January 21st, 2017

Fred Astaire and…and…and…

Who was Astaire’s best partner?

Fred Astaire himself was unique, and as a solo performer in his genre he was unsurpassed. Period. It wasn’t just that he could choreograph routine after routine and bring freshness to each one. It wasn’t just that he could sing so well that, despite the thinness of his somewhat reedy voice, many stellar songwriters considered him the very best interpreter of their creations and competed to write songs especially for him.

It wasn’t just that he could do the steps. Oh, he could do them, all right. But every single movement had a purpose, a meaning, an emotion, an emphasis of phrasing that was very much his own; no empty tap tap tapping for him.

Astaire is remembered for his partnership with Ginger Rogers, but he danced with many other dancers (including his first partner, his sister Adele, who was supposed to have been fantastic but of whom only still photos like this one remain to let us know what we’re missing):

There were a lot of “better” dancers (technically) than Ginger who partnered with Fred. Some were balletic. Some were very strong tap dancers, such as Eleanor Powell. I know that a lot of people consider Powell the very best, technically unstoppable. But to me she’s of no particular interest at all. Her tapping is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing (a bit like Meryl Streep’s acting, I have to say). Here’s a video; you decide for yourself:

In the above clip, I can’t take my eyes off Fred. I see Powell too, and their side-by-side mirroring of the steps gives me a chance to see what he does that makes him so sublime, and what she fails to do that renders her a bore (to me, anyway; sorry Eleanor).

Now, maybe what I’m about to do isn’t fair. Because for comparison I’m going to put up one of the most beautiful numbers Astaire ever choreographed and danced with Ginger Rogers, and it’s of a very different nature than the fast and snappy Powell number above. It’s lushly romantic. But it’s not just that. It’s believably lushly romantic and somehow sexual as well, without even a hint of a salacious move. These two people are so closely aligned—emotionally and physically—without being in the least identical; so almost mystically attuned that you believe—in the mesmerizing power of dancing (see how he almost hypnotizes Rogers at the beginning) and the mesmerizing spell cast by love:

I’m throwing this next one in as an extra. It’s a solo by Astaire, one of his best. It’s a nice companion piece to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” because both cast “dance” as a sort of character, an actor in a little drama. In the pas de deux above, Fred sings to Ginger that they should dance, must dance, and “face the music” together, and then the music tells them what to do. In this next solo, Fred insists that he won’t dance, he will resist the urge to dance with her lest it lead to romance, as he knows it might. And yet he’s pulled into a solo dance against his will, again by the power of the music (certainly those Russian-guard extras in leftover costumes from “The Wizard of Oz” have little power to force him or to stop him):

You of course already know my answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this post. It was Ginger, Ginger, Ginger all the way.

42 Responses to “Fred Astaire and…and…and…”

  1. John Foster Says:

    Apparently, later in life, and when pressed, Astaire once said that his favorite was Rita Hayworth. Her beauty tends to obscure her dancing abilities. See, e.g.,
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mz3CPzdCDws.
    Rogers was, of course, the much better actress.

  2. John Foster Says:

    Also, one of the sexiest scenes in film history (to me, anyway) is this Astaire/Rogers dance:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dl6FLfHTC68
    Yikes!

  3. DNW Says:

    Best in what sense … hehehe

    I’ve become quite the Astaire movie expert in recent years as I’ve struggled to find my 80-something … almost 90 … parents suitable TV watching which doesn’t involve tongue lolling moral-imbeciles raving about the joys of oral immuration or self-abuse.

    No longer a ten year old sitting on the floor in front of a TV playing old movies, I also understand that Fred Astaire is not, and never was part of the Cagney/Bogart shoot-em-up genre as I once thought, and can appreciate his stuff for the smart alecky humor; if not the idiot plots.

    Since partner points are not awarded strictly on wholesomeness however, nor on precedence, nor on purity of technique which I could not judge even with a crib sheet, I vote for the girl in red. https://youtu.be/yuJxYmJlEHY?t=57

    I believe I have mentioned that here two or three or … times before.

    Have a nice weekend all.

    Freedom! LOL

  4. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    I suspect his sister Adele was beyond comparison. Her grace is evident in that photograph.

    Cyd Charise is most impressive but at least in that number does not show whether she could match Astaire’s grace, which IMO is a critical attribute when partnership with Astaire is considered.

    So Ginger gets my vote too.

  5. SR Says:

    …..and kudos to Rodgers’ costumer for that sheer number that displayed her terpsichorean assets to their fullest.

  6. zat Says:

    Not acting, not dancing, but dance-acting: Ginger wasn’t the best technical dancer, but perhaps the best fit for Fred’s original idea: the singing and dancing part should seamlessly be integrated into the plotline of the film.

    A new idea at the time, but when I grew up, there was the Muppets Show. They really celebrated this concept.

    I wondered if Fred or Ginger were ever guests in the show, but alas, it seems they were not. At least I found a short clip with Kermit and Miss Piggy performing “I Won’t Dance” from the movie Roberta, from which your clip above is. Not quite as good as Ginger and Fred, but what can you expect if you consider that they don’t have feet:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yr7v05KvggM

  7. chuck Says:

    From Wikipedia, “… the children began attending the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts”. Heh, love that name. Bet it would beat the H*ll out of attending Yale.

  8. Brian Swisher Says:

    Fun fact: in “Face the Music”, Ginger smacks Fred across the face with the heavy beaded sleeve of her gown. As you can see, Fred reacted minimally and carried on with aplomb. They tried doing a few more takes to get one without face-smacking, but none of them were as good as that take, so they shrugged and went with it.

  9. Nitpicker Says:

    Meryl Steep? I doesn’t matter what you say about her as long you spell her name wrong.

  10. parker Says:

    We have a 5dvd set of Fred and Ginger, it includes Shall We Dance. Great viewing to take you away from the weirdness around us.

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Nitpicker:

    What would I do without you 🙂 ?

    Will fix.

  12. neo-neocon Says:

    zat:

    The Muppets may not have feet, but they have happy feet:

  13. Eric J. Says:

    You may have already answered this but – Fred or Gene?

  14. neo-neocon Says:

    Eric J.:

    Don’t get me wrong—I like Gene very much. Very much.

    But to me it’s Fred Astaire, no contest really. Some quality of artistry that goes beyond anyone else, no matter how good. Every single thing Astaire does is done with a heap of style and meaning and ease.

  15. Matthew M Says:

    Fred and Ginger gave us the best kiss in screen history too. 😀

  16. Molly Brown Says:

    He was the spirit of movement incarnate.
    Having said that, my favorite quip about Astaire and Rodgers is; She did everything he did only in heels and backwards!

  17. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    I’m with you, Neo, that it was Ginger Rogers, hands down. (Hm-m, perhaps that should be “feet down). And the secret was that they never stopped acting while dancing nor stopped dancing while acting. Thus the seamless, sublime, synergetic quality of all their performances. There is personality in every step, every turn, every slant of the head or sweep and turn of a hand.

    I had the privilege of interviewing Ginger Rogers after Fred’s death and enjoyed a number of phone conversations with her after that. They were both very grounded people. She told me she loved the fact that when Astaire was once asked to comment on the “art” of dance, he answered, “Art, my foot, it’s sweat work.” She said she had never worked so hard as she did with Fred on their dance routines. In high heels, too. When they began work on a film, she often came home at night with sore and even bloody feet. She had the genius to see from the outset that Astaire was not just an amazing dancer but a talented actor who knew better than to depend on mere talent. He worked at his acting (and singing) too.

    Without being explicit about it, they both parlayed an alchemy of talent, humor and personality to became a screen phenomenon never to be matched. Gene Kelly tried; he came close (a couple of his dances with Fred are immensely entertaining) but I don’t think he attained that elusive quality that would make the audience identify with him and his partner.

    I think the starkest contrast between merely great dancing and what Fred and Ginger did is to view some videos of Marge and Gower Champion — two really superb dancers with amazing routines, but… but. No one can match Astaire and Rogers for truly engaging warmth and personality. You just find yourself so WITH them as they dance. Thanks for indulging me, Dear Neo.

  18. neo-neocon Says:

    Matthew M:

    That’s a great scene.

    They didn’t kiss on camera much. Everything was so subtle! But they did kiss a few times, as you can see here.

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Ralph Kinney Bennett:

    That sounds so wonderful, to have interviewed her!

    I used to watch their movies as a child, because they were on TV all the time. Saw them many many times, and it was always a treat.

    I agree with you totally about the acting. They were definitely a case the whole being far greater than the sum of its parts, and even the parts in this case were stupendously wonderful.

    It’s funny that the Champions were actually married but didn’t project the chemistry and just plain charm of Fred and Ginger.

    And Fred and Ginger were Republicans, too. For real.

  20. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Neo, you are just too much. I had planned, as the last sentence of my post to mention that Astaire and Rogers were Republicans. Ginger was particularly conservative.

  21. miklos000rosza Says:

    I vastly preferred Astaire to Kelly and once ended up in a big argument about it with someone who said “I know dance!” Because he’d had a girlfriend who was in a modern dance company — along with a great many other male musicians of that time.

    What particularly degraded Kelly’s performances for me were all the unfunny, over-broad attempts at humor. Those bits were just the worst.

  22. Ann Says:

    Just found a great quote in a Roger Ebert review of one of their movies, Swing Time:

    “Astaire’s later dance partners danced in his spotlight, but Ginger Rogers, the dance critic Arlene Croce wrote, ‘shed her own light’.”

    More good stuff in the review, which you can read here.

  23. John Salmon Says:

    Of course Cyd Charisse was the most athletic, and also the most beautiful. I can’t rate the dancing, but it’s hard to beat the total appeal of the Astaire-Rogers movies-singing, dancing comedy-and all the great sidekicks like Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton. I loved Gene Kelly as well, except when he sang-awful.

  24. Uffdaphil Says:

    As someone who can’t dance a lick, it’s difficult to express precisely what it is about Astaire that stands out above the rest of the screen hoofers. But I think maybe it is that he is always dancing with more of his body. Everything that can flex is expressing something – shoulders, hip, neck and those elegant hands. The legs may be the flashy soloist, but the rest of him is an orchestra.

    And yes, Fred plus Ginger just exudes joy.

  25. Aaron Trehub Says:

    Neo,

    Thanks for posting these. They’re great, especially “Let’s Face the Music…”. However, my vote would go to Rita Hayworth. Evidence:

    “So Near And Yet So Far”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qn7YcPQgPDo (from “You’ll Never Get Rich”, 1941)

    “I’m Old Fashioned”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXJjm4vZfpQ (from “You Were Never Lovelier”, 1942)

    “The Shorty George”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WUhhKELUxB0 (ditto)

    Hayworth made only two films with Astaire. She called them the jewels of her career. Hard to disagree, although “The Lady from Shanghai” was pretty good too.

  26. The Other Chuck Says:

    A beautifully written tribute, Neo. One of your best.

  27. Ralph Kinney Bennett Says:

    Aaron Trehub’s videos are compelling (but, to me, not totally convincing). Rita may well have been the best dancer and her beauty was just, well, fabulous. Margarita Cansino was literally a born dancer and her father, Eduardo Cansino was a very good dancer and dance instructor. If I recall correctly she had a relative — either her grandfather or an uncle — who was one of the most famous dancers and dance teachers in Spain. Her mother was a chorus girl in the Ziegfeld Follies, so, quite a “dancin'” pedigree there. Her show business career began as a dance partner with her father when she was barely a teenager. Like Fred Astaire, she was a dancer before she went into acting.

  28. neo-neocon Says:

    Uffdaphil:

    I think you’ve described it very well. Astaire made every movement a total one.

  29. Ben David Says:

    Oy – of all the possibilities you picked a clip in which Astaire and Rogers are limited to a tiny stage-within-the screen, and in which Rogers’ costume visibly limits her usually fluid upper body movement (which Astaire often used to great effect).

    And speaking of upper body – that’s really the difference I see between Powell and Astaire in the first clip. She’s dancing largely from the waist down.

    A more direct comparison would be the “dance school” number in Swing Time.

    I had not seen the Rita Hayward numbers until I clicked on the links. Lovely – but in all the clips she’s largely vertical and self-contained, without the pull of a partner’s orbit – she flicks her head around like a ballerina pirouetting, breaking the link to Astaire – and at crucial points she’s dancing for the camera: it’s no longer a love story in dance, the romance is lost.

    Rita and Cyd are gorgeous and great dancers – but that’s just it: you’re aware that your watching dancers. Rogers is acting – and reacting to Astaire – every step of the way. There’s nothing else – no cameras, no audience, no vaudeville smiles. We are eavesdropping… and it’s enchanting.

  30. Les Says:

    What also makes the dancing so good for me are the lyrics which help to set the mood.

  31. AesopFan Says:

    Watching the Powell clip, it’s not so much that she only dances from the waist down (pace, BD, her upper body is just as active as Astaire’s) but that tap dancing is a much more “masculine” show-case genre: girls in heels and skirts just look awkward, even when the performance is flawless, as hers is.
    Note that Astaire is a gracious partner as always – giving the girl a solo while he does a flat-footed revolve with her.

    Swing is a more “equitable” genre (seen in the recent neo post here http://neoneocon.com/2017/01/19/the-fountain-of-boogie-woogie-jitterbugging-youth/), and ballroom is fully “liberated” — both sexes look good dancing.

  32. neo-neocon Says:

    AesopFan:

    You may change your mind about tap and women if you look at Ginger Rogers in this clip (the dancing starts at 1:38) or this one (starting around minute 5). Or start this one at 3:25. Or this one starting at minute 1.

  33. betty Says:

    Paul Draper, followed closely by Gene Kelly, is my favorite tap dancer. Fred Astaire, with all his style and perfection of grace has always left me cold. I admire him without caring for him. reminding me of the famous nutshell re. Ginger & Fred: “Fred gave Ginger class.. she gave him sex appeal” -Katharine Hepburn. Not that I ever found Ginger lacking in class, but I certainly found Fred lacking in virile sex appeal. Together they made a wonderful duo. “There May Be Trouble Ahead” is a wonderful song, music, lyrics & arrangement, the costumes & setting are spot-on. Draper’s career was ruined by the blacklist, but he, for me, is top of the line. As was his relative, the superb & unique Ruth Draper, talk about class!

  34. Jamie Says:

    I love Fred… I think because it seems as if the dance is going on in him all the time – all he has to do is let it out. Someone mentioned that he wanted the singing and dancing to be seamless parts of the story. I think for me it goes beyond that: when I watch Fred Astaire’s dancing, I am only minimally aware that dancing is not a normal activity in the middle of a conversation. It’s the ultimate suspension of disbelief. And it’s just a joy.

  35. FunkyPhD Says:

    Neo, no one has ever demonstrated the expressive capabilities of the human body better than Fred Astaire. He was a genius on the order of Einstein, Shakespeare, and Beethoven. I always thought Ginger matched him so well because of the similarity of their body types (she has the female version of the Fred body, and he has the male version of the Ginger body), and because they had that mysterious quality that goes by many names, the most common of which is chemistry. The poet Matthew Arnold said that deep down, the same heart beats in every human body; in some couples, though, the commingling of souls comes closer to the surface. Thus it was for Ginger and Fred. Anyone who doesn’t believe in the reality of the soul, or doubts that art can lift us to a plane of existence higher than any dreamt of in our philosophy, let him watch Fred and Ginger dance to “Night and Day” or “Cheek to Cheek.”

  36. Frog Says:

    Neo: Thanks for finding “And Then He Kissed Me”!

    betty: from Draper’s LA Times obit: “Draper said he was a supporter of several organizations that had been called subversive by the U.S. attorney general’s office”. It is not clear to me to whom or what body that was said. He moved to Switzerland for three years thereafter.

  37. neo-neocon Says:

    Funky PhD:

    Very well put, I think.

    There really is something transcendent about it. It becomes more than dancing. Or maybe just all that dancing can be.

  38. Jan in MN Says:

    As a tourist in Prague, I was so delighted to discover Dancing House, named by its architects, Vlado Milunic and Frank Gehry, “The Fred and Ginger bujilding”.

    I’d had no idea there was such a building, and it’s worth having a look:

    https://www.pragueexperience.com/places.asp?PlaceID=651

    When I was younger I didn’t see what was so special about Fred Astaire, but now I find I can’t take my eyes off him when he dances. Or at all, actually, when he’s on screen. And I agree—Ginger was his best partner.

    Ginger’s gown for Face the Music is perfect. I wonder who designed it?

  39. AesopFan Says:

    neo-neocon Says:
    January 22nd, 2017 at 8:52 pm
    AesopFan:

    You may change your mind about tap and women if you look at Ginger Rogers in this clip (the dancing starts at 1:38) or this one (starting around minute 5). Or start this one at 3:25. Or this one starting at minute 1.
    * * *
    Well, looking at the alternative facts 😉 you actually proved my point for me: “girls in heels and skirts just look awkward”.
    Ginger is wearing long pants in all of those clips. Eleanor’s awkward look is due to the gawky appearance of her bare legs, which don’t have any “flow” like the slacks on men OR women.

  40. AesopFan Says:

    BTW, this post (and the inauguration fashion show) is such a nice change from politics!
    And I think Melania is prettier than Jackie.
    (ducks and runs)

  41. neo-neocon Says:

    Aesop Fan:

    I certainly agree that skirts don’t work for tap dancing. That’s why Ginger isn’t wearing them. But in half those clips of her that I recommended, she’s wearing heels with the slacks, and she certainly looks (and dances) in a feminine rather than a masculine way. She’s a very successful and feminine tap dancer, and in heels at times, too.

    Not to mention roller skates and a skirt.

    Long skirt and heels here. She manages the skirt by flirtatiously picking it up a lot, so that it becomes part of the dance.

  42. AesopFan Says:

    I think we can agree to agree that Ginger and all the other female dancers on these clips are fantastic, regardless of the dance genre or costume!
    Thanks for the memories 😉

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