That Old Feeling: A Stellar Astaire

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Fred Astaire

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The titles of their RKO movies changed — "Flying Down to Rio," "The Gay Divorcée," "Top Hat," "Roberta," "Follow the Fleet," "Swing Time," "Shall We Dance," "Carefree," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" — but their roles were pretty constant. Fred was nature's nobleman, Ginger the plucky girl who made good by dancing well. It didn't matter that the films' plots were aggressively silly, the dialogue often inane. The musical numbers had a formula too: Fred courting Ginger, pursuing her in song and dance, while she ponders her ethical or emotional reservations to dancing-romancing; he approaches, she retreats. But when the music swelled, and Fred took Ginger by the hand, and she leaned into his body, and the dance began, a more beautiful story was told: of the emotions only motion can convey, of two people's need for transcendence, of the perfect fusion of passion and technique into a delicate but powerful sensuality.

It all looked impossibly easy. It was not: six weeks of rehearsal before every film, dozens of takes, worn-out shoes, bleeding feet. In 1981, Astaire looked back on his career for a TIME story I wrote. (I've borrowed some of that piece for this one). He told Correspondent Martha Smilgis that making the Fred-and-Ginger films was like "running the four-min. mile for six months. I'd lose 15 lbs. during rehearsal. But then you'd get in a winning groove — a kind of show-business dream sequence where you can't do anything wrong. The choreography was a mutual effort: Hermes Pan, Ginger, even Adele contributed. And of course Ginger was able to accomplish sex through dance. We told more through our movements instead of the big clinch. We did it all in the dance."

I know some people who think Ginger didn't do it all — at least not at all well. I sat with Davie Lerner, once a dancer with the New York City Ballet and long an amatory scholar of dance in all its forms, and watched "Isn't It a Lovely Day" from "Top Hat." Davie couldn't withhold his informed scorn about Rogers' performance: she can't make the leap, her gestures lack refinement, she's looking at her feet — she's looking at his feet! I confess the experience was deflating, like getting severe criticism of your girl friend from your best friend.

Someone (many people) noted that Ginger did everything Fred did, only backward and in high heels. That's not quite true. She didn't choreograph; she didn't drive the movie and the performers. And even I can see that, though Rogers was in Astaire's dancing class (as a precocious student), she wasn't in his dancing class (as an equal). His gestures are indeed larger, more precise and graceful, than hers. But ultimately that doesn't trouble me. The story of the films is one of aristocratic Fred elevating shopgirl Ginger to his level, and of Ginger bringing Fred down to hers; each brings out the best in the other. Croce says of the team: "They weren't Alfred [Lunt] and Lynn [Fontanne] and they weren't Noel [Coward] and Gertie [Lawrence]; they were the two most divinely usual people in the history of movies." If that's the case, then Ginger is at the soul of the movie. She was divinely usual. He was, usually, divine.

How to pick the best Astaire-Rogers number? Robbins and Brooks had their favorites; Kracauer's reference is to "The Yam" from "Carefree," which is also the choice of Entertainment Weekly's Ty Burr. I love "Pick Yourself Up," another you-hate-me-now-but-when-we-dance-you'll-like me number, from "Swing Time." And I can't imagine a more beautiful expression of reluctant rapture than Ginger's in the "Cheek to Cheek" dance from "Top Hat." And not just the song (Berlin's finest) or the dance (one of Astaire's most brilliant). I'm thinking of the coda: a startlingly suspenseful 12 seconds of silence as Ginger considers the ecstasy she has just shared with a man she believes to be married. It's post-coital remorse and wistfulness at its most poignant.

In 1981 I voted (with my typewriter) for the "Swing Time" number "Never Gonna Dance," an eight-minute ballet of seduction and parting. This time the quarrel is at the end of the movie. The bickering lovers won't dance ... they must dance. Their bodies sway helplessly to the Kern music, then surrender to embrace. Retreating, touching, whirling across the ballroom floor, they try to fight the magnetism of their love, their shared art. The only way to escape its pull is to play the game to its climax. And so they glide up a winding staircase and into the spiraling ecstasy of a dozen dizzying pirouettes. Suddenly she is gone. He is alone. The dance is over.



ANATOMY OF A DANCE

It's not their most famous song or dance; it hasn't the grand romantic sweep of "Cheek to Cheek" or "Never Gonna Dance." And Davie Lerner makes me feel guilty for choosing it. But I'm sticking with "Isn't This a Lovely Day," the Irving Berlin number from "Top Hat" — a superb parable of pursuit, resistance and union: a getting-to-know-you story that becomes a dance of sexy-romantic joy.

The 5min.10sec. sequence (filmed in a mere six shots, and with most of the dance done in just two shots) is Fred's test to see how far Ginger will follow him — as a dancer, because in these movies to dance is to love — and how expertly she can keep up with him. Astaire's singing, Rogers' silent re-acting and the pair's dance coax each bit of drama and humor out of the lyric and music. What follows is my attempt to render complex emotions and glorious movement in prose; it's just the Cliff Notes to a blithe masterpiece. So rent or buy the "Top Hat" VHS. And get the album, "Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers at RKO," two CDs of great music and fabulous vibes. Right now. I'll wait.

Welcome back. The song's setting is a gazebo in a London park, to which Ginger has repaired because of threatening weather. Fred is there too; they've met before, in strained circumstances, and she feels uneasy in his presence. He wears a business suit, she's in riding gear with a cute fedora. A thunderclap sends her rushing into his arms for shelter. Chagrined at her momentary dependence on him, she retreats. Nonchalantly, he explains that a storm is Nature's way of showing how two people come together. A boy cloud and a girl cloud spark, and that's lightning. "They kiss. Thunder!" There's a thunderclap (Fred controls all the elements here) that gooses Ginger out of her seat. As he starts the verse ("The weather is frightening,/ The thunder and lightning/ Seem to be having their way,/ But as far as I'm concerned/ It's a lovely day"), she sighs — lord, he's going to sing — then rises, walks away and briefly touches her chest. Is it from fear, anxiety or excitement?

The chorus begins, and she rolls her eyes exasperatedly at his conversational come-on: "Isn't this a lovely day to be caught in the rain?" She's heard this line before; the spoiled princess has played this game before. Biting her lip, she sits down, and he sits next to her, but really behind her, so we can see her singing into her ear. She rarely looks back at him. In the first few bars Fred keeps time by lightly slapping his thigh three times. A few bars later, Ginger keeps time with her riding crop; is it a leather metronome, or a potential instrument of torture?

Despite herself, she smiles at his line — "The clouds broke/ They broke and/ Oh, what a break for me!" — and the corniness of his stage-tenor rendition; he's given a vocal swoop to it and, on "Me," touched his heart. Will this rain never stop? She apprehensively glances outside; no change in the weather. He finishes the chorus with "Long as I can be with you/ It's a lovely day." She's still not won over.

The vocal is followed by three dance choruses, each one faster, jazzier, each bringing the adversaries closer to detente. After singing, Fred rises, twirls, strolls around the gazebo and whistles. Seated, not yet giving in, she whistles too. He walks past her, crooking his arm where hers might slip through. She doesn't take his arm, but does rise to follow him. They take a stroll, left hand in a pants pocket, then both hands in pockets; each step is a bit springier than the last. He is luring her out of a walk and into a dance.

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