Friday, July 6, 2018

Astaire and Rogers

          In both “Top Hat” and “Swing Time” (my favorites of the Astaire/Rogers’ pairing) the story lines are mere fluff. And though these musical comedies are also romances, I never believed that the characters fall in love. But those considerations belong in the real world. When Fred and Ginger sing to one another, and especially when they dance together, a kind of magic occurs: suddenly they are a couple. They meld together in lyrics and movements.
            In 1935 and 1936, when those two films came out, the country was not yet out of the Depression, and troubles were brewing in Europe. People went to movie theaters to escape. And a sweet-natured form of escape is what they got. The sets were lavish, the costumes (particularly the gowns Rogers wore) were extravagant. The audience could exist for ninety minutes in a fantasy world of elegance and wealth. And they could occasionally soar away from their worries on the wings of music and dance. Astaire and Rogers gave people exactly what they needed.
            Fred Astaire had no package of attractive qualities to offer Hollywood. According to his account, the report on his screen test with RKO read, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” Instead of movie star good looks he had a certain jaunty boyishness (despite his age — he was in his thirties when he made his first screen appearance; and, to offset the balding problem, he wore a hairpiece in all his films). His physique, which must have equaled that of a world-class athlete, appeared in clothes to be slight. If you passed him on the street you wouldn’t look twice. His ordinariness contributed to the magic I referred to, for when this guy began to dance what was concealed in that inconsequential package burst free. It was no less than a transformation. The perfection of smoothness and strength and agility was amazing.
            That perfection was pursued by Astaire with fanatical devotion. A dance routine had be repeated over and over till they “got it right” (in his exacting estimation). His standards were higher than those of others on the set, and to achieve his goal he could sometimes be a taskmaster. I believe his pursuit of perfection was driven by insecurity. He knew that dancing was the one thing that made him unique.
            Actually, it wasn’t the only thing. He could sing. Astaire’s voice — a light tenor —  lacked a professional polish. Still, the top composers of the day — George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields — wanted their songs to be introduced to the world by Astaire. They would get no embellishment added onto what they wrote. It would come across as pure as they imagined it. He gives each word care, and the melody — and the feeling embodied in the words — emerges intact. In his long stage career, and then in his films, it’s remarkable how many of our country’s musical “standards” were first sung by Fred Astaire. Still, I don’t think he believed his voice was his gift.
            Some claim that Ginger Rogers did everything Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels; the “everything” is not entirely correct. If you watch them closely, their movements are synchronized, but he does a bit more footwork, in the form of lightning fast flourishes. She had plenty of talent; one never feels that there’s any imbalance when they dance; she’s his equal. But the birds with the impressive plumage are often the male. The way the films are scripted, Astaire wins Rogers over with his singing and dancing. In the gazebo dance in “Top Hat” (my all-time favorite routine) she begins by mimicking Astaire in a swaggering “I can do anything you can do” way; but then she joins with him. In “Swing Time” she responds to his singing of “The Way You Look Tonight.”
            Yet I have a quibble about that song — one of the great romantic ballads (it earned an Academy Award for Kern and Fields). Astaire sings it beautifully, but it isn’t framed in a way that does it justice. According to the lyrics, the man has gotten to know a woman well enough to express deep feelings for her — and directly to her. But in the film Astaire has only recently met Ginger, and he sings the song, seated at a piano, while she’s in the bathroom washing her hair. She quietly emerges and stands behind him, and with the last note he turns to see her with her hair in suds. It’s staged as a gag. The other musical routines are well-integrated into the plots, but the director (George Stevens) dropped the ball on this one.
            Astaire’s dominance in this pairing is reflected in the story lines. Both films begin with him in some sort of predicament; after about ten minutes he meets up with Rogers. And only Astaire does solo dance routines. Though Ginger played second fiddle, I think she accepted this role. There was a basic difference in their attitudes toward the films they did together: she cared less than he did. She was a trooper, and gave it her all; but her “all” had limits that Fred’s didn’t. The technology of the day made it necessary that the sound of the taps had to be recorded in a separate session, and, of course, Astaire did his tapping (and, if there was a single lack of correspondence to his taps and the pictures he was viewing of himself on a screen, he would require that the entire routine be done again). Ginger let a dancer, Hermes Pan, do her taps.
            Still, Astaire needed Rogers (he fully acknowledged this in later years). Though he would have many dance partners in his career, the spark that was present when he danced with Ginger was never duplicated. She contributed a certain something that meshed with his qualities. She was quite pleasing to look at. But her facial beauty was a shop-girl’s beauty, and her body wasn’t sensational. She was no stunner like Cyd Charisse or Rita Hayworth. That quality of ordinariness she shared with Astaire leads to the amazing transformation to the world of magic when she breaks free with him in dance.
            Rogers performed solo in songs. Her voice lacked a professional polish; but, again, as with Astaire, this average voice was able to deliver the tune and lyrics perfectly. Nothing interferes with what the songwriters want to convey. That said, her acting talent enabled her to provide an appropriate emphasis to the lyrics. In “Swing Time,” in her rendition of “Start All Over Again,” she gives a bit of no-nonsense advice to the hapless Fred (“Work like a soul inspired until the battle of the day is won, You maybe sick and tired, but you’ll be man, my son”). The result is charming. But her acting ability isn’t a highlight of her films with Astaire; she knew that the script didn’t call for acting. But it was as an actor that she wanted to succeed.
            Since Ginger’s aspirations didn’t lie in doing musicals, the demands of her RKO contract, which committed her to make these highly lucrative films with Astaire, rankled her. Adding to her disgruntlement was the fact that she was paid much less than he was (and even less than some of male supporting actors). On his side, he had spent most of his life on stage teamed with his sister Adele (who was the main attraction); he was wary about again being tied to one woman partner. Yet both never varied from stating that they respected each other, and that their relationship was an amicable one. I believe that this was the case. In her autobiography Ginger reproduces a letter Fred sent her after they had gone their separate ways, and it’s full of affection and admiration. But, for the public in the thirties, doubts arose.
            In “Swing Time” Rogers sings, with wonderful grumpiness, “A Fine Romance.” It begins with the line, “A fine romance with no kisses, A fine romance, my friend, this is.” Audiences began to think along the same lines: why didn’t Fred and Ginger ever kiss on screen? The Hays Code didn’t bar kisses, even passionate ones; yet, when a kiss was appropriate, when a scene cried out for a kiss, some clumsy subterfuge (such as a door opening to hide The Moment) was concocted so that we don’t see it. Rumors began to circulate among the viewing audiences, and the most common one was that the two didn’t like one another.
            But they were pros, so whether they liked or didn’t like a romantic lead would be irrelevant. Still, why the no-kissing rule was in effect is a bit perplexing. Ginger’s explanation was that Phyllis, Astaire’s wife, didn’t want Fred to kiss her, even in a film. But could Phyllis be that insecure? I doubt it (especially since Fred had no reputation as a womanizer). I think Fred’s claim that he wanted to avoid “mushy love scenes” is more credible. Some people have an aversion to displaying intimacy in public (just as some today will refuse to do a nude scene). Though in their dances there was a pressing of bodies, lips are a different matter. At any rate, whatever the reason, studio executives saw a need to end speculation. So in “Carefree” Fred and Ginger finally kiss. But this 1938 film was at the tail end of their collaboration. The two went their separate ways in 1939, after “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.” They came together in 1949 for a reunion film called “The Barkleys of Broadway.”
            Fred and Ginger worked on into old age. Work, for both, was an integral part of their beings. When Fred was seven years old he had been performing in front of audiences; Ginger had been in show business since her early teens. But their long post-collaboration careers went on largely without me. I never could watch a film (or TV special) in which Fred had a dance partner that wasn’t Ginger; I tried, but soon had to switch it off. Call it a warped sense of loyalty. And I never saw their reunion film; when they made “Barkleys” he was fifty and she was thirty-eight. It would be too sad to watch them trying to replicate what they had done in their golden prime. The only dramatic role I saw Astaire in was “On the Beach,” an the end-of-the-world film in which played a scientist (his aged, craggy face had gained character, and he gives an excellent performance). I can recall seeing only two of Rogers’ many films. One was “Stage Door,” in which she carries on a verbal duel with Katherine Hepburn and more than holds her own. And she received an Oscar for her performance in “Kitty Foyle.” During her heyday she was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. But she simply made never the type of films that appealed to me.
            In my estimation, they reached their heights in “Top Hat” and “Swing Time.”
            I’ve often re-watched those films, especially when I need a lift. But the last time I fast-forwarded to the songs and dances. They still retain that amazing vitality. Near the end of his life Fred commented that, though he never watched his movies on TV, he once turned the set on and one was playing. So he watched it, with some trepidation. He was pleased that he found the routines “darned good.” Then he added, “It would be awful if those routines looked crummy now. It would kinda make your life look pretty foolish, pretty empty.”
            He needn’t have worried. What he and Ginger did together will last as long as people can appreciate brilliance and beauty.

1 comment:

Phillip Routh said...

In the January, 1961 issue of Horizon Magazine of the Arts there's an interview with George Balanchine, choreographer and long-time artistic director of the New York City Ballet.
I was surprised (and delighted) to read the following:
"But I will tell you something that maybe will make you laugh. It should not. I am serious. The male dancer I like to watch, really the only one I like to watch, is an American -- Fred Astaire. He is the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times. I don't mean classical, of course, but dancing; he's so good he ought to have a statue. I mean that absolutely."