Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Audrey of the Month

Only Audrey could make cooking look so lovely. Do you think she's preparing a turkey? 

Yes, I'm interrupting my schedule of Fred and Ginger posts to bring you my Audrey of the Month in honor of Thanksgiving. Also, since I'm cooking Thanksgiving dinner for 10 this week, I haven't had much time to write up the next Fred and Ginger post, which I will have up this weekend! 

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and show off your best holiday style this Thursday just like Audrey!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Swing Time'

I have a love-hate relationship with “Swing Time.”

I love this film because the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dances are, dance for dance, some of their most spectacular. George Stevens directs with assurance, the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score is a knockout, and the leads so relaxed, so charismatic at this point in their careers that watching them is rewarding.

But I hate this film because of the ending. It falls flat – a resolution that feels anticlimactic, and it breaks the mesmerizing spell of everything that has come before it. It makes me mad because this entry, while still one of the pair’s best efforts, could have been a true masterpiece.

Astaire plays Lucky Garnett, a dancer and gambler who loves his flash and style. He’s set to marry Margeret (Betty Furness), but his buddies don’t want to see him leave their show for the proverbial jail sentence. So they stall the wedding by holding his pants hostage … and it works. But Lucky promises Margaret’s father (played by director Stevens’ father, Landers Stevens) that once he makes $20,000, he will return to marry her.

Lucky and pal Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) set off for the city, dressed in their finest but broke. An encounter with Penny results in a lost quarter but a lovestruck Lucky follows Penny to her work, a dance academy where she’s employed as an instructor by Gordon (Eric Blore). Penny is enraged when Lucky shows up, but he saves her job and the two are set to audition for a show as a couple.

While Lucky’s gambling continuously gets in the way, he and Penny are a dynamic dance team. While Lucky fights his feelings for Penny while earning money, he also keeps himself from making enough money to marry Margaret. Then there’s bandleader Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa), who’s in love with Penny and wants to get rid of Lucky.

Unlike Fred and Ginger’s last outing, “Follow the Fleet,” where they had to share the lead duties, “Swing Time” focuses on them, and how wonderful it is. The plot is a fun nod to their own popularity, which led to the proliferation of dance academies across the country. While “Follow the Fleet” features the duo playing working class characters, here they follow that theme but with more glamor, a way of combining the sophistication of “Top Hat” with a touch of reality.

The dancing in this film certainly adds to their growing portfolio of brilliant numbers, and the numbers often are woven into the plot. And their first one, “Pick Yourself Up,” is simply spectacular. He’s still wearing his formal attire, but she’s in a simple black dress trying to teach him to dance, unaware that he already knows how. The number starts with Lucky clumsily trying to learn his steps, but once his secret is revealed, the dance soars with a lightness and, by the end, they literally are soaring as they jump over the short fence surrounding the academy’s dance floor. It’s hard not to feel good after watching a number that was also a nod to Depression-era audiences, who took to the notion that they needed to just pick themselves up and keep going.

“Waltz in Swing Time” is a dance performed in front of an audience at a club, and it’s a one-take wonder filled with abandon. It’s intricate but never slows, and it’s pure dance at its exhilarating best.

Stevens’ direction can be lovely, such as in the winter scene for “A Fine Romance,” one of the film’s most charming pieces. In it, Penny is trying to seduce Lucky, who wants to be seduced, but he told Pop to keep him an honest man. So Pop tries to sabotage the romance, much to Penny’s frustration. But the snowfall and snow-covered trees are gorgeously captured as Stevens slowly works his way through this winter wonderland.

The sumptuous 1930s art deco style of the Silver Sandal, the nightclub, is captured in all its glittering splendor. It’s the perfect setting for the dramatic “Never Gonna Dance” number, where Penny has decided to marry Ricky so Lucky can be free to marry Margaret. While “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number in “Follow the Fleet” is boldly dramatic, it’s also a stage piece within the film, a self-contained number. “Never Gonna Dance” takes that drama but applies it to the film’s plot. The result is a dance filled with emotion as Lucky tries to keep Penny. The duo starts on the dance floor but cascades up the stairs to a platform, when Penny finally departs. So many takes were done of this number that Rogers’ feet reportedly were bleeding through her shoes, but she nailed it on the last take. 

The other great number occurs just before this one, and it’s Astaire’s requisite. Lucky is paying tribute to Bill Bojangles Robinson. While Fred in blackface is not acceptable today, it’s clear Astaire was paying tribute to the great Robinson is as sincere way as possible, and the style of the dance perfectly captures Robinson’s. Astaire dancing in front of a screen showing silhouettes of himself was groundbreaking at the time.    

But Stevens also seems a bit off with some of his touches. For example, the opening gag with Lucky’s tuxedo pants seems to go on and on. The lovely “The Way You Look Tonight,” with Lucky singing to Penny, who is giving way from anger to affection, should have been a touching moment. Instead, Penny has been washing her hair, and while Stevens captures her glowingly listening to Lucky sing the song, the number ends with the gag of Lucky turning around and reacting to Penny’s head covered with shampoo. The magic of this love song is broken by a misplaced gag.

The ending, though, really rankles. For those who don’t want it spoiled, please jump ahead to the next paragraph. With Penny set to marry Ricky, I expected something more exciting that Margaret showing up and simply announcing she wasn’t going to marry Lucky. This is an easy out to the plot and a letdown for the audience, which is primed for some last-minute stroke of genius. You would expect Lucky, who is gambling throughout the film, to risk it all for Penny and somehow win her back in climactic, breathless fashion. Instead, after Margaret’s announcement, everyone gets a fit of the giggles, and it goes on and on, long after I stopped laughing. Another gag with pants falls flat, and suddenly Penny and Lucky are together and the film ends.

Thankfully, the cast is terrific as always. The supporting cast includes the wonderful Helen Broderick who play’s Penny’s pal Mabel, although it’s the equally fun Moore who has most of the supporting screen time. Blore isn’t around long, but just relish how deliciously he pronounces the name “Penny.” It’s elocution at its best. Only Metaxa seems rather drab as the two-dimensional bandleader Ricky.

“Swing Time” was a huge success upon its release, and Ginger considered this her favorite of the Fred/Ginger films, mainly because of the chance to work with George Stevens. The film also won an Oscar for Best Song for the lovely “The Way You Look Tonight.” 

“Swing Time” is fun, the dance numbers brilliant, and everyone should make this a must. Just lower your expectations for the ending, and you’ll have a grand time.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Follow the Fleet'

I’ve always felt that “Follow the Fleet” is one of the odder Fred and Ginger films because of its structure and where it fall within the series.

Coming off of the sublime “Top Hat,” Fred and Ginger’s success is unquestionable. So why RKO chose to pair them with Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard as co-stars seems like a step down for the famed duo. In fact, “Top Hat” was opening when “Follow the Fleet” started filming. Perhaps the studio felt that their success could rub off on Scott and newcomer Hilliard. But the main thrust of the plot – and there’s not much here to work with – is tied to Scott and Hilliard. While Fred and Ginger have plenty of screen time, they feel like second bananas and almost function as the humorous supporting cast, roles that normally are played by Edward Everett Horton or Helen Broderick.

In fact, because there are four stars, that wonderful supporting cast is sorely missing here. You do get Lucille Ball in a small role and Betty Grable in an even shorter role, but it’s mainly of interest because of who they are and what they would later become, not because of what they are doing here.

And yet, oddly enough, this film is easy to watch. It zips along as if none of these detriments matter. Fred and Ginger sparkle, and when they dance, it’s a dream. 

As the title denotes, “Follow the Fleet” has Fred and Randolph playing Bake Baker and Bilge Smith (gotta love the names), two sailors who get shore leave when the fleet pulls into San Francisco. The two and their pals head off to the Paradise Club, where Bake tries to reach his old girlfriend Sherry Martin (Ginger), unaware that she actually works at the Paradise.

Meanwhile, Sherry’s sister Connie (Hilliard) comes to the Paradise for a visit. The unglamorous Connie cannot gain entrance to the club without a male escort, so when Bilge arrives with beer, she buys his ticket and explains her predicament once they are safely inside. He barely acknowledges her, and she heads off to Sherry’s dressing room. While there, Sherry asks friend Kitty (Ball) to spruce up Connie, who has never been anything but a wallflower.

But when Kitty is done, a glamorous Connie heads out to the dance floor, where Bilge immediately gravitates toward her, unaware that Connie is the woman he entered with.

Meanwhile, Bake and Sherry reunite. And frankly, for the plot, there’s not much else. Sherry wants to audition for a real show, while Connie wants to refurbish their dead father’s ship so she can marry Bilge and give him a ship of his own. Bilge doesn’t want to feel tied down, so he dates someone else.

One fact that sets this entry apart from the other Fred and Ginger films is the setting. Typically, Fred and Ginger are dressed to the hilt, even if they aren’t rich. Here they are working class, and while their show biz dreams haven’t changed, the venue has.

The enjoyment of “Follow the Fleet” is in the dances and interplay. If Hilliard and Scott provide the main plot, it’s Fred and Ginger who provide the sunshine. Thankfully, they have a terrific Irving Berlin score to help them along. The film starts off with the delightful “We Saw the Sea,” which Fred is singing as they pull into dock. 

Next we switch to the dance hall, and Ginger is singing “Let Yourself Go” with a trio that includes Grable. Then Ginger and Fred dance to it to win a dance contest. Interestingly enough, choreographer Hermes Pan recruited actual dance hall contestants from around Los Angeles to show off their best moves. Fred and Hermes had fun with their take on the latest dance crazes, and yet it’s Fred and Ginger who ultimately lend a timeless energy to this sequence by creating their own routine rather than merely mirroring those of the other couples. 
Hilliard actually has two solos in the film: “Get Thee Behind Me, Satan” and “But Where Are You?” Both are nicely presented, and it makes sense she would have these solos, as this was her first film after establishing herself as a radio vocalist with Ozzie Nelson’s orchestra – whom she would marry and become a TV fixture in the 1950s (and to think she and television icon Lucille Ball were both in this film). Apparently Hilliard was a blond but dyed her hair dark so as not to compete with Ginger.

In “I’d Rather Lead a Band,” Fred has a terrific solo in which he’s teaching his fellow sailors how to dance. The number beautifully ties into the Navy theme as he taps out commands and drills the sailors through the routine. And, for the first time, Ginger receives her own solo as she auditions for a producer by reprising “Let Yourself Go.”

The “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” number allows both Ginger and Fred to have some fun as their “practice” consists of pratfalls and gags. This one shouldn’t work but it does because of their enormous chemistry and the artistry they lend to what is essentially a vaudeville routine.

In fact, author Arlene Croce calls this the film where Ginger truly blossoms and shows her range, from the comic in both of these numbers to her seriousness in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

And “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a killer. This number is self-contained piece that is part of the show everyone is putting on to save the two sisters’ father’s ship. In fact, it’s the third time, following “Flying Down to Rio” and “Roberta,” that a Fred and Ginger film ends with the gang putting on a show.

But “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is a brilliant piece of melodrama scored and danced to perfection. This number could have easily backfired – he’s a gambler, in his tuxedo, who has lost everything and contemplates ending his life by shooting himself. However, when she appears in a gorgeous beaded gown and wants to jump to her death, Fred saves the both of them. Yes, it appears the routine could be headed down a very hokey road. Instead, the two take this very somber mood and build a mesmerizing number, reveling in its theatricality by dancing as if no one else is around. The music and movement enhance the melodrama rather than fight it, and both Fred and Ginger are breathlessly hypnotic.

It’s worth noting that Ginger’s gown weighed about 20 pounds, and Ginger said she had to really focus on her balance. The gown’s momentum and weight often caused her to move when she shouldn’t. In addition, during the first take, her sleeve smacked Fred in the face, and he said he was seeing stars throughout the rest of the number. Yet after many takes, it was determined the first one was the best, so it’s the one that’s in the film (and you can see Fred discreetly flinch early on when the sleeve hits him).

Regardless, the number is sublime, and while the movie ends with the resolution for Hilliard and Scott’s characters, it’s this number that carries us out of the film and stays on our minds.

Thankfully, this would be the last time Fred and Ginger would share the spotlight with anyone else, and they would be the sole leads in their five final films together.

But “Follow the Fleet,” despite its many shortcomings, is far more enjoyable than it should be. And audiences seemed to agree, making this a big moneymaker for RKO and cementing Fred and Ginger’s popularity. Thankfully, there was plenty left to come.