Astaire and Rogersby Edward Gallafent
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers endure in the American imagination. The charm and grace of their dancing in the ten films they made together, including Top Hat and Swing Time, elicit nostalgia today. Most books about the Astaire-Rogers films focus exclusively on the music and dance scenes, but this book shows that the films are much more than the sum/i>/i>
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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers endure in the American imagination. The charm and grace of their dancing in the ten films they made together, including Top Hat and Swing Time, elicit nostalgia today. Most books about the Astaire-Rogers films focus exclusively on the music and dance scenes, but this book shows that the films are much more than the sum of those scenes, which after all only account for approximately one-third of their films' running times. Gallafent argues that, contrary to received opinion, the musical numbers are not discrete, generic moments dropped in to enliven the films. Instead, the music and dance routines advance the movies' themes.
Gallafent shows how dialogue, plotting, and the audience's perception of this striking professional couple affect the context, and thus meaning, for the song and dance routines. The book examines how the Astaire-Rogers musicals, which were produced and originally viewed as a series, relate to one another and to other musicals of their day. Gallafent also provides an illuminating account of the films Astaire and Rogers made separately during the 1940s before their final reunion in The Barkleys of Broadway. Astaire and Rogers concludes by
tracing the development of their star personas both together and apart, and shows how the films were designed around those personas.
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THE FIRST RKO MUSICALS
FLYING DOWN TO RIO (Thornton Freeland, 1933)
The status of Flying Down to Rio as marking the opening of the Astaire-Rogers cycle is purely retrospective: its audience and its producers could not know of the films to come with which we associate it, and if conditions had arisen to prevent the making of another movie with these two actors, there would be no light thrown on it by the rest of the cycle. The question, then, is what made audiences think that they might like to see this pair on screen again? This is answered not simply by the image of the couple dancing, but also by what the film tells us about this particular dancing couple.
The premise around which Flying Down to Rio is constructed the attraction between a wealthy blond North American man (Gene Raymond) and an aristocratic Brazilian girl (Dolores Del Rio) does not involve Astaire and Rogers, who are not its leading stars. The plot that develops amounts to no less than the North Americanisation of Brazil, via technology, music and the resolution of the love affair. The Brazilian girl, Belinha De Redenze, finds herself caught between her duty towards her long-anticipated marriage to aristocratic Brazil in the shape of Julio (Raul Roulien), and her passion for American aviator and bandleader Roger. Despite a suggestion to the contrary early in the movie, it is not the girl who does the choosing. The final minute finds the three in a passenger plane, where the 'captain' can perform marriages. Julio givesBelinha and Roger his blessing and then leaves the happy couple to each other by parachuting out.
A sequence about halfway through the film is one of the few in which Astaire and Rogers are allowed dancing apart any dramatic business. Its premise is that Fred and Honey, the two members of the band played by Astaire and Rogers, are helping the bandleader to search for Belinha in the streets of Rio. Honey is distracted by the sight of a cookie stand, and this exchange follows:
Honey: Oh Freddie, how do you ask for little tarts in Portuguese?
Fred: Don't heckle me, try the Culbertson system.
(The Culbertson system was a popular technique of bidding in the card game, Contract Bridge.) As Fred speaks, he has spotted Belinha with her duenna, sitting at a table in a smart cafe. He tries to speak to her, is ejected, and lands on the sidewalk in front of the cookie stall, in a sitting position. Honey sits down next to him.
Honey: Hiya Tarzan. Been having fun?
Fred: Gosh, if you even speak to that girl they throw you out on the sidewalk. Boy, is that class!
Honey: Want a cookie? Take your choice.
The camera's view of the couple is now blocked by the bodies of pedestrians, a reminder of exactly where we are on the pavement. This scene offers a way of reading a central subject of the movie, one which never quite leaves the films that follow it: the difference between being up in the air and down on the ground.
There are two invasions of Rio going on here. One is represented by aviation, understood as a form of spectacle and glamour created by money (Roger's personal fortune is mentioned early on), and this forms the background to reading the romance with Belinha. Despite Roger's American image of his own novelty he describes his wooing of Belinha with the line, 'I'm going to institute some radical changes in your country' the assurance is that her movement from Julio to Roger represents only a modernisation of the old order, not the crossing of a class line.
The other invading force, represented by Fred and Honey, and tangentially by the other members of the band, has its feet on the ground, recognising 'class' in Belinha and Roger and their world without resentment, even with a certain degree of amusement. Distinctions in the meaning of dress underscore the point. At the posh clubs, Fred and Honey dress apparently like their aristocratic friends, but the tails and the ball gown are professional wear, indicative, as we will see in later movies, of the difference between rehearsal and performance, and so a way of declaring oneself to be at work. (The film begins with a little comedy around uniforms, as the hotel manager's inspection of the pageboys and waitresses is disrupted when one of the latter gives him the eye.) Even the presentation of the characters in the credits sequence touches on this. The five principals are all shown in evening wear, and the shots of the first three billed (Del Rio, Raymond and Roulien) are simple head-and-shoulders portraits. We see the hands of the other two. Fred, in a gesture typical of Astaire's moments of real or feigned embarrassment, is fiddling with his tie, an image clipped from a sequence in which he cannot find anyone to take his top hat and cane at the aviators' club. Honey is preparing herself, polishing her nails. For the aristocrats, their appearance is adequately expressive of their identity. For Fred and Honey, it is costume, which may be acquired, be in need of adjustment, and be discarded.
Consider the final moment of the film in the light of this. As Julio parachutes out of the world of the lovers, we are shown Fred and Honey. They have been saving the day for Belinha's father, a hotel owner, by putting on a show, but it is over and they are sitting down. They are fooling around, trying to look up at the plane, each using one side of a pair of binoculars. They see Julio floating down to earth, and Fred has the final line of the film: 'Gosh, that girl doesn't care who she gets thrown out of what ...' The reference to his own ejection, or exclusion, reinforces the point that the world of Belinha, Roger and Julio is constructed around a necessity for exclusivity, for confirming the supremacy of the class by throwing people out of places. Compare with this the theme of the one Astaire-Rogers dance number in the film, 'The Carioca', where all the stress is on the inclusivity of desire, on everybody feeling, transmitting and receiving it (a point made overtly in the gags about telepathy with which the sequence starts) so that it can be spontaneously learned and danced by Fred and Honey, and then danced by the couples in the production number. The contrast between 'The Carioca' and the final airborne production number is suggestive. There the marriage of sexual desire and technology is celebrated by an opposite to dance, a spectacle of girls strapped and wired to the wings of the planes. The film makes the point that their safety depends on the firmness of these fixings, a reminder that the very condition of being in the air in this way involves the annihilation of a freedom of movement available to those on the ground.
So Flying Down to Rio offers us in Astaire and Rogers a couple for whom eating cookies on the pavement represents one kind of good time, a couple for whom the Portuguese language is a problem, a couple with their feet on the ground. I am conscious of the irony, or the surprise, that attaches to speaking of Astaire and Rogers in this way, or through this image. Perhaps it would be proper to say that they are a couple who know that their feet are on the ground at the beginning of the dance and will return there at the end of it. They have, in this movie's imagery, a way of being in the air which is not like flying an aeroplane (it depends neither on technology nor money) and which makes the ordinariness of sitting down together possible, or bearable. They are content to sit because, from their dancing, they and we know that they are, or can be, more than this.
THE GAY DIVORCÉE (Mark Sandrich, 1934)
Astaire's career as a musical comedy performer on stage, partnered by his sister Adele, ran from Over the Top (first performance November 1917) to The Band Wagon (first performance June 1931); Adele Astaire retired with its closing performance in March 1932. In November 1932, Astaire opened in New York in Gay Divorce, directed by Howard Lindsay, book by Dwight Taylor, score by Cole Porter. His dancing partners on stage were Claire Luce and later Dorothy Stone. In the summer of 1933, Astaire made Flying Down to Rio at RKO, and then starred in the London run of Gay Divorce, which opened in November 1933, just before the American premiere of Flying Down to Rio (29th December 1933). Astaire tells us in his autobiography that the director Mervyn LeRoy saw Gay Divorce in New York but was unable to interest Warner Bros in a film version. Pandro Berman flew to London, saw the show there and confirmed it as the next film in Astaire's RKO contract. (In the course of shooting, the title was changed to The Gay Divorcée, but the film was released as The Gay Divorce in England.) Thus The Gay Divorcée is unique among Astaire-Rogers movies in that it was a filmed version of an established stage hit for Astaire. It is also the first time that Astaire and Rogers appear in principal rather than supporting roles and begins to establish a pattern of Astaire playing a role close to his own life, as a song-and-dance man. In his small first film role, opposite Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady, he appears and is credited as playing himself, and one of the changes made from the stage version of Gay Divorce was to abandon the identification of his character as a novelist.
In Flying Down to Rio, part of the status of Fred and Honey as the supporting couple is expressed in their being presented as old friends and colleagues, so much so that the idea of sexual attachment between them is never explicitly raised, the matter of romance and particularly of a first encounter between lovers being assigned to the principal couple. A defining characteristic of such a couple seems to be that they meet for the first time in the movie, and this will be true of the characters played by Astaire and Rogers in six of their eight following films. The exceptions are Roberta and Follow the Fleet, where we understand the pair to be meeting again after a period of separation; in both, Astaire and Rogers play alongside another couple who encounter each other for the first time.
In The Gay Divorcée, the Astaire character meets the girl played by Rogers for the first time in the second scene of the film. We get there via a prologue which takes place in a restaurant in Paris, in which celebrated song-and-dance man Guy Holden (Astaire) is dining with his friend, English lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton). Some light foolery takes place, with dolls attached to the fingers of the diners, in tune with the mood of a number, 'Don't Let it Bother You'. A piece of business is now contrived to remind Astaire's character who he is, a matter of lost wallets which requires him to dance, supposedly at first to establish his identity. This turns out to have the not exactly foreseen result that Guy's reluctance melts away. The audience applauds, the management tears up the bill, and the final shot is of Guy sitting down on the dance floor, quite at home.
The first meeting with Mimi Glossop (Rogers) occurs a couple of minutes later (in screen time), after an interlude of comedy involving her aunt, Hortense Ditherwell (Alice Brady), and two exasperated officials. The setting is a customs hall in England, and Hortense has left her niece alone, having unknowingly tucked the flowing end of Mimi's gown into a trunk, which she has then locked. When Guy ambles past, the immobilised Mimi is calling for the porter. The dress has pulled up to slightly above the knee, and the director, Mark Sandrich, uses the image to prompt our awareness of the voyeuristic possibilities of the scene. We understand that Guy wants to help, but he recognises the situation as a delicate one. Of course, he is also responding to the opportunity to help this pretty girl out of trouble, to meet her in circumstances flattering to himself.
But he cannot strike the right note. Meeting coolness from Mimi, he takes refuge in something intended to be witty but which emerges as flippant. Rather than calling Hortense and thus ending the moment, he tells her, 'You know, a third party might spoil this.' Still wishing that she should be grateful to nobody but him, he then tries direct action, his excuse being that what they are doing is like a child's game: 'I pulled a cat out of a well once, when I was a boy.' He tears the dress. Mimi starts to walk away in the coat that he has offered to cover her, and we see him from behind as he moves off in pursuit. In the next shot, he is suddenly in front of her, blocking her way; in its unlikeliness and grace, this resembles a dance move, and will be reprised as exactly that in 'Night and Day'. He now faces her with the only line of the sequence not imbued with flippant self-consciousness, 'Please forgive me', but she avoids answering. She moves away again. He accidentally catches the coat in a swing-gate, so that it falls, and she must pick it up. As she leaves, he looks contemplative how did it all go so wrong?
The contrast between this and the Paris restaurant sequence should be clear enough. Faced with a mundane problem, Guy is able to prove his identity, and prove to himself by his dance that everybody knows who he is. Faced with this girl, he loses that identity one could say that he can find no way of dancing with her. He tells her lamely, 'I'm an American too', but does not divulge his name; later on it will be implied that she has never heard of Guy's fame in America.
The matter of their identities is still unresolved at their next meeting. We are in the country Guy has spotted Mimi in London traffic, and there is a car chase until he corners her. She threatens to drive at his car with hers: 'the air will be full of fenders'. She does not use his name, but he works it into the conversation indirectly he forgets to ask hers, and when she is driving away, she provides it in a less than romantic shout. He offers her marriage as if it were one of the potions, or props, in his wicker box of cocktails, and she responds by letting the box fall from the running board of her car and smash to pieces.
These scenes of damage have something in common with another, later Hollywood comedy, Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938). Both films begin with a sequence in which the central male character is asked to contemplate who and what he is, followed by a meeting with the principal female character which involves tearing her dress and helping to cover up the damage that he has done, and an encounter in which the presence of automobiles leads to the threat or the actuality of bent fenders. Both films acknowledge the sexual attraction between the couple as an explosion of energies that smashes things up both physical objects and a sense of identity. Both couples now embark on a journey, but their destinations are very different. In Hawks's movie, there is danger and torment to be gone through in the Connecticut woods, before the old order is demolished. For Astaire and Rogers the destination is somewhat different, one that the movie calls Brightburn. (We will see a further set of variations on this theme in Carefree.)
The meanings of Brightburn can be summarised as follows:
1) As a seaside resort, it is legitimately a place to have a good time, to meet girls, which is what Egbert tells Guy, and what Sandrich sums up in the first shot of it: a girl emerging from the water.
2) It is also a place for a good time of a less legitimate kind, a weekend with a mistress or a night with a lover the latter being exactly the scenario that Egbert (as Mimi's lawyer) is organising in a faked version, using a hired co-respondent so that Mimi can obtain a divorce from her husband.
3) It is a place of entertainment, of stages and dance floors for singing and dancing, of performers and audiences, and therefore one where Guy can display his professional talents.
4) As a venue for dance, it also offers something that can replace verbal communication as a way of making sense of the world and of relationships between the sexes.
5) It is at times recognisably a Hollywood sound stage (and our sense of the film need not be disturbed by realising this) the Big White Set in which major production numbers can be staged.
Excerpted from Astaire & Rogers by Edward Gallafent. Copyright © 2000 by Cameron Books. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Edward Gallafent lectures on film studies at the University of Warwick. He is a member of the editorial board of Movie magazine and has written numerous articles, as well as the book Clint Eastwood: Actor and Director.
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