forgiving fred: dissolving an irrational grudge

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Saturday, August 11, 2007
I have been slacking on my Watching a Lot of Movies and Blogging About It summer project. I'm so far behind! But what better way to get back into the swing of things than a post of healing and forgiveness? That's right, it's finally time for me to let bygones be bygones and forgive Fred Astaire.

Last spring I watched Ninotchka for the first time and fell completely in love. (Garbo laughs! And made me laugh.) Shortly thereafter I watched Silk Stockings and was promptly infuriated. (I didn't realize Silk Stockings was a musical remake of Ninotchka until I saw the back of the DVD case. I have since learned that it was a remake of the stage show that was based on the film, much like Hairspray.) Silk Stockings, watched within a week of Ninotchka, was a HUGE disappointment to me. It wasn't just sauteed in wrong sauce, it was made of frozen wrong sauce that hadn't been thawed all the way, sprinkled with grated american cheese and served with a side of sub-par Cole Porter. I focused my wrath on poor Fred Astaire. Not fair, I know, but I was so offended SOMEONE had to pay. His character was such an asshole he was easy to choose. The unintended side effect of my Crackpot Outrage Plan was that it started leaching my joy out of dancing movies in general -- this is a problem because a) I like musicals b) I'm trying to save my irrational grudges for when I'm really old (then I'll just be eccentric instead of edge-away crazy). I needed some Remedial Movie Musical Therapy, and I couldn't just take the easy way out and watch Singin' In The Rain or Hard Day's Night 100 more times. I started picking up Fred Astaire movies at the library when I'd see them. This wasn't hard since my library system has a huge movie collection and my branch circulates a lot of material.

The first was Flying Down To Rio (Thornton Freeland/ 1933), which ... apart from beautiful clothes and some lovely dancing didn't really sell me on the Wonder of Fred. He was still an asshole, and I still had (this is so un-generous, I am embarrassed to admit it), "Ha! Serves him right!" thoughts whenever I remembered that awful commercial where his image was animated to dance with a vacuum cleaner. (further FDtR redeeming factors beyond the clothes and the dancing: the art deco styling and the name Dolores del Rio.) This was not to be my breakaway Redeeming Fred movie, but I would persevere.

Next, Irving Berlin's Easter Parade (Charles Walters/ 1948): Fred Astaire plays dancer Don Hewes, looking to make a big splash after his ambitious partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) leaves him for her own Ziegfeld show. He says he can replace her with any girl; as you might imagine, any girl turns out to be singing waitress Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), who is scrappy and sweet but can't tell her left from her right. You don't need a degree in psychology, a copy of Pygmalion OR a natural talent for fortune telling to see where this is headed. It was charming though. Peter Lawford is extra suave (in a non-slimy way) as the rich feckless himbo friend whose sole purpose is to hang around falling in love and being decorative in restaurants. This movie triggered a small Fred Thaw in my heart, partly because he actually STEALS A TOY from a kid at the beginning (during Drum Crazy). ha. So, he's still kind of an asshole, but that's just the starting point and not his whole character. He's been dumped and then forced to make good on a drunken boast without breaking Judy Garland's heart; some bad behavior getting from here to there is understandable. (although he stole the toy before any of that started.) Not surprisingly, I like the Judy Garland songs the best and the Fred Astaire dancing the best. (they each can do the other, but it's pretty clear which is the first and natural inclination for both.) As is the case with many musicals of this era, I can't think too hard about the creepy, paternalistic "Daddy knows best" overtones to the romance or my head will explode. Instead, I'll close my eyes and think of tap dancing.

To end this bout of Fred Astaire Musicals, I watched The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli/ 1953). This was the true test for me, because of course I saw Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse together first in my unbeloved Silk Stockings. It passed the test, because it wasn't until I was watching a second time that it even occurred to me that they were the same couple. This was definitely my favorite of the three Astaire movies I watched this go 'round. The dancing is spectacular (I love the cheer-himself-up Shoeshine number at the beginning) and I like the show within a show within a show aspect, although I like Singin' in the Rain better. (Is this Show In a Show framing device to make it easier on viewers who are uneasy about people bursting into song at the drop of a hat? Is it to make it easier to cram in many different styles of songs? Is it because there's no business like show business (oops, I mean That's Entertainment of course) and it's fun to sing about? I think at least that many reasons, probably more.) There is a crazy broadway producer (I can't think of a movie I've seen where the producer/director is presented as anything other than an absolute lunatic. Twentieth Century, I'm thinking especially of you...), there are montages, rehearsals, taking it on the road, lots of color, lots of costumes, lots of singing, lots of dancing!

I think one of the things I like best about this one is that Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) starts out as a faded movie star hoping for a comeback -- he's got a lot to prove, which means he's actually vulnerable. One of the early scenes that I found funny yet touching was when he's so worried about dancing with the glamorous Gabrielle Gerard -- he's too old, she's too tall, their styles don't mesh, fuss, fuss, fuss. Of course she thinks that he doesn't have any respect for her kind of dancing, that he thinks she isn't good enough, fuss, fuss, fuss. I know it's corny, but this little bit of dialogue when she was rushing to explain that she did like his work (while inadvertently insulting him right where it hurts) cracks me up: "heard of you? I used to see all your pictures when I was a little girl! I'm still a fan -- I recently went to see a revival at the museum." (all of this while he's surreptitiously trying to measure if she's taller than he is.) Ha! So cheesy, but so funny. I think what makes this pairing work in my mind (rather than the sketchy one in Silk Stockings, or even the Don/ Hannah relationship in Easter Parade) is that they both need and help each other; they are more or less equals. It's not a case of him lifting her out of the gutter and making her over into his dancing dolly. Separately, they're each talented, but together they're fantastic. They are better together than apart.

So, I guess that brings my unnatural Fred Astaire grudge to an end. (I won't be watching Silk Stockings again anytime soon, though.) There are still many, many musicals I have yet to see, so if anyone has any particular recommendations, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

(Relatedly, The Sartorialist recently concluded a Fred Astaire vs. Cary Grant Style Battle series, with experts on both sides weighing in. It's a lot of fun -- passions run high! The link above should take you to the first post.)
7 comments on "forgiving fred: dissolving an irrational grudge"
  1. I have gone the direction of books this summer. The Nanny Diaries, Good In Bed and now The Devil Wears Prada just in the last 6 days. I guess they are classified as chicklit? Not sure. But they are fun and that is like an old fashioned musical, I would guess.

  2. Ha! I think you're right about those being sort of like an old fashioned musical. I DESPISE the term chicklit, but I guess it's as good a term as any. I haven't read any of those -- which one of those three did you like the best?

    I just finished After Dark by Haruki Murakami, and it was so freaking good!

  3. I have yet to start Prada yet as I read Goodnight Nobody first. It is a mystery and there is not a cat or a recipe to be found. I think out of those 3 I enjoyed Good In Bed the most. I am trying to also read The Punishment of Virtue which is all about the Taliban. I am trying to balance my reading, and not that well I should add. I have 12 books reserved at library but they are all taking sooooo long.

  4. Someone else was recently saying Good In Bed was Good To Read, so I'll give it a go when my current library stack is whittled down. I just got a ton of stuff that came in all at once, including the new michael chabon. (which I'm hoping doesn't have any cupcake baking crime solving cats, but if it does I'm sure he does it well.)

  5. Good In Bed is also a breezy sort of read so that helps. Someone said that it is a perfect beach book. Whatever. It is also a perfect in the house book.

  6. I'm so glad that you and FA have patched things up. I think he was really missing you!

  7. BBD -- you would think that "good to read in the house!" would be an even better blurb than "great beach book" because people are in their houses more than at the beach. Unless they live on a raft or something. You know what I mean.

    Leslita -- hee hee! I'm sure it's been keeping him up nights in the Great Beyond. "But she hasn't even watched The Band Wagon! How can she be hating on me like this??" (because you just know Fred Astaire would say something like "hating on me.")


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