Astaire & Rogers Go On by sarahjane blum
Guest post by Sarahjane Blum.
An earlier version of the following piece appeared in The Brooklyn Rail.
Though the directors varied through Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s unsurpassed series of sophisticated hit musicals, choreographer Hermes Pan, costume designer Bernard Newman, and a stock set of support players managed to create a consistent universe throughout the films, which in turn developed a style that became a template for the 1930s debonair imagination. The interiors came to define the Hollywood Regency ideal of deco and Newman’s ostrich feathered, heavily beaded and bias cut dresses created for Rogers were reproduced as ready to wear fashion via the Modern Merchandising Bureau. But co-branding opportunities aside, these pairings offer a glimpse beneath the streamlined interiors into the rough edges which were so purposefully, and almost pathologically sanded away in modernist style and design
Follow the Fleet shows this dissonance most clearly. The fifth pairing of Astaire/Rogers starts 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 style.
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. The spare, understated contemplation of suicide within the light comedy works—as do the ornate glossy perfection of chrome cocktail shakers sitting in the background of depression-era film sets. As Astaire sits with his lonesomeness, Rogers appears and begins to engage in a dangerous flirtation with the rail of the ship. 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, answering Samuel Beckett’s koan “I can’t go on–I’ll go on.”
There is one consistent message Astaire and Rogers provide: when talking, dinner and money prove themselves hopelessly ineffectual soul-salves, the clean lines of 30 pound dresses offer salvation.
In Top Hat Jerry Travers (Astaire) risks personal happiness with (Rogers) to put on a show 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. 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 subversive, much as the soaring skylines in the backgrounds were predestined to remind viewers that entry into those masterpieces of modernism were barred from them.