Monday, December 14, 2009
Fred Astaire (1899-1987) has more than fifty acting credits in his résumé. A multi-talented man—actor, singer, choreographer, and above all dancer—he was notorious for his unyielding perfectionism: Johnny Mercer once called him "an impeccable workman." Astaire is a true Hollywood legend for his performances in musical movies, but he also turned in charming light comedy performances in non-musical movies like The Pleasure of His Company and The Notorious Landlady and the rare dramatic performance in movies like On the Beach and The Towering Inferno. The ten musicals he made with Ginger Rogers—nine at RKO in the 1930s and one more at MGM in 1949 (The Barkleys of Broadway, in which Ginger replaced Judy Garland)—are not only landmark films of the American cinema, but adored by fans of musicals and many non-fans alike. At least two of them—Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936)—are among the very best American movies of the 1930s of any genre.
Of all the famous screen couples in the movies, Astaire and Rogers are probably the best known and revered—even more so than Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall—and deservedly so. Their screen personalities seemed the perfect complement. As Pauline Kael once wrote, "She gave him sex, and he gave her class." After they stopped making movies together, Ginger concentrated on non-musical pictures while Fred made many more musical films. But he rarely made more than one or two musicals with any one actress-dancer as his partner. Whether this was by chance or whether he was reluctant to become identified again as one-half of a famous screen couple is difficult to say. Some of the musicals he made are run-of-the-mill, but some of them are excellent, rivaling the best movies he made with Ginger Rogers and easily surpassing the lesser ones.
Here are my five favorite musicals Fred Astaire made without Ginger Rogers.
• A Damsel in Distress (1937).
Directed by George Stevens, who also directed Swing Time, this movie takes place in England. Astaire plays Jerry Halliday, an American singer-dancer vacationing in London, who becomes involved in a matchmaking scheme hatched by the servants at the estate of a young noblewoman, Lady Alice Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine). People who write about this movie tend to emphasize what the movie doesn't have—namely, Ginger Rogers—and the blandness of the young Fontaine as a romantic interest for Astaire. While such complaints are justified, I prefer to think of what the movie does have.
The delightful script by P. G. Wodehouse (based on his novel and play) with its dimwitted nobles, crafty servants, and series of misunderstandings is absolutely typical of that writer, and anybody familiar with his comic stories and novels will recognize his usual bag of tricks. It also has the archetypal screwball comedy situation (think It Happened One Night) of a young woman infatuated with an ill-chosen suitor who must be won over by an unconventional suitor (in this case, Astaire) who offers her the opportunity to break out of her constrained existence. The movie has great songs by the Gershwins, including "Nice Work" and "A Foggy Day," the hilarious George Burns and Gracie Allen as Astaire's agent and his dotty secretary, and the classic, Oscar-winning "Fun House" production number (above). Not only an excellent Fred Astaire musical, but an excellent musical, period.
• You Were Never Lovelier (1942).
When you see Rita Hayworth in this movie, you'll be tempted to agree with its title, even if you've seen Gilda. In this, the second of two films she made with Astaire, Rita plays Maria Acuña, the daughter of a rich Buenos Aires night club owner (Adolphe Menjou). Fred plays Robert Davis, a professional dancer who has just lost all his money at the racetrack and is desperate to get a job at Menjou's club to earn enough money to get back home. Menjou, in the meantime, is talked into a scheme to trick the eldest of his three daughters, played by Rita, into believing she has a mystery admirer by sending her orchids every day himself. In the mistaken identity device common to so many Astaire-Rogers movies, she erroneously believes Astaire is the mystery admirer. When Astaire gets a look at Rita, it's love at first sight and he immediately goes along with her assumption. It's never in doubt that despite Menjou's opposition and Rita's pique at being duped, the two will eventually get together.
The score is a bit short of memorable songs, although it does include "I'm Old-Fashioned" and the Oscar-nominated "Dearly Beloved" by Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer. The real attraction here, though, is Astaire's dancing with the gorgeous Rita. Astaire never had a more able dance partner (although Cyd Charisse was a very close second). With Ginger, we were always aware of how hard she was working to keep up with Astaire, but Rita's dancing looks as effortless and lighter-than-air as Fred's. The most startling number is when the two dance "The Shorty George," an incredibly athletic jitterbug number. The sight of Rita in a tight white blouse, white pleated mini-skirt, white bobby socks, and two-tone saddle shoes leaping several feet in the air over a recumbent Astaire is not easily forgotten.
• Easter Parade (1948).
This movie, MGM's highest-grossing release of 1948, was originally set to be directed by Vincente Minnelli, but according to Hollywood lore MGM dancer-choreographer Charles Walters (he had choreographed Judy's "The Great Lady Gives an Interview" number in 1946's Ziegfeld Follies) replaced him at the last minute when Judy claimed her psychiatrist warned her that working with her husband would further strain her rocky marriage. Although Walters later became an accomplished director of light comedies, it's likely that the film was largely planned by Minnelli before he left the project.
In the movie Astaire plays Don Hewes, one-half of a famous song-and-dance team along with Nadine Hale (a delightfully bitchy Ann Miller), with whom he is also romantically involved. When the self-centered Nadine deserts Don for a solo career, Don makes an impulsive declaration that he could could replace Nadine by turning any ordinary showgirl into a star and begins looking for a new partner. After we see Miller's sizzling performance of "Shakin' the Blues Away," it's clear this is going to take some doing. (All the songs are by Irving Berlin and include "Steppin' Out with My Baby," performed by Astaire.) He finally settles on Hannah Brown (do you think the writers had ever heard Bessie Smith sing "Pigfoot"?), played with charming self-effacement by Judy Garland. It takes Astaire a year to do it, but he finally manages to fulfill his boast while shedding his feelings for Nadine and falling in love with the unpretentious Hannah.
Astaire was reportedly appalled by Judy's temperamental behavior during the filming, but onscreen he seems to bring out the best in her. She appears so genuinely relaxed and happy as she places Astaire's silk top hat on his head while singing "Put on your Easter bonnet" to him that this is the mood I always like to recall her in. The real musical high point of the film, though, is the comic novelty number "A Couple of Swells" (above). Judy might not have been in the same class as Astaire's more accomplished dance partners, but her skillful impersonation of a physical klutz in this number makes you realize she was a better dancer than she is given credit for. She also acquits herself well in a solo number, "Mr. Monotony," that was cut from the final film but can be seen in That's Entertainment! III. In it the svelte Judy wears the Trilby hat, man's tuxedo jacket, and black fishnet stockings she would later wear in the finale of the Walters-directed Summer Stock (1950).
• The Band Wagon (1953).
This movie has impeccable credentials: story and screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green (with uncredited contributions by Alan Jay Lerner), production by Roger Edens and Arthur Freed, musical numbers staged by Michael Kidd, and direction by Vincente Minnelli. Many consider it the best musical ever made after Singin' in the Rain. (I don't quite agree, but it's certainly among the best ten ever made.) Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a musical star who is close to being a has-been (how's that for irony?) but who is offered a role in a Broadway musical by his friends Lester and Lily Martin (Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, clearly modeled on Comden and Green themselves). But Astaire regrets getting involved when he finds that the director of the play, Jeffrey Cordova (played by the British musical comedy artist Jack Buchanan), wants to stage it as a pretentious, deadly serious modern version of Faust. One thing he doesn't regret, however, is his costar, the ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), with whom he begins to fall in love after a moonlight coach ride through Central Park, interrupted by a sublimely romantic dance to "Dancing in the Dark" (above, and my own favorite number in the movie).
After a disastrous preview, Astaire takes the show in hand ("Hey, boys and girls, let's put on a show!" he actually says tongue-in-cheek to the dispirited cast) and creates a triumph. Like many of the musicals of the 30s, The Band Wagon is back-loaded with one fantastic musical number after another, including "Louisiana Hayride," the hilarious "Triplets" with Astaire, Fabray, and Levant as squabbling infants, and best of all the renowned film noir spoof "Girl Hunt." The movie also contains Fred tap-dancing to "A Shine on Your Shoes" (according to Liza Minnelli, her father's favorite musical number he ever filmed) and the iconic "That's Entertainment." Charisse had limitations as an actress, but as a dancer she was easily a worthy match for Astaire.
• Funny Face (1957).
Fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson, above left) wants to do an issue on "clothes for the woman who isn't interested in clothes" and commissions fashion photographer Dick Avery (Astaire, whose character is clearly based on Richard Avedon, who served as an advisor on the film) to photograph the issue. Deciding the studio isn't the right background for the shoot, the two hit upon the idea of using a real Greenwich Village bookstore to stage the photo session. It's here that Avery meets Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), a frumpy young intellectual working as a clerk in the store. He later devises a scheme for the three to travel to Paris, where Dick will photograph Jo modeling a special couture collection for Maggie's publication. All three will get something they want out of the trip: Maggie will get a special issue for the magazine, Dick will get a chance to court Jo, and Jo will get the opportunity to meet her idol, a famous French existentialist philosopher.
The French locations are ravishingly photographed by veteran cinematographer Ray June (who received an Oscar nomination), and the music, mostly by the Gershwins, is most appealing. All three stars are in fine form. Under the direction of Stanley Donen, Astaire creates one of his most unique and likable characters—a polished sophisticate rather than the wisecracking joker or showbiz workingman he usually played—and gives one of his greatest performances, in which acting, singing, and dancing are given equal emphasis. Hepburn gives another in her series of legendary performances of the 1950s. David Thomson calls Funny Face "the movie that embraced her different atmospheres—from blue stocking to a Vogue Ondine." She even gets to sing—solo and in her own voice—a wistful version of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" The Astaire-Rogers movies were boosted by great supporting players like Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick, and Funny Face is too, for the flamboyant Thompson, who appeared in only four movies, steals every scene she's in. She gets her own solo number, "Think Pink," at the very beginning of the movie and has a hilarious number with Astaire where they disguise themselves as beatniks and perform "Clap Yo' Hands" in a bohemian coffee house. To call Thompson multi-talented would be an understatement: She was a lyricist, radio and night club performer, and for many years worked under Arthur Freed as a vocal coach, arranger, and composer at MGM, where she wrote and arranged Judy Garland's "The Great Lady Gives an Interview" number from Ziegfeld Follies (1946). She was also a published writer, the author of the Eloise series of children's books.
My favorite sequence in the film is when Astaire is photographing Hepburn in the Louvre and she runs repeatedly down the staircase where the Winged Victory of Samothrace is displayed on a landing, while Astaire tries to get the shot just right. Finally the frustrated Hepburn, wearing a flowing gown, shouts to Astaire, "Take the picture!" and he does. The resulting freeze-frame is a shot in which Audrey's pose and costume duplicate those of the statue behind her. Two timeless icons together: one flesh-and-blood, the other marble. As the saying goes, that one shot is worth the price of admission.
MY RATINGS OF FRED ASTAIRE-GINGER ROGERS MOVIES
Top Hat (1935)
Swing Time (1936)
The Gay Divorcée (1934)
Follow the Fleet (1936)
Shall We Dance (1937)
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)