“A Tribute to the Nicholas Brothers” at Film Forum

Fayard (left) and Harold Nicholas.

On Monday, September 19 Film Forum had one of their great special events, “A Tribute to the Nicholas Brothers,” presented by Bruce Goldstein, Film Forum’s Director of Repertory Programming.  The Nicholas Brother, Fayard and Harold, were an African American dance team that had a 70-year long career starting in the 1930s.  They made movies, starred on Broadway, TV, performed in Paris and headlined at New York’s famous, and infamous, Cotton Club.  In one of the interviews it is pointed out that the only art form they did not try was opera.

Goldstein, who actually came to know the Nicholas Brothers, said he has had a 30-year obsession with the two dancers, who, by the way, were also pretty good singers.  Beginning in 1980 Goldstein decided that he wanted to know more about them and wanted more people to know who they were. 

I was probably one of the youngest people at the event, which started at 3:15, with a second presentation to follow at 7:45.  I can only hope that the evening presentation snagged more younger viewers because the Nicholas Brothers’ dancing still proves to be fresh, original, energetic, at points gravity defying and, at the same time, beautifully choreographed.  It is difficult to categorize the Nicholas Brothers’ style which was elegant and effortless.  Their dancing was a combination of tap and ballet but featured leaps, splits and flips that can only be described as jaw dropping.  Plus, their numbers were filmed in long takes without the safety net of “MTV-like,” quick cuts.  There was no faking the dancing or the obvious affection that the two brothers had for each other.

Goldstein’s presentation, which consisted of film clips, interviews with Fayard and Harold, and the Nicholas Brothers’ own 16mm home movies, was a revelation for me.   I had heard of the Nicholas Brothers, but did not know about them in depth.  Goldstein did a masterful job of narrating the visuals, while the audience frequently broke into applause at the performers incredible dance numbers.

To describe the Nicholas Brothers as great dancers would be like describing the Empire State Building as “tall.”  Goldstein began by giving a small sampling of the Nicholas Brothers’ fan base: Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Michael Jackson, George Balanchine and Sammy Davis Jr.  Goldstein added, “and Donald O’Connor, no slouch himself, once called them the greatest dancers of all time. Period.”

The Nicholas Brothers’ had a stellar movie career.  Their first feature film, “Kid Millions” (1934), happened when Sam Goldwyn brought them to Hollywood.  The picture that would make them international stars was “Down Argentine Way” (1940) in which they co-starred with Carmen Miranda, Betty Grable and Don Ameche.  At a sneak preview of the film the audience reaction to the Nicholas Brothers was so overwhelming that the projectionist actually had to rewind the film and play it again, an event that scored the brothers a five-year contract.

The Nicholas Brothers’ Broadway debut was in “Ziegfeld Follies of 1936” staged by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by ballet master Balanchine.  They starred with Fanny Brice, Josephine Baker and Bob Hope, all of whom, Goldstein pointed out, refused to follow the Nicholas Brothers.  They were indeed a tough act to follow…and still are.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on September 20, 2011, in Feature Articles, Film Forum and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. WOW–From your review, this is an incredible event that I’m really sorry I missed. Here is the “Jumpin Jive” number from the film “Stormy Weather.” Fred Astaire called it the “greatest dance number ever filmed”—and he would know!!

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