So as I was writing the "TCM Watch" post below, I turned on the end of The Gay Divorcee which was showing as part of Fred Astaire Day. Well that was a mistake. Next thing I know, it was 2 AM and I had gotten nothing done (other than putting away the Fresh Direct delivery and making some dinner -- but hey, that's what the pause button on a DiVo is for) but watch four magnificent Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dance-musical extravaganzas: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance. As it is, I had to force myself to turn off The Barkleys of Broadway, the last Fred & Ginger collaboration and the only one shot in color. (I did record it though because I don't believe I've ever seen it.) And now, finally, five of their films are being released today on DVD as part of the "Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1": Top Hat, Swing Time, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance and The Barkleys of Broadway.
I hadn't actually sat through an entire Astaire-Rogers dancefest in quite a while, but it's so easy to get lost in them. Sure the stories are virtually all identical -- boy meets girl, falls in love, there's a misunderstanding and girl tries to ditch boy, boy dances his way back into her heart, and they live happily ever after. (With the exception of The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle which is unique among their films in having a somewhat sad ending that does not involve the young lovers coming together to get married; of course, this is because the Castles were a real couple -- one might even say the Nick & Jessica or Bennifer of their time, except talented -- with women modeling their hair and fashion after whatever Irene did. But then Vernon died during a routine training flight as part of his service in World War I.) But the simplicity of the stories is part of their charm. Nine of their 10 films together were made between 1934 and 1939, a time when World War I was still just "The Great War," the Great Depression was in recession thanks to the New Deal, and World War II, much less American involvement in it, was just starting to simmer. It was a time when because of everything the country had gone through the previous two decades, frivolity was what they wanted even needed from their entertainment. Throw in the tremendous music from the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern, and you get these marvelous light, frothy, fun, and even magical musicals featuring two of the greatest dancers to ever grace the stage or screen. It's amazing, in fact, to remember how many old popular jazz standards that people might even recognize today came from these movies such as "Top Hat" and "Isn't This a Lovely Day (to Be Caught in the Rain)" from Top Hat, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Pick Yourself Up" from Swing Time, and "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (the tomAYto-tomAHto song) and "They Can't Take That Away From Me" from Shall We Dance
Astaire always manages to make every step and move look so easy. He's graceful and elegant, and even when he's tapping with ferocity, he still somehow appears to float a millimeter above the floor. Rogers always manages to match him step-for-step, and as I've often heard it said by those who think Rogers was overshadowed by her dance partner, she had the harder job; she had to do all the same steps, just often backwards. There's the standard Astaire-Rogers move of finishing a dance by simply exiting stage left and completely leaving frame, such as when Astaire saves Rogers' job as a dance instructor in Swing Time; or switched up slightly in the magnificent roller-skating number in Shall We Dance. And never has dance been such an effective metaphor for sex than in what are really numerous love scenes performed by this couple. (There's the great moment in Top Hat when Rogers actually describes their previous dance as them have "made love" together.) At the very end of Top Hat as the couple has just gotten married, they twirl off screen as the picture fades to black so fast and furious, you can't help but wonder how they're not tripping over each other (although it almost look like Rogers almost does at one point), but they're so in synch, and its an even more effective representation of their passion than most modern loud, fast, colorful, sweaty sex scenes. (Uhm, not that there's anything wrong with those either.)
The final dance in Shall We Dance contains some marvelous dance-consummating-the-relationship elements too. Rogers has come to see Astaire's performance to serve him with divorce papers, only to discover that since he doesn't want to dance with anyone else, he has all the female dancers on stage wearing a mask of her face. She runs backstage and puts on one of the masks herself, in the middle of the number giving him an audible clue that she's there. He begins unmasking the dancers one-by-one until he reaches Rogers. She comes center stage with him as the rest of the dancers leave the two of them alone to their version of the bedroom, and they proceed to spin and fly around the stage, finishing their dance (and the whole film) in an orgiastic ta-da right out to the audience (and directly into the camera) as they sing about how nobody thought they'd end up together.
Oh sure, modern critical thinking might ask, "Uhm, how does Ginger always know all the steps Fred is about to make? Like the whole mask thing? She obviously wasn't there for rehearsal." Yeah, whatever. This is a world of romance 70 years removed from today. It's a world where if one said "dinner jacket," one would know that meant a tuxedo. These days, I'm not wearing a tux unless I'm in a wedding or going to an awards show, and thankfully, I haven't had to do too much of either.
I know I sound nostalgic about all this and to a degree I am while simultaneously feeling the opposite. I wouldn't want to live in the 1930s (although I'd love to visit). For all the magic and romance, this was still a closed and segregated time in our society and country. These films were as extravagant as they were specifically because it would give the audience something it didn't know or have. Astaire starts Swing Time riding the rails to New York and arriving with nothing but his lucky quarter, yet somehow able to connive his way into a pretty nice apartment and the necessary dinner jacket. This same film, made in 1936, also features a number called "Bojangles in Harlem" where Astaire dances in blackface, and in Shall We Dance he does a full number in a cruise ships steam room entertaining the below decks crew which is noticeably all black, smiling and singing songs.
Still, it was jarring as I watched these films to realize that as I sit on the verge of 34 (t-minus 47 days), Astaire was that same age when he and Rogers appeared together for the first time in Flying Down to Rio. But I'm not as old as Fred Astaire. That's impossible. Astaire is one of those actors who always seemed older because no matter how rakish his character may be, he was always an adult, always a gentleman, always a romantic.
There won't ever be another pairing like Fred & Ginger. You simply couldn't make movies like this anymore: the audience would be bored. It's hard enough to make a successful (and good) movie musical now. One that centered around tap, swing and ballroom dancing? Forget about it. But thankfully, the wonderful thing about movies that give them a slight advantage over the live performing arts like theatre, ballet and opera is that we can always re-experience them in roughly the form they were originally intended. Maybe not always in a big movie palace, but at least its images on a screen. A videotaped play isn't the same because good theatre actually depends on the organic interaction between performance and audience being in the same live space together. That's obviously not a problem for film, and every now and then, one can find oneself caught up in a marathon of classics like the films in "Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1". Thanks a lot TCM.