Saturday, April 21, 2012

With Fred Astaire

One of the best dance partners Fred Astaire ever paired up with on camera was Barrie Chase.  Oh, baby,  Barrie was terrific!  Her name may not be widely known like others who danced with Astaire -- women such as Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth and Cyd Charisse -- but she was a knock-out as his partner in Emmy winning NBC specials.  The first one, "An Evening with Fred Astaire," aired in 1959.  Her great legs and ponytail became her trademarks.  Those and her dazzling dance talent.
Chase worked with Astaire's longtime Oscar-winning dance director, choreographer Hermes Pan.  Like Gwen Verdon, Chase was also a Jack Cole dancer.  She and Verdon were chorus dancers in movie musicals before they got they got star treatment.  Chase's star treatment was on network television, thanks to Astaire.  Movies never utilized her skills the way he did on those NBC specials.  The moviegoer's eye always went to Gwen Verdon and Barrie Chase in their chorus work.  They just had "that little something extra" Norman Maine mentions to Esther Blodgett in the 1954 remake of A Star Is Born.  Classically trained, like Astaire in his youth, Barrie was at her best with a jazz beat -- and Astaire loved jazz.  She had a cool hipster vibe without trying to have a cool hipster vibe.  That's what made her cool.
You can see her movie chorus work in White Christmas, Pal Joey, Brigadoon and The Opposite Sex, the first remake of MGM's classic, The Women.  She's in the title number of that remake.  It's sung by Dick Shawn.  She danced with Astaire in two of his 1950s films.  Early in Silk Stockings, she's one of the babes in the "Too Bad, We Can't Go Back To Moscow" number.  In Daddy Long Legs, she's a blonde in the "International Playboy" montage number with narration by Leslie Caron.  As I wrote up top, a lot of classic film fans may not know her name but I bet they recognize her from a non-speaking and dancing bit part in a very popular comedy.  Again working with Dick Shawn, she was Sylvester's stone-faced, bikini-clad Twist partner in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
It's a shame movie studios didn't put her film career on a front burner.  She was a bright presence in comedies and musical comedies.  She could act in stark black and white dramas.  One example -- the original version of Cape Fear, starring Robert Mitchum.
She played Diane Taylor, the good time gal beaten so brutally by the sexy drifter, Max Cady, that she's afraid to help detectives pin that sadistic menace down.
When you saw her in those two classics, I bet you didn't think she was in the same category with Cyd Charisse.  Did you?  But she most definitely was when she took the dance floor on camera in very imaginative, elegant and hip numbers with Fred Astaire.
They had marvelous chemistry together.  When I was in high school, I had an English Lit. teacher who knew that Fred Astaire was my favorite performer.  She told me that, when she was a girl back East, she had seen Fred and Adele Astaire in one of their Broadway hits.  The Astaires were top Broadway musical stars, introducing new songs that are now standards.  Adele was the bigger star.  Not only to audiences but to her loving younger brother, Fred, too.  He adored Delly.  They scored big success when they took their hits to London.  The Brits loved Adele.  One in particular did.  She eventually retired at a young age and married an English duke. Fred went solo on Broadway in the early 1930s before Hollywood beckoned.
Fred begged his sister to make movie musicals but she was a happy married lady in English society.  My teacher told me that Adele Astaire had a bubbly personality onstage.  Audiences just wanted to embrace her.  She added that your eye tended to go to Adele when they danced.  Wow.  Think about that.  I asked Miss McConarty, my teacher, which of Astaire's later dance partners came close to having a style like Adele's.  Miss McConarty removed her glasses, thought for a moment and said, "Barrie Chase."  To use the name of Gershwin tune Adele Astaire introduced on Broadway in Funny Face, I still find that answer to be...well..."'S Wonderful."  Fred's last dance partner, teamed with him in a string of TV successes, had a quality like his first dance partner, his beloved sister who teamed with him in a string of stage successes.  Barrie Chase worked with Astaire and Hermes Pan.  I bet she gets a mention in this book due out in June: "The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire."  It's a biography of Pan, the man who choreographed the Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers RKO musicals of the 1930s plus other top films.
I cannot wait to read the biography of that Greek southern gentleman who became one of the most innovative and revolutionary yet under-mentioned choreographers in classic Hollywood history.  One of Astaire's closest friends, Hermes Pan had such an uncanny resemblance to the screen legend that they must have been twins in a previous life.
As for Barrie Chase, after four NBC specials, one made-for-TV movie musical and an appearance on ABC's "The Hollywood Palace" with Astaire, she showed a style similar to his sister's in another way.  She retired at a young age to be a happy married lady.


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