Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite '30s Actors: #9

The impact Fred Astaire had on the movie musical is legendary. His genius helped define a new type of movie musical during the 1930s, and he joined Ginger Rogers in dancing their way into audiences’ hearts.

His film output during this decade is small, and some may argue his characters in these movies are all a variation of the same person. However, his distinctive trait for these films is his dancing. In the nine movies he was paired with Rogers during the decade, he managed to perform a solo (or two) in every one that demonstrated his range in a way a dramatic actor can demonstrate it by playing Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen. These magnificent dances are a testament to his brilliance.

If he wanted to break free of the partnership by the decade’s end, it was only to establish himself as something other than part of a successful duo. Some of his most remembered solos came later, but it’s hard to ignore what he did during the 1930s and not credit him for it.

So let’s look at a number of Fred’s musical solos during the decade. After a successful career on Broadway with his sister Adele (who would retire), he was intrigued by how dancing could be portrayed in the movies. His second film, “Flying Down to Rio,” which I just wrote about, was his first pairing with Rogers. While they are supporting players, they have one brief dance together – “The Carioca” – and he has one brief solo as he tries to teach the chorus a new dance number.

RKO thankfully decided to give them a chance, and their next film was starring in “The Gay Divorcee.” If you need any proof about Astaire’s ability to mesmerize, look no further than “A Needle in a Haystack,” a wonderful solo with Astaire dancing without a care in the world while in his dressing room. Athletic yet elegant, classy yet relatable, he demonstrates in this single number (in only his third film, no less) a level of talent that had not been seen previously on film. Then he pairs with Rogers in the seductive “Night and Day” and demonstrates a combination of class, sex and talent in a breathtaking display of movie magic.

Astaire would work with choreographer Hermes Pan on most of these films. As Astaire and Rogers grew in popularity, songwriters like Irving Berlin would submit their scores to Astaire and Pan first so they could begin working on the numbers.

In “Roberta,” Astaire and Rogers again are supporting players – although used more here than in “Rio.” If “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” demonstrates the ease with which Astaire and Rogers clicked as a pair, his “I Won’t Dance” solo is an eye-popping display of dance – a whirling, tapping, pirouetting blur in which Astaire uses his legs like a concert pianist uses his hands. He’s absolutely in control of both himself and the audience.

Next up is “Top Hat,” and he has two marvelous dances in it. “No Strings” is beautifully incorporated into the plot, allowing him to combine both dance and acting, and he ends the number in a soft shoe to help lull Rodgers in the bedroom below back to sleep. “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” is quintessential Astaire, dressing him to the nines and showing his imagination with the wonderful shooting gallery segment with the male chorus.

In “Follow the Fleet,” his “I’d Rather Lead a Band” is a mini-story unto itself, with Astaire as a sailor who drills the other sailors while he taps out the commands, using the nautical theme to beautifully create rhythm and flow. In “Swing Time,” he pays tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson in the amazing “Bojangles of Harlem” number. If you can get beyond the blackface, Astaire is a marvel, and it’s an homage, not impersonation, complete with rear-projection shadows as he dances with a chorus of his own shadows.

“Shall We Dance?” features the “Slap That Bass” number, set in a ship’s engine room where Astaire gets to play with the machinery and create a whole new rhythm in both sound and dance. After this film, Astaire and Rogers took a break from each other. He made “A Damsel in Distress” and has three solos, the best being “Nice Work If You Can Get It.”

When Astaire and Rogers reunited in “Carefree,” it had the delightful “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing,” in which Astaire dances on a golf course with a golf club and balls his props (see the video below). He’s having fun and so are we.

If you need any more proof after all of this, look at the biographical “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” in which Astaire adapts the style of dance for which Vernon Castle was known. Even in dance he can become someone else.

Astaire’s career on film would continue for more than three decades. This period – the first decade that introduced him to the public – would remain significant for him in so many ways. If we all still swoon at the names Astaire and Rogers, we can equally be giddy for the dancing gems he offers up in these films. Depression-era audiences loved it, as do modern film fans today. As for me, I’m still enthralled by these movies.


  1. One of my all time favorites, from any decade.

    Glad you mentioned "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle", probably their most underrated - a very charming and ultimately very moving film. It's rarely mentioned in the titles from the miraculous movie year of 1939 but it should be.

  2. This choice was a surprise. But it sure made me see Astaire in a new light. The more I thought about it, the more I saw how much he created his characters--did what others did with their acting--through his singing and dancing. This was how he expressed his emotions and dreams and his feelings for Ginger (and his other leading women). In the "Bojangles of Harlem" number he even expressed his professional admiration of another song-and-dance man. You might even say that he created a screen persona of a reserved man hiding behind a flippant, outwardly confident exterior but really revealing himself through song and dance. A really eye-opening post.

  3. Hi Kevin: I agree about that film. It gets short-changed as one of the team's lesser films and it gets ignored as a film made during the miraculous movie year of 1939. It's so much better than people give it credit for, but it's just different enough from the other films that it puts people off. I wish more people would give it a chance. Hi R.D.: You made my day. I'm really glad you saw his work during the 1930s in a different light.