Wednesday, May 10, 2017

A Fred Astaire Dance Break

I was a devoted Fred Astaire by the time I was in the 5th grade.  Seriously.  Ask my younger sister and our mom.  They'll back me up.  Fred Astaire's work ignited my passion for film.  In my adult years, when I was so blue that I didn't feel I had a laugh left in my soul, his work would snap me right out of that mood and give me the gumption to pick myself, dust myself off and start all over again.  He was born on May 10th.  When he died in 1987 at age 88, my mother called me to express her condolences.  That's how much I loved his artistry.
With all the soul-draining news coming out of Washington this week, I think we could use a Fred Astaire Dance Break.
Let me share some of his genius with you.  SWING TIME (1936).  One of his RKO classics made with Ginger Rogers, his most famous dance partner in films.  Fred Astaire introduced many songs that became standards in the Great American Songbook.  Here's one of them.  "Pick Yourself Up."  Ginger plays a dance instructor, a working class woman trying to make something of herself.  He's irritated her in a "meet-cute" in midtown Manhattan during morning rush hour.  She has no idea he's a professional dancer.  He's followed her into her workplace and pretends to need lessons so he can get to know her. 
Her boss she's that she's in a snit with a customer and fires her on the spot.  He quickly leaps into action to save her job.  Notice Astaire's acting in the dance and how perfectly Ginger reacts.  He is showing off for her boss so that she keep her job.  He's playing two registers at once.  He wants to charm her and, at the same time, get her re-hired by pretending to have learned his dance skill from her.  He pulling a fast one.  The number also shows that, as dance partners, these two are perfect for each other and we root for them to stay together.
In FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936), Astaire and Rogers had another original score, this one by Irving Berlin.  Their characters helped a friend in need and perform in a benefit show.  Their number is a new song called "Let's Face The Music and Dance."  In the number, he's a gambler in Monte Carlo whose luck has run out.  He encounters a sad young woman about the jump into the ocean and end it all.  He dances her back to mental health.
Astaire, in the 1940s, had moved on from the RKO musicals with Ginger Rogers. During WW2, he played a decorated WW2 fighter pilot in THE SKY'S THE LIMIT (1943).  While on leave, he wants to be just a regular guy and not a celebrity as he has been on a morale booster tour. He hides his try identity and falls for a lovely Manhattan photographer tired of being assigned fluffy pop news features. She'd like WW2-related assignments.  The two have a tiff and break up shortly before he has to report back to duty.  She's unaware he's on leave. Astaire introduces a song written for him by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen called "One For My Baby."  Notice how Astaire varies his degree of drunkenness as he sings.  He choreographed this number himself and was in his early 40s when he did it.  When folks constantly compliment Gene Kelly's dancing as being "athletic" but never apply that word to Astaire's work, I always want to make them watch this number.
Fred Astaire's autobiography, STEPS IN TIME, had great praise for Ginger Roger's professionalism and hard work.  Astaire & Rogers were screen icons who became famous all over the world for their musicals.  Ironically, each got only one Oscar nomination in their film careers and their nominations were for dramatic roles.  Ginger won the Best Actress Oscar for the feminist drama KITTY FOYLE (1940).  He was a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for the all-star, box office blockbuster disaster movie THE TOWERING INFERNO (1974).  Fred Astaire should have been in the Best Actor Oscar category for Vincente Minnelli's brilliant musical comedy, THE BAND WAGON (1953).  In it, Astaire played a fading Hollywood star of 1930s musicals who reinvents himself in a jazzy new Broadway musical.  He's uneasy about having a younger co-star, one from the world of serious ballet. They bicker. But, during a truce as they enjoy the evening air of Central Park, they find a mutual rhythm and style.  In his autobiography, Astaire called dancer Cyd Charisse "beautiful dynamite."  THE BAND WAGON is one of Astaire's best musicals.  He did reinvent himself in it after a bit of a box office lull. Fred Astaire was in his early 50s when he made THE BAND WAGON.  To me, this number alone in THE BAND WAGON is better than all of LA LA LAND.  LA LA LAND got 14 Oscar nominations.  THE BAND WAGON got 3.  Don't get me started. Here's the sheer magic of "Dancing in the Dark."
Fred Astaire was crazy about his older sister, Adele.  When they were youngsters, Adele had a strong desire to take dance classes.  So their Omaha parents made her dream come true by relocating to New York City where she could take good professional classes.  Fred loved hanging out with Delly (as he called her) and enrolled in the same classes.  The rest is history.  They became a popular kid act in vaudeville and, by their late teens, were starring in Broadway musicals together.  By the their mid-20s, they toured London with their hit Broadway shows.  The Astaires were a top Broadway act and it seemed to be common knowledge that Adele was the better dancer.

Into the early 1930s, Fred Astaire was still a Broadway star.  Adele married into British society and retired happily.  Fred tried and tried to coax her in making movies but she graciously declined.  When I was in high school, I had an English Lit. teacher who'd grown up on the East Coast and loved theater.  She had seen The Astaires on Broadway in her youth.  She confirmed that Adele was one of the most lovable talents on Broadway and, yes, she was a better dancer than her brother.  If you can imagine that.  I asked her which of his dance partners after he became a Hollywood star came closest to having a style like Adele's.  She thought and replied, "Barrie Chase."

Barrie Chase, now 83, was an extraordinary dancer -- Astaire's last and one of his best partners. They danced in his Emmy-winning NBC specials of the 1960s and in a fun made-for-TV movie.  Classic film fans will know Barrie Chase as wacky Sylvester's stone-faced, bikini clad dancing girlfriend in IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD.  In the drama CAPE FEAR, she was the first victim, the woman beaten up by Robert Mitchum's criminal character.  Highly respected by choreographers, you see Barrie Chase as a stand-out chorus dancer in musicals such as SILK STOCKINGS and DADDY LONG LEGS (both with Astaire), WHITE CHRISTMAS and PAL JOEY.

When Astaire was in his mid-60s, he and Barrie Chase played rival entertainment business types vying to sign the same show biz clients to exclusive contracts.  Of course, at the end, the rivals become partners.  Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase ended the smooth 90-minute made-for-TV feature with this number. 
Dig it!  And, once again, Astaire was in his mid-60s when he did that.  Barrie Chase came from a family familiar with Hollywood entertainment.  Her dad, Borden Chase, was a top Hollywood screenwriter.  He did the screenplays for the westerns RED RIVER, BEND OF THE RIVER, THE FAR COUNTRY and WINCHESTER '73.

By the way, I feel Astaire should've gotten a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his first dramatic role -- as the scientist in Stanley Kramer's anti-nuclear war drama, 1959's ON THE BEACH. He's so strong in that role.

Thanks for taking this Fred Astaire Dance Break with me.


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