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IttDMB: The End...

May 10th, 2008 (11:28 pm)

© 2008
D. Gordon

So we're just about at the end of this walk through dance movies.

I'd like to thank Marilyn for hosting the blogathon. There's a lot of good writing out there that you should explore (if you haven't already). I've offered a very high-level overview of different dance movies, from different places at different times, but all the posts do that to some degree. As great as they are, the old musicals aren't the only place to find dance films, and looking a little farther afield helps to appreciate not just the less-known but the standards as well. If someone out there ends up exploring dance a little more, I think that everyone involved will have done their jobs (without losing too much sleep). I hope it's been as interesting for you as it has been for me - and now I'm going to check the other posts a little more fully. %^}

But before I do, I'd like to take one more look at dance in film, going back to the more familiar.

May 10th is known for several things; for example:
  • Louis XVI became King of France.
  • The first transcontinential railway in the US was completed.
  • David O. Selznick was born.
  • The first Mother's Day was observed in the US (and tomorrow is Mother's Day, so don't forget your mother).
  • Bill Haley and the Comets released "Rock Around the Clock."
  • Fran&ccedl;ois Mitterand was inaugurated as president of France.
  • Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as president of South Africa.
  • Amtrak has declared May 10th National Train Day.

And May 10th is the birthday of Frederick Austerlitz, also known as Fred Astaire - perhaps the best-known dancer in American history.

Below is a quick look at the man, and how his career expanded to make him a household name.


The period 1932-1933 was a major turning point for Fred Astaire. His career, begun at the age of six with his sister Adele, had progressed from vaudeville to Broadway and international success. However, Adele, regarded as the better dancer of the two, retired in the summer of 1932 to marry a British lord, leaving Fred to reshape the act and his career. His first show without Adele, Gay Divorce, got off to a rocky start (one representative review baldly stated that "two Astaires are better than one") requiring a month of eventually successful reworking. He'd also met Phyllis Potter that summer, leading to an often long-distance romance as Astaire travelled though the United States and Europe and Phyllis considered the relationship. Phyllis, a seemingly very practical, level-headed woman, was interested in Fred, but she wasn't sure about marriage and he was desperate to achieve some stability and win her over.

Fred Astaire's movie career was born in the middle of this personal and professional turmoil. Mervyn LeRoy, a Warner Bros.'s executive, spoke to Astaire about turning Gay Divorce into a movie, although nothing came of it at that point (Jack Warner brushed off LeRoy's suggestion, leaving RKO to do the picture years later). As Astaire puts it, he saw the movies as a chance to "prove something brand-new for [himself] professionally." A conversation to an old friend about moving into movies resulted in a bite from RKO, which was very interested in doing Flying Down to Rio as soon as possible. With a signed contract in hand, he proposed, he and Phyllis were soon married, and he went out to Hollywood to meet with studio executives and plan the next stage of his career.

Fred and Phyllis originally travelled to Hollywood immediately after their wedding for planning purposes, but he was loaned out to MGM during the trip to make his first film appearance in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. The film itself, about a natural-born dancer (Crawford) who works her way from burlesque to a Broadway production, was very successful on a number of levels (although not so much for the story) and acted as a good introduction for Astaire. While he states he never said "I can think of nothing more wonderful than being buried ub a Joan Crawford picture," he apparently always appreciated the help and kindnesses that various people showed him, including Joan Crawford's efforts at making the newlyweds feel at home, and dancer director Sammy Lee - an old friend - in showing him how dance movies are done.

Once the few weeks of rehearsal and taping (and planning) were over, Fred and Phyllis returned to New York, where Fred finished his US run with Gay Divorce, went back to Hollywood to do Flying Down to Rio, then went to England for the London run of Gay Divorce. By time Fred had ended his stage obligations and returned to the United States, both films had premiered, he had become known to a wider audience, and he was well along the way to becoming the Fred Astaire, Movie Star that he's remembered as.


Fred Astaire didn't have top billing in either of his first two film appearances - he's more a mention than a role in Dancing Lady and has fifth billing in Flying Down to Rio (Ginger Rogers, with a year of Hollywood experience, has fourth billing) - but his appearances in both films are drastically different. In Dancing Lady, in which he more or less plays himself, his role is a little more than a cameo; he first comes out to work with Joan's character in rehearsal, only to have her collapse fairly quickly (and have a chance to be alone with Clark), then later dances with her in the actual performance. He's basically there to dance, period, and that's what he does. Astaire had little input into the choreography; perhaps because Crawford wasn't a true dancer - although she could move enough to create an at least partial illusion of a talented dancer - Astaire does mainly basic steps to keep her moving. The big musical number moves from a German beer hall toast to a flying-carpet number with bad back-projection; that round carpet is too small to give them much room to move and it's not clear that Joan would have been up to much extensive dancing. The purpose of the film is to give the appearance of top-level dancing, and that's all it really does.

Flying Down to Rio is a completely different story, most likely because the lead dancers are both professionals. This was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers's first pairing (of ten), although they'd known each other from before; as Astaire puts it, they decided to have fun with the dancing, and it shows. They may have had lower billing, but they end up stealing the show; it's when Astaire and Rogers are dancing onscreen that the movie really comes alive. I would even hazard that most people remember it as an Astaire-Rogers film.

One important change from the earlier film is Fred's input into the choreography. He'd paid attention during his time on Dancing Lady, and as a result, the dances are much more textured. Astaire and Rogers perform more "expansive" dancing - they use more of the floor, they do more challenging movies, they bring their whole bodies, from feet to foreheads, to bear. Because they aren't trying to prove that they can dance - unlike the earlier movie, in which the whole premise relies heavily on Crawford's character's dancing ability, Flying takes the assumption as given and lets them fly.

There is some conjecture that Hermes Pan, who worked with Astaire in most of his movies and was responsible for choreographing the large routines, is responsible for part of Astaire's success. Whatever their link, it's a very well integrated effort. The details and experimentation in Pan's choreography match those in Astaire's, even down to having dancers during the Carioca routine move in a way to suggest changing color (in black and white!). The movie is exciting - and remembered - because of the dance.

On the surface, Fred Astaire's career might look like a happy confluence of a lot of luck. But Astaire himself was aware that it took more than that:
In my opinion, luck is not most essential. My sister and I had to saw our way through. It wasn't easy.

What counts more than luck is determination and perseverance. If the talent is there, it will come through. Don't be too impatient. Stick at it. That's my advice.

You have to plug away, keep thinking up new ideas. If one doesn't work try another.

Faced with change, Fred Astaire did just that, reinventing himself. Given the results, can only be thankful that he did keep plugging away - leaving us with a lot of great dance movies because he did.