The last line of BEEN RICH ALL MY LIFE perfectly sums up the
experience of watching it: "This is history." Well, it sure is. The film,
directed by Heather Lyn MacDonald, profiles the dance troupe the Silver
Belles, a group of women who at the peak of their careers in the 1930s
performed in the chorus of shows at notable venues like the Apollo
Theatre and the Cotton Club. The five women at the heart of this
charming and touching film reunited in the 1980s and have continued
to perform into their 80s and 90s. While they might not be able to kick
quite as high, they make up for it by "mugging" to the audience, and
the viewers love them for it.  

      All five of the troupe clearly have show biz in their blood. At 96,
the den mother is Bertye Lou Woods. In the 1930s, she was the dance
captain who taught the steps to the other chorus girls and it was she
whom Geri Kennedy approached in the 1980s with the idea of forming
the troupe. Up until the year before Heather MacDonald shot her
documentary, Woods was performing. It's something of a shame that
the only footage the audience sees of her dancing is video shot on
previous occasions, but even in those snippets (including footage of her
in a chorus line behind the great Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson), it's clear
she was a wonderful dancer. Her feisty and sarcastic personality shines
through as she watches the rehearsals.

      Rounding out the group are Cleo Hayes, 89, Marion Coles, 88,
Elaine Ellis, 86, and the "baby" of the group, Fay Ray, 84. MacDonald
captures the rapport between these women who clearly love to perform
in spite of various infirmities. Each gets a chance to tell aspects of her
story: Hayes worked in Hollywood, appearing in
later toured in USO shows during World War II; Coles is shown passing
along her knowledge to younger dancers; the Panamanian-born Ellis
recounts how she began working at the Cotton Club by answering an
advertisement for Spanish girls; and Ray describes her peripatetic life
that had her leaving home at the age of 12, becoming a welder during
World War II and traveling extensively with the USO into the 1960s
before driving a Manhattan taxi and working on the Alaskan pipeline.

      Of course, there is some drama as members of the troupe face
various illnesses, but their determination and drive to continue performing
is touching. There are minor flaws to the story -- I was particularly curious
as to why there was no mention of Marion Coles' late husband the
great, award-winning dancer Charles 'Honi' Coles, and a dramatization of
an accident one of the ladies suffers was a bit overdone. Still, these are
minor flaws.

      As a student of history and someone who cultivated a love for the
theatrical, I have a soft spot for any project that manages to shine a light
on a forgotten or little-known aspect of American cultural heritage. Like
as a time capsule. As is pointed out more often than not in the film,
the stars who played venues like the Apollo and the Cotton Club would
change from week to week, but the chorus girls were more or less constant.
That Heather MacDonald was able to show a larger segment of the world
these immensely talented women and their skills is something for which
we should be grateful.

           Rating:                 B +
MPAA Rating:        None
Running time:       81 mins.

                              Viewed at Magno Review Two
Been Rich All My Life
©  2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.