In the imagined new movie, Gene Kelly has multiple makeovers -designed by costumer Walter Plunkett- which advances the plot in split seconds, a masterwork of efficient storytelling.
Costume = Career Phases
Sometimes when a film character recreates himself or changes wardrobe style it is to attract a love interest. In Cavalier, however, the protagonist's wardrobe tells us where he is in his career trajectory. Years of success quickly go by with costume changes.
The dancer walks in broad strides, pauses to stare at the sights, squares his shoulders, leaps up and trudges forward again. Leaning into the walk, he's energetic, he's eager.
Once Dancer (he has no name) finds an agent, he gets the first makeover. Off comes the jacket, kick aside the travel bag, the glasses go inside his vest pocket. He looks less like an out-of-towner and he's ready to dance... in a speakeasy.
The career is starting at the bottom. Illegal beverages and tawdry shenanigans are served with a generous dose of inferred mafia crime in this environment. Dancer has nowhere to go but up.
Free from his traveling togs, he smiles and sings about the music of Broadway ("Gotta Dance"), leaps around engaging his audience who rise from their tables to join him.
This kid's got something!
As Dancer gets into the Broadway rhythm and sings for his supper, he notices a gangster's moll (Cyd Charisse) in the audience. She will give him another makeover, one for his personal life.
He's got the big city career down pat, but when it comes to romance, he's still unsure.
Cut to the woman. She is confident whether she's dancing or not, as opposed to our hero who is only sure-footed when in terpsichorean endeavors.
She grabs his glasses, drops them to the floor and kicks them away. The mere thrust of her hips sends his hat flying. After this, he gradually becomes less passive in the dance. As they move together, he becomes more of an equal with her, more sure of himself.
So far, Dancer's fashion has been about extracting things from his life as the movie takes time to tell his story. Now that he's confident professionally and personally (and has pared down his wardrobe to convey this), his career will move quickly and his clothes will follow.
Dancer wears a smile.
A couple of seconds later (in real time, not in movie time), he's out of Burlesque and into Vaudeville.
Seconds later in real time (perhaps years later in movie time), Dancer is out of Vaudeville and into the Follies. The Ziegfeld Follies was a dream come true for many in the mass stage arts. It was a show which boasted glamor and excitement. Society's rich and famous bought tickets for the Follies and lent it an air of sophistication.
His movements are no longer herky-jerky; he and the ladies move languidly. In fact, they barely move. They have arrived at the pinnacle of their careers; there's no need to rush. They move slowly so that the audience may appreciate the opulence (also to keep those headdresses from falling off).
From now on, you won't see Dancer without a tuxedo (except in that dream within a dream sequence where he's wearing a black polo shirt - another fashion statement of wealth and leisure).
Dancer has made it! He's a little older now, sophisticated, successful and he has the clothes to prove it.
Walking out of a casino, Dancer's figure is back lit by the lights, throwing his features into shadow. Such a solemn and solitary moment. Surrounded by opulence and yet the saddest man in town.
Dressed in a tuxedo with a cane, looking grim, he spots a young man wearing his 1st outfit, dangling handkerchief, hat, glasses and all.
Because of the juxtaposition of Dancer's 1st and last costumes, he comes out of his funk and remembers why he traveled to the big city in the first place - to dance. And so he does.
Though some have complained that The Dancing Cavalier stops the forward motion of the movie that it inhabits, it is still a treasure of visual storytelling in and of itself. This is one of those movie sequences where you could turn off the sound and still understand the plot just from the dancing and the clothes.