They’re the Top

Victoria & Albert Museum, London
Fred and Adele Astaire in Stop Flirting, Shaftesbury Theatre, London, May 1923

Now that The Artist has whetted our interest in the silent film and the revolutionary impact of sound, it may be time to reconsider the career of the man who made the conversion to sound the basis of a whole new kind of movie, Fred Astaire. The Artist suggests quite accurately that the definitive event of the new sound era was the arrival of the film musical. Sound meant music; music meant jazz. But the technological transition was slow. After the first feature-length sound movie, The Jazz Singer (1927), which starred Al Jolson, it was six years before the advent of the Jazz Dancer proved that talking and even singing mouths were not nearly as expressive in the new medium as dancing feet, especially and almost exclusively the feet of Fred Astaire. Astaire and the difference he made to the film musical add up to more than the story of one career. No other film genre provided as perfect a synchronization of sight and sound or an experience as exhilarating, and that was very largely Astaire’s doing.

The title of Todd Decker’s highly specialized, richly detailed book, Music Makes Me, comes from the Vincent Youmans song to which Astaire danced his first screen solo, in Flying Down to Rio (1933). Earlier in the movie, Ginger Rogers sang it:

I like music old and new,
But music makes me do the things
I never should do.

As Decker notes, Rogers’s rendition is sexy, but when Astaire blasts off, the meaning changes: music makes him dance. His timing, as usual, was impeccable. Decker places the Astaire of the 1930s at the confluence of the trends in movies, big-band jazz (or swing), radio, and recordings that were changing the tone of American life. The songwriting industry had conformed instantly to this new pattern: suddenly a hit song was no longer sheet music on people’s piano racks; it was the air they breathed.

No matter that as a singer Astaire was not in a class with Jolson and Crosby, or with Crosby and Sinatra. By the end of the swing era he had introduced more outstanding songs than anybody else, twenty-six by Irving Berlin alone. Astaire was himself a songwriter whose skill in manipulating musical material other songwriters knew they could trust. Decker, the first writer to pay close attention to the full range of Astaire’s musical choices, is also a fine judge of his artistic sensibilities. And so was Astaire: in a ringingly declarative sentence, quoted from the uncut manuscript of his autobiography, Steps in Time (1959), he separates himself from colleagues who only performed. That sentence, which Decker uses as a chapter head, is “I am a creator” (Astaire’s italics).

In Hollywood (appropriately, Astaire signed with the studio called Radio Pictures), the one aspect of the business that did…

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