And thus on the evening of July 30th, 2018, I finally learned why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were such a big deal.
Look: I’ve said before that one of the reasons I’m doing this project is for self-education. I grew up in a small town with only a single multiplex, and the only indie theater complex nearby favored cult-classic stuff from the 1970s and cartoons for the kids. Any late-night movies we got on TV were usually 60’s horror cheese. There are vast swaths of film history I simply haven’t been exposed to properly. Add in my aversion to most musical films, and that’s how I’ve managed to be ignorant all this time.
Not that I hadn’t heard of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Their fame and reputation were well established when I was a kid, and I’ve seen passing brief clips of one or another of their numbers, usually only a few seconds’ worth of segments in one documentary or another. I knew that Astaire and Rogers were supposed to be good, and saw tastes of things here and there, but the penny still hadn’t dropped.
Watching one of their films properly makes the case. Mind you, I found the plot utterly ridiculous – a romantic misunderstanding straight out of a Three’s Company episode drives the action, with Astaire and Rogers as a pair of singletons whom a married couple are trying to fix up. Astaire is Jerry Travers, a showman who’s come to London to star in his friend Horace’s stage show – and Rogers is Dale Tremont, a model who’s come to meet her friend Madge’s new husband (Horace) as well as the gent Madge is trying to set her up with. Travers runs into Tremont before they are formally introduced, and they both get flirty – until a chance misunderstanding leads Tremont to think Travers is actually Horace. So for a surprisingly long time, she’s totally confused about why her friend’s husband is pursuing her – and why her friend is actually encouraging the situation.
This is a plot device that always makes me roll my eyes, where the “problem” is something that could be solved in about two minutes if people just talked to each other like grownups. Roger Ebert famously referred to these kinds of plots as “Idiot plots” – “Any plot containing problems that would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” But like with the Marx Brothers, the plot really isn’t the point – it’s the dancing. Even Roger Ebert’s review of Top Hat excuses the froth – “This is an Idiot Plot, yes, and could be cleared up at any moment by one line of sensible dialogue, but there are times when nothing but an Idiot Plot will do, and we are happy to play along.”
Speaking of idiots – when it comes to dance, I am one. But – Astaire’s talent was completely and nakedly obvious even to a rube like me. Right from the first – Astaire’s first number was a tap solo in Horace’s hotel room, and managed to be intricate and athletic yet somehow….poised and elegant at the same time. He was energetic as all hell – dancing rings around the room – but suave, elegant and graceful no matter how fast the feet were flying.
And then Ginger Rogers joined the party. Their first duet was on a gazebo the pair were trapped under during a rainstorm; up to this point, Tremont’s been kind of cold towards the obviously smitten Travers, but over the course of the dance – and through the dance – you can see her assert herself, Travers’ ardor becomes more of a conversation, and the pair finally connect. And it happens with a dance.
The real showstopper is Dancing Cheek to Cheek, which comes after Madge has all but thrown Tremont into Travers’ arms while all are on vacation in Venice. Tremont is understandably conflicted – she still thinks Travers is Horace, but she’s falling for him – and Travers is already smitten, and ecstatic he’s dancing with her. This is one of the numbers that gets trotted out in a lot of clip shows and has been featured in other movies, and with good reason – it is graceful and gorgeous and elegant and….eh, using words doesn’t seem to work. It left me nodding and wistful and thinking “ah, now I get it.”
That scene also has a backstage-anecdote punch line. Fred Astaire was a superlatively smart dresser and was opinionated about all his costumes – the top-hat-and-tails were usually his idea, as were the blazer-and-button-down-with-tie his characters wore in casual moments. However, he also took into account how a costume would look while dancing. Rogers decided to do the same this time, and for this particular number chose a dress festooned with hundreds of ostrich feathers; the choreography featured a lot of dips and swings, and the feathers would flow beautifully. But the chosen dress hadn’t been built to withstand dancing this vigorous, and during the first take the dress started shedding. Astaire hit the roof, snapping that the pair looked “like a chicken getting attacked by a coyote” because of the feathers flying everywhere. Astaire and Rogers had a blowup on set, with Rogers’ mother even coming into the fray – but Rogers won, with the condition that they draft a couple seamstresses to spend all night sewing all the feathers more securely to the dress before trying again the following day. (Even so, you can see a couple feathers getting shook loose during the scene.)
The famous duo made up soon after, and even used the incident as an in-joke; Astaire used the nickname “Feathers” for Rogers on and off forever after, and on the last day of filming he presented Rogers with a gold feather charm for her charm bracelet, singing a parody of their famous number he’d made up:
“Feathers, I hate feathers,
And I hate them so that I can hardly speak….”