Grable’s “Better Off Betting On a Horse” in Meet Me After the Show (1951), which finds the actress fairly aglow with contempt, pounding the top of the piano like a podium as she decries the “masculine gender” while a shadowplay war of the sexes plays out over her shoulder.

Cole, an openly gay man, also inserted some rather racy paeans to beefcake into his work, including Jane Russell’s “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love” number in Gentlemen and Meet Me After the Show’s “No Talent Joe,” in which Grable freely fondles barrel-chested hunks in ancient Roman togs. An iron-willed hardass who spurned sissy stereotypes, Cole plays a significant role in Minelli’s Designing Woman (1957) as Randy Owen, an effeminate choreographer who saves the day when he uses his repertoire of moves to wipe up the floor with a gaggle of mob toughs. Cole was a bit of a tyrant, often clashing with the studio’s front offices, and his set pieces sometimes became collateral damage, with some of what might have been his greatest creations—the “New York number” from Down to Earth (1947) and the “Four French Dances” scene from Gentlemen—only existing today as production stills. What has survived, however, is more than enough confirmation of a potent, original talent whose influence is too ubiquitous to be reduced to a single signature piece.

“All that Jack (Cole)” runs January 20–February 4 at the Museum of Modern Art.