Monday, December 24, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Carefree'

I must admit I have a soft spot for “Carefree,” the eighth film with Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and the first after a 15-month break.

“Carefree” is a breezy, fun film that works like a screwball comedy with music than what is expected from an Astaire/Rogers film. Even the look sets it apart from what had come before, ditching the art deco and urban glitter for wood and fieldstone, replacing swanky nightclubs with a country club.

Astaire plays Tony Flagg, a psychiatrist approached by friend Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy), who is having some problems with his fiancé Amanda Cooper (Rogers). Amanda initially rejects Tony as a quack but ultimately falls for him. Tony tries to get Amanda to refocus on Stephen but is drawn to her after she fabricates an elaborate recurring dream in order to continue seeing him.

“Carefree” reunites several key players from the Astaire/Rogers series, including Irving Berlin and director Mark Sandrich. Ginger was not happy that Sandrich was directing again, and she felt he treated her as a supporting member of the team. However, Ginger loved the role of Amanda, and it was a substantial one. She made three films during the break – “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn, which didn’t make money but was a hit with the critics; “Having Wonderful Time” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; and “Vivacious Lady,” opposite Jimmy Stewart, a delightful romantic comedy that demonstrated that Ginger didn’t need Fred to succeed in films. “Carefree” is really Ginger’s film, allowing her comedic abilities to shine, and it’s telling that the movie was renamed “Amanda” for its European release. 

Both Fred and Ginger were eager for the break. It wasn’t that they disliked each other; each wanted to demonstrate his/her individual abilities. Ginger succeeded; Fred less so. While he had spent his career first on stage with his sister Adele at his side and on film with Ginger at his side, Fred didn’t choose well for his first starring film role without either. “A Damsel in Distress” has its charming moments, but it plays like a Fred and Ginger film – minus Ginger. Joan Fontaine, in her first big role, isn’t a singer or dancer and looks lost in this film, and it only emphasizes how much the audience wishes she was Ginger. The film should have been far different in order to demonstrate what Fred was capable of, despite his doing some terrific solos. Thankfully that would come later.

So Fred and Ginger are back together in “Carefree,” and both are in terrific. The film was supposed to be filmed in color, and Berlin actually changed lyrics in songs to emphasize color. Unfortunately, due to cost, the idea of color was scrapped, so both Fred and Ginger would have to wait for their first color film appearances.

The first big number in “Carefree” is a marvelous Fred solo, one of his best in the series. “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing” puts Fred on the golf course and manages to incorporate golf clubs and some perfect golf drives. It’s one of Fred’s favorites and, like most of his solos, pure delight to watch. 

“I Used to Be Color Blind” would have been sensational in color (two of my books contain conflicting facts – one says a test of this sequence was filmed in color but it didn’t turn out, while another states color was vetoed before any filming began). Still, it’s marvelous to watch. It’s actually a number that Amanda dreams about, and the trick here is that it is filmed in slow motion. It’s a number filled with more lifts and jumps than most of the Fred and Ginger numbers as they move through a dreamy garden and over streams, the slow motion often leaving them airborne. The segment captures the pure joy of their movements and the expressions on their faces register that joy. The dance ends with a long kiss – actually a short peck extended due to the slow motion. It’s a rare occurrence in a Fred and Ginger film, because the dances always represented any physical displays of affection or passion. 

Ginger said Fred didn’t think much of “The Yam,” which is why she sings it initially before they begin dancing. This is the big production number, and it was created to cash in on such popular dances as the Big Apple and the Lambeth Walk. Although the name probably sank its popular appeal, it’s a tremendous sequence in the film as it physically moves in and out and back inside the country club, starting between the stars, engaging all of the guests. It then climaxes with a breathtaking display of physicality as Fred extends one leg onto various pieces of furniture around the room and then lifts Ginger as she leaps across his leg, the two flying around the room until the number ends.

Perhaps the best song in the film is the lovely “Change Partners,” which begins with Fred singing to Ginger as they dance with different partners across a crowded dance floor. Once alone outside, he entrances her in a lovely dance that is simply done. Such straightforward elegance is what the story demands at this point, and it’s that elegance that has always defined them and is what the audience wants.

The supporting cast may be new to the series but they are in fine form, including Jack Carson, Bellamy and Luella Gear.

Even though “Carefree” may not be considered by some one of the duo’s best films, I think it is underestimated. The tight story, marvelous numbers and confident performances from Fred and Ginger make this one a winner. Unfortunately, the end was drawing near for this dynamic duo for a number of reasons. First, Sandrich, unable to negotiate a better contract with RKO, left to set up a production deal at Paramount. Second, RKO – the major studio that seemed to teeter on the brink of financial ruin more often than the other major studio – was suffering once again. Third, because of the 15-month break, Fred and Ginger fell out of the top ten box office draws by the end of 1938, and while “Carefree” made money, it wasn’t the smash that earlier films were. Fourth, since Ginger had proven herself during the break, RKO was viewing her as one of its top stars and wanted to use her as such.

But Fred and Ginger still had one more film left before the end of the decade, and it would be very different from what they had made before. 

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Shall We Dance'


“Shall We Dance” is an intriguing entry in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers series for a myriad of reasons. Depending upon when you see this one in relation to the others, it either plays as charming and fun or labored and rehashed.
As the seventh entry in the series, the film features a variation on the formula that has worked so far, although perhaps it’s a bit forced if you’ve seen the other films. The music is by the Gershwins and it’s marvelous. But what’s shocking is that it takes nearly an hour for Fred and Ginger to dance together. Since the endings of the Fred and Ginger films are a foregone conclusion, it’s the chase and the dances that matter at this point.
Fred plays the amazing Petrov, whose real name is Pete Peters. He’s infatuated with the idea of combining tap dancing with ballet. Ginger plays Linda Keane, a successful singer and dancer, and this is the first film where both play successful entertainers from the start. In fact, we see Linda dancing with a different partner first, but she’s tired of her partners making passes at her.
Petrov is eager to meet Linda, and both are traveling on a cruise ship from Europe to New York City. Somehow it’s reported that Petrov is married, and so the two need to pretend to be married.
“Shall We Dance” at it best showcases Fred and Ginger as fully developed stars. Her acting has sharpened; his sense of choreography on film continues to become more inventive and exciting. Together they are as mesmerizing as ever. If “Swing Time” constructed a strong plot that concludes in an anticlimactic way, “Shall We Dance” provides a nondescript plot that builds to a fun climax.
As for the numbers, the audience is teased right off the bat with a one-minute solo from Fred called “Beginner’s Luck.” Unfortunately, this immediate tease makes the wait for the real thing all that more agonizing. “Slap That Bass” is Fred’s solo number on the cruise ship. He’s dancing in fantastic art deco engine room that’s unrealistically spotless. The machinery provides the rhythm; choreographer Hermes Pan said Fred got the idea from a cement mixer on the lot. The dance reflects the conflict of Petrov – ballet vs. tap, and it’s a joy to watch.
There’s a charming scene with Linda walking her dog and Petrov finding a dog to walk so he can speak with her. The rhythmic walking of the animals back and forth sets up a delightful meeting between the two, but again we are waiting for them to ditch the puppies and dance on their own. 

Finally it happens with “They All Laughed.” After Linda sings the song at a rooftop restaurant, Petrov swoops in and essentially challenges her to dance with him. It combines the improv nature of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from “Roberta” with a more classic Fred and Ginger line. It’s a terrific dance, but it’s the only “traditional” number the two perform together in the entire film. 

In reality, it’s the next number, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” that makes you wonder if Fred and Ginger could jump on pogo sticks and make it work. Here they start with an argument that launches into the famous lyrics, which then launches the duo – who are on roller skates, no less – into an energetic number that manages to infuse dance moves, including tap dancing, as they whirl around the floor. While this may be a novelty number, it’s an uplifting one.
Then comes the lovely “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Petrov sings to Linda as they travel to get married so they can divorce (don’t ask). However, instead of bringing the two back together again, Petrov attempts to combine his two favorite art forms into a new Broadway show and brings out ballet star Harriet Hoctor, whose contortionist backbends while on point are of interest as a side show would be. Unfortunately, it simply emphasizes how much Fred and Ginger should be dancing instead. Hoctor had played herself the year before in “The Great Ziegfeld,” but she had worked with Ziegfeld so her presence in that film makes sense. Here it’s a distraction from what we want to see, which is Fred and Ginger in the reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” 

Thankfully, the film climaxes with a wonderful bit where Petrov, unable to dance with Linda, instead is surrounded by a chorus of girls all sporting Linda Keane masks. But the joke is on him when Linda grabs a mask and slips into the lineup.
Interestingly enough, the Gershwins were initially unhappy with the result. The songs didn’t click with audiences at first, and George wrote to a friend, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should.” Ira later said that they really were happy with their contributions to the film and perhaps the note was a momentary frustration. The brothers were nominated for an Oscar for their song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
The supporting cast includes usual players Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore as well as Jerome Cowan and Ketti Gallian. Mark Sandrich returns as director, which Ginger was not too happy about as the two didn’t get along well with each other. 
Despite its faults, “Shall We Dance” is easy to watch, and if seen before others in the series can be a lot of fun. However, the formula is showing its age, and the lack of dancing between the stars during the film’s first half is a detriment. After seven films together, everyone needed a break, and that’s what happened before being reunited more than a year later.