Sheer Heaven: The Captivating Rhythm of Fred & Ginger by matthew c. hoffman with annette bochenek
What is Screen Deco? I was asked that question quite often before the series began in March. I would always try and define it by using the most popular examples: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their films are the essence of Art Deco style. So I could think of no better way to end this series than with Swing Time. I thought we’d save the best for last in one final dance. Swing Time is a glorious illusion of top hats, silk georgette gowns, Art Deco nightclubs, and class. It’s not a movie about realism, not when Fred rides the rails in a tuxedo. And the storylines could be as unreal as the fake snow that falls on our two stars. But the Astaire-Rogers films were not about the real world. Except for a couple passing references to it in Swing Time, the film is not about the Depression world of the 1930s. Their films were, above all else, about love, which is unending through time. Regardless of whether the economy is up or down, regardless of social attitudes and world politics, Fred and Ginger are always with us. Their films are timeless, romantic fables that express the American dream.
I have a special fondness for the films they made at RKO because seeing a Fred & Ginger film on New Year’s Eve was always a tradition. Back in the day, Channel 7 would play one right after another into the wee hours, and that’s where I experienced for the first time the magic of films like Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and all the others. Being a little kid, I might not have been able to follow all the various plot twists involving mistaken identities, and I might not have recognized all the wonderful supporting characters I would come to know as Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick, but I had sense enough to know that what I saw on the TV screen was dancing perfection.
It made such an impact that when I decided to take up ballroom dance—one of those many hobbies I pursued after walking away from the LaSalle Bank Theatre—there was only one dance studio I wanted to attend: Fred Astaire Dance Studio on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Back in the 1940s, Fred Astaire started the chain to capitalize on his great success, but many, many years ago he had sold his interest in it. Nevertheless, the brand name continued on. I might not have been a confident dancer– and perhaps I should’ve followed the advice of dance teacher Ginger Rogers when she tells Fred he should save his money– but I at least made the attempt only because of Fred Astaire. The attraction of films like Swing Time is that desire to be just a little like the gentleman on the screen. If only we could be as smooth in real life!
Swing Time is considered their best dance film together, but as I’m not a dance expert, I thought I’d call upon someone who has been my equivalent of a dance instructor for Screen Deco. She has assisted me numerous times by adding a fresh perspective and showing me a new step. I’d like to welcome back guest contributor Annette Bochenek, who will be saying a few words about the wonderful songs in this film…
When Fred and Ginger dance, there is an unmistakable magic that unfolds on the screen. Their joy and energy are infectious, their dancing is seamless and fluid, and their grace is timeless. Their talent has entertained audiences from all over the world ever since their first film in 1933. Almost 80 years later, we can clearly see that they continue to enchant audiences to this day.
The dance numbers in this film are some of the most memorable routines in cinema, and are meant to complement the plot and further the story. The “Pick Yourself Up” number summarizes Fred and Ginger beautifully for me. They radiate cheerfulness and carefree grace, while flawlessly whirling around a glossy dance floor. The dance is a basic polka, highlighted by syncopated rhythms and performed on a circular dance floor. This is the first song and dance number that occurs in the film, acting as a sneaky surprise for Rogers’ character, Penny.
Astaire plays a gambler named “Lucky,” who feigns an inability to dance, in order to learn from Penny. When her job is at stake, Lucky shocks her (and, incidentally, her boss) by a rousing and impeccably executed dance number. Surprise—Fred Astaire can dance, after all!
In this charming scene, one may especially note the fashions. Rogers sports a simple, though extraordinarily feminine day dress, which looks especially gorgeous as she twirls around the dance floor. Rogers would actually have lead weights sewn into the hems of her dresses so they would slope and twirl as she danced. Despite her lovely fashions and figure, Rogers’ legs were insured for $500,000 less than Fred Astaire’s whopping million dollar legs.
Many other memorable numbers occur throughout this film, including “The Way You Look Tonight” and its tender foxtrot. The song itself wound up being an Oscar winner by composer Jerome Kern. Initially, the song is glowing with optimism as Penny washes her hair and Lucky sings at the piano. However, when it is reprised in another dance sequence, it evokes a more melancholy mood.
“Waltz in Swing Time” exudes romance in a syncopated waltz with tap overlays, with which Astaire would experiment in some of his later films. It was dubbed as the best piece of pure dancing music ever written for Astaire. Despite the complexity of the routine, Astaire and Rogers still find time to celebrate love and poke fun at ideas of extravagance through dance.
Kern’s third standard is “A Fine Romance,” which acts as a bittersweet quickstep, complete with sentimental lyrics and a comedic view of romance running dry. Both Rogers and a bowler-hatted Astaire alternate in singing the song. Ginger initially sings of her dissatisfaction, while Astaire lightly impersonates Stan Laurel. They later switch off with Astaire singing his portion, and Ginger halfheartedly listening to his position.
Perhaps one of the most innovative and experimental of the numbers in this film, “Bojangles of Harlem” pays tribute to dancer Bill Robinson and his style of tap dancing. Kern was inspired to write this number when Astaire visited his home and sang while dancing on and over his furniture. Astaire performs the number in blackface, while also using trick photography to show a bowler-hatted Astaire dancing with three of his shadows. This two-minute solo with shadows took three days to film, and resulted in a Best Dance Direction Academy Award nomination for choreographer Hermes Pan.
Finally, “Never Gonna Dance” is considered to be the greatest achievement of collaborator and choreographer Hermes Pan’s career. The haunting ballad dramatically depicts the leads’ affair coming to a melancholy close. Dancers glide up various staircases in one of the most alluring Art Deco Sets developed by Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. The routine ends with a helpless Rogers drifting away from the scene and a crestfallen Astaire accepting their fate. Its climax took 47 takes in one day, and required many arduous spins on Rogers’ part, who consequently ended the day with bleeding feet.
Fred and Ginger symbolize a great deal—effortless grace, perfection, poise, talent, and so much more. It is no surprise to me that they remain revered as one of the most famous dancing duos in cinematic history. I know that they will entertain you with what is considered to be their best film: Swing Time.
For any student of dance who really wants to understand these musical numbers, the only book you need is John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing. Mueller also supplies the commentary on the Swing Time dvd. But I’d rather say a few words about the secondary reason why this film is a visual delight, and that’s because of the Art Deco sets by art director Van Nest Polglase. He had come to RKO in 1932, and it was during his tenure that the look of the Astaire-Rogers films was defined. These stylish musicals displayed a sleek elegance with an emphasis on strong black and white contrasts. Polglase’s team at RKO included unit art director Carroll Clark. Some accounts give full credit to Clark, whose involvement was more hands-on. Together, they designed films that are the essence of high style and sophistication.
The Art Deco nightclubs in this film are amazing, none moreso than The Silver Sandal, which Annette had alluded to. In the book Screen Deco, Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers describe it as the most stunning of the three nightclub sets in the film. “A glittering dream world of black and silver, it enhanced Fred and Ginger’s ‘fine romance.’ Two huge staircases converged in a semi-circle to form the club’s entrance. Guests descended the staircase alongside curving tiers of tables, each table bearing a silver tablecloth and a softly glowing Saturn lamp. At the bottom of the staircases was the spacious dance floor with its design pattern of concentric diamonds in black and gray. Underneath the miraculously unsupported platform where the staircases met was the round, white bandstand, placed above a foreshortened view of midtown skyscrapers inlaid on the floor. All of this was set against huge windows revealing a star-strewn night sky, which added a shimmering undulation to Fred and Ginger’s ‘Never Gonna Dance.’”
This set was the creation not of Polglase or Clark, but of John Harkrider. He was a Broadway designer and had created the costumes in the Florenz Ziegfeld shows during the 1920s. He worked on such Broadway productions as Showboat in 1927. In Swing Time, Harkrider also designed the costumes you will see in the “Bojangles of Harlem” musical number.
Swing Time is a film we never tire of, and there’s always something new to appreciate about it. One of those things that stood out for me, having watched it again recently, was Ginger Rogers’ performance—not only as a dancer—she performs some of her most difficult steps in this film– but overall as an actress who brings a vulnerability to a character whose depth might not have existed in the screenplay. Other writers have commented that the direction of George Stevens may have accounted for this. I was also struck by something author John Mueller had noticed: the rhythm of Fred Astaire when he’s not dancing, as if there was a musicality to his gestures. Note the way he throws the dice when he’s gambling with his vaudeville troupe at the start of the film.
Lastly, it’s over twenty minutes before the first musical number begins. I’ve never had an issue with that, but I learned recently that there had been an earlier song that Astaire performs onstage with his sidekick, Pop, played by Victor Moore. The song was called “It’s Not in the Cards,” but it was deemed a weaker number and was cut shortly after its initial premiere at Radio City Music Hall. Apparently, its inclusion in the film was not in the cards.
Arlene Croce, who authored The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, summed it up best when she wrote, “Swing Time is a movie about a myth, the myth of Fred and Ginger and the imaginary world of romance they live in. It is a world of nighttime frolics very much like Top Hat’s (1935), but it is also a middle-class, workaday, American world… Swing Time is based on Top Hat, not as a remake, but as a jazz rhapsody might be based on a classic theme; its materials are romantic irony, contrast, the fantasy of things going in reverse. The snow of Swing Time is as magical as the rain of ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day?’ and the white hotels of Venice. If you put Top Hat in a glass ball like a paperweight and turned it upside down, it would be Swing Time. And at the end of Swing Time, the sun comes out through the falling snow.”
And so our curtain comes down on that image of Fred & Ginger and the falling snow. Their films offered us something elegant and beautiful to behold, and that’s what Screen Deco is all about… Thank you again for being here with us this spring for our celebration of Art Deco in Hollywood film.