06 August 2008

May I Have This Dance?

Fred sees Ginger.
Fred falls instantly in love with Ginger.
Fred vows to marry Ginger.
Ginger is not interested.
Fred is persistent.
Fred and Ginger dance. Sometimes as part of a show or at a dance hall. Sometimes in rather odd locales like parks.
Sometimes Fred dances alone.
Fred finally wins Ginger over.
The end.

The wonderful collection of movies starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did not vary much. Follow the Fleet (1936) was the only one of their films in which they were not only already acquainted at the start, but already in love too. The love in their movies was without genitalia. Passion never went beyond the kind of kisses you get from grandma. This was simply eight-year-old Ken and Barbie love.

The story lines were simple. Dialogue was cute, with maybe a touch of wit but nothing too urbane. Other characters were at the extreme a tad quirky ala Edward Everett Horton or Eric Blore. Rivals were easy going blokes who were never a real threat. Think Randolph Scott, Jerome Cowan or Erik Rhodes.

The cinematography was functional and Busby Berkeley style was strictly o-u-t. Except for the belated The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) the films were in glorious black and white.

So what's the appeal? Simple. Those two people could dance.

It's been said that Ginger did everything Fred did but in heels. Not quite. Fred regularly soloed and although Hermes Pan worked with him extensively as a sort of choreographer/trainer, the dances were Fred Astaire productions. Fred was a legendary perfectionist. Ginger was every bit Fred's equal as a dancer but he deserves the lion's share of the encomiums for the inspiration and extra perspiration.

Both had great careers apart from one another. Fred found other dance partners (though none better) and Ginger focused on acting at which she was exceptional.

It was just as well that the stories, the characters and the dialogue were simple. We didn't need a lot of distraction from the main show which was their dances. By the end of a Fred & Ginger picture you're sated but not stuffed. There's a dance, some story to whet your appetite, then another dance. The dances are never too long, never too esoteric. None of that Gene Kelly nonsense with weird music, faux backgrounds and athleticism over grace. Fred and Ginger were all about being in control, elegant and fun. Boy were they fun. Of course it didn't hurt that Ginger was very pretty (sexy wouldn't of done) and Fred was as affable a chap as you'd ever want to meet.

(You can see a wonderful interview Dick Cavett did with Astaire in the early 70's on DVD. Fred seems quite shy, is humble but answers all questions and sings a few songs. He had a wonderful voice and CDs of his are a great buy.)

None of their movies cracks my top 100 or my second 100 of all time favorites, but except for Roberta (1935) which was a real stinker, they're all wonderful and I'm delighted to own a box set of their films. Interestingly the best movie they're in together is Flying Down to Rio (1933) their first. It wasn't a Fred & Ginger picture but their performances gave someone the bright idea of teaming them. They were in nine more films together.

Fred and Ginger films worked because of a very simple formula. Simply add extraordinary talent, sit back for 90 minutes and enjoy.


R. D. Finch said...

Thanks for the great post on Fred and Ginger. I've been making an effort recently to catch up on all the 30's movies I haven't seen and only have "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" left to watch. I have it recorded but haven't watched it yet.

Did you ever read the comment Pauline Kael made about them? Something to the effect that she gave him sex and he gave her class.

I didn't find "Rio" that interesting,except for the chorus girls dancing on the airplane wing. "Roberta" is schizophrenic with Fred and Irene Dunne playing the lead roles but not the lead couple, and Ginger and Randolph Scott playing the secondary roles but not the secondary couple of classic romantic comedy. (And wonderful Ginger is stuck with that terrible faux accent and dud character for most of the movie.) "Carefree" also seemed weak to me. I just don't picture Fred as a psychiatrist. I'd pick "Top Hat" as the best and "Shall We Dance?" (largely because of its music) as my favorite.

Speaking of the music, this is the one element I missed in the post. Those great standards by Porter, Kern, Berlin, and especially the Gershwins! At their best the songs were as good as the dancing. And the great songs seemed to inspire great dance numbers: "Let's Face the Music and Dance," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Cheek to Cheek"--how to pick a favorite song/dance number? Not to mention the great songs like "Night and Day," "The Way You Look Tonight," and "A Fine Romance" that didn't have such elaborate dance routines.

After reading this, I think I'll go ahead and watch "Vernon and Irene" tonight.

The Underpants Monster said...

"Eight-year-old Ken and Barbie love?"

Nothing could be further from the truth. Watch their faces during the dance. Watch the tension in their arms and hands as they move together. That moment in "Let's Face the Music and Dance" where they stop and just look at each other - that is smoking hot, my friend. There is nothing childish about it. The sax is all in the subtext, but it is There with a capital T.

Fred said...

Thanks for having this discussion. It's always nice to have Astaire and Rogers in current view. Several things that should be added to the discussion: the acting, composing and technological breakthroughs. Astaire not only originated much of the dances, he also pretty much invented the best way to film dancing. There was a camera dolly that was named for him. He was heavily involved in the filming, editing, and the final sound on film. In addition, he worked closely with the composers and the reason that the songs fit so well is that he decided where they should be inserted and suggested to the composer (such as Berlin) what kind of music would be needed. He also worked with the writers. He and his rehearsal pianist would also compose and interject whatever music was needed in the middle for the dance. He was also a wonderful actor, both as a comedian and as a dramatic actor in later films. The main reason that the dances between Astaire and Rogers have such a potent underlying sensuality is that they were both acting and reacting to each other so successfully. Unfortunately, Astaire's later partners, even when they were skilled dancers, never quite had the same combination of acting ability and dancing ability, although Charisse, Leslie and Hayworth came close. John Mueller has a great book that analyzes the dances called "Astaire Dancing". I highly recommend it to get a greater understanding. A group of fans will be organizing various celebrations to commemorate the 75th anniversay of the 1st film starring Astaire and Rogers. Let me know if you want to participate.

Allison said...

I love Fred and Ginger as well, so I find it interesting that I disagree with quite a bit of your post.

While Fred does deserve credit for his choreography, it's unfair to give him more for his solo numbers. Ginger had very few solos (really I can only think of one, and she got that one because Fred thought the lyrics of the song were stupid and refused to dance to it) because the studios didn't trust her to appeal to viewers when on her own. It's one of the reasons she wanted to stop making movies with Fred.

Also, I think Ginger was extremely sexy - did you miss her dress in the "Never Gonnna Dance" number in Swing Time? Or really most of her evening dresses - slinky, silky fabric over nothing but her skin. And the way she bent herself over Fred's arm. And their legs intertwined when then danced. Censorship might have made overt references to sex impossible, but classic movies are full of subtle sexuality, and Fred and Ginger movies are definitely no exception.

Roberta is the only Fred and Ginger movies I have yet to see, but I personally doubt it could be worse than Carefree and The Barkleys of Broadway, which are both downright offensive, at least to women.

I really think it is stretching it to call Fred Astaire's voice "wonderful." It's good-to-passable at best. Singing (and acting too, really) were not his strong suits. I think you and I agree however that they didn't need to be.

And lastly, I have to take exception to your calling Gene Kelly's work nonsense. His style was different than Astaire's, but he was just as brilliant.

So, aside from trashing your main points, I agree completely that Fred and Ginger, and most of their movies, are wonderful, and I am so glad that I am able to watch them over and over.

Another who thinks TCM is the best TV channel ever

ackatsis said...

Nice write-up on Fred and Ginger. I just thought I'd pull you up on one detail:

"Follow the Fleet (1936) was the only one of their films in which they were not only already acquainted at the start, but already in love too."

You're forgetting "The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), in which, not only were the pair already acquainted, but they were also married.

Lily Norwood said...

To ackatsis’ correction about the films in which the Astaire-Rogers characters were not only already acquainted, but in love, I’d even add “Roberta”--as in that they were childhood sweethearts, though they had fallen out of touch. I’d also like to advise your readers that you’re dismissing “Roberta” out-of-hand--it has its weaknesses (notably not enough Fred and Ginger) but it also has two of their most wonderful dances, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” All the musical numbers were recorded in real time, too--no overdubbing. It is wonderful to hear the actual taps and their happy laughter as they dance together.

If you really think the Astaire-Rogers films were without passion, you have not been watching these movies carefully. I’m with the second commenter on this one--and please also go back and take a look at “Night and Day” from “The Gay Divorcee” and “Never Gonna Dance” from “Swing Time” (both easy to find on YouTube, btw) and tell me if you still think these films are sexless. “Fred finally wins Ginger over.” How do you think he does it? He seduces her!

Rogers was not Astaire’s equal as a dancer, but she was wonderful at the part that was just as crucial to the breathtaking beauty of their dances--expressing emotion.

You state that “Rivals were easy going blokes who were never a real threat. Think Randolph Scott, Jerome Cowan or Erik Rhodes.” Only Erik Rhodes played something of a rival to Fred, in “Top Hat.” The other actors you mention were supporting characters/friends with the leads.

Aren’t you being terribly dismissive of Gene Kelly? He was extraordinarily talented, innovative, graceful, and genial.