Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Summer Under the Stars: Fred Astaire

On August 5th, TCM will celebrate one of the greatest--if not THE greatest--dancers to ever grace the silver screen: Fred Astaire. While the plots of his films are sometimes criticized for their (delightful) fluff, one aspect that cannot be disputed is the dance. Ever the perfectionist, Astaire's technique is flawless. His choreography, often created in collaboration with Hermes Pan, is inventive, utilizing the new medium of film to take dance to a level not possible on stage. As a dance partner, he is generous, allowing his female counterpart to shine, but he also ensures a solo in the film to showcase his own skills. 

And that quibble about plot? Sure, the overall material is light, but the songs and dances are not randomly placed entertainment to be burst into at any time. They further the plot and the relationship between the characters--a revolutionary idea when Astaire first arrived on the scene in the early 1930s. Watch how Astaire enters a dance. He walks into it, allowing the music to gradually pull him to the steps as in "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" (Roberta). Or his dialogue gradually shifts into song as he begins to talk-sing the lyrics as in "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (Shall We Dance). The dance becomes an extension of the story's action and dialogue. It reveals the characters' personalities or conflicts they are experiencing. By the end of the number, for better or worse his relationship with his dance partner has evolved. 

Without further ado... 

Whether you've seen his films hundreds of times or can't get past the plot and need to fast-forward (for shame!) to the good stuff, here is a list of dances that you should view to understand the greatness of Fred Astaire. For the sake of keeping this post a manageable length, I will highlight one number from each movie that will be shown on August 5th, but honestly I could have included two or three per film. This was difficult!

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1) Flying Down to Rio (1933) ~ 6 am ET/ 3 am PT


Why you should see it: The number captures the state of dance in the early '30s (Busby Berkeley-ish inner circle, focus on geometrical patterns) and hints to where dance was going (the outer circle, focus on "real" dancing). The choreography was the brainchild of a then unknown Hermes Pan. Credit is due to Astaire who recognized Pan's talent and paved the way for the young choreographer in the business. This is also the number that started the whole Astaire-Rogers craze.
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2) The Gay Divorcee (1934) ~ 7:30 am ET/ 4:30 am PT


Why you should see it: Astaire and Rogers kick it up a notch when they whirl up and down a tiny table and chairs. It's an amazing feat of balance, rhythm, momentum, and grace. The space is small and a single misstep could cause them to tumble to the ground. Astaire originally performed THE TABLE DANCE with Claire Luce in The Gay Divorce, the play on which the film is loosely based. According to Astaire, this "swell trick" did in fact result in "many a fall rehearsing [...] and occasionally [Luce and Astaire] fell during the show, too" (176). Thank goodness the "trick" was preserved in this film, so we can enjoy a piece of old Broadway.
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3) Roberta (1935) ~ 9:30 am ET/ 6:30 am PT


Why you should see it: This is the first romantic number Astaire choreographed for himself and Rogers. It is relatively simple compared to the 18-step staircases and skates to come, yet there is an intimate quality to the dance--more is professed in step than any spoken love scene. The couple enter arm in arm, heads together. Only the tune can break their hold. At one point Astaire reaches for Rogers but resists his urge to touch her, bringing his hand towards is heart instead--a sense of his character's unfulfilled desire. As they dance they are one with the music, movements reaching crescendo as the song does. The music softens, and Rogers puts her head on Astaire's shoulder. In response, he gently places his hand over her head. A tender exchange has occurred without dialogue, but in case anyone needs to hear the words, the next scene solidifies it: he has proposed and she has accepted. 
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4) Top Hat (1935) ~ 11 am ET/ 8 am PT


Astaire versus Rogers' feathered dress

Why you should see it: Astaire demonstrates how to handle on-the-job complications with dignity. Per the star of the day:
The dancing dresses of my partners have, for years, been a working problem, and in Top Hat I dare say it reached its dizzy peak. (207)
When Rogers began to dance, feathers flew everywhere--over the floor, on Astaire's clothes, and in his face. Astaire was NOT happy, but maintained composure and danced on. Neither Astaire's frustration nor the flying feathers could be perceived on film, so all ended well. Later (off screen), Astaire lightened the mood by singing a new version of "Cheek to Cheek" to his dance partner:

Feathers--I hate feathers--
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak,
And I never find the happiness I seek
With those chicken feathers dancing
Cheek to Cheek. (210)

In her autobiography, Rogers recalls that Astaire also gave her a feather bracelet charm as a peace offering. What a gentleman!
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5) Follow the Fleet (1936) ~ 1 pm ET/ 10 am PT


Source - Doctor Macro

Why you should see it: Astaire and Rogers play working-class folk and their dancing reflects it. The movements in this number are more down-to-earth jazzy than sophisticated ballroom. Instead of standing erect, shoulders back, arms outstretched, Astaire and Rogers let loose. They throw their bodies around, clap their hands, jump heels-first into steps, and Astaire even tosses Rogers onto his hip. They are approachable, the guy and gal who might live next door. The couples they "compete" with are actual dance contest winners, which further give Astaire and Rogers an accessibility not felt in prior films.

Another number to check out - Astaire's battle with Rogers' beaded sleeve in LET'S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE. Those who don't know the story: Rogers' heavy sleeve whacked Astaire in the face, leaving him "knocked groggy" (his words). Despite retakes, the first--with the sleeve slap--was the best and is the one we see in the film today. Bonus: the beautiful art deco set and the story that unfolds within the dance, which is part of a play in the film
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6) Swing Time (1936) ~ 3 pm ET/ 12 pm PT


Why you should see it: Astaire emotes his character's anguish through dance. It's near the end of the movie and the outlook is dreary. Astaire has lost his girl. As he walks beside her, his body language pleads for her to dance. She consents (this is an Astaire-Rogers movie after all!). The music and movements recall earlier parts of the film, and Astaire and Rogers expertly move through the changing tempos. The result is a dance that summarizes what has occurred between the characters. It is his final attempt to win her back through shared memory, but it does not work. In a final turn, she briskly walks away, leaving him to himself. Shoulders slumped, he is alone and dejected. 

Astaire and Rogers' flight up the 18-step staircase is another reason this number is impressive. They didn't merely ascend face-forward--they spin too! Legend has it that the duo danced up the steps 40+ times. This may be an exaggeration. They reshot 48 times; however the bulk of the retakes were after Astaire and Rogers already reached the top of the staircase. According to Pan, the last sixteen bars is where they ran into difficulties (Franceschina 78), and Rogers' account supports this when she states they "danced and danced and danced" on the second floor (194). In her book about Astaire and Rogers, Arlene Croce explains the camera angle moves to a stationary shot at the top of the stairs, ending the continuous take--which is how Astaire preferred to have his dances filmed--because the dance's "climax, a spine-chilling series of turns by Rogers, took forty takes to accomplish" (113).

If you look closely, you can see the cut towards the end of the dance, where Pan and Croce indicate the team began retake after retake.

Left: continuous crane shot  - Right: second floor stationary shot
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7) Carefree (1938) ~ 4:45 pm ET/ 1:45 pm PT


Why you should see it: People who are in the know about golf say this Astaire solo is impressive. He makes swinging a golf club and hitting the ball look effortless though it is much more difficult than non-golfers might think. How did he make it look so easy? Lots of practice on the golf course, of course!
I had about three hundred golf balls and five men shagging them, a piano and Hal Borne to play for me, and several buckets of iced beer. (235)
No wonder the dancer stated this was one of his favorite solos. 

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8) The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) ~ 6:15 pm/ 3:15 pm


Source - Doctor Macro

Why you should see it: Astaire and Rogers capture the signature dancing style of Vernon and Irene Castle on film. Compared to clips of the Castles, Rogers' front-facing kicks are higher and Astaire's footwork appears fancier, though the later is probably due to better film technology which adds clarity to the picture. Under Irene Castle's supervising eye (she served as technical advisor on the film), it would have been difficult to deviate from the original steps. Truth be told, it's nice to have an authentic recreation of the Castles' historically significant numbers.
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9) Shall We Dance (1937) ~ 8 pm ET/ 5 pm PT


Why you should see it: Always up for a challenge, Astaire joins Rogers on skates in a number that will leave you nostalgic for the roller rink. How many takes until they got it just right? 150 per studio records (Franceschina 88).
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10) You Were Never Lovelier (1942) ~ 10:15 pm ET/ 7:15 pm PT


Source - WikiCommons

Why you should see it: Astaire swings! Well, sort of... Life magazine describes it as "[c]oupling ballet with jitterbug" (66), but that's close enough in my book. He gets down, shows his fancy footwork, then swings with Rita Hayworth to Xavier Cugat's band. Astaire and Hayworth respected each other's talents and enjoyed working together. It shows. The joy in this number is so infectious you might find yourself tapping along with Hayworth from the sidelines. She is soon on her feet, though, proving to be Astaire's equal on the dance floor. 
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11) The Band Wagon (1953) ~ 12 am ET/ 9 pm PT


Why you should see it: Astaire leaves the tricks at home and performs an elegant dance with Cyd Charisse. Their movements mirror the music, arms hitting accent notes with long, beautiful lines and bodies rising as the notes get higher. Astaire dances in character. At the beginning of the number he watches his partner's feet, clearly pondering the question she asked  two scenes earlier, "Can you and I really dance together?" Astaire does not turn off Astaire the actor to become Astaire the dancer. Astaire is dancer and actor at all times.
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12) Silk Stockings (1957)  ~ 2 am ET/ 11 pm PT

The Dance: ALL OF YOU

Why you should see it: The number contains elements of Astaire's previous dances, making it a fitting final salute to his dancing career in studio system movie musicals.* Reminiscent of the hat rack in Royal Wedding, he briefly dances with a chair. Like many of the routines from his and Rogers' films, the characters' conflicts are illustrated through dance. This time Astaire's Steve beseeches Charisse's Ninotchka to enjoy the capitalistic ways of dance and romance. He pulls her into the dance, she dances a little but tries to resist, and he persistently pulls her back again--similar to "Night and Day" in The Gay Divorcee and "Never Gonna Dance" in Swing Time. As Steve watches Ninotchka fall under the spell of dance, there are hints of Astaire's psychiatrist and Rogers' hypnotized Amanda from "Change Partners" in Carefree. This number is also evidence of Astaire's growth as a dancer. In Carefree, Pan had to coax Astaire into throwing Rogers over his legs during "The Yam" because Astaire did not believe he was built to lift. In both "All of You" and its reprise, Astaire performs several lifts with Charisse.

*He appeared in one last musical, Finian's Rainbow in 1968, but Silk Stockings was his final studio system era musical.
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13) Royal Wedding (1951) ~ 4 am ET/ 1 am PT


Source - Doctor Macro

Why you should see it: You haven't lived until you've seen Astaire dancing on the ceiling! How was it done? Look away now if you don't want to dispel the magic or are determined to figure out the secret on your own. The room was built within a rotating barrel, the furniture was secured to the walls, and the cameraman was attached to a platform that rotated with the room. Meanwhile Astaire danced as the room revolved around him. Bravo to all involved!

Other numbers of note - In "Sunday Jumps" Astaire does an impressive number with a hat rack. "Open Your Eyes" is pulled from Astaire's real-life experience with his sister Adele when they performed on an ocean liner during a storm. We may not have Adele's dancing captured on film, but at least we have this memory.
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This post is part of the 2015 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Visit her blog daily to read new posts on each star of the day.


"Astaire Dances with Hayworth." Life 9 Nov 1942: 64-70. Web. 1 Aug 2015.

Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time. 1959. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book. 1972. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1987. Print.

Franceschina, John. Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Holmes, Alex. "Impact: Fred Astaire, dancer/golf trick shot artist." Golf Digest. 16 April 2014. Web. 1 Aug 2015.

Miller, Frank. "Royal Wedding (1951)." TCM. N.d. Web. 29 July 2015.

Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. 1991. New York: Harper Collins, 2008. Print.

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