Fred Astaire Week: a guest post and “Puttin’ On the Ritz”

I got re-energized about Fred Astaire—hence “Astaire Week”—through correspondence with my friend Latha Menon, who lives in Oxford, is pursuing a Ph.D in paleobiology, and is also the editor of the UK edition (Oxford University Press) of WEIT.  Her emails about Le Fred were so enthusiastic that I asked her to write a guest post, and she’s kindly obliged.  I’ve put at the bottom one of his finest dance sequences, from “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” and linked Latha’s discussion to a few of the videos she describes. You might not want to watch them yet, for I’ll be featuring a few in the week to come.

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Astaire: song and dance man, supreme artist

by Latha Menon

Ok, I’m the one to blame for inspiring Astaire Week on the Coyne blog.*  So, what’s so special about Fred Astaire?

I write as an unashamed fan. But I’m in excellent company. The most obvious point about Astaire has to be his supreme artistry as a dancer, praised in the most effusive terms by the likes of Balanchine, Baryshnikov, and Nureyev. Yet by all accounts he considered himself as a ‘song and dance man’, not a proponent of ‘high art’.

But such barriers are, after all, artificial. As a perfectionist famous for his intense concentration and hours of practice, constant striving for development and innovation, and, most importantly, performances that transcended effort and technical precision to achieve a sublime sense of ease, naturalness, and grace, he is, in my view, to be compared to any of the greatest classical dancers. These are the qualities of any true artist. The first and finest dancer of the silver screen, Astaire’s use of the new medium not only reached wide audiences but has enabled his influence to permeate dance for generations. It continues to do so.

There are the dance partners to be considered too, of course, and for many that means almost exclusively Ginger Rogers. Clearly they worked well on screen as a dance couple, and some of the most beautiful and tender pas de deux were performed with Rogers (my favourites include those performed to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee, and Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” from Roberta). But I agree with those critics who view their success as mainly due to Rogers’s excellent acting rather than her dancing abilities. No matter. Rogers had spunk and style, she learned and improved, and the pairing worked. It’s hard to beat the charm of those ‘30s films.

Other partners, trained in dance, produced some fine performances in later films, and allowed the incorporation of new styles: think of Rita Hayworth’s Latin touches, Cyd Charisse and jazz ballet, not to mention the hard virtuosic glitter of Eleanor Powell’s ‘machine-gun’ tapping in “Begin the Beguine(Broadway Melody of 1940). (Note that Astaire’s performance shows his fluid, whole body dancing style, even in the fastest tapping, while Powell’s approach is much more focused on the feet with some standard arm movement, to maximise speed.) And let’s not forget the elegance and style he gave to his least obliging partner – a hatrack.

But to see his full abilities just look at Fred’s solos: the use in his tap performances of overlays of different beat cycles and counterpoint (no wonder a parallel has been made with Bach), and sudden changes of rhythm; the extraordinary ability to incorporate and control props, most strikingly the use of a cane; and the use of combined drumming-tapping to produce complex sequences, for example to the Gershwins’ “Nice Work if You Can Get It”, in Damsel in Distress). (A fine choreographer himself, Astaire devised most of his early solo sequences, before collaborating increasingly and highly effectively with Hermes Pan; their depth of mutual understanding seems to have been extraordinary.) Perhaps the most striking of his solos, setting aside the clever transitions from face to face of a revolving room in Royal Wedding, is the angry, stylish, glass-breaking dance to Arlen and Mercer’s One For My Baby in The Sky’s The Limit. Real glass.

And then there was the singing. What a period the ‘30s and ‘40s seem to have been for songs – the standards of Kern, Berlin, the Gershwins among them. Many of the greats were written for Astaire (including “One For My Baby”).  And how he sang them! No crooner, he had a light voice but all his physical grace, charm, and musicality seems to have been poured into his singing, making him one of the most highly regarded interpreters of songs from this period.

And then there was the drumming and the ‘filthy piano’ playing (catch a bit of the jazz piano in the start of “I Won’t Dance: in Roberta). But I’ll stop there. Oh, except that I forgot to mention: it helps that he was kinda cute too.

*JAC: it’s a website!

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Thanks to Latha for the post. To complement it, here’s Astaire, in Blue Skies (1946), tapping up a storm and deftly wielding his cane to the Irving Berlin tune “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” To me this is one of Astaire’s best performances on film, and he was 47 years old. As we’ll see, he was going strong well into his fifties.

32 Comments

  1. J.J. Emerson
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    I watched this over and over a couple of months back. The skill tranfixes me.

    It is also pretty interesting to compare cultural changes over just a 15 year period by comparing the lyrics of the Astaire version (often associated with the “Blue Skies” from 1946) to the earliest version by Irving Berlin from 1930. The street changes from Lennox to Park, the style of the fancy clothes change, the Gary Cooper reference is added in, etc. Pretty cool.

    And of course, you gotta click here and here.

    • J.J. Emerson
      Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm | Permalink

      Aw crud, I pasted the wrong Youtube link. Here is the right one.

      • Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:58 am | Permalink

        Yeah, you put in the wrong link…

        /@

  2. Dermot C
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

    I ain’t no fan of dance; can’t help but recall Tom Paulin’s dismissal of the art as ‘leppin about’, which was the last time I laughed at BBC2’s cultural review show. But hey, why sneer?

    Look on my walks, ye mighty and despair. My name is Fred Astaire.

    • Marta
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      +1

  3. Cremnomaniac
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

    It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the fluidity of Mr. Astaire’s movements. I’m no dancer, but the level of accomplishment required to make the absolutely difficult appear effortless demonstrates his dance supremacy.

  4. gbjames
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 8:56 pm | Permalink

    I am greatly enjoying Astaire Week!

    • Marta
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Yeah. Me, too. His was a physical kind of genius, always what I have in mind when I’m thinking about physical genius.

      I work very hard for physical grace, and I’ll never be able to move like Fred Astaire. It’s the difference between practice and genius. In my most optimistic moments, I think I can practice enough/work hard enough, and I’ll be as good as a physical genius, but it’s just not true, is it?

  5. Posted August 22, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    His turns are as superbly precise as a pilot landing on a dime.

  6. msobel
    Posted August 22, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Permalink

    He’s good but the original is so much better

    • Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:59 am | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:15 am | Permalink

      Puttin’ on a what?
      :-)

      PS – examine the source code of what I posted to see how to post vids w/o eating up Jerry’s bandwidth. Takes a smidgeon more effort, but it’s worth it. (use the [a href="url"]text[/a] construct to avoid embedding in other words)

      Extremely excellent Astaire days, BTW. Astounding.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:06 am | Permalink

      OK, I don’t care for that movie; but THAT’S a great scene.

      Reminds me of how great Gene Wilder was.

  7. Charles Sullivan
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Beauty at !:55

  8. Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:09 am | Permalink

    I’m particularly impressed with his cane work here!

    So, how was the “pick up” done? Any kind of strings wouldn’t work, they’d just get entangled. A steel core and a powerful electromagnet under the floor?

    /@

    • Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:22 am | Permalink

      Ah, no. It’s mechanical: You can see a rod poking through the floor for three frames around 2:58.

      /@

      • JBlilie
        Posted August 23, 2012 at 4:58 am | Permalink

        Still fantastic anyway!

    • imil42
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 6:12 am | Permalink

      Definitely strings, pulled up from above the scene. No rod could push a cane in the exact position. The thing you see at 2:58 is not a rod, but the tail of string that is being pulled up.

      As for entanglement – the strings are not permanently attached to the cane. Pay attention: first and second time before the cane flies up, it goes briefly out of frame. During that time someone attaches strings to it. Fast and precise work, but nothing impossible.

      The third time is trivial – there is a break in the video during which they attached strings to multiple canes.

      • Posted August 23, 2012 at 7:45 am | Permalink

        Unless the “string theory” is evidenced by studio documentation, I disagree…

        1. I’m not sure that strings could pull the cane up so sharply.
        2. The ends of the can appear to be vibrating as they would if the midpoint of the cane had had a percussive strike.

        (3. And Wp says, “an ingenious jumping cane routine which relied on a concealed floor trigger mechanism” – but there’s no citation for that. ;-))

        Note that, the out-of-frame time would also allow a props man to align the cane over the spike, so that can’t distinguish between hypotheses.

        /@

        • Posted August 23, 2012 at 7:48 am | Permalink

          *2. … can → cane

          • Notagod
            Posted August 23, 2012 at 8:54 am | Permalink

            Can, cup, bottle, jar – all OK. Cane – nope.

            You can’t ebolve different types only within types.

            Sayeth, jebus crispy christ.

        • imil42
          Posted August 23, 2012 at 11:33 am | Permalink

          So you see problems in my “string theory”.

          1. Sure they cane :)
          2. A sharp pull would have exactly the same effect.
          3. Citation needed, indeed.

          Now lets’ see how the “spike theory” fares:

          1. It’s hard as hell to make a cane fly up to the exact location with a push. No control at all. An inch to the side and the cane spins like mad. With a pull, it’s trivial: the cane goes where the string comes from. Fred positions his arm so that the string goes between his fingers, or a bit to the side to avoid burns. A guy above the scene pulls the rope or releases the spring which pulls the rope. C’est tout!
          2. Ok, a rod might push the cane up. But how can it come back instantly and invisibly? I see nothing beneath the cane.
          3. Spikes would require complex machinery to be located in several places beneath the floor; strings are simple and easily movable.

          I think that in absence of raw footage or other direct proof, there is no reason to assume a more complicated solution.

  9. Dominic
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the reminders of this great artist. One wonders what other great artists have been lost to us because there was no medium to record them.

    Blog indeed!

  10. JBlilie
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    Wow, that was amazing. Some things I noted and liked:

    As Ant said above: The pop-up of the cane — well done! And the cane work generally — what a big added difficulty/aspect/feature.

    Obviously the weightless, fluid style he had, wow, wow, wow. One forgets!

    The cool old-style FX: The double mirros, kicked open to reveal the line of dancers (in this day of CGI, I had to look cloosely to realize that, yes, those weren’t little CGIs of Fred, in perfect synchrony, they were other dancers in near-perfect synchrony!)

    How he switches moves seemlessly, mixing so many moves and (varied) stylistic flourishes.

    And all so well with the music. Wow.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      Also: Look at him puffing at the end in his bow: It reminds you what an athletic feat such a number is!

    • stewart61
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

      No, of course they weren’t CGI, but they weren’t other dancers, either; they were multiple exposures of Astaire. This had already been done beautifully 25 years earlier by Buster Keaton in “The Playhouse.”

      • JBlilie
        Posted August 23, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

        Really? Wow, very cool. Even better!

  11. JBlilie
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    On the Astaire-Kelly debate:

    Astaire: More artistic
    Kelly: More athletic

    I recently re-viewed An American in Paris

    It was pretty good (the story was useless and Kelly played a hammed-up stereo-typed manly ‘Murican man, being an ugly American) but Leslie Caron was amazing (see her in this movie and then watch her in old age in Lasse Hallstrom’s Chocolat.) The whole last number was a big throw-away so Kelly could show off (but I suppose they did that in such musicals.)

    Kelly was pretty amazing; but he was trying so hard to show off his athelticism (IMO) that the dance suffered.

    I come down firmly on the Astaire side.

    • JBlilie
      Posted August 23, 2012 at 5:14 am | Permalink

      … stereotyped …

  12. chascpeterson
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    how he sang them! No crooner, he had a light voice

    But that’s waht ‘crooner’ means, no? Once the microphone was introduced, people like Bing Crosby–and Astaire–could sing in softer, lighter, more nuanced voices than their forebears, who had to supply their own amplification from the diaphragm.

  13. feralboy12
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Count me as a distinct non-fan of dancing.
    Fred Astaire, however, had a bit of a career in acting as well. His performance in On The Beach, where he portrayed the guilt-ridden scientist who helped create the bomb, was particularly moving.
    And if there’s one scene worth watching in The Towering Inferno worth watching, it’s the scene where Astaire’s character is getting ready for the big ball. Moving around the room, posing briefly in front of the mirror, the precision of his movements and his body control are striking.

  14. Marta
    Posted August 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    Astaire was a tremendous athlete. When I watch him dance, that’s what comes through for me. You watch him, and you’re thinking aspirational thoughts. What grace. I have that grace level in mind in everything I do.


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