The screen persona of Fred Astaire is more enduringly charismatic than that of any other musical performer in the history of the medium. Yet, the now-celebrated report on his
Hollywood screen test gave little indication of things to come: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.”
Then along came a magical sprite named Ginger Rogers, who had been typed as a shopworn blonde, out of a chorus line by way of a hosiery counter, and with more sass than class. Together, however, these two initially non-stellar personalities lit up the screen—especially when they started to dance. Fred’s seductive grace in motion with Ginger’s gracious compliance demolished all the puritanical defenses of the Production Code. The temporary release from censor-imposed inhibitions was only symbolic, of course, but it was then and is now exhilarating just the same.
This is to say that you should rush out and buy the new Warner Home Video DVD collection containing newly remastered prints of five of the classic Astaire-Rogers couplings, as well as extensive bonus features such as documentaries, featurettes and commentary by Fred Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie. The especially good news is that “Volume One” implies that there will be a “Volume Two,” with more of the 10 Astaire-Rogers collaborations, from the seemingly impromptu duet in Flying Down to Rio (1933), through The Gay Divorcee in 1943, Roberta (one of my favorites) (1935), and on a declining note, Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).
When people talk about the high points of the Astaire-Rogers series, the two musicals most frequently cited (both in this collection), are Top Hat and Swing Time. Top Hat in 1935 represented the full flowering of the Astaire-Rogers mystique with the public; Swing Time in 1936 already reflected the decline of the team’s popularity. All musical sub-genres live on borrowed time in
Hollywood inasmuch as a surface realism is one of the constants of the industry’s illusionist contract with its audience.
From my own vantage point as a collector, connoisseur, and teacher in the genre, my favorite Astaire-Rogers movie would be a composite: the first half of Top Hat — with Irving Berlin’s “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain,” “Cheek to Cheek” — and the second half of Swing Time with Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance,” and “Never Gonna Dance.” This is to say that whereas Top Hat starts enchantingly and ends conventionally, Swing Time starts lethargically and ends ecstatically.
Between the peaks of Top Hat and Swing Time there was a comparatively mediocre Astaire-Rogers vehicle called Follow the Fleet (1936), an ill-fated attempt to reduce those sophisticates of cinematic song and dance to a gum-chewing, jitterbugging, and in all ways common couple. Even so, Follow the Fleet does enliven its soggy, not-so-fine romances with several lively variety numbers, including one wicked Astaire parody of MGM’s tap-dancing star Eleanor Powell and her penchant for being tossed head over heels between two rows of soldier and sailor chorus boys.
Curiously, the final number on the program is one of the most resonant of all the Astaire-Rogers flights of fancy: the ineffable “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” to the words and music of Irving Berlin, with an evocation of elegance and glamour so lacking in the rest of the movie, and yet also with a fatalistic recognition of hard times. The gallant grace of “Let’s Face the Music” in the midst of stormy seas was reprised in the ‘80s in both Herbert Ross’s and Dennis Potter’s Pennies From Heaven (1981) and Federico Fellini’s Ginger and Fred (1983.)
Top Hat and Swing Time both have their defenders and detractors vis a vis the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre as a whole. Irving Berlin’s score in Top Hat is crisper; Jerome Kirn’s score for Swing Time is sweeter. The characters in Top Hat are ritzier; the characters in Swing Time are rowdier. Top Hat is redolent of escapist luxury; Swing Time is not entirely a stranger to poverty and unemployment. Astaire’s white tie and tails, for example, are both professional costume and upper-class adornment in Top Hat, whereas the same professional costume in Swing Time is merely a showbiz masquerade.
The difference also can be attributed in part to the differing directorial strategies of Mark Sandrich for Top Hat and George Stevens for Swing Time. Sandrich stated in interviews that he always attempted to balance the demands of the storyline with the inevitable disruptions caused by the musical numbers. Stevens, on the other hand, directed the silly plot of trivial misunderstandings with tongue firmly in cheek. The gales of laughter on screen, if not off, in the final sequences of Swing Time irritated audiences and critics at the time and have been a bone of contention for genre historians since.
One would think that Stevens would be forgiven his silliness after the sublimity of his mise-en-scene for “The Way You Look Tonight,” with its alternating close-ups of Astaire at the piano, and Rogers in her dressing room, shampoo suds on her hair, listening to the song, wistful eyes fixed on the camera and the audience. There is nothing of comparable romantic intensity in all the Sandrich-Astaire-Rogers collaborations.
Sandrich took the directorial helm again for Shall We Dance (1937), and the signs of studio desperation are everywhere. The plot is a shambles of high-brow caricature, fake accents, and tedious specialty acts, most notably by Harriet Hector and her acrobatic ballets. Back again are the excruciatingly pause-ridden comedy routines of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Jerome Cowan supplies an urbane presence as a cynical press agent, but the obtrusive narrative cuts into extraordinary George and Ira Gershwin songs such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “They All Laughed.” In this preoccupation with evasions and misunderstandings of his overly familiar story-line, Sandrich accommodated the musical number as an apparent afterthought.
Astaire and Rogers meet for the last time on the screen in 1949 at MGM (in color) with their knowing grins reflecting the Golden Age they once shared on the RKO sound stages in the black-and-white ‘30s. The movie is The Barkleys of Broadway, directed by Charles Walters, written by Betty Comden and Daolph Green, and featuring the surly pianist-savant, Oscar Levant. And as if to underline the pathos of their aging, Astaire and Rogers reprise George and Ira Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”
Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol 1: Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance, The Barkleys of Broadway; Warner Home Video; $59.92.