Of all of the places the movies have created, one of the most
magical and enduring is the universe of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. To a
series of movies made between 1933 and 1939, they brought such grace and humor
that they became the touchstone of all things elegant. “Whenever any kind of
question of style or taste comes up,” the director Gregory Nava once told me, “I
simply ask myself--what would Fred Astaire have done?”
and Rogers were, first of all, great dancers. So were a lot of other film
performers, including Astaire's partners (Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, Cyd
Charisse) after Rogers turned to serious dramatic roles. But what Fred and
Ginger had together, and what no other team has ever had in the same way, was a
joy of performance. They were so good, and they knew they were so good, that
they danced in celebration of their gifts.
at the final moment of their number “Isn't It a Lovely Day?” in “Top Hat”
(1935). It begins with her mocking him, following him around a bandstand with
her hands in her pockets. It escalates into a passionately physical dance in
counterpoint to thunder and lightning, and then slows down into a sequence
where they imitate each other's styles and moves. Finally, satisfied, they plop
down on the edge of the bandstand and shake hands.
have always thought that handshake was between the dancers, not their
characters. More than any other dancers in the history of film, Astaire and
Rogers occupied real time. Godard told us in the 1960s that “the cinema is
truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.” Astaire arrived at the same
conclusion 35 years earlier. He believed every dance number should be filmed,
as nearly as possible, in one unbroken take, always showing the full figures of
the dancers from head to toes.
are no cutaways to an admiring audience--Astaire thought that was a
distraction. No cuts, or very few, to different points of view (in “Swing Time,”
the camera is on a crane to follow them up flights of stairs from a lower dance
floor to a higher one). And no closeups of the dancer's faces, for that would
deny us the movement of their bodies. (After seeing the dance film “Stayin'
Alive” in 1983, Rogers sniffed to me: “The young people today--they think they
can dance with their faces!”)
you see anyone--an athlete, a musician, a dancer, a craftsman--doing something
difficult and making it look easy and a joy, you feel enhanced. It is a victory
for the human side, over the enemies of clumsiness, timidity and exhaustion.
The cynical line on Astaire and Rogers was, “She gave him sex; he gave her
class.” Actually, they both had class, and sex was never the point. The
chemistry between Fred and Ginger was not simply erotic, but intellectual and
physical: They were two thoroughbreds who could dance better than anyone else,
and knew it. Astaire's later dance partners danced in his spotlight, but Ginger
Rogers, the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote, “shed her own light.”
was a painstaking craftsman who, usually working with the choreographer Hermes
Pan, preplanned even the slightest gesture in his dances. Rogers was a
performer, not a creator, but she was willing to rehearse until her feet
bled--and did. (“I did everything Fred did--backwards, and in heels.”) There is
the fiction in their films that the dance numbers between them just happen, as
a spontaneous expression of their feelings. They look carefree, but they're
tightly disciplined in timing and movement, and required unimaginable hours of
of the Astaire-Rogers musicals involve Fred falling in love with Ginger at
first sight, after which she backs cautiously away, only to be wooed in a
series of dance numbers. When she has finally fallen in love, incredible plot
contrivances make her think he's an adulterer, a philanderer, or engaged to
somebody else. In film after film, she shies away from the undeniable love
between them, only to be finally saved at the last moment during a dance scene
of great romance and passion. “Only a very good girl could be quite so shrewd
about life and so dumb about any man who threatens to race her blood,” Murray
Kempton wrote when she died in 1995.
best of the Astaire-Rogers films is their fifth, “Swing Time” (1936), directed
by George Stevens at a time when he was a king at RKO Radio Pictures (his other
credits in that period included “Alice Adams” and “Gunga Din”). The plot, with
its sly drolleries, is based like “Top Hat” on mistaken identities, but it's
wittier and more cleverly written; it could have been devised by P.G.
Wodehouse. It serves to link the great dance sequences, built around Jerome
Kern songs, including the climactic “Never Gonna Dance” number that may be the
high point of the Astaire-Rogers partnership.
song, which comes at the end and emotionally resolves all of their problems,
has always struck me as mirroring the act of lovemaking. It opens with Astaire,
dejected by rejection, walking slowly across the floor of a deserted nightclub.
Rogers follows him, just as depressed. Almost imperceptibly, their walk gathers
a quiet rhythm, until they are dancing without ever quite seeming to have
started. They dance apart, together, apart. Astaire uses his trademark of
changing tempo: Unrestrained passion changes suddenly to prolonged, drawn-out
steps suggesting slow motion. Then the tempo revives again.
brilliant sequence is Astaire's solo, the “Bojangles of Harlem” number.
Enlightened sensibilities are jarred by the sight of Astaire in blackface, but
the Cinebooks essay calls this “perhaps the only blackface number on film which
doesn't make one squirm today. His skin made up as an African American rather
than a minstrel-show caricature of one, Astaire dances an obvious tribute to
the great Bill Robinson.”
number includes a famous sequence in which Astaire dances in front of three
back-projected shadows of himself. The four figures are all in perfect sync for
most of the way, until the joke is revealed when one of the shadows breaks out
of sync, and eventually all three exit--unable to keep up with him. How did he
do this? The three background silhouettes have identical movements, and Astaire
mirrors them so well they seem to be his shadows, but apparently he simply
timed his live performance so well it mirrored the back projection. Such
technical discipline is awesome.
also the great number “Waltz in Swing Time,” in an astounding art deco
nightclub, as a duet about new love: Their movements don't suggest physical
passion, but that early stage of idealism in which lovers discover they're
soulmates. And the movie's first dance number, “Pick Yourself Up,” is funny for
the way Astaire pretends to be unable to dance, gets lessons from a dance
instructor (Rogers), gets her fired, and then dances a furiously energetic tap
number with her to prove to the boss that she did teach him something.
Astaire (1899-1987) had such a particular physical presence that he was easy
for cartoonists to caricature--he'd already done their work for them, with his
hair slicked back flat from a high forehead above his long, triangular face. He
wore clothes as if he had been born in them. His legs flopped over the arms of
chairs, as if sitting up straight was unnatural for him. His romantic rivals,
on the other hand, wore evening dress as if they had hair shirts underneath.
Rogers (1911-1995), almost as tall as Astaire, slender, athletic, with a face
more cheerful than classically beautiful, was Astaire's ideal partner even when
they weren't dancing. That's because they both knew, long before many of their
contemporaries, that less is more. Big broad facial reactions and strong
emotions would have destroyed these fragile films. Rogers survived her
ludicrous plots by never quite seeming to believe them. She was sad, but not
too sad; angry, but as an act, not an emotion.
the genuine poignancy of their endangered romances had to be expressed, it was
always through dance, not dialogue. That's why the “Never Gonna Dance” number
is so wonderful: In their voices and movements, they make it clear that if they
can't dance, they can't live. Well, maybe they can, but what fun would that be?