Fred ‘n’ Bing ‘n’ Irv, Part II
The odds are that Fred Astaire was starting to feel like damaged goods after the close of World War II. His last two films, Ziegfeld Follies and Yolanda and the Thief, had been awkward flops, and he was on the far side of 45, not a pleasant place to be for a dancer or a leading man.
Fred being Fred, he certainly wanted to leave pictures in style and when the opportunity came to link up with Bing Crosby and Irving Berlin, who had given him his last big success, Holiday Inn in 1943, he didn’t hesitate.1
Financially, at least, Blue Skies gave Astaire a terrific send-off. The film was a very big hit, and Astaire’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, intended to be his farewell to the screen, received enormous publicity. Seen today, however, Blue Skies is uneven at best, and a few grouches, like myself, might maintain that the best performance in the film doesn’t feature Fred at all.
Unlike Holiday Inn, Blue Skies featured almost no new songs by Irving Berlin. Twenty-two of the twenty-three numbers were golden oldies, many of them dating to the twenties and even the teens. Like the earlier film, Blue Skies has a miserably contrived plot. Both Fred and Bing are “irresponsible” vaudevillians — Fred’s a drunk and Bing likes to open nightclubs and then sell them when they start making money — so that poor Joan Caulfield can’t decide whom to marry. Singer/dancer Olga San Juan shows up as sort of a good-time girl that, this being the forties, no one actually has a good time with.
Fred’s acting was never his strong point, and it’s a little painful to watch one of the most disciplined men who ever stepped in front of a camera try to act wild and crazy. He’s featured in four numbers, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” “Puttin’ On the Ritz,” “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” and “Heat Wave,” none of them an outright winner, for my money. “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” is largely defeated by the “prom queen” dresses the pretty girls are wearing, so voluminous that it’s difficult for Astaire even to touch them, much less dance with them. “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” the one new number, written especially for the film, is eminently forgettable, part of an abysmal sketch by Bing and Fred, reviving their “old act,” despite the fact that it’s clearly dead.2
“Puttin’ on the Ritz” is more elaborate than successful, a combination, more or less, of “Top Hat” and “Bojangles of Harlem.” Fred dances in front of ten little Freds. The dance actually uses three separate takes of Fred — his dance in the lead and two separate backup performances, which were then each reproduced four times.
Fred does some excellent dancing, particularly in the first half of the dance, when he lashes the floor with his cane in counterpoint to his taps, but the number never picks up the momentum it should. Fred is dressed as though he were going to a wedding, with striped gray ascot and spats, similar to the outfit he wore at the beginning of Swing Time. He’s dancing on stage, but the set looks like a hotel lobby, with furniture and a nice parquet floor. The opening and closing curtains are clearly different (the second one is an obvious special effect) and it’s hard to figure why they didn’t just dub in the first set. Maybe they forgot?
Fred’s last number, “Heat Wave,” is a bit of a mish-mash. Olga, dressed in semi Carmen Miranda garb, sings the lyrics, and then Fred, dressed a little too sportily in a yachting outfit, joins her in a “sensuous, tropical” dance that isn’t bad, but then the mood shifts as Fred launches into a snappy tap solo that has nothing to do with what came before. Then he dances up a long ramp so that he can fall off it (he’s been drinking). This has something to do with the plot but I forget what.
“Blue Skies” functions best as a compendium of Irving Berlin songs. Some of the songs are lousy (“My Captain’s Working for Me Now,” a post-WWI stinker that Irving should have been ashamed to recycle) and sometimes the rendition is bad (Crosby reduces the title song to lugubrious mush), but some are excellent. Crosby does a nice job with the melancholy “All By Myself” and the up-tempo “Everybody Step.” San Juan does some nice fan dancing3 while singing “You’d Be Surprised.” But by the far the best is a Crosby and San Juan rendition of the two-part patter number “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A,” written by Berlin at the advent of the Prohibition era, praising in the enlightened state of affairs in Havana — “So let’s leave our cares and troubles behind and tell them our new address is where they stay up late and drink till they’re blind, blind but nevertheless they’re glad to see you in C-U-B-A!”
Fred’s retirement lasted only two years. He returned in yet another Irving Berlin compendium, Easter Parade, co-starring Judy Garland, which was another big hit.
Olga San Juan could never get beyond her role as an exotic singer/dancer, and disappeared from films in the fifties. Joan Caulfield continued to win starring roles into the fifties, but started sliding more and more into television. In the sixties she made a few B westerns and in 1973 she starred in The Daring Dobermans. Thanks to either a sublime twist of fate or a sublimely sentimental casting director, in 1976 Fred starred in The Amazing Dobermans.4)
My Irving Berlin on Film features reviews of almost all of Berlin’s non-Fred films.
There’s lots of unkind stuff about Bing here. Fred was smart. He never had kids!
Blue Skies is available on a budget twofer DVD, with another Bing Crosby flick, Birth of the Blues, a true curiosity. When he wasn’t beating his sons with a studded belt, Bing was a real fan of jazz, and he made Birth of the Blues in part to promote the great jazz trombonist Jack Teagarden, although the film doesn’t feature Jack as much as it should and didn’t do much more for him than allow him to start a disappointing big band that didn’t do much more than play mediocre dance music and land Jack in bankruptcy. A young Mary Martin is also featured.
The quality of the Blue Skies DVD is quite disappointing. The color is very soft and hardly better than good VHS. The film appears to have passed out of copyright, which in the current state of affairs means that no one will spend any money on restoration. One can only hope (one can always hope!) that in the future technological advances will allow quality restoration at lower costs. Until then, non-copyright films are likely to remain in the province of philistine dollar jockeys who care only about cash and nothing about art.5
- In fact, Fred was not the first choice for the picture. The studio had lined up Paul Draper, “the aristocrat of tap,” who worked almost entirely on stage, appearing in only two films Colleen and The Time of Your Life. According to Draper, he bailed because he couldn’t stand working with non-dancing co-star Joan Caulfield. According to Joan, Draper stuttered. [↩]
- Bad as this shtick is, it’s nothing compared to eight and half minutes of drag courtesy of Billy De Wolfe (right), which seems more like eight and half hours. De Wolfe hooked up with Bing in Dixie (1943) and they must have clicked, because Billy gets a lot of screen time, none of it funny. Billy really hit his stride, I guess, in sixties TV, working with Doris Day on her show for four years, and then joining Phyllis Diller in The Pruitts of Southampton. After The Pruitts sank he spent a year on a show called The Queen and I, seemingly with an all-male cast. [↩]
- San Juan is half-naked whenever she’s on stage in this film. In the “Cuba” number she shows quite a bit of inner thigh, which was a serious Hays Office no-no. To keep things at least partially under control, she’s usually shot at a distance. [↩]
- As good as Benji, according to an online reviewer. The Amazing Dobermans is a bit of an all-star flick, with James “Mr. Novak” Franciscus, Barbara “I Dream of Jeannie” Eden, standup Jack Carter, and Billy “hardest-working midget in show business” Barty (Barty was not in The Wizard of Oz but probably was the kid who bit Fredric March’s leg in Nothing Sacred. [↩]
- Madacy Entertainment, this means you! [↩]