Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Lincoln Center Love for Astaire and Rogers

Never underestimate the power of the fine arts and the power that artists can have on our lives.  I've not revealed this to some close relatives, but it is true.  Before I started the 5th grade, I had been slapped, spat upon, whipped with a belt while I was totally naked, and someone had peed in my face.  That last one was a rather comical.  I was a latchkey kid.  Mom was a registered nurse. There were times when she and Dad, who also worked, might have to be out and would leave me in charge of my younger sister and our newborn baby brother.  So Mom, like a drill sergeant, taught me how to diaper the baby.  One time, as I removed the soiled diaper, my little baby brother sprang an energetic leak.  But, also before I started the 5th grade, I had discovered the artistry of Fred Astaire and the extreme joy of seeing him dance.
My love of classic films started very early in my life when I saw them on television.  I still remember the weekend afternoon day when I first was dazzled by Fred Astaire.  I was in the living room with Dad.  He was watching one of his idols -- famed golfer Sam Snead.  During the golf game telecast, a severe and sudden thunderstorm broke out bringing an early end to the match and the telecast.  The local channel aired back-up programming.  It put on an old RKO musical, FLYING DOWN TO RIO.  I saw Fred Astaire in a solo dance number and that was it.  I was hooked.  When he danced with Ginger and their foreheads touched whitle dancing "The Carioca," my spirits lit up like a Christmas tree in Rockefeller Plaza.  A few weeks later, that same station aired TOP HAT.  How'd I feel as I watched it?  To sample lyrics from one of the classic's original songs introduced by Mr. Astaire, "Heaven...I'm in Heaven..."
Throughout all the pains and humiliations of my life, in my childhood and today, a Fred Astaire musical number could always, always heal my heart and turn light back on in my soul.  Always.  Fred Astaire danced me into an interest in, an embrace of and a passion for the fine arts.
If you're in New York or if you're headed there for the weekend, keep this in mind.  Keep it in mind especially if you love the musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The Film Society of Lincoln Center salutes Astaire and Rogers starting this Friday.  There will be a three-day complete retrospective dedicated to their brilliance.  This goes from their RKO musicals of the 1930s in black and white to their MGM reunion in Technicolor in the late 1940s.  For more information, go to this website:

Here's the kind of screen magic that repeatedly healed my broken heart, made me smile and gave me the spirit to pick myself up, dust myself off and start all over again.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the "Pick Yourself Up" number in SWING TIME (1936).

Their dancing was not like what America sees on ABC's DANCING WITH THE STARS.  Fred and Ginger weren't dancing for a mirror ball trophy.  They were actors who danced in character.  Their numbers were a revelation of character and they advanced the emotions of the scene.  In the "Pick Yourself Up" number, the Manhattan dance instructor has no idea that the well-dressed man who hopes to ask her out is really a professional dancer.  He's determined to prove he's on the level by getting her re-hired.  So, the number shows that they'd be perfect partners and it's also an audition piece for employment.

In Ginger Rogers, Astaire did have a perfect partner for those times.  They changed the game of the Hollywood musicals with their 1930s original film musicals scored by Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. In other film assignments that didn't co-star Astaire, Ginger Rogers proved to be one of the top comedy actresses of her day in such films as Billy Wilder's THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR, in TOM, DICK AND HARRY, in ROXIE HART, BACHELOR MOTHER, STAGE DOOR, LUCKY PARTNERS and VIVACIOUS LADY.  Ironically, the two greats of Hollywood musicals each got one Oscar nomination in their long careers and those nominations came for work in dramatic films.  In the 1970s, Astaire was up for Best Supporting Actor for wearing a trademark tux and getting dirty in the box office blockbuster all-star disaster thriller, THE TOWERING INFERNO.  Ginger Rogers won a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar for a solid, truthful performance as a strong-willed, loyal, white collar career woman named KITTY FOYLE (1940), a movie with a definite feminist vibe.

There's a popular quote that "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire, except backwards and in high heels."  Was Ginger a multi-talented movie star?  Yes.  Did she deserve equal billing, equal pay and equal benefits?  Absolutely.  Did she do everything Fred did?  Not exactly.  Ginger never lifted and twirled Fred.

CAREFREE (1938) showcases Ginger's comedy chops and it boasts another original score by Irving Berlin.  At a country club dinner dance, popular radio personality Ginger coaxes stuffy psychiatrist Fred to get up and dance "The Yam."
And another thing.  Fred Astaire was nearly 40 when he did "The Yam" with that knockout ending.  When he and Ginger reteamed for THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY, a 1949 MGM musical, he was nearly 50.  Astaire was extraordinary.
The Lincoln Center retrospective on the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers screen partnership starts Friday, July 13th.  Treat yourself.

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