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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.

In 1923, the Astaires made their first trip to England to appear in their Broadway hit For Goodness Sake, retitled Stop Flirting, and with additional songs by George and Ira Gershwin. London’s theatrical and social worlds were stunned. Formally dressed audiences went into frenzies, refused to leave the theater, lined up at the stage door bearing small gifts, and returned repeatedly to see the show. Adele’s precise quality again bedevilled the critics. It wasn’t all floating lyricism. In a weird anticipation of Graham Greene’s comparison of Fred to Mickey Mouse, Cecil Beaton wrote in his diary that Adele looked like Felix the Cat, “with her large amusing head on a minute exquisite little body.”

This mass adulation lasted the rest of the decade. In response the Astaires went British. They taught dance steps to the future Edward VIII and Adele consorted seriously with his brother, the future Duke of Kent. From the two princes Fred acquired his famous elegant taste in clothes. Riley, English herself, enlarges fervently on the mutual fascination of the Astaires and their British public. The impact of the two Americans was, she believes, profoundly therapeutic: “their dancing and comedy encapsulated an innocence England had irrecoverably lost on foreign fields.” (Strangely unexamined is the effect the lionizing of her children by titled Britons had on Ann Astaire, a working girl all her life. Omaha was never like this.)

Meanwhile, the Astaires were enjoying a similarly mutual fascination with the Gershwin brothers. With their next shows, Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face, the Gershwins became indispensable to their lives, achieving a perfect interchange of artistic identities, particularly between George and Fred. The composer, a tap dancer of sorts, proposed steps to the dancer. The dancer, through the potency of his style, proposed fascinating rhythms to the composer. As Todd Decker points out, their stride-piano style was virtually identical. In 1927, after seeing Funny Face, Alexander Woollcott wrote,

I do not know whether George Gershwin was born into this world to write rhythms for Fred Astaire’s feet or whether Fred Astaire was born into this world to show how the Gershwin music should really be danced. But surely they were written in the same key, those two.

Adele, with dozens of beaux to choose from, began an affair with George Gershwin only to conclude that he was impotent. Shortly after she retired from the stage, she made headlines with her marriage to Charles Cavendish, the second son of the ninth Duke of Devonshire, and went to live at Lismore Castle in Ireland. She met the Cavendishes in character. As they gathered at one end of the library, the doors opened and, according to Mary Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire,

there stood this tiny girl, beautifully dressed. We waited for her to approach, but instead of walking toward us, she suddenly began turning cartwheels and ended up in front of us. Everyone loved it.

Adele’s life with Cavendish was darkened by his alcoholic invalidism and by her inability to have children; the babies all died. Thoughts of coming out of retirement were entertained and dropped. A middle-aged Adele? There was no such person. Her second husband, the American investment banker Kingman Douglass, gave her a house in Jamaica, an estate in Middleburg, Virginia, an apartment in New York, and more anxiety over chronic alcoholism. In contrast, Fred had a happy twenty-one-year marriage to a wealthy Long Island socialite, Phyllis Livingston Potter. Ann and Adele had opposed the match. Adele found Phyllis “very jealous…possessive in a way I didn’t like.” (Phyllis followed Fred onto the sets of his pictures with Ginger, who had dated him before his marriage and who now could hear in the silence before each take the clicking of Phyllis’s knitting needles.) After Douglass died, of a brain hemorrhage in 1971, Adele moved to Arizona, close enough for the three Astaires to be together often in their old age. The bond they forged in the crucible of vaudeville had never really been broken.

The curtain descends rather suddenly in The Astaires. Nothing whatever is said of Fred’s other life as a breeder of racehorses, and we really ought to be given more about his last years than a mention of arthritis and inner-ear disturbance. In 1980, twenty-six years after Phyllis’s death, he took a leaf from Adele’s book of scandals and married a female jockey forty-some years his junior, leaving his sister—in fact his whole family—in shock. This truly ill-advised union, Riley writes, is thought to have hastened Adele’s death. “Sadly,” Riley adds, “Fred’s widow has, in a misguided attempt to protect her late husband’s image from commercial exploitation, exercised her control in this regard with litigious zeal and little discrimination.”

Todd Decker has the opposite problem from Riley—too much information. But most of it is news. Delving into production schedules, credit sheets, cast lists, and other studio paraphernalia, Decker gives us a good look at Astaire-related activity behind the scenes. Of his two angles of approach to the films, the aesthetic and the sociocultural, Astaire fans will prefer the former to being told what we already know about institutionalized racism in the America of the twentieth century. But Decker’s hardheaded discussion has the merit of keeping us mindful of the intransigently commercial nature of Astaire’s medium.

If in the studio era sound meant music, and music meant jazz, jazz meant the music of black Americans, i.e., the commercially dispossessed. Opportunities for all but the greatest of black artists were few. Decker suggests that Astaire was aware of racial barriers and extensively analyzes those of his numbers that incorporated black performers, presumably at his behest. In another area of expertise, he tracks white performance to sources in the black culture. He locates the template for Irving Berlin’s “The Yam” in a specialty of Jimmie Lunceford’s dance band, called “Posin’.” As performed at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, at some point in “Posin’” the band would stop, Lunceford’s singer would yell “Evvv-ry-bod-y pose!” and the dancers would freeze for eight counts.

Berlin’s adaptation of this (“One two three Yam!” followed by an eight-count blank for the Yam Strut) gave Astaire and Rogers their most athletic routine, with Astaire bouncing Rogers into easy chairs and swinging her over his extended leg eight times in a row. It’s spectacular, all right, but not, as Decker claims, because Astaire was “drawing on social dance innovations originating among lindy hoppers.” Astaire was known to admire the lindy hoppers—acrobatic dancers from Harlem—but nothing in the Yam resembled their style.

A curiosity of that film, Carefree (1938), is the uncredited appearance of Hattie McDaniel as Rogers’s maid. “The Yam” is a song about a black street vendor:

Come on and hear the Yam man cry
“Any yam today?”
The sweet potatoes that he’ll fry
Will be Yam today.
The little step that you’ll see him do
With ev’ry Yam that he sells to you,
It’s something that you ought to try—
Come and Yam today.

Hattie McDaniel, Hollywood’s best-known black actress, was a blues singer who’d had her own radio show in Los Angeles. Why had she been hired for Carefree if not to sing “The Yam” before Astaire and Rogers danced it? “The Carioca” had featured the black jazz singer Etta Moten, whereas “The Continental” and “The Piccolino” had been sung by Ginger Rogers. The two conflicting traditions were resolved when script directions called for Rogers to sing and demonstrate the Yam as a means of inveigling Astaire onto the dance floor. Surprisingly for a writer so vigilant on racial matters, Decker doesn’t notice the absence of McDaniel from “The Yam.” And I don’t know that she was intended for it—I ask.

Astaire did two numbers in blackface, probably under studio pressure: “Bojangles of Harlem” in Swing Time and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” in Easter Parade (1948). “Bojangles” is by far the easier one to take, clearly a tribute not only to Bill Robinson but to every black tap master who had ever impressed Astaire in his younger days. Blackface was not a mode favored by Astaire. The female chorus in “Bojangles” gets away with it only by being as light-skinned as the real-life chorus line at the Cotton Club.

In “Steppin’ Out,” filmed in Technicolor, you could miss the fact that everybody is supposed to be black; it’s a grayface number. Robert Alton’s group dances are divided into units led by three women whose dance behavior mimics the progressive racial tonalities of the carioca. The first two are social and perky; the third, wearing a high-slit sarong, slinks around Astaire like an alligator in heat. Astaire’s discomfort with blackface was second only to his utter distress in the presence of serious sexual innuendo, and here they were combined. When he goes into his protracted slow-motion solo, you feel it’s to get away from the double-barreled threat of Alton’s conception. In The Bandwagon, he is able to tolerate Charisse’s advances because “The Girl Hunt Ballet” is unmistakably satirical (“She came at me in sections”).

Working at MGM for the ambitious producer Arthur Freed and his star director, Vincente Minnelli, Astaire didn’t have the freedom he’d had at RKO. Minnelli’s The Bandwagon tries to redress the wrongs committed against Astaire’s style by the pretentious ballets in his earlier Minnelli films. MGM’s corporate stamp was heavy, and Astaire also had to endure the Freed unit’s overreliance on screenplays that rummaged through his own career for material. In The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), Astaire and Rogers play a fictionalized version of their partnership, and Astaire personally is the focus of Easter Parade and The Bandwagon. The plot of The Bandwagon (the title and the songs came from an old show of Astaire’s) was directly inspired by the (deleted) climax of Ziegfeld Follies of 1946, with Astaire and young Lucille Bremer disappearing beneath waves of colored soapsuds. Astaire’s acid comments about it in his book suggest that he wasn’t mollified by Minnelli’s apology in The Bandwagon, even though Michael Kidd’s choreography for “The Girl Hunt Ballet” did provide him with a new “milieu,” as Decker says, which he would revisit in his television shows.

About Easter Parade Decker accepts the standard story that the songs were written by Berlin with Gene Kelly in mind, but although Astaire substituted for Kelly when the latter became injured, Berlin’s lyrics seem all to have been written with Top Hat in mind. “It Only Happens When I Dance with You” is a new version of “Cheek to Cheek,” “A Fella with an Umbrella” is “Isn’t This a Lovely Day to be Caught in the Rain,” and “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” is “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” As for the plot, it concerns a star dancer’s attempt to turn a nondancer into his new partner. Who else but Astaire?

In his sixties, in the low-pressure medium of television, Astaire came over well, at times appearing to be right in stride with American Bandstand. The last time we saw him live, he danced for Dick Cavett. In 1976 he retired from public performing. When he died in 1987 he was being compared, sometimes to his detriment, not to his former self but to the group of gifted black dancers then performing in the tap revival of the Eighties. As always, the comparison with the Harlem masters missed the point. They danced for the ear; they partnered drummers, not pretty girls. The very visual Astaire had danced with his whole body. His business was musical comedy, not the art of tap. Long before his death, he had been canonized as the successor in sound to Chaplin and Keaton. But again he eluded comparisons. Whatever it was that he did, he was the only major movie star of the studio era—perhaps of any era—to have had the career his talent meant him to have, and to have had it as long as he liked.

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