I don’t know how many times I’ve checked Amazon looking for this on DVD. I’ve wanted it ever since I saw the brief episode of Gene Kelly dancing with the cartoon harem guards on That’s Entertainment Vol. 2, and I’d almost given up. Then this spring I found it, finally put on DVD in 2011.
It wasn’t remastered, there is no menu (though it is possible to jump through the film with the buttons) and there are no extras on the DVD. Given the number of VHS reviews on Amazon that effectively said “where’s the DVD?” I suspect Warner simply put it from the vaults straight to DVD, and according to some reviews effectively made the DVDs to order. Too bad, as the movie is worth more than this cursory treatment – but it’s not the usual musical, and MGM apparently shelved it for four years before releasing it.
It’s really a dance and music performance, starring Gene Kelly and a number of other excellent dancers, with not a word spoken. Even the crooner (a takeoff of Frank Sinatra) has an instrumental voice – I think a trumpet, though I could be mistaken on that.
The performance is made up of three dances, only one of which I had seen at all before.
The first is a tragedy, told in mime and dance, set in a small circus. Gene Kelly is hopelessly in love with a girl who sees him only as a clown. The ballet sequences are beautiful, and I particularly liked the one danced on a fishnet hung vertically.
The second, with both ballet and tap dancing sequences, follows a bracelet from wrist to wrist. My favorites were the crooner and the stage door Johnnies.
The third was the tale of Sinbad the sailor. The meat of this one was a marriage of live action and animation, with Kelly dancing in cartoons representing book illustrations. This sequence had pieces that reminded me very much of Cyd Charisse’s dream dance in Singin’ In The Rain, a movie that came out 4 years after Invitation, but was actually being made the same year, also with Kelly as choreographer. Another part of that sequence might have helped inspire the Disney artists of Mary Poppins, which came out almost a decade later. Certainly it had very much the feel of Mary and Bert being carried across water by turtles.
Parts of all three sequences were obviously shot either speeded up or in slow motion, emphasizing the frenetic activity of a cocktail party or Gene trying to dance the guards into exhaustion, or the floating motion of a dream.
Fans of Gene Kelly will want to watch this, as will those interested in the history of the combination of cartoon and real life characters. But I do wish the film had been remastered and color-corrected. As an example of the problems, the segment from Sinbad the Sailor on That’s Entertainment showed harem guards whose clothing varied from green to blue, and I believe that when the trousers are blue, the background is a much more bluish shade of red, suggesting that the yellow pigment has faded. In the Invitation to the Dance DVD the harem guards are consistently in green trousers, though some other colors look faded. Sometimes the skin tones are totally unrealistic.
In short, the film is wonderful. The DVD leaves a great deal to be desired, but for right now it is all we have.