Astaire and Rogers

Since it’s August, we ought to intersperse the heavy stuff with some fun. If you would like to leave the present state of things for a while and enter a world of sheer joy and delight, I recommend seeing all of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies from the Thirties. It was only a few years ago that I really watched them for the first time. They are the greatest, on a level all their own, and I consider Astaire one of the great geniuses of our civilization, simultaneously an affable, likable, 20th century fellow, and a genius demonically driven to perfection, and he carries it off. Astaire’s dance combines the modern with the classical in a manner that I think inspired the choreographer George Balanchine, another giant of the twentieth century.

The chemistry between Astaire and Rogers is one of the wonders of the world. And it’s very male and female: he originates and leads, she responds, and in responding fulfills herself. He lifts her out of her habitual crossness into love and loveliness. Look at the expression on her face after he dances for her for the first time in “The Gay Divorce” (1934). By the way, she’s not a gay divorcee but rather glum.

The two best of the Astaire-Rogers movies in my view are “Top Hat” (1935) which, with its hilarious plot and the paradisal number, “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” is probably the most famous of them, and, my personal favorite, “The Gay Divorcee,” the first movie they starred in together. The latter features a 45 minute sequence in the second half of the movie that may be the greatest comical/romantic sequence in the history of movies, culminating in the 20 minute-long cosmic song and dance number, “The Continental.”

See these movies, and be lifted up by the happiness, joy, beauty, and perfection that America was once able to create.

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Gintas writes:

You are so humorless. You should have instead recommended such light fare as Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven or Scorcese’s Goodfellas.

John Hagan writes:

Speaking of classics: North by Northwest is my all-time favorite movie by Hitchcock. And Cary Grant is my favorite actor. IMO If you look at Alfred Hitchcock’s movie career his rapid decent into mediocrity after the mid-sixties can be attributed to the replacement of the Hollywood censors. It released something malignant, and ugly in the man. Without the restraint of censorship his work became weaker, and more sexually explicit. As a boy I remember being scared to death by Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds” ! There is nothing being made like those movies any longer.

Though I would recommend “The Natural” if you have never seen it, or seen it a long time ago. Especially the recent DVD release with some of the new features.

LA replies:

North by Northwest is one of my favorites, too. The whole concept of it, this superficial, vain Roger Thornhill, suddenly seized into this parallel dark reality of America, his identity taken away from him, another identity imposed on him, and no matter what he does to free himself from this false identity, he keeps confirming that the false identity is his own.

One of the most brilliant moments in all movies: At the UN, Grant approaches the UN official who he thinks can unravel the mystery, and as the man starts to speak, he is suddenly killed by a knife thrown into his back. As he falls, Grant grabs the knife out of his back, and stands there over the fallen body of the murdered man, his legs apart, holding this knife in his hand, with this startled look on his face, looking as if he did it. Grant’s physical and comical abilities, the combination of horror and comedy, fantastic.

When did the Hayes office shut down, I forget.

John Hagan replies:

Yes, Grant was the master of the ambiguous. He represented the male ideal of aloofness, and indifference that women find so irresistible.

Looks like the Hays office was closed in 1967. That sounds about right.

A reader writes:

When Truffaut interviewed Hitchcock, the two of them were salivating over the idea that in Marnie, there could have been some sort of sexual excitement in his catching her in thievery, sounded really perverse, these two Catholics or ex-Catholics salivating over this kind of perversity. But, as Hitchcock says, the strictures of the time wouldn’t permit anything so raw, so he was forced to deal with it differently and so Marnie is a good movie that we can all watch without feeling embarrassed.

VFR’s favorite movie critic, Spencer Warren, writes:

Very well written and insightful, Larry. I can’t disagree with you, but many often cite as their greatest dance the finale of Swingtime. I also love Max Steiner’s ecstatic conducting for these films, which contributes a great deal to the numbers you describe. I have the soundtracks on CD.

Astaire and Rogers’s last film together was The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949. Ginger took the place of Judy Garland, whose health and emotional problems would soon lead to the termination of her career at MGM. Fred was not only a magnificent dancer, but also an accomplished singer. Like Gene Kelly, he did not have much of a voice, but their musicianship enabled them to put their songs over. Fred and Gene dance together in Ziegfeld Follies (1946) and again, briefly, as the hosts of That’s Entertainment 2 (1976).

Your point about Grant’s comedic touch adding to the UN scene is also insightful.

The Production Code was gradually loosened in the fifties and early sixties, and was replaced by the ratings system in 1967 or possibly 1966.

The point about its abolition hurting Hitchcock may have some truth. But most directors decline as they age into their later sixties and seventies. Torn Curtain (1966) shows decline that has nothing to do with the end of the Code. Ditto Topaz (1969) which is not excessively violent.

Paul W. writes:

Reading your post on Astaire and Rogers, I thought you would be interested to know that, this past weekend, I saw Meet Me in St. Louis on the big screen—as it was meant to be seen—at the historic Ohio Theatre in Columbus. Judy Garland was 21 years old at the time and was radiantly, heartbreakingly beautiful. She exuded an innocence and vulnerability seldom seen from today’s Hollywood slatterns. Seeing this movie made me want to weep for what Hollywood was once capable of producing. On a cultural level, can anyone imagine the Islamic world creating anything so beautiful and life-affirming as one of the old studio musicals? What would it be? Seventy Brides for Seven Brothers? Love your blog and keep up the good work!

LA replies:

Be sure to see “The Clock” (1945) with Garland and Robert Walker. A wonderful movie that I think is less well-known than it ought to be because of the title which conveys nothing about the movie.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 06, 2007 11:56 PM | Send

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