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They’re the Top

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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 not engage him was the content of complete motion pictures. He was not even interested in complete production numbers, leaving the staging of ensembles to others. What Astaire produced was himself, in all his variety—as soloist, as partner, as singer, as actor, as instrumentalist (piano, drums). He choreographed all his own numbers, usually with the assistance of his near double Hermes Pan; he supervised the filming and cutting; and before choreographing a number he worked out its whole musical structure, often basing it on an introductory song by Berlin or Gershwin or Kern or, just as often, on improvisations by rehearsal pianists. His interventions weren’t just tolerated at RKO but welcomed, and he was always the main link between the composers, whom of course he knew personally, and the studio’s musicians and arrangers. In short, wherever you looked in the musical as opposed to the scenic and dramatic process, you found Astaire.

In the connection between tap dancing and swing Astaire seems to have touched a live wire that led straight to the heart of sound-film sensation, and it’s no coincidence that his solos, where he tapped like mad, were also the places where he ventured effects that were only possible on film. For Astaire, these were double-edged innovations. If film could magnify the tap dancer, it could also expose him. If the musical film existed to be set afire by Astaire, it was also his salvation. Beneath the experimentation there was always the fact that he had made his film debut at thirty-four, a dauntingly late age for a dancer. In that one sense, the time for Fred Astaire was out of joint. Ingenious use of the medium became a way of disguising the lessening of his capacities as a virtuoso tap dancer.

It was more than that, of course—any way he cared to entertain us was the right way. I don’t think we realize even now that Astaire was able to make deep connections to the medium in dances that could as well have been performed on the stage, and this is where as a technician he becomes truly uncanny. The title number in Top Hat (1935) was one he actually had done on the stage. With new music by Berlin it became a prized movie moment, Astaire’s signature number.

As with all great dancers, Astaire’s technique was an expression of his imagination. It was the braiding of swing rhythms together with his personal tap technique (which had to have been an extension of his drumming, or vice versa) that made him the great and unique dancer that he was. But as a film phenomenon he was twice as great. Decker is right to insist that Astaire’s persona was a cinematic creation. Graham Greene said much the same thing in a 1936 review when he compared Astaire to Mickey Mouse. Even without movie tricks, against certain musical backgrounds he could seem other than human. (The only good thing in Vincente Minnelli’s 1945 film Yolanda and the Thief is the casting of Fred Astaire as an angel.)

Decker, who wants to move Astaire seamlessly across the divisions in popular music and dance styles from the Twenties to the Sixties, reminds us that by the time of his first television special in 1958 he had long since been doing less tapping and more body movement. The women he partnered had gotten younger and younger and, except for Barrie Chase, his TV partner, less and less accomplished as dancers, and some were virtual novices. In the Fifties and Sixties, aging male stars all had their young female costars. I think Astaire actually may have preferred young partners for their osmotic connection to the youth culture and its dance fads, and also for their malleability; they could be taught. But with ballet-trained Cyd Charisse in “Dancing in the Dark” (The Bandwagon, 1953) he brought off his best romantic duet since the great series with Rogers.

That duet functions beautifully both as pure dance and as plot hinge: Charisse is a ballerina, Astaire is Astaire. Dubiously cast together in a new show, they need to know if they can be dance partners. Tentatively at first, then more decisively, Charisse responds to Astaire’s touch. Decker devotes three pages of approval to this dance, but none at all to the one it is modeled on, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (from Follow the Fleet, 1936). This is recognizably a “seduction” number, of the type that Astaire patented with Rogers, but with one crucial variation: Astaire does not want to seduce Rogers but to bring her back from the brink of suicide and restore her to the living. The whole scene is presented as a drama complete in itself, isolated from the rest of the movie. Although Decker is as impatient as Astaire was with issues of integration and motivation, he accepts “Let’s Face the Music” on its own terms as a book number.

But he is quite wrong to say that Astaire’s treatment of Berlin’s great ballad “lacks any dramatic through line.” The two dancers are distinctively characterized: Astaire is the continually active partner, while Rogers is continually passive, gradually gaining confidence until she is able to join him in that huge burst of a side-by-side exit. The drama is so deeply embedded in the dance that it may take several reseeings to grasp it all, as I was finally able to discover to my regret, years after having published a rhapsodic account of the number; the artist in Astaire simply wouldn’t let him “act” a story when he could dance it. We all love “Never Gonna Dance,” the lyrical climax of Swing Time (1936), but it may have contained too much plot-dependent dancing to suit Astaire. Today, in large-screen DVD viewing, “Let’s Face the Music” stands as the apotheosis of Astaire-Rogers.

In MGM’s Royal Wedding (1951), Astaire and Jane Powell play characters based on himself and his sister Adele, notwithstanding the fact that Adele was nearly three years older than Fred and Powell was thirty years younger. Fred and Adele Astaire are still remembered as one of the greatest acts to play the Broadway and London stage, but compared to her brother, Adele, the star of the act, is now almost forgotten. Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires is the first full-length study of a fantastically charismatic figure. That charisma and the lateness of the hour make it a necessary but problematical book.

Riley, a passionate enthusiast of all things Astaire, is an academic historian engaged in what seems to be an all-out struggle with the limitations of theatrical biography. The question that nags the biographer of performing artists—but what did they do?—appears to have goaded her into injudicious attempts at interpretative description. The dizzying accolades Adele collected in her fifteen years of stardom (1917–1932) seem to call for some authoritative word of explanation. It is not to be had. One may describe actors—after all, they have texts—but trying to describe dancers in motion is a no-go proposition, the more so when they are theatrical wunderkinder, one of whom last performed publicly eighty years ago and was never filmed.

Even at the time, reviewers labored fruitlessly to pin Adele down in print. Her capacity for conquest was apparently limitless. At one end of her range she spread beauty and enchantment; at the other she mugged outrageously, earning the sobriquet Funny Face. She loved to cause scandal; she had a dirty mouth to do it with, and the sweetest of grins. Fred could only shudder and mark time until the riot died down.

Riley enters some new facts in the biographical record and quietly corrects others, such as that the Astaires, born in Omaha, came from a comfortable, “respectable” middle-class family. Their father, Frederic (Fritz) Austerlitz, emigrated from Vienna when he was twenty-four. Their mother, Johanna (Ann) Geilus, was the first-generation daughter of parents from East Prussia. Fritz’s parents were Jews who converted to Catholicism before he was born. In Vienna, Riley writes, Fritz had been “drawn longingly to Vienna’s café society, its artists, writers, musicians, and theater folk, and to life on the Ringstrasse, the elegant apotheosis of Jewish cosmopolitanism.” His desultory pursuit of a living in the New York of the 1890s ended when a business opportunity led him to Omaha, where he eventually became a beer salesman (not a brewer, as is commonly written), a job he kept probably because it favored his incipient alcoholism. Fritz was ineffectual, good-humored, affectionate, ever the cane-twirling dandy. His musical talent was passed on to his children, who adored him, especially Adele.

Ann Geilus was brought up in a strict Lutheran household. Her father was a furnace man in the Union Pacific shop and a drunkard. She was a gentle, retiring, responsible girl, swept off her feet by Fritz’s raffish worldliness and in the end defeated by it. They separated when Adele and Fred were eight and five, after a local dance teacher urged them to put the children on the stage in New York. Fritz saw a child act as the fulfillment of his theatrical ambitions; Ann saw an escape from a dead marriage and a chance to lead an independent, venturesome life. The two never divorced. Fritz stayed in Omaha (where as time passed he may have become a bigamist) and wired Ann money while she shepherded the kids through New York’s dancing schools and boardinghouses. When Fritz visited New York, they all ate at Luchow’s.

In vaudeville, the grinding schedule of rehearsal and performance made a workaholic of Fred and a slacker of Adele. With her huge natural talent, sparkling presence, and spontaneous wit, she could go on stage with no preparation and improvise, to his intense dismay. Nearly a head taller than her brother at that point, she dominated the stage. The children took their opposite personalities from their parents: Adele had her father’s frivolity; Fred, his mother’s reticence and grit. One has to wonder about gentle, sweet-faced women (the mother of Lillian and Dorothy Gish was another) who, from God knows what combination of desperation and ambition, subjected their young children to the frightful ordeal and sordid atmosphere of vaudeville. Maybe when the act went over Ann Astaire could feel justified. When it flopped, the children went to their dressing rooms and cried. Backstage, Adele thumbed her nose at the audience and stuck out her tongue.

Riley’s coverage of the vaudeville years is basically an expansion of Astaire’s own vivid chapters in which recollections of scarifying reviews drove him constantly to bewail his inadequacy as Adele’s partner. The inferiority complex lasted into the big time. Without jiggling Adele’s perch, Riley rights the balance:

The New York opening [of Over the Top] on 28 November 1917 met with mixed reviews, but most critics singled out the Astaires as a rare highlight in an otherwise mediocre entertainment, with the honors divided almost evenly between brother and sister. Louis Sherwin of the New York Globe wrote: “One of the prettiest features of the show is the dancing of the two Astaires. The girl, a light, spritelike little creature, has really an exquisite floating style in her caperings, while the young man combines eccentric agility with humor.
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