Bright Lights Film Journal

Books: Fred Astaire, by Joseph Epstein

Fred Astaire, by Joseph Epstein. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2008. Cloth $22, 198pp. ISBN 978-0-300-11695-3.

Does it count as a labor of love if you don’t work very hard? That’s the question that has to be asked about Joseph Epstein’s slim little volume, Fred Astaire. As a Fred Fancier of long standing, I may be a little picky, but as I see it Mr. Epstein has done little more than skim the relevant literature. For some reason, actually watching Fred’s movies seems to have been too much for him.

I did learn a few things from this book that I didn’t know before. Adele Astaire, Fred’s older sister, who was the main draw during their long days in the teens and twenties in vaudeville and then Broadway, loved to swear, once calling a stagehand a “stupid fucker.” Cyd Charisse (“the desolatingly beautiful Cyd Charisse,”1 as Joe calls her), who danced with both Fred and Gene Kelly, regarded Gene as the superior choreographer but said that Fred had better coordination and that his sense of rhythm was “uncanny.” Joe rambles on about Fred’s toupees (not so hot) and his ears (“large and fleshy,” but, in the final analysis, no worse than Clark Gable’s or Bing Crosby’s) and tells me quite a bit more about Fred’s attire than I wanted to know. As my friends tell me, I’m not a clothes guy, and really need to look in the mirror more than once a week.2

Joe does get a few things right. He joins me in the tank for Ginger’s performance in “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” in Roberta. ((My idea of heaven is pretty much watching Ginger sing “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” because I know that once she stops singing she and Fred are going to start dancing.)) And he rightly assigns 95 percent of the Fred-Ginger “magic” to sheer professionalism. They were going to be stars, and that was that. If it meant dancing with a dumb broad who couldn’t spot her turns to save her life, so be it. And if it meant dancing with a neurotic twerp who used a rubber band and a peanut shell for a dancing belt, so be that. The show must go on.

Otherwise, as I say, Joe doesn’t work too hard. He spends a lot of time quoting other people about who was better, Fred or Gene, a lot of time bitching about a bitchy article about Fred written by the bitchy Helen Lawrenson,3 and a lot of time running down Fred’s post-Ginger partners, pushing it way too hard, in my opinion.4 He does note that none of the post-Ginger flicks had scores to match those of the glory years, but doesn’t close in on the central fact — to me, at least — that once Fred was free of Ginger he never sought to create a dance that had emotional development and movement, which you do get in “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee, “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat,” Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet, and “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time. ((The sole exception is Fred’s solo turn in “One for My Baby” (right) from The Sky’s the Limit (1943, still unavailable on DVD), easily his best solo performance.)) Unlike Mr. Epstein, I loved Fred’s dancing with Paulette Goddard (“I Ain’t Hep to That Step but I’ll Dig it” in Second Chorus,), not to mention Rita Hayworth (“So Near and Yet So Far” in You’ll Never Get Rich and “I’m Old Fashioned” and “The Shorty George” from You Were Never Lovelier) as well as the tap dancing extravaganzas from Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell. But these dances, though deliciously spirited and forever young, don’t have the development of emotion that occurs in his best dances with Ginger. Why Fred stopped dancing with his heart he never bothered to tell us. Perhaps he had said what he had to say. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, he felt that he had gotten too old, and the girls too young, for him to sell it.

As Epstein notes, Fred Astaire much preferred to talk about selling tickets than creating art. Unlike Gene Kelly, Astaire never condescended to the masses, never tried to improve them, never tried to sell them on art — “Hey, fellows! Did you know that dancing the lead in Swan Lake burns as many calories as cutting down a redwood? Plus, you get to wear really tight pants!”

But Astaire clearly had more on his mind than just selling tickets. He wanted stardom, he wanted to be a hit, but he wanted it on his own terms. Like the great popular composers of his era, Fred achieved a remarkable freedom and completeness in his dances over and over again — artistic economy and discipline masquerading as mere nonchalance. He was a popular artist, an entertainer, but he hated many of the things typical of popular entertainment. He despised virtuosity for its own sake, which the public loves, and he hated repetition and tricks. He wanted movement and development, one thing always leading to another, and everything leading to a culmination, so that when you got to the end, you knew you were there.

Though he, of course, never wanted to admit it, Astaire agonized over his performances to the point that many of those who worked with him were convinced that he would have been happier as a choreographer rather than a dancer. Yet, like other compulsive performers, he simply could not endure not being in the public eye — appearing in TV specials in his sixties when he could scarcely do more than stare at Barrie Chase’s legs and, finally, appearing in bottom-barrel flicks like The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again and The Amazing Dobermans. Anything to hear those magic words “They’re ready for you on the set, Mr. Astaire.”5

Astaire was lucky to live at a time that the New York/London café society elegance of the twenties, which was always his ideal, could still be accepted nationwide. People who couldn’t afford neckties were still willing to be entertained by films about people who knew the difference between white tie and black. Class could still be sold to the masses without apology and for top dollar.6 Unlike so many entertainers who followed Fred, who longed for both “class” and mass appeal, Fred didn’t have to compromise. Talent and luck. It’s a good combination.

  1. Yes, this is how Joe writes. He also refers to Fred as “the subject of the slender disquisition now in your hands.” El yucko, n’est-ce pas? []
  2. Joe faults Fred for wearing an identification bracelet on the same wrist as his watch in several of his movies: “a minor mistake — a small vulgar thing.” Excuse me for living, but I never noticed. I guess I have better things to do than stare at Fred Astaire’s wrist. []
  3. It was a shitty article, but it ran thirty years ago. Who gives a damn? []
  4. Worst of all, he insists on referring to Judy Garland as “Miss Garland” (none of the other chicks merit the honorific). I’m sorry, but calling a female star “Miss Whomever” is simply shorthand for saying “I have no life, and I prefer it that way.” []
  5. One hopes it wasn’t “Put your teeth in, gramps! You’re on!” []
  6. A staple of American popular entertainment during the thirties was a radio show called Your Hit Parade, which presented the top ten songs in the country each week. When Top Hat was released in 1935, all five of the songs, including the seriously subpar “Piccolino,” were in the top ten. []