Bright Lights Film Journal

Obama Channels Astaire

Obama’s Inaugural Address was memorable. Obama’s speeches generally are. But the line I hear quoted from it most often comes not from the Bible, Abraham Lincoln, or our Founding Fathers, but from … Fred Astaire. You know the one I’m talking about:

“Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

It’s a paraphase, almost a verbatim quote, of a lyric from the song “Pick Yourself Up” sung by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the 1936 RKO musical, Swing Time (above).

Does Obama identify with Astaire? There are the ears, of course, and the general slimness of physique. Most important, there is the incomparable grace of Astaire, the grace aspired to by a moviegoing generation who hoped, like Astaire, to transcend through that grace the Great Depression, economic and psychological, that surrounded them.

Which makes Obama’s (surely conscious) homage to Astaire particularly apt. We all know we are going through something like a second Great Depression. And in our hearts we hope to get through it the way our grandparents eventually did – with the help of role models like Astaire, or in the present case, a President who apparently seeks to channel the physical and spiritual grace of an Astaire. Transcendence is wherever you find it.

In the meantime, here are the lyrics (written by Dorothy Fields to the music of Jerome Kern) that Obama paraphrased, as good a summation of his message as any:

Nothing’s impossible I have found,
For when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up,
Dust myself off,
Start all over again.