Monday, April 06, 2009

'Puttin' On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography'


From The Wall Street Journal:

By Peter J. Levinson

Excerpted from "Puttin' On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography" by Peter J. Levinson, with permission from St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.

Chapter Four

Fred and Ginger

Almost a month before Fred and Phyllis were married, RKO announced it was sending a camera crew to Brazil to film background and aerial scenes for its forthcoming musical production, "Flying Down to Rio." A succession of casting notices followed in the film press. The volume of publicity was designed to alert the movie audience that "Rio" was going to be a major film musical. (1)

RKO was an acronym for the combination of the Radio Corporation of America and the theatre chains of Keith and Orpheum. The film company was established in 1928 when Joseph P. Kennedy (yes, that Kennedy) persuaded David Sarnoff, the chairman of RCA, to venture into the movie business. The company, at first, showcased RCA's sound on film. However, by 1933 its yearly film slates were extremely unpopular, and RKO was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.

Merian C. Cooper had replaced David O. Selznick as production chief at RKO. While trying to move "Flying Down to Rio" and other films into production, Cooper was heavily involved in putting together an adventure film about a giant ape captured on a small South Pacific island who wreaks havoc while being held captive in New York. It was to be called "Kong."

Earlier in 1933, Cooper had signed Ginger Rogers to the studio. By then, Rogers was a film actress having appeared in twenty-five films. She had recently made a significant impression in "Gold Diggers of 1933," still considered rather a milestone musical of the Depression period.(2) Her rendition of "We're In the Money" was one of the highlights of the movie.

When Fred reported for work, he had no idea who had been assigned to work with him since the final casting for the picture was still incomplete. For a time, Dorothy Jordon was seriously considered by Cooper as Astaire's dancing partner. She had been Adele's understudy in "Funny Face." Jordon, however, ultimately married Cooper and left with him for Europe on their honeymoon as the picture moved into production.(3)

On the third day of filming, Astaire was informed that Ginger Rogers might be appearing in the film, but he still wasn't at all sure if she was going to be dancing with him since of late Ginger had concentrated on playing several dramatic parts.(4) He questioned whether she was that interested in a dancing role. When it was ultimately decided that she would be cast opposite Fred, they had a joyful reunion and looked forward to working together, this time as dance partners. Ginger helped him to become more comfortable working with the camera.(5) Already a seasoned actress, she possessed tricks of the trade that Astaire was not yet familiar with.

Dave Gould was assigned as dance director for the movie, but Fred found himself drawn to the keen, foreword looking ideas of Hermes Pan, Gould's assistant, who had a great physical resemblance to Fred, although Pan was slightly taller. Pan, had, of course, worked with Ginger in "Top Speed" on Broadway. He had never seen Fred perform but remembered, "he was already famous for doing broken rhythm dancing… on the beat, off the beat, back and forth."(6)

On the first day of shooting, their rapport was immediate when Pan showed Fred the way out of a troubling bit of choreography by suggesting he execute a tap "break." At that moment, whether he realized it or not, Fred Astaire had found his muse. Basically, they thought exactly alike about film dancing. A lifetime association was born. Fred once referred to Pan as "The rock ... He doesn't make any fuss about anything." (7)

Pan reflected on their association by saying, "I didn't influence his style because he was already a star when I was starting out. People naturally influence each other whether it's unconscious or not. Later on, I could see certain moves or attitudes he would never have done before." (8)

Fred was called "Fred Ayres" in the "Flying Down to Rio" screenplay. It was a halfhearted attempt to establish his name with moviegoers. He was signed for $1,500 a week, and due to overtime wound up making $10,000 on the film.

The movie opens in a Miami hotel where Fred appears as the best friend of Gene Raymond, the bandleader/songwriter/aviator. (Vincent Youmans wrote the film's score.) Raymond has on camera romance with the Mexican beauty, Dolores del Rio, who entices Raymond to fly her to Rio de Janeiro for the grand opening of the Hotel Atlantico.(9) In Miami, in a scene that was originally tinted in a rose color, but never released in that form, Fred and Del Rio dance a tango together. Unfortunately, no sparks flew in their number.

Ginger was billed fourth and Fred fifth in the film. Their roles were incidental to the plot and their characters have no interrelationship. While Ginger sang "Music Makes Me," as the vocalist in Raymond's band, Fred is seen playing the accordion in the band. Fred's version of "Music Makes Me," along with the title song, supplied Fred with another two-sided hit record. He also lead the band in the spectacular, well remembered title number in which a bevy of leggy chorus girls pose seductively and then dance while strapped atop the wings of the biplanes flying in formation above the Atlantico Hotel. (10) Though this sequence was the essence of camp, made possible by rear projection and process shots, film audiences marveled at how vivid and absolutely incredible it was.

What excited movie audiences even more, however, was Fred and Ginger dancing together to "The Carioca," shot at a cost of $600 as a major production number shot in a mere three days on a set representing the Carioca Casino in Rio. (11) Buoyed by Ginger's suggesting, "Let's show them a thing or three," Fred grabs Ginger's hand and they sprint determinedly onto the dance floor. The impact of their dance causes the other dancers to back away to give them more room. This is followed by twenty-five couples in Brazilian costumes, then a group of black Northern Brazilians, who add even more variations to the Latin dance number. Fred and Ginger return for a spectacular finale, dancing atop seven pianos, arranged to form a circular dance floor. (12)

(1) "Starring Fred Astaire" by Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, (1973), Page 58; (2) "Starring Fred Astaire" by Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, (1973), Page 58, 59 (3)"Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life" by Bill Adler Carroll & Graf Publishers; 1st Carroll & Graf ed edition, (1987), Page 90; (4) "Steps In Time" by Fred Astaire, The Cooper Square Publication Edition, New York (2000), Page 185 (5) "Fred Astaire: A Bio-Bibliography (Bio-Bibliographies in the Performing Arts) by Larry Billman, Greenwood Press, (1997), Page 13 (6) "Fred Astaire: A Bio-Bibliography (Bio-Bibliographies in the Performing Arts) by Larry Billman, Greenwood Press, (1997), Page 13 (7) "Oral History Collection of Columbia University," 1983, Beverly Hills, by Mr. Higham, Page I-4 (8) "That's Dancing! From the jazz singer to the present day, some 1500 musical have been made in Hollywood" by Tony Thomas, Harry Abrams Inc., New York (1984), Page 92 (9) "Starring Fred Astaire" by Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, (1973), Page 63 (10) "Starring Fred Astaire" by Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, (1973), Page 64 (11) "Flying Down To Rio" RKO Production Papers, Special Collection, UCLA Library (12) "Starring Fred Astaire" by Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt, Dodd, Mead & Company, New York, (1973), Page 65

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