Fred Astaire: one of the great jazz artists of the twentieth century? Astaire is best known for his brilliant dancing in the movie musicals of the 1930s, but in Music Makes Me, Todd Decker argues that Astaire’s work as a dancer and choreographer particularly in the realm of tap dancingmade a significant contribution to the art of jazz. Decker examines the full range of Astaire’s work in filmed and recorded media, from a 1926 recording with George Gershwin to his 1970 blues stylings on television, and analyzes Astaire’s creative relationships with the greats, including George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Johnny Mercer. He also highlights Astaire’s collaborations with African American musicians and his work with lesser known professionalsarrangers, musicians, dance directors, and performers.
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About the Author
Todd Decker is Assistant Professor of Music at Washington University in St. Louis.
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Music Makes Me
Fred Astaire and Jazz
By Todd Decker
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
"There's a difference and Astaire is it"
He's distinctly likeable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself.... There's a difference and Astaire is it. —Variety's review of Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Fred Astaire was incomparable. There's no more succinct way to describe him or his career. He arrived in Hollywood an established Broadway star and almost immediately became a legend, movie business jargon for an irreplaceable screen presence with indefinable magic. It didn't hurt that Astaire did something no one else was doing in any comparable way: he danced. Astaire stayed at or near the top for a quarter century, never dropping off the radar entirely or experiencing a genuine slump. The critics generally adored him and he was admired by men and women alike (not an easy feat, especially for a dancing man). When the studio system collapsed and the film musical as Astaire had known it folded, he transitioned seamlessly onto television for a final decade of successful song and dance. He danced on camera into his seventies.
Astaire's path as dancer, singer, movie star and icon is incomparable. Still, comparisons need to be made, if only to understand exactly how Astaire managed to carve out and sustain a uniquely empowered position as a dancer and dancemaker on film, television, and records, the signature creative media of the twentieth century. Astaire didn't work in a vacuum, and this chapter begins the work of surrounding Astaire with a creative context by considering his peers in four categories: dancing leading men, singing leading men, tap dancers, and musicians. The first three situate Astaire in the Hollywood film industry; the fourth inserts him into the realm of popular music, specifically among jazz musicians of the swing era. That Astaire finds a meaningful place in each of these categories testifies to the breadth of his talents. And yet, in the entertainment industry as Astaire knew it, the musical content of these four areas might easily overlap. Astaire's uniqueness lies in his historic ability to be, at once, dancer, singer, tapper, and musician.
This context-setting chapter explores large patterns, using synoptic views of the careers of select entertainers as the unit of comparison. Subsequent chapters descend to a greater level of detail.
DANCING LEADING MEN
Variety's review of Roberta (1935) saw Astaire's ascending star as potentially opening a bold new world for dancers. After noting that Astaire was adept at "light comedy," which might come in handy if his audiences "ever tire of the stepping," the reviewer looked toward the future: "Meanwhile [Astaire] can consider himself a Christopher Columbus who has discovered for the boys and girls on the hoof a new world—Hollywood. There are other dancers around who can troupe as well as dance, and now that Astaire has led the way, they may follow." Variety's prediction proved off the mark: movie audiences never tired of Astaire's "stepping," and he had almost no followers. With the exception of Gene Kelly, no male film star made much of a mark as a dancing leading man. Several male stars took on dancing lead roles, but all, including Kelly, appeared in both musicals and nonmusical genres. No other male star hung his entire reputation on the musical the way that Astaire did. And he never stopped making pictures. When Astaire as Tony Hunter in The Band Wagon (1953) says he "hasn't made a picture in three years," it's a line that distances Astaire from the character he's playing. In the three years before The Band Wagon, no fewer than four films starring Astaire hit the nation's theaters; all but The Belle of New York met with success at the box office. Between his screen debut in the early 1930s and the general drop-off in musical pictures in the mid-1950s, Astaire never went more than seventeen months between the release of his pictures (that includes his supposed retirement between Blue Skies and Easter Parade) except for a two-year gap caused by World War II and Metro's tardy release of Ziegfeld Follies. Over the full length of his studio career—between 1933 and 1957—a new Astaire musical premiered on average every nine or ten months. Relentless filmmaking over the course of decades was not unusual for a studio-era star. It was, however, unheard of for a musical star. Most strictly musical stars lasted about a decade, then either stopped making movies (Al Jolson, Alice Faye, Ruby Keeler) or extended their careers by switching to nonmusical genres (Dick Powell's transformation from boy singer to noir detective). The search for Astaire's peers in the dancing leading man category yields a short list of short careers and modest filmographies: George Murphy, James Cagney, George Raft, Ricardo Montalban, Gower Champion, and Gene Kelly. The screen-dancing careers of these six men are briefly considered here as a means to define both Astaire's unique place within the Hollywood system and his supremely good historical timing.
A not overly talented but always game guy, George Murphy was a 1930s peer of Astaire's. Murphy could sing and dance passably well. (Metro director Charles Walters said, "I couldn't stand the way [he] danced.") Musicals never dominated Murphy's career; MGM mixed in dramatic and comic roles for him from the start. And despite appearing in a fair number of musicals, Murphy never had a well-defined song-and-dance identity. He could keep up with real dancers, like Astaire and Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940, but his career never depended on his doing so. Murphy later claimed to have taken a creative leadership role on the set, but there's no distinctive mark to his work. The ideal contract player, Murphy played the role of the requisite male who danced a bit when required to do so. He was not a creative force in musical production.
Murphy's willingness to let Metro shape his less than distinctive persona contrasts strongly with Warner Brothers' James Cagney, whose reputation as a dancing star rests on his Oscar-winning performance as George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cagney came to Hollywood in 1930, just a few years before Astaire. The two were friends, and Cagney was on the set the day Astaire committed "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" to film. Despite his roots in vaudeville as a song-and-dance man, only four of Cagney's fifty-seven studio-era films were musicals in which Cagney danced two or more numbers. Musicals are time-consuming and expensive to make. Cagney could turn out three gangster films in the time it took Astaire to complete one musical. Warner Brothers knew where the profits from their star lay, so musicals appear infrequently in Cagney's filmography, which is dominated by his tough-guy persona applied to both comedies and dramas. And yet Cagney did have a distinctive song-and-dance style. Like Astaire, Cagney was responsible for his own choreography, although it hardly seems to matter, as he performs similar straight-legged, bent-at-the-waist moves in all his musical pictures. And so, despite having his own way with the dance, Cagney did not create a series of musical numbers that can be evaluated as a group (beyond their sameness). There is no body of musical work to set beside Cagney's gallery of film characters, just as Astaire doesn't have a gallery of film characters to set beside his anthology of musical numbers. Cagney struggled to exercise control over the parts he played, in the late thirties going so far as to break his Warner's contract and set up an independent production company. (The first film he made on his own was the 1937 musical Something to Sing About.) But Cagney soon returned to Warner's, with only modest control gained over his career, such as a limit of two pictures per year. Astaire was never forced to play a role he didn't want to play.
The only dancing leading man to attempt serious partner routines in the 1930s was George Raft, Paramount's resident tough guy. Astaire remembered Raft as "the fastest dancer ... I've ever seen, doing the Charleston in his solo act at Texas Guinan's night club" in Prohibitionera New York. Raft danced himself out of poverty in the 1910s and '20s, winning dance contests and working in tearooms partnering women for pay. Astaire, of course, was the toast of Broadway and the West End in these years. Graduating to nightclub and vaudeville specialties, Raft described his dancing in the 1920s as "very erotic. I used to caress myself as I danced." He brought this dangerous sexual style to film when he went to Hollywood in 1931, his arrival, like Cagney's, just a few years prior to Astaire's. Raft never made a musical. Instead he played hardened underworld characters who also happened to dance. Raft's big breakthrough was Scarface (1932), in which he did not play a dancer and resisted the danced come-on of a brunette in a long, clinging gown who does a tap lick that calls to mind Ginger Rogers. Seen today, the shadow of Astaire and Rogers hovers over the encounter. Raft didn't sing or tap, and some of the long shots of lifts in his dances were doubled. He often wore a top hat, white tie, and tails, but he projected a cold, threatening persona as slick as his shiny "patent leather" hair. His dancing characters hailed from the lower classes—scam artists and gigolos who sometimes died in the final reel.
Raft danced opposite Carole Lombard in two films released just as Astaire and Rogers were getting going; Bolero (1934) and Rumba (1935) are penumbral companions to the sunny silliness of The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat. If Astaire and Rogers were destined always to fall into each other's arms, Raft and Lombard were mismatched by fate and doomed to separation. Their dances are always desperate. Raft's dances were often deeply integrated into the plots of his films. In Bolero he stops dancing in the middle of the title routine to announce to the onscreen audience his intention to join the army. In Rumba the big number with Lombard is danced under the threat of a mob hit man shooting Raft down midroutine. The generic focus of Raft's films remains firmly on the story, even during the dances. By contrast, Astaire's dances are always the primary reason for his films; the plot remains secondary, a necessary "hanger" for the musical numbers. Astaire was a dancer, first and foremost; Raft, only secondarily. But whatever their differences, Raft and Astaire alike embodied the unassailable masculinity of the dancing man who lived his life in nightclubs, dressed with consummate taste, and listened to jazz. Raft's 1930s films both counter and corroborate Astaire's more familiar output from the decade.
Like Murphy in black-and-white MGM musicals of the 1930s and early '40s, Ricardo Montalban was the necessary man for a diverse group of women in Technicolor musicals of the late 1940s and early '50s. Color was a major draw in the immediate postwar era, and exotic locations and characters were favored by MGM, Montalban's home studio. His Latin lovers display tremendous physical confidence, his dancing presented as the natural expression of a Latin man's desire for a woman. This persona proved remarkably flexible, and Montalban's range of partners was diverse. In On an Island with You (1948) he played a dancer in love with Esther Williams, herself falling for an ardent Navy pilot played by Peter Lawford. Cyd Charisse, in turn, loves Montalban. After Charisse and Montalban rehearse an Apache dance for a bad girl and a sailor, Montalban finds his desire for Charisse awakened. They end the routine in a kiss that continues after the lights come up. This dance (created by Jack Donohue) sets a precedent for Charisse's later tough-girl dances with Kelly in Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Astaire in The Band Wagon, but its choreographic content is more technical than either. Indeed, Montalban executes demanding lifts unlike any that Kelly, much less Astaire, ever did.
Montalban's ethnically grounded dancing persona was subtle, as demonstrated by a pair of films from the early 1950s in which he starred opposite very different leading ladies. In the nostalgic period film Two Weeks with Love (1950), with Jane Powell in her last adolescent role, Montalban is all chivalry. He appears in full operetta regalia for a waltz in one of Powell's girlish dreams and initiates her into womanhood in a safely chaperoned tango. In Latin Lovers (1953), a contemporary story with Lana Turner as his love interest, Montalban exudes a more adult sexuality. The film's setting on a Brazilian ranch provides plentiful opportunities for passionate embraces and hungry kisses. At a dance in the open air, Montalban teaches Turner the samba and other "native" dances. The music, arranged by jazz arranger Pete Rugolo, captures early 1950s Latin dance trends in the United States. Montalban and Turner's dances were created by Frank Veloz, of Veloz and Yolanda, the most famous Latin ballroom team of the era. (Similar links to popular music and dance are shared by Astaire's work in the same period, but in decidedly less sensual modes.)
Fiesta (1947), Montalban's first leading role in Hollywood, suggests Metro started out shaping his star persona in expansive terms, presenting him as a sensitive leading man who was more than just a Latin lover. Montalban plays the son of a legendary Mexican bullfighter who does not want to follow in his father's footsteps. Instead, he hopes to attend the national conservatory and become a great composer, expressing the soul of his country in classical music. Getting the father to acquiesce to the son's desires forms the substance of Fiesta's plot. The musical climax occurs when Montalban, fleeing both father and music, comes upon a live radio broadcast of his only orchestral work being performed by the Mexican national symphony. (Such things happen in Hollywood films: it's useless to shake one's head at them. How such coincidences create character and inflect the meaning of music making in a film narrative is, however, well worth exploring.) Montalban hears the broadcast in a restaurant. He moves slowly to a nearby piano, seating himself at the keyboard in time to play along with the broadcast. The camera stays on Montalban at the piano in a medium shot for a long time; the entire keyboard is visible. Montalban is not heard on the soundtrack—which features a young André Previn—but he gives an exceedingly convincing visual performance of the virtuoso piece, an arrangement by MGM music director Johnny Green of Aaron Copland's El Salon Mexico as a piano concerto. (Astaire worked closely with both Previn and Green around this time.) Montalban has visually authentic piano skills and the sound/image illusion—an elaborate technical confection—works to good effect. Here, then, is a screen hero who dances, plays piano, and fights bulls, all packaged with an exotic masculinity and a movie-star handsome face and physique (something Astaire never had going for him).
Montalban's convincing turn in the ring for the boxing picture Right Cross (1950) was exactly contemporary with his work in musicals. As with Gene Kelly around the same time, MGM explored the link between action films and musicals by casting physically strong leading men in both genres. (The physically slight Astaire wasn't built for this genre-crossing strategy.) Montalban was equally at home in the water, partnering Williams in two of her "swimmers," On an Island with You and Neptune's Daughter (1949). In the latter Montalban sings as well, courting Williams on dry land in exactly the manner Astaire had pioneered: first a song, then a dance. Their dance duet in formal wear to "My Heart Beats Faster" is as close as the 1950s came to re-creating the 1930s equation of contemporary song and dance with sexual foreplay pioneered by Astaire and Rogers. Montalban is completely convincing in the part.
The multitalented Montalban filled a particular Hollywood niche at a particular moment, and Metro, a star-making studio, was able to make him into a versatile dancing leading man. When the moment passed, Montalban's career in musicals ended. The essential element lacking in Montalban's case, beyond simple longevity, is self-starting creative work as either dancer or musician. Montalban was always taking direction. It is impossible to speak of him as a creative figure. He is a performer playing roles assigned by the studio, learning dances from others, pretending to play a piano part ghosted by someone else. Astaire danced and played pianos as well, but always under the audience assumption that the creative work was authentically his.
Excerpted from Music Makes Me by Todd Decker. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Part One: Astaire among Others
1. "There's a difference and Astaire is it"
2. "I am a creator"
Part Two: Astaire at the Studios
3. "I play with the very best bands"
4. "Tell them to let it swing"
5. "Fixing up" tunes
Part Three: Astaire in Jazz and Popular Music
6. "Keep time with the time and with the times"
7. "Jazz means the blues"
8. "Anything that will send me"
9. "You play and I'll dance"
Notes References Acknowledgments Permissions Index
What People are Saying About This
"Mr. Decker digs deeply into Astaire's creative process, anatomizing what went into each production. . . . Illuminating, richly detailed analysis."Wall Street Journal
"Delving into production schedules, credit sheets, cast lists, and other studio paraphernalia, Decker gives us a good look at Astaire-related activity behind the scenes."New York Review of Books
"Fascinating. . . . Much in Decker's account of Astaire's musicianship and the range of this talents in Music Makes Me may come as a surprise."Times Literary Supplement (Tls)
"A worthy addition to the books that have been inspired by the genius of Fred Astaire."Reelzchannel Maltin On Movies
"A worthy resource. . . . Highly Recommended."Choice