Jumpin’ Jive

The Nicholas Brothers are incredible in this dance routine, but the oft-repeated story that it was unrehearsed and shot in one take is wrong. A misstatement in the New York Times nearly 20 years ago has gone unchecked and repeated as fact whenever the video is linked to, so this is me correcting that record.

My entry point to the video was recently seeing a 2018 post about it from Twisted Sifter — “75 Years Ago, One of the Best Dance Routines Ever Was Filmed, Unrehearsed on the First Take“.

That’s a pretty impressive and click-worthy title, and similar to the other posts about it I’ve seen since then.

The problem is it’s wrong. When articles about it point to a source link, it’s to a New York Times article from March 2000 — a book review of Constance Valis Hill’s Brotherhood in Rhythm. The article misstated a quote from the book, creating the story of this being an unrehearsed and one-take dance sequence.

When Astaire pronounced their ”Jumpin’ Jive” number in the movie ”Stormy Weather” (1943) — unrehearsed and achieved on the first take — to be the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film…

Mindy Aloff, in the New York Times

The story in the book is quite different:

Screenshot from page 184 of the book "Brotherhood in Rhythm". Pertinent quote: "when it was time to do the jumps over each other's heads into splits in the routine, we never rehearsed it." Fayard adds: "It came nice and easy. Nick Castle said not to rehearse it, that we knew what to do, so we did it like a rehearsal. And in one take!"
Page 184 in Brotherhood in Rhythm

The unrehearsed and single-take comment refers to the portion of the dance where they jump over each other on their way down the stairs, not the entire routine.

The citation on that quote points to a 1996 documentary on WGBH-TV called “Reflections with the Nicholas Brothers“, but I have yet to find a copy of it online.

The thing is, the headline’s claim doesn’t pass the sniff test when you actually watch the video, and considering it only took five minutes to prove it out I don’t know why this has just been parroted as truth.

It turns out I’m not the only person to question it, either. A commenter on Boing Boing connected the same dots 20 months ago:

It’s not taking anything away from the Nicholas Brothers to say that this routine was almost certainly not shot in a single, unrehearsed take. Unless, of course, the scene was set up with multiple cameras–and even then, the positioning of the cameras would require knowledge of what part of the set the dancers would be moving to, which suggests at least some planning. (And while I don’t have time for a deep research dive, I suspect that I would find that this big sequence is made up from pieces of the Brothers’ repertory of moves and routines.)

However, Fayard did tell an interviewer that the finale–each jumping over the other’s head down the staircase–was done in a single take.

This one-take/no-rehearsal factoid, by the way, seems to originate with a year-2000 book review of Constance Valis Hill’s Brotherhood in Rhythm, and it shows up all over the internet.

Russell_Letson, commenting on Boing Boing

My hope is that someone will see this in time for the 80th anniversary of the film, before they post the same headlines and story without questioning them. ?

People make mistakes, even when they have editors and proofreaders. The funniest thing I came across while looking into this was when I went to my local library to look at a physical copy of Brotherhood in Rhythm and saw a previous reader’s notes on the description of Cab Calloway’s outfit during the Jumpin’ Jive scene:

From pages 180-181 in "Brotherhood in Rhythm", a library reader underlined a description of Cab Calloway's "shimmering white tuxedo" during Jumpin' Jive, then drew an arrow and the word "black" next to a photo of the scene which shows Calloway in a black tuxedo.
Cab Calloway’s shimmering tuxedo