Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fred Astaire

We continue examining the voices that make up the Great American Songbook with a look at Fred Astaire (1899-1987).  Your correspondent must confess, upfront, his boundless admiration and affection for Astaire – indeed, it is my firm belief that when all good men die, as a reward they then become Fred Astaire.
At this point, many of my readers are wondering why Astaire, one of the protean dance figures of the 20th Century, is included in a review of the voices of the Great American Songbook.  Well, I have included Astaire because, not only is he the greatest dancer to appear in motion pictures, but he was also a singer of subtle and distinct phrasing, who knew what a popular song needed and delivered it with a (seemingly) effortless panache.  In fact it was Irving Berlin (1888-1989) – who, along with Cole Porter (1891-1964) and George Gershwin (1898-1937) comprises the trinity of 20th Century songwriting genius – who said his favorite singer was Fred Astaire.  Several of Berlin’s signature tunes, including Dancing Cheek to Cheek, Steppin’ Out With My Baby, and Puttin’ On the Ritz – were all introduced by Astaire.
So, for the purposes of this exercise, we will overlook Astaire’s monumental contribution to the dance (which, admittedly, is rather like writing about Saturn without mentioning its rings).  Nor will we take especial interest in his consummate style – indeed, cineastes debate who was the most debonair man in American cinema: Astaire or Cary Grant (1904-1986).  While many cite Grant’s well-tailored ease, there was something about Astaire’s carriage and poise that bespoke magic.  It is possible to derive pleasure simply by watching Astaire walk … and snippets of Astaire walking down Fifth Avenue in Easter Parade (1948) should be required viewing before leaving any respectable school.
Astaire is famous for his “white tie and tails,” an ensemble which he personally loathed.  But Astaire was more than formal wear: his leisure clothes were relaxed and unaffected yet elegant.  An unusually thin man (co-star Bing Crosby said he could “spit through him”), Astaire was blessed with the ability to inhabit his clothes rather than having them wear him. 
Instead, let’s look at Astaire the actor and the singer.  He entered movies dancing beside Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933).  It was really little more than a cameo; and he and Ginger Rogers were supporting players in their first film together, Flying Down to Rio (1933).  He and Rogers (1911-1995) were sensations in that film, and they went on to make a total of 10 films together, including Swing Time (1936), Top Hat (1935), and Shall We Dance (1937).  The Astaire-Rogers corpus encompasses some of the finest American musical films ever made, and is essential to an understanding of the evolution of American musical movies.
Astaire in the 1930s is a marvel.  His performances are simple and easy – he exudes enthusiasm, high spirits and an unaffected sophistication.  He seems almost boyish and at times brash – he is irresistible.  And, aside from his acting, his singing has a unique lyricism.  (Jerome Kern would consider him the supreme male interpreter of his songs).
And then … something happened.  The 1930s were Astaire’s first heyday, but he lost considerable ground in the early 1940s.  It’s not that he did not make good films – his Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946) with Bing Crosby are quite terrific – and some of his loveliest dance partners come from this era, including Rita Hayworth and Eleanor Powell. 
What happened, really, was the national zeitgeist changed.  In the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, it was important for Americans to have, I think, a sophisticated ideal.  White tie and tails and penthouses and cocktails were the stuff of dreams, and Astaire personified an ideal that many aspired to, but could never achieve.
With World War II, the struggle against Nazism was a struggle carried mainly by the Average Joe.  In fact, I believe that the 1940s were Crosby’s decade more than Astaire’s because Crosby was able to capture that Average Joe quality of that moment in ways that were simply beyond Astaire’s temperament and ability. 
And so, after playing second fiddle to Crosby again in Blue Skies, Astaire retired … only to reappear a short two years later, teaming with Judy Garland to make the now classic Easter Parade.  This film started a new collaborative period with MGM, and a new phase of his career.
During this second chorus for Astaire, he made some of his finest films, including Royal Wedding (1951), Funny Face (1957), Silk Stockings (1957) and, perhaps his masterpiece, The Band Wagon (1953).  Many of his most famous ‘trick’ dances – including dancing on the walls and ceiling, hoofing with a hat stand, and dancing with a legion of disembodies shoes – occur in these films.
Curiously, though, there is a profound change in Astaire in his post Easter Parade films.  His dancing is more fluid, more sensuous, more ornate than his movements of the 1930s, but his acting seems to have constricted somewhat, as if letting lose in the dance left too little energy for fun in his performances.  The Astaire persona of the 1940s and 1950s is a little tighter, a little more crabbed than the buoyant boy of the 1930s.
After Silk Stockings, Astaire went on to triumphs in television, winning an Emmy for one of his many TV specials, and straight acting roles in a wide range of films, both good and bad.  But nothing could take away the memory of his greatest achievements.
Astaire’s artistic contribution to the American culture is a unique one.  Not only was he the preeminent popular dancer of his day, but Astaire was a gifted film actor and, most important here, one of the great interpreters of popular song.  His movements were music, his speaking voice had a unique rhythm, his singing a gift of phrasing and style.  Fred Astaire is, simply put, the greatest artist to appear in American musical films.

Tomorrow – the Frank Sinatra Paradox!

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