I attended recently a film tribute ,THE FABULOUS NICHOLAS BROTHERS. Harold and Fayard Nicholas were two of Hollywood’s greatest dancers, and their story is told through film clips, their own home movies and photographs. The 90 minute film was put together and introduced by Bruce Goldstein, the director of repertory programming at Film Forum in New York. Mr Goldstein is the writer and co-producer of a 1991 documentary on the brothers., “Nicholas Brothers, We Sing, We Dance.”
Performing from a young age, Fayard (1914 – 2006) and Harold (1921 – 2000) were the sons of musicians. Fayard watched and absorbed all that he saw in the theatres where his parents worked. In particular he loved the dancing and learned by watching and imitating . He then taught his younger brother Harold. Both obviously had a natural talent and were soon performing as a duo. They became known for their perfect synchronisation, their balletic acrobatics in their dazzling numbers which, like all the best dancers, they made look effortless.
Harold said, “I copied my brother. He was a natural dancer. Graceful. People always asked: Did we study ballet? We never did.”
They made their stage debut in 1931 when Harold was just ten, at all the local black vaudeville houses. They always dressed in impeccable style, thanks to their mother, Viola.
The brothers, at the ages of 17 and 11, debuted at Harlem’s Cotton Club in 1932, working with Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters and Bill Robinson. They made their film debut that year in the Warners short, PIE PIE BLACKBIRD.
Samuel Goldwyn brought them to Hollywood in 1934 for a part in KID MILLIONS. They made their Broadway debut in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1936, and in 1937 they did another hit Broadway show, BABES IN ARMS.
Dancing to ‘Mandy’ in Kid Millions.
Harold and Fayard with their mother Viola.
On all their billings, they were always just ‘Nicholas brothers’. One might expect to see ‘The’ in front. but no.
The ‘Jumpin’ Jive’ number from Stormy Weather.
Harold sang the title song in this sequence from Down Argentine Way before their dance.
Twentieth Century Fox signed Harold and Fayard and they settled in Los Angeles and made five films for Fox.
Typical of the time, they never performed with any of the white stars of their films (except later for Gene Kelly) and their numbers could be excised in southern states.
In THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST (1940), they did ‘Alabamy Bound’.
At the Cotton Club, they had met 16 year old Dorothy Dandridge whom Harold later married. This is their memorable number from SUN VALLEY SERENADE (1941), ‘The Chattanooga Choo Choo’.
Harold with Dorothy Dandridge at the time of their marriage. (They divorced in 1951).
In TIN PAN ALLEY, they were part of ‘The Sheik of Araby’ number.
‘I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo’. ORCHESTRA WIVES (1942)
The fabulous staircase number in STORMY WEATHER (1943). They do huge leaps over each other down the stairs, and their famous splits before standing again.
To end the number, they race up the stairs again and slide down. Breathtaking!
They really did fly through the air!
They toured South America in 1939 with Carmen Miranda. They loved taking home movies (on 16mm) and I wonder if there is some more footage of the boys and Carmen.
It is fascinating to see the brothers on the backlot of RKO, hoofing with Fred Astaire who was making TOP HAT at the time (1935). This rare footage can be seen on You Tube.
Appearing at the Royal Command Performance in London in 1948.
They made only one film for MGM,THE PIRATE (1948), in a great number with Gene Kelly, ‘Be A Clown’. I’ve read that Gene Kelly had to argue to have Harold and Fayard dance with him. This was their last film as a team.
Heaven knows why MGM didn’t keep them.
After Hollywood, they performed in many different countries and Harold settled in France for 7 years. Fayard came home after 4 years. Harold had a successful solo career in Europe, performing at nightclubs and making recordings.
in 1964, the brothers are reunited on American television. They appeared with Frank Sinatra at the Sands in Las Vegas.
In 1991 they received America’s highest award for the performing arts, The Kennedy Center Honors.
Perhaps Bruce Goldstein will release this wonderful compilation on DVD .