Monday, May 12, 2008

Is this a dance which I see before me? Or, Dance as Soliloquy

The Siren has always mentally divided Hollywood dance sequences into different types. There is the first kind, the dance as staged interlude.

There's the type that Busby Berkeley perfected for all time, Dance as Spectacle. As a girl this was not only the Siren's favorite type of dance, it was her favorite type of movie, period. If she could switch on the television and spot showgirls with marcelled hair making big flower-blooming patterns, the Siren's week was made. Since these were always backstage musicals she was convinced for at least the first decade of her life that somewhere there was a stage big enough to accomodate "The Lullaby of Broadway."

Later on the Siren became acquainted, through Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with dance as courtship ...

... and, when she was old enough to get the idea, with dance as consummation.

Astaire and Rogers did this brilliantly but they were far from the only ones. Over at Raymond de Felitta's place you will find him posting a Cyd Charisse number with James Mitchell (later to be Palmer Cortlandt on All My Children) that is indescribably lustful.

But it wasn't until fairly late in the Hollywood musical's flowering that we got what is perhaps the purest form of film dancing, dance as soliloquy. There were few dancers who could carry this off, and in fact Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly have this category almost to themselves, with at least one exception noted below.

In essence, the character's emotions reach such a pitch that he's gotta dance. It's romance that pushes him to this point, usually, either from pure happiness or despair. The most famous dance-as-soliloquy of all time is "Singin' in the Rain," which the Siren adores as much as anyone else but won't discuss here since what's left to say? Another favorite from Gene Kelly is this one, "I Like Myself" from It's Always Fair Weather.

In some ways this is the perfect example of what the Siren is talking about--Kelly is not only ecstatically in love with the ravishing Cyd Charisse, but also celebrating a new outlook on life, after a depressing afternoon in which he discovered that not only can you not go home again, as Thomas Wolfe told us, you also can't go back to the Army or its comradeship. I suppose you could look at it as a re-run of "Singin' in the Rain," which has an almost identical set-up for its centerpiece soliloquy, but in this as in the rest of the film, IAFW is darker and more complicated. The breathtaking impossibility of Gene's dancing around on roller skates is matched with the point in the plot--this kind of happiness is also impossible, fragile and won't last, any more than the giddy trash-can-dancing camraderie in the first part of the movie has lasted.

It's Always Fair Weather was, as de Felitta notes in this splendid write-up, just about the last gasp for the Freed unit. And the Siren completely agrees with Raymond that it's a great shame, because Kelly was poised to take the musical in even more varied and unexpected directions. If you ever get a chance to catch it on TCM, the Siren highly recommends Invitation to the Dance to her readers who are true dance addicts.

But in this category, as in so much, it has to be acknowledged that Astaire got there first, as in this snippet from the spellbinding "One For My Baby" number in the otherwise not-terribly-interesting The Sky's the Limit.

This is a number to savor. There's the perfection of Astaire's take on this type of "romantic" drunk--the way maudlin self-pity alternates with the compulsion to fight anything, up to and including the bar glasses. As in "I Like Myself," there's the fact that while the movements look organic and natural and seem to flow from the character's mental state with great ease, Astaire is expressing it all with steps no mortal man can equal.

Astaire could do that with other soliloquy dances too, including an early example such as "No Strings" from Top Hat, with Astaire singing about the joys of being a bachelor (since before Shakespeare's time, a sure way to mark yourself for Cupid's arrow), then turning it into a sand dance when fate, oopsImean Ginger, intrudes. There's the immortal "Dancing on the Ceiling" from Royal Wedding, where the gimmicky-ness of the turning room actually distracts a bit from how tender the moment is. Or there's the short but lovely number "Yolanda" from the criminally underrated Yolanda and the Thief, where Fred dances with a harp.

The final example the Siren is posting here is Cyd Charisse's exquisite solo from Silk Stockings. This musical is highly regarded by some, including de Felitta and David Thomson, but the Siren finds it pretty thin gruel, perhaps because she treasures every moment of Ninotchka, and while Garbo was a lousy ballerina, Cyd was no Garbo. But this snippet is one of the loveliest parts of the movie, expressing not just love, but the joy to be had in savoring your own beauty. That's definitely a part of all the soliloquies--for a few minutes, these dancers draw the audience, no matter how pudgy, flat-footed or hopelessly arrhythmic, and let us share the way they move. I like myself, indeed.

NOTE: The Siren tried hard to post the video clips in here and failed, utterly, so you'll have to follow the links. This post is a humble and (very) belated offering in Ferdy on Films' Invitation to the Dance blog-a-thon.


Greg said...

Better late than never. Terrific breakdown of the Dance as Soliloquy. While I've always preferred Gene Kelly's musicals to Astaire's I've always been a bit frustrated that Astaire doesn't get the kudos he deserves (although he certainly gets plenty to be sure) for being a great physical solo dancer.

Even though he has so many great solo numbers I think he is equated more with partnered dancing which may be why many think Kelly got to the Dance as Soliloquy first.

And I've never seen "Sky's the Limit" but that number is extraordinary. What an incredibly talented dancer.

Karen said...

Jonathan's comment reminds me that, however much one loves dance films in general (and I do; man, I'll even watch Center Stage whenever it shows up on cable), there comes a point where one has to make a choice: Kelly or Astaire? You can enjoy them both, love all their films, but at heart there's only one of them who makes you sing. For me, it's always been Astaire. It could be my preference for 1930s film that provides a context for that love, but it's also, at some level, a contest between athleticism and grace, and I will always go with grace. I love watching Kelly dance, but Astaire completely makes me swoon. I also prefer his singing voice, by the way, but that's another post, isn't it?

I like the notion of dance as soliloquy, and the "One More for My Baby" number (you're right; the film is small change) is just about the quintessential example. But, for some reason, the number that came into my head when I read those words is one that may not even count as dance at all: Bobby Van hopping his way through town in Small Town Girl to "Take Me to Broadway." I had read once that it was filmed in a continuous take; subsequent viewings reveal at least 2 edits, so that may be a legend. But for pure exuberance I can't think of much that surpasses it.

I do love me some Bobby Van and Donald O'Connor, too. I wish they got more love from the public.

The Siren said...

At heart I'm an Astaire gal too although I am always reminded of what an art-history professor of mine had to say about Matisse vs Picasso: "Why choose when I can have them both?" It's also partly Kelly's onscreen persona. For whatever reason, he played a lot of heels and semi-heels in things like Cover Girl and For Me and My Gal, and certainly It's Always Fair Weather fits that pattern. Whereas Astaire was nearly always a gentleman; perhaps slightly tricksy, yes, but a gentleman.

Jonathan, I wish that number were on YouTube in its entirety because it's simply amazing. He has a nice duo with the ordinarily insipid Joan Leslie as well, but the movie is just totally disposable.

camorrista said...

Campaspe, I'd add (at least) one more category--the dance as one-act play that encapsules the whole story. For instance:

'Never Gonna Dance,' from SWINGTIME.

'Mambo,' from WEST SIDE STORY.

'Everything Old Is New Again,' from ALL THAT JAZZ.

As to Astaire v. Kelly, well, some days I like to think of myself as elegant--thank you, Fred--and some days as punky--thank you, Gene.

Right after I recall, say, Astaire's breath-taking solo with the hat rack in ROYAL WEDDING, or with his raincoat in FUNNY FACE, I remember Kelly's newspaper solo in SUMMER STOCK, or his duet with his reflection in COVER GIRL.

It really is okay to enjoy sushi on Monday and tenderloin on Tuesday. Or vice versa.

By the way, slightly off topic, one terrific way to relive many of Astaire's best dances is via Arlene Croce's THE FRED ASTAIRE & GINGER ROGERS BOOK. Second only to watching them. It's a pity she never did something similar for Astaire (& Cagney).

The Siren said...

Camorrista, I completely agree and I love your added category. The ballet from An American in Paris just about fits as well. I love that number and get tired of reading it described as "overblown"--he's an artist so all the art references are completely in tune. As is the enormous egocentrism; it's a different way of looking at the Oscar Levant "all-Oscar" number earlier on.

So I have to ask everyone here: Please tell me I am not the only one who loved Yolanda and the Thief? I would write it up but I need to see it again.

peg said...

i love all the numbers mentioned,but, for me, the best soliloquy dance is kelly turning a creaky floorboard and a newspaper into an expression of the sheer joy of dance. since childhood, i've always believed (hoped) that this number was an artful translation of what his real process (inspiration plus weeks of hard work) might have been. in jeans and loafers, yet.

i don't think anyone ever believed he/she could dance like astaire - he was altogether other worldly in his grace and perfection. but, in numbers like this and the one on skates (and, of course, the one with the umbrella), kelly did seem like just a guy dancing and made the audience think, "hey, i could do that." yeah... just like they could catch a baseball like willie mays.

i think the reason i was always (slightly) partial to kelly (over astaire) was the apparent ease with which he danced, totally beguiling me into thinking that he was... just dancing. if art is a contraction of "artifice," then kelly's "ease" is the epitome of art.

Exiled in NJ said...

"For whatever reason, he played a lot of heels and semi-heels." It's his voice, Siren....there is almost a wise-guy timbre to it, and while that has nothing to do with dancing, it always makes me feel that I can see him sweat, something I cannot imagine with Astaire.

Won't anyone dare mention the non-PC Bojangles of Harlem from Swing Time?

Peter Nellhaus said...

I'm surprised you didn't even mention The Band Wagon, and Fred Astaire's "I want to be by Myself".

camorrista said...

Campaspe, please do write up YOLANDA AND THE THIEF.

To my mind it's an honorable mess, but the dream ballet is stunning and 'Coffee Time' is still a knockout; and it enjoys some of the most beautful and subtle color work ever done in movies. And anyway, an honorable mess from Freed/Minelli/Astaire is always worth a decent second look.

Most critics blame the co-star, Lucille Bremer, and the choregrapher, Gene Loring, for the failure of the picture--even Astaire joined the pile-on, but this is unfair.

Yes, Bremer was Freed's mistress, but she'd acquitted herself well enough in MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, and though Astaire later complained about Loring's "artiness," in fact he'd asked for him expressly (and he worked with Loring several more times in his career--ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, SILK STOCKINGS, FUNNY FACE).

As to those who find the ballet in AMERICAN IN PARIS overblown, well, as my Polish grandmother used to say, "All I can do is put a delicious meal in front of you--I can't make you eat it."

The Siren said...

Dee, I love your whole comment. Summer Stock is painful watching for a Garland fan, as I am, right up to that brilliant ending number, so I always forget how good Kelly's newspaper routine is.

Exiled, you are definitely on to something there about the voice, but still I do think Kelly's characters are frequently written as a guy looking out for number 1, until love knocks him into shape. He was the original Pal Joey and I think that character stayed with him a long, long time.

Peter, I left out a lot as is always the case with a compendium post like this. But in my defense, I will say that the top shot is a publicity still from Band Wagon. It's a huge favorite of mine so I had to include it even if I didn't discuss it. :)

Camorrista, I forgot to mention that I bought the Fordin book, but I haven't started it. From your previous take on the book I am willing to bet he doesn't think highly of Yolanda. Minnelli in his autobiography was hard on the film too, although if I recall correctly he liked Bremer's dancing, just judged her not up to carrying the movie. In all fairness to Bremer it's a weirdly written part, and given a more straightforward character like the Meet Me in St. Louis she was fine, even charming.

But the color is stunning, the concept is bold, the choreography is innovative and when I saw it I couldn't stop asking, "why did all the books say this one is bad?" (Which was my same reaction to The Pirate and Les Girls.)

camorrista said...

Campaspe, it's important to never forget that until recently most movie critics (and scholars) were men, and pretty often, they were men a bit abashed at being movie critics (or scholars). Not a job for chest-thumpers, as it were.

For that reason, I suspect, they created a series of dismissible categories--weepies, women's pix, date-night pix, kitchen-sink pix, and, of course, musicals. (Unless a musical was made by one of their idols: they were eager to praise Godard's A WOMAN IS A WOMAN and Scorcese's NEW YORK, NEW YORK, two movies so ignorant of film musical form you would think their makers had never seen such a creature.)

LES GIRLS suffers from a medicore score, but it's still hugely enjoyable--Kay Kendall is sensational and even Mitzi Gaynor is cast to her strengths. And I think it contains Kelly's most autobiographical performance, which gives it a genuine pathos. (RASHOMON with dancing, as I believe Andy Sarris once said.)

On the other hand, THE PIRATE has a great Cole Porter score, but suffers from a certain choppiness (Garland was sick and behaving terribly all through the shooting) and, more crucially, a reliance on audience knowingness. So many of the conceits in the picture are in-jokes about show business, (unlike, say, SINGING IN THE RAIN, where the in-jokes are made vividly visible).

So both aren't quite masterpieces, but....bad? Bad?!! Not in this life, or even several to come.

wwolfe said...

My one problem with Kelly is that he projects an air of being the Big Man On Campus - the jock who always gets the head cheerleader, I don't think it's intentional, but it's there nonetheless, and I always have to work past that to enjoy his work on screen. One reason his character in "Singin' in the Rain" is so appealing is that it's conceived in such a self-deprecating way - the character manages to be a wonderful send-up of exactly the quality that I otherwise struggle with in Kelly's on-screen persona.

The Siren said...

I have to agree about the score for Les Girls - radically sub-par Porter although Ca, c'est l'amour is all right. But I love the acting, even Taina Elg acquits herself pretty well, and the numbers work well even with pedestrian songs. The Wild One takeoff, for example, is a hoot. And I'm not bothered by the in-jokes in The Pirate, but yes, it's more like a collection of really good bits than a seamless whole. But both movies have enormous merits so I am glad to see that a number of modern-day critics are starting to champion them.

Wwolfe, I'm not sure Kelly strikes me that way, although for sure there is a great deal of cockiness to his screen persona. I think that's why he's the most enjoyable thing in Inherit the Wind--the character is so close to how I pictured Kelly off-screen, knowing, sarcastic and sophisticated.

I think he also benefited from being cast opposite someone whom you could see really getting under his skin.

FDChief said...

"My one problem with Kelly is that he projects an air of being the Big Man On Campus - the jock who always gets the head cheerleader, I don't think it's intentional, but it's there nonetheless"

One interesting view of GK was contained in the section of Esther Williams "autobiography" (where Esther comes across as rather less than admirable in some respects, but that's another story...) where she discusses "Take Me Out To The Ball Game". Admittedly this shouldn't have been a vehicle for Williams, she was a swimmer and not a dancer and she at least has the honesty to admit it. But Kelly and his sideman Hermes Pan come off pretty much like jerks. Rather than shrug, be professional, and accept that the studio had given them a lump to work with and try and come up with some choreography that would work, they seem to have made Williams' life so miserable that twenty years later she was still steaming. The Kelly in her story is a preening, egotistical jackass. Clearly that's over the top; it's the angry memories of an actress still fuming over a dressing room feud. But still, it's another perspective on the man.

I've always enjoyed Gene's work more than Fred's, probably because I just don't have the feel for the ballroom basis of Astaire's style. Even in the Sixties he was the Thirties; you could almost see him looking for the white tie and tails. Kelly is more the modern, and his dancing has a "West Side Story" sort of muscularity to it that makes Fred seem slight by comparison. The singing voices match: Gene a little rough at the edges, Fred wispy and croony, a sort of Rudy Valle' in tap shoes.

One thing I've always thought curious is the idea that Ginger "gave him sex", that is, made their dancing believable as courtship and/or consummation. I've always thought that Ginger just seemed a little TOO sexy for Fred: you picture the "epilogue" of a Fred-and-Ginger picture with him staring, like Balboa gazing upon the Pacific from that peak in Darien, at Ginger emerging from her frou-frou nightie like a great pink battleship emerging from the sea-smoke, knowing that the broadside to come is going to sink him without a survivor.

camorrista said...

Campaspe, in late 1980, when I was on the Zoetrope lot, Coppola hired Kelly to set up a production crew for ONE FROM THE HEART. (Coppola also hoped the crew would become his Freed unit, an idea that perished with the failure of OFTH.)

And indeed, in many ways, the man did resemble his persona--knowing, sarcastic, sophisticated, cocky. (There's a brief, but neat portrait of him in Donne's THE STUDIO.) Understandably hidden in the movie persona is the indefatigible worker and the unrelenting taskmaster. What's fascinating is that Kelly so often played characters ready to take questionable short cuts--in FOR ME AND MY GAL, AMERICAN IN PARIS, IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER--yet in life, he was just the opposite.

In the American Masters documentary about him, there's a tear-bringing moment when Debbie Reynolds joyously describes how Kelly tyrannized her--18, fresh out of Texas, and no dancer--until, her feet bleeding, her thighs rubbery, she did what he wanted in SINGING IN THE RAIN--and how she has survived 50 years in show business because of it.

I seem unable to resist this thread, so before I wear out my welcome (if I haven't already) I will do a fast fade.

Thanks for the post--the musical film--especially the musical film with passionate, original, colloquial dancing--is one of the true glories of American movies, and I'm heartbroken that nobody makes them anymore.

Uncle Gustav said...

Is there no love for Gene in Xanadu? 68-years-old and gliding effortlesly on roller skates.

Or was I dreaming?

surly hack said...

I find it interesting to compare Astaire's "spellbinding" (I agree!) "One For My Baby" number to the TV version by Sinatra. I was familiar with Sinatra's musical take first, which is melancholy and brilliant, but it lacks the orgasmic, smashing climax of Astaire's in The Sky's the Limit.

Gotta dance!

FDChief said...

"Is there no love for Gene in Xanadu? 68-years-old and gliding effortlesly on roller skates."

And here I was trying to burn that image off my retinas forever...

Actually, this got me thinking of the difference between the later careers of the two. Much of the difference was simply timing: Astaire worked right through the heart of the "musical era", Kelly came in later and lasted past the function end of musicals as a major movie style. But I have to say that Astaire's later work, particularly Daddy Long Legs and Funny Face, well...frankly creep me out. He's still a great dancer and good actor, but they're in the worst Hollywood tradition of pairing a fresh young actress with a man old enough to be her...daddy long legs.


FDChief said...

I should say "some" of his later work - no real creepiness problems with Finian's Rainbow or Xanadu or whatever Love Boat episode he did.

Anybody else remember that he was - was it Starbuck's? - daddy in the old Battlestar Galactica?

OK, then.

Uncle Gustav said...

My eyebrow is still twittering from The Amazing Dobermans...

Karen said...

"I couldn't stop asking, "why did all the books say this one is bad?" (Which was my same reaction to The Pirate and Les Girls.)"

Really? The books don't like Les Girls?? I LOVE Les Girls. Do I care that the music isn't Porter's best? I do NOT. It is just a hilarious film, and everyone in it contributes to that happening: Kay Kendall drunk, Taina Elg panicking in Louis XIV drag, and Mitzi Gaynor throughout. Kelly is terrific in it (and, yes, I agree, I always thought that his character was probably the most like his real personality). It's big and bright and entertaining. It may not be "cinema" -- but does everything have to be?

I feel bad that I seem to have started a Kelly vs. Astaire discussion, when I wasn't really setting them up against the other, or saying one was better. Just that they're so very different that it's inevitable that we all prefer one over the other. I love Kelly's athleticism and--as fdchief put it, his muscularity--but I just swoon over Fred. But then, as I said, I love the 1930s. I also vastly prefer his singing and speaking voice to Kelly's. When I was a girl I had a book of fairy tales that included the Bremen Town Musicians, and they describe the wolf in that as disguising his voice by placing a piece of chalk in his throat. To me, Kelly's voice is what that must have sounded like.

But I own a bunch of his movies and enjoy them enormously.

I also agree with fdchief on the creepiness of some of Astaire's later movies, but I can't blame that on Fred: the tradition of pairing an aging male star with a dewy ingenue continues well through today. Audrey Hepburn did seem to get more than her share of these pairings, though: Sabrina, Funny Face, Love in the Afternoon, Charade, My Fair's a positive relief to see the two beautiful faces of Audrey with Peter O'Toole in How to Steal a Million. She deserved that by then!

The Siren said...

Karen, if you hadn't broached the topic it still would have happened. With this topic it's inevitable, they're the K2 and Everest of movie musicals. Most people have no trouble loving them both but deep, deep down most of us do have a preference one way or another, however slight. But I don't think it's quite like Tarantino's dictum that you're either a Beatles person or an Elvis person and that sums you up. Or maybe it is, and it's an even purer choice, since there really aren't competing giants. (Where does Tarantino put the Sinatra people? not to mention the Louis Armstrong people like me. But I digress.)

As I recall, Flickhead, James Wolcott does like Xanadu the movie, although his real praise was for the stage show. I haven't seen it and I have no real desire to rectify that. As far as I'm concerned, Kelly's swan song is when he comes vaulting into view in Les Demoiselles de Rochefort. Don't care what his filmography says, that was his last for the Siren. He just takes the movie into a whole different world, it's like Tom and Jerry showing up in Anchors Aweigh.

The Siren said...

FDchief, it's hilarious that you bring up Esther Williams because I thought about that, and didn't want to for the reason you mention -- clearly she was still way pissed off after decades had passed. She even got in a dig about Kelly being short. I like very, very few of her movies--mostly they bore me--but her memoirs were a hoot and so candid I was willing to forgive her all her character flaws. Lots of Hollywood stars are lousy mothers but few are as honest about why and how that happened as Williams was.

The older I get the less Astaire's older-man thing in the movies you mention bothers me. Make of that what you will. The first time I saw Funny Face, though, I was seriously skeeved.

Surly, Sinatra does not do my 2nd favorite version of One for My Baby. That spot goes to the great, great Etta James.

The Siren said...

Camorrista, this is clearly a subject you love and I'm loving your comments so keep going as long as you want. The whole thread is making me realize how I've hungered to write more about musicals and I'm wondering what took me so damn long.

btw Karen, YES on Les Girls, it's hilarious, but it got a major diss in Patrick McGilligan's Cukor bio, to name just one. Phooey. "Tea cozy, tea cozy, who's got my tea cozy?" And Gene snarling "PULL" until a stagehand takes him up on the offer--brilliant.

camorrista said...

Campaspe, given the number of pained allusions to the topic, you might want to consider doing a piece on the matter of older leading men and younger leading ladies.

Like you, as far as musicals go, I get less bothered by it as I get older (is this typical, to you think?); and in the case of Astaire, I always found him so asexual that even in his earliest movies, it never occurred to me that he and the girl would actually do anything once they stopped dancing.

On the other hand, when the leads don't dance, say, Cooper and Hepburn in LOVE IN THE AFTERNOON, or Gable and Day in TEACHER'S PET, or, more recently, DeNiro and Brenneman in HEAT, well that certainly can leave some squalid images in your head. (Though this doesn't seem to apply to Cary Grant born 1904: TO CATCH A THIEF,
Grace Kelly, born 1929; CHARADE, Audrey Hepburn, born 1929; FATHER GOOSE, Leslie Caron, born 1932; or HOUSEBOAT, Sophia Loren, born 1934.)

Eddie Selover said...

Siren: As always your great taste amazes me... I think It's Always Fair Weather is the best Kelly musical by far... one of the few I really want to watch. I suppose its reputation has been hampered by its gawdawful title, which was probably slapped on by the studio in a hasty panic after the previews (it's almost the exact opposite of the movie's point). The poster, with the cast members popping like daisies out of a sunny yellow background, takes the same tack to ludicrous extremes -- too bad it defaces the DVD cover.

I appreciated fdchief's comment about Ginger Rogers being too sexy for Fred... certainly by the time of Roxie Hart, a couple of years after their split, she had acquired such physical authority that you feel she could blow him right off the screen. Among many other wonderful things she does while dancing, I especially love her "so there" expression as she matches him on a particularly difficult step.

There has always been a snotty subset among Astaire lovers who thought Ginger wasn't good enough for him, and Kelly was one of them -- saying and doing many nasty things to her over the years. Politics aside, I suspect she offended him when she went backstage at Pal Joey and gushed over chorus boy Van Johnson... anyway, he was a pig to her and that shows you what a louse he was.

That, and his snit on the set of The Pirate because the Nicholas Brothers were outdancing him. As indeed they were.

FDChief said...

"...certainly by the time of Roxie Hart, a couple of years after their split, she had acquired such physical authority that you feel she could blow him right off the screen."

I would only opine that while the later Rogers did fill out nicely, her physicality was as much attitude as pulchritude. Go back and look at her earlier work, cornball stuff like "Rafter Romance" in '33 or "42nd Street". It's the cocky, tough little showgoil attitude that makes her such an earthy hoyden. You get the feeling she's saying "You can't and I wouldn't let you but if you could and I would you'd be in for the ride of your life..."

She and Fred are a terrific dance team but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she conciously worked to soften her edge and let Fred "lead", if you will. Camorrista has a good point: with Kelly, you're left thinking that all this sweaty dancing is going to lead to something else sweaty. You never see Astaire sweat and you suspect that he probably doesn't...sweat. Anywhere. Ginger had to do some pretty good acting to make him into a plausible "romantic" lead in that sense, although he is "charming" in a Thirties way.

And I, too, have noticed the seeming imperviousness of Cary Grant to the creepy-older-male-lead effect. Is it because he always seems to be playing the role just a teeny bit for laughs?


wwolfe said...

Speaking of age differences, it's funny no one ever mentions Bogie and Bacall. I believe he was 45 and she was 19 when they met while filming "To Have and Have Not." The numbers seem skeevy, but I've never felt that way watching the movie. Maybe because it's hard to believe Bacall is 19 while watching the movie.

The Siren said...

I feel as though I have to defend Astaire's sex appeal here, since I may be the only person in this thread who sees it! no, he doesn't seem like the kind to sweat it out with Ginger, but lack of animal magnetism doesn't equal lack of sex, at least to my mind. His appeal is more along the lines of a William Powell -- wit, elegance, you can take him anywhere and he knows how to treat a lady.

As for Cary being more believable in the older-man role--I'm afraid I think that's as simple as good skincare and good genes. By their fifties Coop was jowly and Astaire was getting a bit liver-spotty, whereas Grant was just tanned and ever-so-slightly crinkled and silvered.

Bacall seemed ancient at 19, that was very much part of her on-screen appeal. The beauty of a young girl but the eyes and manner of a woman of the world.

Dume3 said...

"Campaspe, it's important to never forget that until recently most movie critics (and scholars) were men, and pretty often, they were men a bit abashed at being movie critics (or scholars). Not a job for chest-thumpers, as it were."

Then why not suggest the movie musical and women's picture vanished (which they did) just as women were making headway in the movie industry? You're making a false correlation.

Dume3 said...

How's this for a musical:

Apologies in advance.

Gloria said...

The first time I saw "It's always fair weather" (which was a long time ago, when I was in school) I was awed: it made me feel so incredibly chipper! My father also loved it, particularly the trash-can cover tap-dancing... march, march, march.

I loved (and love) that film.

Later, I learned that this film, as well as another truly fantabulous film which I love ("The Pirate") weren't precisely box-office hits at the time they were released, and the contemporary reviews weren't too good, either: those films were too good for their public, darnit!

Gloria said...

P.S.: I also think Fred is sexy... well, maybe not as sexy as our boy Charlie, but Astaire really had really the moves!

And a guy who looks so swell in white tie and tails is something to be reckoned with! ;D

Karen said...

Thanks for defending Fred, Siren! I've always disliked that line "She gave him sex and he gave her class" since I think she came across as very dignified in most of their films and I thought his sensuality was apparent in every move of his tiniest pinky finger. I've also never liked the "She did everything he did backwards and in heels" line, since they did as much dancing side by side (if not more) than back-to-front, and the man is always helping to move the woman in the latter.

In a nutshell, I thought they were perfect together and as beautiful in those films as they ever were in anything else.

Good call on comparing Fred to William Powell, another actor who would likely not make leading man status today--along with Herbert Marshall and probably many others. That elegance, wit, sophistication, worldliness--which Astaire had even when he was playing ne'er-do-wells--that's sure sexy to ME.

I meant to say in an earlier post, where I was talking about preferring Astaire's singing style, that I watched a TCM special specifically on Astaire as singer, which included numerous quotes from the great American song composers, all testifying to how much they enjoyed having him sing their songs, because his phrasing and enunciation were so perfect you could catch every word effortlessly.

Sigh. Fred.

camorrista said...

"Then why not suggest the movie musical and women's picture vanished (which they did) just as women were making headway in the movie industry? You're making a false correlation."

Why would I suggest anything so nonsensical? The Siren noted that many critics dismissed certain musicals, and I noted that this was not uncommon when most of the critics were men. In critics' circles, the assumption for many years was that men who praised musicals (or weepies) were not quite manly. (This notion isn't as virulent as it once was, but it certainly hasn't disappeared--compare the reviews of, say, UNFORGIVEN with MYSTIC RIVER--never mind the reviews of MILLION-DOLLAR BABY and BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.)

As to the serious rise of women in the movie industry, I've spent nearly 30 years in the business, and I can testify that that rise occurred long after musicals vanished and women's pictures migrated to TV (they never vanished and they never will).

As I said, I didn't get your point, but my fear is that you didn't want me to--my fear is that you simply wanted to demonstrate how very smart you are. QED.

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks, Siren, for this too-brief but wonderful post, and to everyone for amplifying it.

(Before I continue I have to shake my head and get the Les Girls references out from before my eyes. Ages ago, my friend Will Jacobs and I were conceiving a humor book about an as-yet-unnamed reluctant adventurer and while procrastinating in a video store saw that Kelly movie on the shelf. For some reason now utterly forgotten we thought that "Les Girls," as in "Lester," would be a hilarious name for a character, and so we named him. The project went on to become a comic book called The Trouble with Girls, another movie reference but not such a weird one.)

It's always hard for me to compare Kelly and Astaire, because to my mind Gene Kelly was an extraordinarily talented man, but he was just that: a man. Astaire was something more than human, or so he appears on screen. Terpsichore in a male avatar, perhaps (her inexperience creating male bodies accounting for that cartoony face and strangely large hands), or a boddhisatva leading our minds to a cinematic nirvana.

In other words, I heart Fred. A lot.

And good God! Astaire isn't sexy?! I can only think that our culture has debased all our sexual senses even more horribly than I'd imagined. I could write a whole essay on Fred's sly and subtle but intoxicating sexiness, if I weren't afraid that people would think I was a sissy.

To me, Kelly's sweatiness is less suggestive of sex than of his frantic desire to show us how athletic he is and keep himself at the center of attention. There's a neediness and self-aggrandizement to Kelly, acting as well as dancing, that Astaire didn't need.

As for Ginger's physical presence that would have blown Fred off the screen...hmm. She did have a presence, but it could get pretty dang crude and excessive. She was so often so obviously Acting. As in, "Hey! Look at me Acting! See? I'm not just a dancing girl! I'm an Actress! An Actress who knows how to Act! Watch! Did you see me Acting? Did you?"

She could still be awfully charming, mind you. But she needed a well-crafted Ginger Rogers Vehicle to be bearable. That tendency was most on display after she stopped performing with Fred, but it was apparent in Carefree (supported by a script and direction that were pulling it away from a Fred & Ginger Movie to the aformentioned G. R. Vehicle) and to me it throws most of their shared scenes off balance. It's not that she's blowing him off screen, though; he's still trying to do something subtle and exquisite and she's working the crowd hard. Helping create that broad '40s style in which Kelly would also thrive.

A few years earlier, in Top Hat and Swing Time, I thought Rogers was ideal for Astaire. Not recessive, but lighter. More delicate. Willing to function as the reflective half of a team, less certain that she should be at the center. (But of course I'm biased toward whatever shows Fred off best.)

Eddie Selover said...

Gerard, have to say I agree about Kelly's "frantic desire to show us how athletic he is." His "sexy" moments on screen (for example, wiggling his hips and jutting out his ass in "Slaughter on 10th Avenue") make me recoil. And he almost always overacts his dancing, throwing out his arms and grinning while the camera zooms in, till you seriously want to smash out those teeth.

But as for Ginger, I couldn't agree less. She was capable of bad acting, usually when she was trying to be adorable, but I can't think of much overacting. In the Astaire series, she quietly improves from film to film despite the on-set hostility of the director Mark Sandrich and the self-absorption and condescension of her co-star.

I don't much like Carefree, but the interesting thing about it is the altered chemistry: after Astaire had a major, damaging flop and she had a couple of hits, she returned to the series and was finally being paid as much as he was (on Top Hat, she made less that Edward Everett Horton). And you can see them both feeling it.

In Carefree, Astaire isn't trying to do something subtle and exquisite... he's eating crow.

Dume3 said...

"The Siren noted that many critics dismissed certain musicals, and I noted that this was not uncommon when most of the critics were men."

Most critics are still men, and the same goes for directors, producers and studio executives.

"In critics' circles, the assumption for many years was that men who praised musicals (or weepies) were not quite manly."

But you forget that every single one of these golden age movies was directed, produced, and written by men. You blame men, who were responsible for their creation, for their undervalued state.

"This notion isn't as virulent as it once was, but it certainly hasn't disappeared--compare the reviews of, say, UNFORGIVEN with MYSTIC RIVER--never mind the reviews of MILLION-DOLLAR BABY and BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY."

And the only way you can explain this is thorugh gender bias?

"As to the serious rise of women in the movie industry, I've spent nearly 30 years in the business, and I can testify that that rise occurred long after musicals vanished and women's pictures migrated to TV (they never vanished and they never will)."

To what "serious rise" are to referring? Today, 95% of directors are male, and the few women usually restrict themselves to chick flicks.

"As I said, I didn't get your point, but my fear is that you didn't want me to--my fear is that you simply wanted to demonstrate how very smart you are. QED."

I assure you I had no intention to put you in the slough of unintelligible learning with my two sentences. From here on the there will be no sentence, but shall be comprehensible to all.

FDChief said...

Let me say that I'll be the first to admit that Ginger could be both a) crude and b) hammy. Supposedly Fred and his buddy Hermes usually tried to get into her dressing room or intercept her before a shoot to ensure that she hadn't added another bucketful of sequins or bird's-ass-ful of feathers to her costumes. Her sex appeal is less sophisticated than many of her contemporaries such as Carole Lombard.

That said, with Fred, I have to distinguish between "sexy" and "charming". Fred has charming out the top hat. He's graceful, attentive, lighter-than-air; you get the feeling that he would never put a girl in a bad situation willingly. Kelly, in particular - and I agree with the mugging; the worst part of his dancing is when he suddenly acts like someone lit his pants on fire, grinning and windmilling and hoofing like a maniac - comes off as just a little bit of a heel.

I find it interesting that both campaspe and Karen bring in William Powell, another actor with boatloads of Thirties charm. I would add, though, that the characters Powell played, from Nick Charles to our man Godfrey, always had more than a hint of toughness under the charm. The charm was a habit, a veneer, that would get peeled back every so often to reveal the steel underneath. Fred has all the charm but only a tiny hint of the steel - 95% Don Diego, only 5% Zorro...

VP81955 said...

What a marvelous thread of responses this is!

FDChief said...
Let me say that I'll be the first to admit that Ginger could be both a) crude and b) hammy. Supposedly Fred and his buddy Hermes usually tried to get into her dressing room or intercept her before a shoot to ensure that she hadn't added another bucketful of sequins or bird's-ass-ful of feathers to her costumes. Her sex appeal is less sophisticated than many of her contemporaries such as Carole Lombard.

Funny you mention Lombard, because I recall reading somewhere that Carole was among the actresses RKO considered for the role in "A Damsel In Distress" that ultimately went to Joan Fontaine. Keep in mind that Lombard had made two dance-oriented films with George Raft, "Bolero" and "Rumba. Moreover, she had a dance background dating back to her Charleston contests against Joan Crawford at the Coconut Grove in the 1920s -- and like Rogers, she was athletic and a fine tennis player.

Physically, Lombard probably could have kept up with Astaire...but would their personalities have been a good match on screen? Carole could at times overpower a male lead -- which was good if he was a complementary sort such as Fred MacMurray -- but she could also hold herself in check (unlike, say, Betty Hutton, who reprised Lombard's "True Confession" role in the 1946 "Cross My Heart").

At the least, an Astaire-Lombard pairing would have made a fascinating "what if."

Gerard Jones said...

Edward, thanks very much for your perspective on Carefree. I was conscious of it being the first Astaire-Rogers movie constructed to favor Ginger, but it hadn't occurred to me what a huge shift in status had occurred between them. Suddenly Ginger was the queen of RKO and Fred was a questionable investment.

Perhaps that's why the chemistry that they'd once displayed seemed to vanish by that movie. Fred was no longer the man in control (and he did love to be in control, as all the stories about him attest) and Ginger was no longer the kid having to curry favor. That adds a certain perverse irony to the plot conceit of Fred hypnotizing her. How else could he exert power over her any longer?

And I do admit I was a bit harsh on Ginger. I find her very charming, over all. But I recently watched Kitty Foyle and Roxie Hart in quick succession and found myself getting annoyed. Then I remembered Tom, Dick and Harry and the Bernhard bit in Barkleys of Broadway, and I began to wonder what I'd ever seen in her. But every long relationship has such moments, doesn't it?

Eddie Selover said...

Nice post, Gerard. As a huge fan of Ginger I'm not blind to her faults, or the fact that she made some stinkers. What irritates me is that so much film writing is rife with nasty comments about her looks, weight, sophistication, acting, dancing, singing, etc. etc., while Astaire is generally beyond criticism. The fact is that he was a skinny, funny-looking guy and he might have spent his film career as a specialty act like Ray Bolger if not for Ginger.

Recently on TCM I watched Eleanor Powell and Jessie Matthews, two of her contemporaries, flouncing around like a horse and a hobbit, respectively. They belong in a museum, whereas Ginger is still jumping off the screen.

Dume3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dume3 said...

"Recently on TCM I watched Eleanor Powell and Jessie Matthews, two of her contemporaries, flouncing around like a horse and a hobbit, respectively. They belong in a museum, whereas Ginger is still jumping off the screen."

Powell is much better technical dancer than Rogers. How can you say this belongs in a museum?

The Siren said...

I love Ginger dearly and when Emma of All About My Movies did a "Performance that changed my life" Blogathon last year I picked Ginger (in 42nd Street) without hesitation. For me she was at her best in the 1930s as a rising star, sylph-slender and just hard-edged enough, with a wit like a firecracker. I don't think she needed to be given class, but then again I don't think Astaire needed to be given sex appeal, either. Sex appeal is about more than animal magnetism, and that's why Ginger is sexy too.

Nobody asked, but my favorite Ginger performance is Stage Door, followed by Bachelor Mother. I also love Star of Midnight and Fifth Avenue Girl, both of which few people have seen (Karen, how 'bout it? Goatdog, Edward, FDChief, anyone?). She did a whole run of 1930s comedies without Fred that deserve to be better known.

"Carefree" is rather glum compared to other A-R pairings (even compared to Vernon & Irene Castle, where Fred actually dies) but "Change Partners" is a gorgeous song and a lovely dance.

Karen said...

Oh, Siren, my soulmate. I ADORE Fifth Avenue Girl--seen it twice, actually--and I've seen Star of Midnight, too (please! 1930s Ginger AND William Powell? Like I'd miss that!). I'm actually a huge fan of Ginger in her solo work from the 1930s and the early '40s. My favorite starring role of hers is probably The Major and the Minor but that might be because of my passion for the movie overall and not her performance per se. But I love her sharp-edged, wisecracking self--in the wackadoo Finishing School, as the loony countess in Roberta, as the highly self-sufficient showgirl in Upperworld--and her performance in Gold Diggers of 1933 is like a distillation of all those characters. "It's the Depression, dearie." Oh, how I love that line.

The thing is that those characters may not have had "class," but they didn't really need it, because they all had such integrity. They knew exactly who they were and what they had to do to succeed in the world, and they never compromised themselves in the process.

So, I cling to my original premise, with which I'm pleased to see you agree, that she didn't need class and Astaire didn't need sex. And I don't think loving Ginger means one has to denigrate Fred. While there's no doubt that Ginger and Fred together were a recipe for success, I find it hard to believe that a solo Astaire would have ended up like Ray Bolger (sorry, Edward!); Bolger was a talented dancer but no one has ever captured or surpassed Astaire's ineffable grace. No, he wasn't conventionally attractive, but you really don't have to be when you can move the way he did. Just the way he floats down into the chair at the end of the "sandman" dance in Top Hat gives me the shivers.

The Siren said...

Right now I am trying to imitate that wonderful expression Ginger's showgirls alway wore when taxing their brains, as I attempt to recall: have I see Finishing School? I think not.

I did see Rafter Romance a while back and she was cute as a button in that too. It had that early-Depression grit despite being a comedy.

If I recall correctly my favorite Ginger line is in Golddiggers of 1933: "I'd cry, but I haven't got a handkerchief."

Karen said...

Oh, man, you have GOT to get yourself to Finishing School! It is INSANE. The leading lady is actually Frances Dee; Ginger Rogers is her roommate, the horse-crazed "Pony." Dee falls in love with poor-but-honest Bruce Cabot, who is putting himself through medical school by working as a room-service waiter. It's all about class war and unpunished pre-marital sex; delicious! Most memorable scene: the girls, in Isadora Duncan-esque drag, being exhorted by their gym teacher, "One, two, three, four, attitudinize! Grace is power, attitudinize!"

You will FALL ABOUT.

Eddie Selover said...

Ah, you see I knew I could get you talking about Ginger.

Actually my favorite line of hers is at the end of The Barkleys of Broadway, when after some snappy Comden and Green repartee Fred says accusingly "You tortured me!" and she responds "just a little torture" with a mock-shamefaced frown and a halfhearted squeeze of her thumb and forefinger. Her most glorious moments on screen often involve her hands: throwing them back as she twirls, brushing something off her skirt, snapping her fingers. Or her legs: bicycling them in the air in Roxie Hart as the cops close in (oh, man), or suddenly pulling her sequinned skirt away to reveal them in Lady in the Dark (oh man, man, man). She could have made a whole career on those legs alone (like Betty Grable) but she had too much integrity and ambition, and I love her for that too.

As for Astaire, I suppose I was too rough with the Ray Bolger comment. He was of course a great artist. His chemistry with Ginger is a neverending source of mysterious joy, like that of Powell and Loy or Flynn and deHavilland, and I suppose people will be discussing and dissecting it more or less forever.

Karen said...

Dume3, I will absolutely grant you that Eleanor Powell was a better dancer technically than Ginger Rogers, but I confess I've never been able to work up much warmth for her. Between her (usually) spectacularly unflattering dance constumes and that fixed and unwavering smile of hers...I don't know. She certainly had none of Ginger's sensuality or sexuality; she could just as well be a mechanical doll brought to life.

But that's just me. I don't begrudge anyone else his or her preferences!

Exiled in NJ said...

Ginger? Fred? Gene? Cyd? Eleanor(?!) all goes back to that magic moment in Rio.

As I worked in my office this March and April, DVDs would play in the next room, musicals. I cannot see the screen from my office chair, but everytime it came on, I became addicted to hearing Carioca, and getting up to stand in the doorway and watch Fred & Ginger, hands on thighs, forehead to forehead, change film forever. I reached the point where I resented each time the camera would cut away to show the onlookers. The whole was truly greater than the sum of the parts with them.

The other scene that would drag me away from the desk was their exit from Divorcee, their movements duplicating the cut out dolls that spun on the Victrola to fool Tonetti, as they spun over the couch, table, chairs until the quiet coda.

Dume3 said...

"Dume3, I will absolutely grant you that Eleanor Powell was a better dancer technically than Ginger Rogers, but I confess I've never been able to work up much warmth for her. Between her (usually) spectacularly unflattering dance constumes and that fixed and unwavering smile of hers...I don't know. She certainly had none of Ginger's sensuality or sexuality; she could just as well be a mechanical doll brought to life."

Sure. It's one thing to claim Ginger was more appealing but another to claim she was a better dancer.

Gerard Jones said...

Fearing that I may have come off as anti-Ginger before, I want to be sure to share in the celebration of her '30s work. My heart leaps whenever she comes on screen in her early days, especially when she was allowed to run wild with mimicry and shtick. Her "Anytime Annie" in Gold Diggers is one of the great Warners supporting comedy turns--that monocle! That expression! And much of the joy of the first several Fred & Gingers were her pure comedy bits. I can't think of another romantic interest/female dancer who was allowed to be so funny. (Maybe because no one else could do it as well as Virginia.)

Someone once said (can anyone remind me who?) that Ginger stands out among all Fred's partners because she didn't forget to act while she was dancing. In all their duets Rogers moves with Fred and looks at Fred as that character in that situation should. Movie dance routines always run the danger of pulling themselves out of the drama, almost saying "We'll be right back after this message from our choreographer." I never feel that in the Astaire-Rogers movies, and that isn't just a function of script and narrative. "Never Gonna Dance" in Swing Time is the dramatic pinnacle of the movie--I love it when it watch it as a clip, but it breaks my heart in context--largely because of the actors.

And that, if you ask me, is when sex is sexiest: when both parties are entirely themselves and entirely conscious of who they are with. Not an animal but a supremely human connection. Which is why I find Astaire the sexiest of male dancers, at least when he’s with a partner. He knows who he’s sharing every move with. He seems as though he’d look her in the eyes. (Gene Kelly would be looking in a mirror.) And it’s why I find Ginger the sexiest of his, or anyone else’s, partners. She lets us feel that she is entirely, deeply, unguardedly with him.

Oh, and I do like her a lot in Having Wonderful Time, Bachelor Mother and 5th Avenue Girl. But something happens during them too, in the process of her becoming a star and an icon. RKO seemed to want to make her some sort of embodiment of plucky, pink-collar young womanhood. She had to make too many indignant speeches, had to stand with feet apart and eyes flashing too often, didn’t get to be silly enough. It was around the same time that they redrew her mouth and eyebrows to downplay her chipmunk cheeks and dimples. A hardness that I don’t think was right for her.

Karen said...

That's a lovely comment, gerard jones, and I think captures Ginger Rogers beautifully. What a great line: she didn't forget to act while she danced! So true!

And honestly? The "Never Gonna Dance" number is my absolutely no-question favorite of all their pairings. It makes me cry every time. A perfect combination of melody, lyrics, choreography and context.

VP81955 said...

Someone compared Astaire to William Powell -- wonderful analogy. But would that make Gene Kelly dancing's Cary Grant? Both were more down-to-earth than the urbane Astaire or Powell, and both had a roguish, raffish streak about them.

Regarding '30s Ginger Rogers, check out "Professional Sweetheart" from 1933, where she plays a radio singer hemmed into a "pure" lifestyle by the company sponsoring her show. (Ironically, she is dubbed here for what may be the only time in her career, by black singer Etta Moten; while Rogers sang relatively little in the Astaire films -- understandable, given Fred's longtime ties to many of those composers -- Ginger was a fine singer in her own right, and introduced "Embraceable You" on Broadway in 1930.)

I wrote an entry on "Professional Sweetheart" at

Sweet Sue said...

Gene Kelly still making men jealous after all these years.
Fred Astaire is great, too, but has the sex appeal of a praying mantis.
Some people are always quoting the colleagues that didn't like Kelly but what about the ones who adored him: Judy Garland, Mitzi Gaynor, Taina Elg, Kay Kendall, Janet Leigh, Frank Sinatra, Arthur Freed, Leslie Caron, Vera Ellen, Carol Haney, Saul Chaplin, George Sidney-I could go on and on. Not to mention Jeanne Coyne who was in love with Kelly for decades before they became a couple and got married.