But goes on being itself
* * *
True Love in cinema is more than fine acting, well-written scripts, or even directorial tone. Not that IMDb cast and crew should simply pack up and leave town. Nevertheless, this piece takes as its own true north the notion of cinematic miracle.
Inspired by Arlene Croce and her wonderfully nuanced The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (1972), for me this all starts with Astaire and Rogers in Swing Time (1936). But with Astaire such a pure 1920s archetype, aren’t we already straying rather a long way from religious awe or even secular gravitas?
Arlene Croce, however, somehow discovers an affecting emotional ricketiness never totally concealed by the maestro of elegant movement. This relates to Astaire-the-artist, whose perfectionism has often been discussed. But Croce is also referring to the skinny wimp physique and Astaire’s constant need to fend off studio and public prejudices on that account. So her discussion widens to include a view of the artist and the man.
If we want to get quickly to what informs the Croce analysis, it helps to remember what was happening in the 1930s. In Europe it really was Springtime for Hitler; and after years of economic depression in Old World and New, people were at last finding work. Though there was still a fight to hold your job, the immediate mood was one of relief from the daily humiliations of hunger and poverty. You even felt lucky that there were jobs to fight for.
Swing Time director George Stevens, a close friend of Frank Capra and sharing Capra’s famously alert social sensibilities, could therefore rely on women in the audience identifying with Penny Carroll, Ginger’s hard-pressed, slightly cynical dance instructor. And men could at least aspire to be her latest student – Lucky Garnett, a “society” dancer and gambler who just happened to know a high court judge or two and, at the same time, could dance like Fred Astaire.
Such comments, though, confine us perhaps overmuch to the film’s dazzling surfaces. While working its dancing shoes and socks off to avoid too much reality, it also buzzes furtively with allusions to sometimes quite refrigerating degrees of social grimness. People are not merely in or out of the money, exuding a sing-along sangfroid. Their fates remain sealed, not just by luck or social class but by the presence of certain quite gangsterish powers. Though played for laughs, it’s this sly presence that, for me, does most to set off Penny and Lucky’s romance and transform pure escapism into Croce’s “miracle.”
In Swing Time, Ginger and Fred therefore seem to glow with more than usually bright chemistry. Indeed, seizing their chance to twirl and glide past the limits of both genre and sexual frisson, in their dance routines they momentarily seem capable of smashing all the dividing walls of mutual disappointment that intrude into real-life romance. At the same time, they fill up all the new spaces they have just created with their own inter-penetrative patterns – existential rhythms that go beyond teacher/pupil or any other separating hierarchy.
Mundanely: Penny is failing as a teacher and falls foul of her boss. Lucky promptly falls in a heap so as to emphasize how much he needs to learn and thereby save her job. More accurately, though, he’s trying to save his relationship with her.
There are very effectively evoked layers of dramatic complexity here. And it’s a scene perhaps deliberately echoed a few years later in Pygmalion (1939): Leslie Howard’s tipsy Henry Higgins stumbling upstairs to escape soon-to-be-dumped Wendy Hiller’s slipper-throwing Eliza Doolittle. Of course, it’s all acting, dear boy; and there’s no “real” falling or stumbling in either case. But, in both, the metaphysics of hierarchy-busting love are made visible to a dreamless world.
* * *
Sartre and de Beauvoir. Fred and Ginger. Close couples and close contemporaries. But to compare them? The links, however, are remarkable – especially when we see them as excellent examples of self-invention, the human trait so deeply scrutinised by Fitzgerald’s Gatsby.
At any rate, self-invention in American popular art was, indeed, trekking relentlessly along the same paths as European existentialism. Sartre himself would soon be writing that overlooked collection of stories The Wall (1939), from which we ultimately get Childhood of a Leader, a 2015 film from Brady Corbet. As a portrait of the coming of totalitarianism, it teems with Harsh Noise, Night, and Menace, all firmly planted in the very bosom of bourgeois family life.
Further confirmation of deep European/American cultural overlaps comes in The Petrified Forest (1936) – a vehicle for, among others, that most intellectual-looking of English actors, Leslie Howard. More theatre than film, it nevertheless literally goes on the road with its restless hero, stumbling – in this case fatally – among some of the darkest reaches of inter-war angst. Again we have gangsters: Humphrey Bogart as Duke Mantee, and ordinary girls who dream big, Bette Davis as Gabrielle Maple. The fact that these are career-boosting appearances by future canonical actors virtually guarantees continuing interest in the film, whatever its deeper philosophical musings.
So it seems that whether as American hoofer or French intellectual – in the 1930s a commitment to finding yourself was becoming an essential part of any design for life. Ginger Rogers, in her own search for integrity, had to endure the usual cartload of would-be controlling males. Any doubts about that can be erased by watching her early feature The 13th Guest (1932) a mercifully short pre-code “mystery.” Here we see not just the twenty-one-year-old’s acting abilities – albeit where the competition, male and female, is more wooden than the sets – we witness the none-too-tentative arrival of New Woman: feminine but not submissive, hardworking but not money-mad. Though faint, there’s even the rasping voice and skeptical scowl that will later attract Lucky and make him wonder how lucky he’s going to be.
While Rogers was creating “ordinary girl,” in awe to no mere male, De Beauvoir records edging rather slowly away from pupil-teacher respect for the equally young Sartre. Back in our present moment, though, her popular appeal seems to be reaching quite a bit further than the “master’s.”
Meanwhile, these real-world eventualities only serve to make us more suspicious of “escapist” fairy-tales. Or do they? But don’t forget Ginger as Penny, the soapy-haired fright whose “reality” is essential to the romance of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Of course, Jerome Kern’s music and lyrics have something to do with the magic of the scene, as does Astaire’s tenderly evoked nostalgia for a romantic past that has yet to become a romantic present. But put them all together and you just might end up talking about miracles too.