Henry Koster’s 1947 The Unfinished Dance is a technicolor dramatization of prepubescent treachery in a ballet company. It begins with Meg, a 10-year-old Margaret O’Brien, up on the theater’s catwalk. She’s secretly peering down at Ariane (Cyd Charisse) spinning and bounding across the stage during rehearsal. The dance company is attached to a school, and Meg often skips class to watch her idol. Ariane, beginning a passage of barre work, leans back with her arm overhead, her throat and heart bared before the child’s rapt gaze. Meg’s position above her beloved makes her seem more like a puppet master than a fan. She’s a thoughtful, passionate kid whose tendency toward introversion means she puts her own abundant feelings first. She doesn’t love Ariane as a person—the dancer is an outlet for Meg’s lack of attachment and frustrated sense of self.
Meg is an orphan living with an ambivalent, frequently absent aunt (Ruth Brady) who has a stage career. Responsibility for the child impractically falls to Mr. Paneros (Danny Thomas), a sentimental man who works as an antique-clock tinkerer. Ariane is a young, ambitious lead dancer whose primacy is threatened when Darina (Karin Booth), an internationally acclaimed star, is invited to perform in several of the company’s upcoming productions. In an effort to defend Ariane, Meg decides to sabotage the interloper’s solo in Swan Lake, the go-to piece in ballet films for playing out psychological pathologies. Though she intends merely to shut off the lights mid-performance, Meg throws the wrong switch and opens a hydraulic shaft in the stage, with disastrous consequences: Darina is so seriously injured that she may never dance again. No one suspects Meg—only her young friend Josie (Elinor Donahue) is even aware of her involvement—but she spends the rest of the film consumed with anguish and fear of exposure, which she endures in isolation.
The Unfinished Dance is based on Jean Benoît-Lévy’s 1937 French film La Mort du Cygne, which O’Brien’s mother saw in Paris and pitched to MGM as a vehicle for her daughter. The American version isn’t as grim as its European counterpart, as far as the children’s conduct is concerned, nor does it share the French version’s efforts to faithfully depict ballet culture and history (released in the U.S. in 1938 under the title Ballerina, it’s become an important dance document, providing a filmed record of some of France’s greatest ballerinas). What both movies do have in common, however, is that they attribute a perceptiveness and dark inner life to children that’s unusual for films of that era. In The Unfinished Dance, Meg is preoccupied with adult concerns despite the fact that her inexperience and lack of guidance make them difficult for her to fully comprehend. But she’s nonetheless capable of bold action, depth of feeling, and moral growth, as conveyed by O’Brien’s magnetic performance.
The dance sequences were choreographed by former Ballets Russes principal David Lichine, but apart from the majesties of Cyd Charisse, they’re mainly inadequate. A double was used for Booth’s dances, and the corps de ballet largely lacks grace and synchronicity. Despite the fact that she was born into a family of dancers, O’Brien looks awkward on pointe. But, ultimately, the movie’s interest lies elsewhere. It’s focused less on dance than on the world of ballet as a predominantly female milieu. It also evokes ballet’s mythologies, with their emphasis on dedication, discipline, ruthlessness, and suffering.
Following the tragedy, Meg makes a few abortive attempts to confess to Darina, who mistakenly interprets the child’s overtures as selfless concern for her predicament. Their ensuing relationship allows the initially embittered Darina to conceive of returning to ballet as a teacher. At the same time she begins to love Meg with the tenderness of a parent. Meanwhile, despite her former craving for artistic ascendancy, Ariane cavalierly considers leaving the company to marry a man who won’t permit her to dance (another familiar plot device in films about female artists). Through this central triumvirate, the movie stages modern women’s struggle to choose between the roles of wife-and-mother and committed artist. It’s actually in this arena that the film’s dancing is most expressive. Charisse is a powerful, statuesque dancer. Where women are concerned, traditional ballet style tends to conceal the physical strength necessary for dance beneath the effects of litheness and delicacy. Lichine has Charisse move in an angular, strenuous fashion, and often on the flats of her shoes instead of the toes, so that she repeatedly holds her body in a solid stance that’s grounded rather than aloft. The resulting forms and movements are aligned with modern dance rather than classicism, and they outline Ariane’s control as a woman and a performer.
In her ultimate performance at the movie’s end (Yes! She chooses the ballet!), Ariane is dressed simply, in a black leotard with matching stockings and shoes. These, combined with her pelt of dark hair, lend her the sleekness of an animal. Her appearance suggests something elemental in her being, the triumphant acknowledgement of her need to reveal herself. Darina looks on, smiling, from the wings. In a way, The Unfinished Dance plays it safe by splitting one woman into two—a mothering, mentoring type and an artist on the attack. However, the movie stands apart from most dance films, which typically portray ballerinas as so psychologically fragile that their all-consuming investment in dance precipitates either insanity or death. (The Red Shoes followed one year later.) In The Unfinished Dance, the women remain connected to ballet for joyful reasons: it defines and fulfills them.
In the end, this study of roles pivots on the axis of the preternatural Margaret O’Brien, the film’s top-billed star. Her character isn’t buffeted by the whims of adults. On the contrary, she’s so hungry for nurturing instruction that she rashly engineers a situation though which she can find it. Meg’s moroseness suits O’Brien because, as an actor, she’s often a very strange presence. After Ariane is humiliated by Darina’s arrival, Meg slinks into her dressing room to soothe her. In her characteristic breathy, otherworldly voice, she zealously declares: “I hate her. I do. Oh, don’t let them make you sad, Mademoiselle. I’m still your friend.” She then goes to the children’s dressing room and discovers her classmates speaking admiringly of Darina. Meg turns her penetrating gaze on one of them and, glowering, softly demands, “Please don’t make me mad,” as if doing so will have consequences. She then pounces on the girl and throws her to the floor.
If the film’s title refers to Darina’s fateful tumble, or the work that’s lost when artists abandon their vocations, it also alludes to a life in process or a person as yet unformed. In her dogged but messy attempts to manage her feelings and forge connections, Meg is as much a seeker as the women in her purview. In fact, the vital glimmer behind her eyes suggests, if anything, a keener individuality than either Ariana or Darina possess. O’Brien imbues Meg with the rawness and roughness of a child in need of direction, but her fortitude is never in doubt.