Monday, August 24, 2009

They Seem To Find The Happiness They Seek

From The New York Times:

August 16, 2009

By ALASTAIR MACAULAY

When people fall in love, they opt for an experience that others have had before. Very often that’s what they have in mind: they would like to share some of what happened to Romeo and Juliet, or Lizzy and Darcy or maybe just their parents. One of those archetypes of romance was born 75 years ago, with the release of “The Gay Divorcee,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The cinema has had many classic couples: several, in fact, in 1934, the year of “It Happened One Night,” “Twentieth Century” and “The Thin Man.” But it has never had another couple who enshrined romantic love so definitively in terms of dance.

Dancing together, Astaire and Rogers expressed many of love’s moods: courtship and seduction, repartee and responsiveness, teasing and challenge, the surprise of newfound harmony, the happy recapture of bygone romance, the giddy exhilaration of high spirits and intense mutual accord, the sense of a perfect balance of power, the tragedy of parting and, not least, the sense of love as role playing. It’s startling how many of those shades are already present in “Night and Day,” their first romantic duet together, in “The Gay Divorcee.”

The story has often been told. Astaire (1899-1987), after years of partnering his sister, Adele, broke through to a new romantic seriousness in 1932, when partnering Claire Luce onstage in London in Cole Porter’s “Gay Divorce,” particularly in the number “Night and Day.” He went to Hollywood as a fully grown star in 1933. When he and Rogers (1911-95) were given fifth and fourth star billing in RKO’s “Flying Down to Rio” that year, their brief fling in the “Carioca” number became its biggest sensation.
“The Gay Divorce” was promptly adapted for the screen as “The Gay Divorcee” for the new star team. Astaire and Rogers went on to make seven more RKO movies together in the 1930s. Astaire choreographed, and the specifications he made for how the camera should follow him set unsurpassed standards: Film the dancers full-frame, without close-up; keep reaction shots to a minimum; run the dance in as few takes as possible, preferably just one.

He went on to partner many other women. (Astaire aficionados like to debate who, after Ginger, complemented him best. Rita Hayworth? Cyd Charisse? Eleanor Powell? Gracie Allen?) But though he developed the artistry of his solos in the 1940s, his screen chemistry with Rogers has never been matched.

Watching “Night and Day” as danced by Astaire and Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee,” we can’t tell how much Astaire adapted it since performing it with Luce, and Rogers is not yet as supple and skilled a dancer as she would be two years later. Yet we see the Astaire-Rogers alchemy in full force. Much of it has to do with Rogers’s multifaceted reactions to Astaire.
Her face is riveting because it has such restraint. Among the breathtaking aspects of her performance are her sudden stops to address him (as if acknowledging the force field between them); the suggestions that at one point she is helplessly sleepwalking but that, at another, having great fun; the very sweet way she implies that love (and dancing with a partner) is something she is happily learning as she goes along; the ripples that pass at different moments through her spine and pelvis; the huge, determined strides she takes to break away from him at one juncture, and then, when he stops her, the mysteriously fluent near-slap she gives him (and the soft way she watches him as he reels back across the room). Astaire leads throughout and is compelling. But her responses, from face to foot, give this duet its depth.

Two years after the “Gay Divorcee” Rogers reached her apogee in “Swing Time” (1936). By now she has a dancer’s body as beautiful as any the screen has ever seen. The glimpses of her legs in their “Pick Yourself Up” number (her calf-length skirts fly as they tap) are enough to make you gasp. Her spine can now arch and bend in many ways, all apparently full of feeling; the slenderness of her waist is always ravishing.

Yet she never looks rarefied or trained. For that matter, she doesn’t behave like a great beauty and isn’t presented as one. Her ordinariness and spontaneity (just watch her arms and hands) are central to her attractiveness. While she always retains these qualities, there are parts of “Swing Time” (and other Astaire-Rogers movies of their prime) in which she and Astaire become divinities and, together, epitomize glamour, love and dance.

Perhaps the high of highs is the “Waltz in Swing Time,” filmed in one take. Astaire is in black tie, Rogers in full-length white. This dance is a novelty number, like several others in their films (“The Carioca,” “The Continental,” “The Piccolino,” the tap dance on roller skates, “The Yam”) and probably the most miraculous in terms of pure dance. They’re moving fast and percussively, yet the impression is of an unbroken slow-traveling legato flow. They’re combining swing and waltz rhythms (it feels like riding two horses at once), yet the impression isn’t of rhythmic virtuosity so much as of impulsive rapture.

It’s my impression that Astaire and Rogers have become even more classic than ever. Now that ballroom dance has been repopularized by “So You Think You Can Dance,” the Astaire-Rogers image is often invoked. (“Burn the Floor,” the skillfully repellent stage musical currently on Broadway, which features 16 stars of “So You Think,” has an episode in which one couple and then another appear dressed as Astaire and Rogers, with the music quoting their “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number from the 1936 “Follow the Fleet.”)

Only in the 1960s did the Astaire-Rogers duets first receive serious critical attention as great choreography. In 1965 Arlene Croce, who until then had been best known as a film critic, founded Ballet Review magazine (which flourishes still), and one of her two remarkable contributions to the first issue was the essay “Notes on La Belle, La Perfectly Swell, Romance.” (It was republished in 2008 in Robert Gottlieb’s “Reading Dance” anthology.)
In 1972 Ms. Croce followed this with one of the best-loved works in dance literature, “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book.” In prose that perfectly rises to the thrill of these classics, she herself produced a classic. It has been quoted and cited in innumerable books on Astaire and Rogers, on Astaire, on film musicals and on romantic comedy. It’s out of print now, but since it has been reissued in the past, it’s fair to hope it will be reissued again.

In the 1960s and ’70s you had to wait for Astaire-Rogers movies on television or in revival houses. In the case of “Roberta” (1935) you often had to wait years. Ms. Croce rightly calls this “their most ebullient film.” But MGM (which remade it in 1952 as “Lovely to Look At”) tried to bury it for decades. Now you can get a DVD boxed set of all 10 Astaire-Rogers movies and watch “Roberta” to your heart’s content. The “Swing Time” DVD can be watched with a commentary by John Mueller, whose 440-page study “Astaire Dancing” (1986) is as indispensable to Astaire studies as Ms. Croce’s book.

Ms. Croce’s taste and eminently quotable prose and Mr. Mueller’s detailed analysis hang over two recent books, Hannah Hyam’s “Fred & Ginger” (Pen Press Publishers) and Joseph Epstein’s “Fred Astaire” (Yale University Press). These are, however, diametrically opposite writers. Mr. Epstein casually remarks, “I cannot remember whether I’ve watched ‘Top Hat’ five or six times, but I continue to find new little things in it,” whereas Ms. Hyam, no less casually, says about the “Waltz in Swing Time” that “it is necessary to watch it at least a dozen times before we can even begin to grasp the wealth of detail in which it abounds.”

I don’t need to read 191 pages on Astaire by someone who has watched “Top Hat” only six times at most (“dull as the script is,” Mr. Epstein writes of it) and relies heavily on references and quotations from the writing of others. At one point Mr. Epstein tells us that “Astaire probably overrehearsed,” at another why he needed to rehearse so much.

After quoting from Edwin Denby, Ms. Croce, Mr. Mueller and Charles (Honi) Coles, he gives us this aper├žu of his own about “Top Hat”: “You have this pretty girl and this far from handsome yet smoothly attractive guy, and the two of them join together to dance like nobody else, before or since, and some terrific music is playing much of the time, so what the hell, but wouldn’t it be great if life had more such moments: glamorous, romantic, elegant, yes, and uncomplicatedly happy.” By the way, “Top Hat” seems to be the Astaire film Mr. Epstein has watched the most.

Ms. Hyam, by contrast, is an Astaire-Rogers nerd. She has little sense of context outside their movies, she scarcely attends to the music, and too much of her writing consists of plodding exposition. Some of the best points occur in the notes at the back. (In the main text she finds the script for “Top Hat” to be “clever, witty.” You have to turn to the notes to see how she points to the symmetry with which Astaire says, “If I ever forgot myself with that girl, I’d like to remember it,” and Rogers, 20 minutes later, says, “I’ll make him remember me in a manner he’ll never forget.”)

But her book is as knowledgeable as it is loving. When she disagrees, seldom, with Ms. Croce (in “Top Hat,” for example, she finds Ms. Croce misses the point of the “several dreamy backbends” — Ms. Croce’s phrase — in “Cheek to Cheek”), she makes you see why. (This spectacular duet probably isn’t as moving as it should be, not, I think, because of the choreography but simply because this is their least spontaneous performance. Its filming was notoriously complicated by the way Rogers’s stunning dress kept shedding feathers all over the set; even after revisions and multiple takes, a few feathers are still falling on screen.)

As Ms. Hyam proceeds, she makes points that send you back to watch the films again. Of the “Waltz in Swing Time” she quotes both Ms. Croce and Mr. Mueller to good effect before adding, “One astonishing sequence among the so many: when Rogers, facing Astaire, joyfully curves her body for him to vault over it, twice, and a third time presents her slightly inclined back for him to repeat this most intimate maneuver — just before they both rush headlong, in each other’s arms, into the final stage of the dance.” When you check it out, you find that you love the number even more as a result.

Neither book refers to another classic, James Harvey’s “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges,” which perceptively sets Astaire and Rogers in full film context and gives us much more to see and consider. And neither reflects on the baroque intricacy of the numerous shows within films and dramas within dramas with which these movies abound.
The sense that Fred and Ginger keep playing roles (roles within their roles) ought to make them in these films more artificial, more tongue in cheek; but instead it gives them — and the different aspects of love they express — depth and complexity. Often when they’re doing a dance scene that (the plot tells us) they have rehearsed and that they are performing for an audience (which applauds) they turn out to be at their most spontaneous and piercing, and their love seems at its most real. Ms. Hyam is right: We need to keep returning to these movies. Hilarious and entrancing as they often are, they endlessly repay close study.

1 comment:

karim said...

An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

Thanks,
Karim - Mind Power