Classy Class War, Debonair Existentialism: The Holiday Musicals of Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals have the appeal of light reflected from a December snowflake that has fallen precisely half the distance from the streetlamp to the curb. In my mind, that curb is on the north side of the Met with a peripheral view of the Egyptian wing. The more obvious choice might be the side street overlooking the skating rink at Rockefeller center, with its proximity to the city’s greatest art deco design and an overwhelming sense of being absorbed by a moment larger than you. But its just too damned crowded there and an Astaire/Rogers movie requires the space to let a 30-pound dress twirl unencumbered in an environment which has unexpectedly become yours and yours alone.
Astaire/Rogers pictures are cosmopolitan, cool, extravagant, overwrought with sentiment, and unexpectedly welcoming, appreciated best with a knowledge that the most captivating moment is made thus through its presentation and that immediacy is not the only means to appreciate human emotion.
To some extent there is no need to disaggregate the films, and without a notebook it’s impossible to distinguish the stories. Director Marc Sandrich, choreographer Hermes Pan, costume designer Bernard Newman, and a stock set of support players create a consistent universe throughout the films, and it’s more rewarding to view the series episodically than comparatively. But if people can have a favorite episode of Three’s Company, I’m entitled to a favorite Astaire/Rogers movie. And my favorite is Follow the Fleet. Top Hat remains a close second.
Follow the Fleet, the fifth pairing of Astaire/Rogers, is where the filmmakers cut the crap and start the story where the other movies end. Astaire and Rogers play somewhat long-lost lovers reunited when Astaire’s character Bake Barker, on brief shore leave, runs into Sherry Martin (Rogers). Sherry broke his heart when she chose her career over him (!) and sent him into the Navy in the first place. In the dance finale of the film, the reunited couple performs as a suicidal pair who turn to each other, and the dance, to give them reason to live. It has been examined and reexamined, and could stand further examination still, for its terse Depression-era social commentary. It also delineates the range of uses for the “show within a show” conceit, which was classic, if not already cliché, by 1936.
As the band breaks into “Lets Face the Music and Dance,” and Bake/Fred and Sherry/Ginger do exactly that, the show within a show is a meditation on dance, art, and beauty. By breaking away from the main narrative, the film reminds the audience that they are watching two superior artists reaching heights of their craft far beyond the reach of the hoofers they portray.
The criticism most often leveled at musicals is that their thin plot lines exist merely as vehicles for the song and dance numbers. In Astaire/Rogers films, the song and dance routines are the vehicles for the film to express emotions only alluded to in the spoken scenes. In “Lets Face the Music and Dance,” ballroom conquers societal and existential despair. The scene opens on a Monte Carlo cruise ship gambling scene. The meager winnings of protagonist dwindle to nothing, as does the crowd surrounding him, and he is left way too alone with his thoughts. He becomes suicidal. His yearning for death is convincing, as he ponders the gun in front of him, for what in movie time seems an eternity. Astaire doesn’t do much, and the camera does nothing, but it works. The spare, understated contemplation of suicide within the light comedy works. As Astaire sits with his lonesomeness, Rogers appears and for no clear reason, begins to engage in a dangerous flirtation with the rail of the ship. The tacit assumption is that a beautiful woman would only consider suicide due to lost love. It’s dated and sexist, but there’s not much time to dwell on that, because her portrayal of alienation is as compelling as his. The protagonists circle each other, wandering with the beleaguered grace of caged tigers who have quit looking for a way out, until they lock eyes and find purpose in the rhythm of the song. The two strangers, formerly adrift in themselves, suddenly cling to each other, nor for emotional support, but to create beauty unattainable to either individually. They dance for one reason: that each may regain the personal will to live. It’s the most existential moment ever in a mainstream musical.
The Sandrich-directed Astaire/Rogers films are some of the slowest musicals to come out of Hollywood. As aerial cinematography allowed Busby Berkley-style choreography to grow ever more frenetic and dizzying, Astaire said, “either the camera dances or I do.” Sandrich sets up the camera, and lets the dance dominate the frame, for a very long time. The dance then spirals the dancers, and the audience, from despair to joy.
The characters are freed from their alienation, remain strangers but are no longer estranged. Their dance connects them but there is no implication that when it is over they introduce themselves to one another. It’s a bold ending, for rather than the dance acting as a stand-in for love, or even sex, it is a paean to art’s power to transcend unspeakable horror and give the dancers the voice to say “fuck it.”
These films are filled with people saying “Fuck it”. Saying “Fuck it” to questions with no answers—how can I make you love me, how can I go on when you don’t, how can I survive the onslaught of horrors which comprise external society and my internal world?—and saying “Fuck it, lets dance,” when talking, and dinner (for there are always impossibly convoluted dinner scenes, probably because dinner clubs allow for the most classic, intricate and slick art deco set designs) and money prove themselves hopelessly ineffectual soul-salves.
The dance sequences serve as panacea to existential crises facing the characters (and their audience) they cannot even describe. Alongside “Lets Face the Music and Dance” the greatest example of this is Astaire’s solo sequence in Top Hat, also nicely tucked away in a show within a show.
The central crisis of Top Hat occurs when Jerry Travers (Astaire) realizes that Dale Tremont (Rogers) has no idea who he really is and that he is about to lose her forever. Despite his terror (again portrayed convincingly) that he is risking personal happiness, soldiers on with the show, out of a deeper sense of loyalty to those whose jobs depend on his performance. Once onstage, he sings a song about masquerading. “I’m puttin’ on my top hat, tying up my white tie, brushing off my tails.” Though Astaire made a name for himself playing debonair, his characters were always actors, gamblers, seamen or some such—never the Brahmin typically associated with ballrooms and tuxedos.
The mistaken identity plots lay bare their deeper meanings in this dissonance. When Astaire is mistaken for someone else, it is almost always someone of lesser moral fiber, who is native to the world of the rich. His comparative virtue becomes a statement on the internal rot of the upper class—a jab that played especially well in the Depression. In the dance sequence set to the title song of Top Hat, when Astaire, dressed to the nines, shoots down row after row of faceless aristocrats with his cane and tap shoes, he embodies the carnivalesque folk hero. In the pre-modern period, the carnival was a time when authority was much suspended and both licentiousness and mockery were briefly permitted. The carnival project can be considered one of co-opting dissent, (a task Hollywood past and present excels at), but Astaire’s extended, cathartic, beautiful and violent dance routine remains awesome and subversive.
In Top Hat Astaire plays a dancer who falls in love with a fashion model played by Rogers, who somehow gets him confused with some corporate suit married to a friend of hers. Her mistake makes Astaire’s attempts to woo Rogers marginally more difficult. She tries to hinder her own growing attachment by finally accepting a marriage proposal from a fey fashion designer to whom she serves as muse… In the end it all gets worked out between the two lovebirds. While you’d figure this would be of some consequence to the jilted man (who plays the jiltee in most of the films) his feelings on the matter are never pursued. The world of these films is remarkably amoral, and reserves judgment on all sorts of inversions of 1930’s sexual norms, for better and for worse.
In Follow the Fleet, the second banana repeatedly lies to and hurts his primary love interest. As she cries into her apron, he spends the night in the company of a divorcee of loose virtue. His devoted sweetheart marries him anyway; we’re intended to believe this is a good thing. Though I have a hard time wishing the cad well, I’m taken by the larger message at work. In the universe of the film, love can actually lift character, and women are always smarter and more confident than men. The women never faint or shriek, and always get their way in the end. Also, it’s a universe in which sins of the flesh in both men and women are easily forgiven, and not worth spending much time on.
Rather than cater to puritanical values, these films create a clear set of precepts of their own. Good people should stick together, most things generally work out, as a rule the rich are less trustworthy, and art for arts sake is worth a whole lot. I first was introduced to this worldview as a child, since the Astaire/Rogers series was the Holiday present channel 13 gave viewers, (like me) year after year, to warm December. PBS long ago lost the rights to these films to Ted Turner and the perpetual comfort of the yule log loop was taken away in favor of a horrifying mix of the saccharine, overtly and overly religious, and the mean-spirited. The Astaire/Rogers films hold more generosity of spirit, love of fellow man (and inspiring disrespect for The Man) than any Christmas-oriented fare or even that adorable Rugrats Chanukah special. Their strange mix of devotion to beauty, undiluted amorality, and unflappable goodness deserves celebration this difficult year more than ever.
The opinions expressed by Walter Matthau are his own and do not represent the views of the editors of the Brooklyn Rail or Sarahjane Blum.