Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Barrie Chase and Fred Astaire

Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell...Barrie Chase.  You may not recognize the name, but she was one of the best dance partners Fred Astaire had during his extraordinary film and television career.  In fact, "extraordinary" is a fitting adjective for her dance talent.  I've blogged about Barrie Chase before and I believe she merits another mention.  Astaire made entertainment headlines in the late 1950s with the number of Emmys he won for his excellent NBC special.  It was such a hit with viewers and critics that An Evening with Fred Astaire was followed by Another Evening with Fred Astaire.  In these hit specials, his elegant partner was his friend, Barrie Chase.
Just like Gwen Verdon before she became a Broadway star, Chase was a chorus dancer in movie musicals whose dazzling style and charisma made her pop.  That little something extra just made her stand out.  Also like Verdon, she was the assistant to top choreographers while they created movie numbers.  She worked with Astaire's dear friend and longtime choreographer from his legendary RKO movies with Ginger Rogers, dancer Hermes Pan.  Chase also assisted Jack Cole.  Barrie Chase had fabulous legs and cheekbones the camera loved.  She had a jazzy hipster vibe without being calculated about it.  It was casual.  Effortless.  Part of her DNA.  Barrie Chase was just cool. There was also a sweet kookiness about her.  That quality is utilized in a non-speaking dance bit that's popular with many classic film fans.  Did you see It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, World?  She was Sylvester's stone-faced, bikini-clad, beatnik girlfriend doing "The Twist" with him when his battle-ax momma (played by Ethel Merman) calls.
She's briefly in other films TCM viewers have seen but probably didn't realize.  She danced with Astaire in Silk Stockings.  In its first number, "Too Bad We Can't Go Back To Moscow," she's the party girl in the gold lamé dress.  She's one of the nightclub girls in Pal Joey and does ballet around Kim Novak's character as she's about to perform her first strip.  Barrie's a backstage chorus girl in The Opposite Sex, MGM's remake of The Women.  She's the brunette in the green robe with stars June Allyson and Joan Collins.
The strawberry blonde behind Barrie is future Oscar-nominee Carolyn Jones.

Barrie went blond herself as Doris, a ditzy chorus girl in White Christmas.

Like Astaire in On the Beach, she also went dramatic.  She played Diane Taylor, beaten after being picked up by Robert Mitchum's Max Cady character in Cape Fear.

On his great NBC specials with Barrie Chase, Fred Astaire challenged and reinvented himself.  Hermes Pan did the choreography.  The stars danced to the music Astaire introduced in his iconic original screen musicals with Ginger Rogers.  They also put jazz standards and current pop music on the menu. They were quite a pair in the 1960s.

On their Emmy-winning first special, the age-defying Fred Astaire was nearly 60.  Here's Astaire with Barrie Chase and jazzman Jonah Jones in a highlight from that special.

In a previous blog ("With Fred Astaire"), I wrote that one of my favorite high school teachers was lucky enough to have seen Astaire dance when he was a Broadway star.  Miss McConarty was my English Lit. teacher at Verbum Dei High School in South Los Angeles.  She knew that Astaire was my favorite entertainer and shared the theatrical experience from her girlhood with me.  She told me that, as amazing as it would seem, you couldn't take your eyes off Adele Astaire when they danced.  Fred's beloved sister was a wonderful dancer.  They were a team.  In hit Broadway musicals of the 1920s and early '30s that toured London, his co-star  and his famous first partner was his sister, Adele.  She never made a movie, although Fred tried to coax her into motion pictures.  She happily retired after their Broadway hits and married an Englishman with a title.

I asked Miss McConarty who, of the women Fred danced with in films, had a style that came closest to Adele's.  She replied, "Barrie Chase." So, in a way, Fred Astaire came full circle with Barrie Chase as his final dance partner.

The dancer/actress is scheduled to attend the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival, which begins April 25th in Hollywood.  It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and Cape Fear will be show.

On network TV from 1958 to 1968, Barrie Chase and Fred Astaire were one terrific team.

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