Has there ever been a movie star — an actual romantic lead, not a comedian or famous villain — as homely, big-eared, and slight as Fred Astaire? A screen lover as lacking in “It” (as Elinor Glyn had dubbed sex appeal a few years before his debut in that medium), yet still the movies’ leading representative of endless heterosexual courtship in its most abstractedly idealized form? During his early stardom, Astaire was often kiddingly compared to Mickey Mouse. But Mickey only ever got even squeakier-voiced, sexless Minnie. Fred got glamour girls, utter babes: Rita Hayworth, leggy Cyd Charisse, of course Ginger Rogers.
The essence of his appeal was something utterly other than the hunkitude of such contemporaries as Gary Cooper and Randolph Scott — or even small, un-handsome but hypermasculine sparkplugs like James Cagney. Astaire had something else: Suavity, gentlemanly deference, wry authority, the ability to whirl a girl free of gravity itself. He wasn’t the most athletically dazzling dancer to grace the screen, offering instead a grace that appeared as casual as it was technically immaculate.
You’ll get plenty of chances to appreciate that feather-light charm in motion this month as SFMOMA — which seems to be expanding its film program, and given that nice, too-infrequently-used auditorium, it’s about time — programs “Also Dances: The Films of Fred Astaire.”
The series of eight films, most showing twice, takes its title from the purported notes taken by a studio employee when Astaire (until then strictly a stage star) shot a screen test for the studio RKO. “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances,” the report said, dismissively.
Yet this unlikely star’s teamings with Rogers throughout the 1930s turned out to be the helium that raised second-rung RKO into the Olympian thin air of major-majors like MGM, Paramount and Fox — at least for a while. (When Astaire & Rogers moved on, the studio’s fortunes began to slide until it died out in the mid-50s.)
Given that mad sex appeal was never his strong suit, it’s logical Astaire started out chastely partnering his own sister Adele. Trained as dancers since childhood, they first hit the vaudeville circuit, then in the 1920s became Broadway stars — the Gershwins wrote shows for them, including two (“Funny Face” and “The Band Wagon”) that would much later become big-screen Astaire vehicles.
At the dawn of the ’30s, Adele — whom many critics considered the more talented sibling — retired from show biz to marry a British aristocrat. Somewhat at a loss, a solo Fred decided he might as well try that newfangled thing, talking pictures. A contract with Samuel Goldwyn went nowhere; it was dissolved after a few months. MGM gave him a speciality bit in their all-star (Clark Gable! The 3 Stooges!) “Dancing Lady” — playing himself, partnered with a lead-footed Joan Crawford as a fictional Broadway musical luminary.
By the time that came out, gaining him favorable notice, he was already at work on RKO’s all-talking! all-singing! All-dancing! Spectacular “Flying Down to Rio,” the first movie in SFMOMA’s series. This delicious slice of ’30s kitsch — its sequence of chorus girls high-kicking on the wings of an airborne biplane was affectionately parodied in Ken Russell’s “The Boyfriend” a half-decade later — actually starred the ultra-glamorous Dolores Del Rio and handsome if long-forgotten Gene Raymond. But it was Astaire and smart-mouthed bottle blonde Ginger Rogers, paired as second leads, who stole the show.
They were an unlikely duo. Astaire was the sophisticate who’d had songs written for him by George Gershwin and Cole Porter; Rogers was an aggressively stage-mothered workhorse who’d been typed as a wisecracking floozie. (She played “Anytime Annie” in Warner Brothers’ 1933 smash “42nd St.,” then sang a Pig Latin verse of “We’re in the Money” the next year in “Golddiggers of 1933.”) Yet they meshed ideally onscreen — despite later reports that neither particularly enjoyed working with the other.
The SFMOMA series features three of their subsequent co-starring features, “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), “Top Hat” (1935, also directed by Mark Sandrich) and “Swing Time” (1936, directed by young future multi-Oscar winner George Stevens). Witty, frivolous, the last word in B&W Hollywood art deco elegance, these movies have retained their perfect fizziness.
It’s no accident, really, that Astaire came to the fore during the worst of the Great Depression — years in which more Americans were ground down by struggle and misery than any other period. It wasn’t just the fantasy lifestyle of art-deco splendor, champagne flutes, and romance that made his movies then so popular. It was also what Astaire embodied himself, a sense that troubles could be shrugged off ever-so lightly, with a sly tip of the top-hat and graceful backward scuffle. The charm he embodied was that of a charmed life. One of his lesser RKO vehicles had a title that perhaps was the perfect adjective for his persona: “Carefree.”
Rogers wanted to “go dramatic,” so after 1939 Astaire was again searching for new partners. The results were pot-luck. SFMOMA’s series reprises some of the happier incidences: 1941’s “You’ll Never Get Rich” had him whirling about ravishing newcomer Rita Hayworth; 1943’s atypically serious musical “The Sky’s the Limit” offered bland but competent Joan Leslie. In Vincente Minnelli’s wonderful 1953 film of “The Band Wagon,” Astaire gets to dance with long-limbed Cyd Charisse, a flat actress but a stunningly fluid mover. In Stanley Donen’s 1957 version of “Funny Face,” he robs the cradle with charm to spare — playing (at age 58) photographer-mentor-lover to 28-year-old Greenwich Village bookshop employee turned international supermodel Audrey Hepburn.
By then screen musicals had already begun fading from mass popularity, despite later hiccups like “The Sound of Music” and “Grease.” (Or, after Astaire’s 1987 demise, “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.”) With no one wanting him to trip the light fantastic anymore, Astaire finished out his career as an icon…and a merely-adequate dramatic actor in films that shamefully encompassed “The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again,” “The Towering Inferno” and “The Amazing Dobermans” (with Barbara Eden and Billy Barty). Still, audience nostalgia made his presence seem special.
It’s notable that at the end of Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo” — one of his finest films, and certainly the most touching — Depression-era heroine Mia Farrow is in utter despair. She’s been betrayed, abused, rendered homeless and hopeless. With nowhere else to go, she begs admission into her usual sanctuary, the local movie palace. There, she looks up from tears to see Astaire & Rogers dancing across the gleaming palatial floors of “Top Hat’s” vast soundstage fantasy — and her mute transformation from despair to thrilled, near-religious belief in a better life is indelible.
What Fred Astaire personified in his finest screen moments wasn’t sex or athleticism so much as the purity of escapism is commercial cinema’s most central lure. As he seemed to float just one weightless degree or so above reality, so could we.
Also Dances: The Films of Fred Astaire is a series that runs June 3-28 at SFMOMA.
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