Funny Face (1957) Shows Audrey Hepburn’s Enduring Beauty

Funny_Face_1957.jpgI’m not an expert on fashion photographers, but with only a passing interest in the industry, two of the most luminous names I know are probably Richard Avedon and Bob Willougby. Their names seem to crop up more than almost anyone when you consider film stills. It’s no coincidence that they both famously did shoots of Audrey Hepburn: one of the most widely photographed women of all time.

I never realized it before, but it also seems little coincidence that Richard Avedon is fairly close in name to Richard “Dick” Avery, a fashion photographer, played by Fred Astaire in this picture. Avedon himself was an advisor on the musical even providing the now-iconic headshot of Hepburn, capturing her iconic eyes and the contours of her face.

That’s the first level of reality being reworked for a bit of frothy fantasy. We’re met in the opening minutes by a histrionic tastemaker, Magazine matriarch Maggie Prescott (an uproariously assertive Kay Thompson) who comes off a bit strong but slowly sinks into our affections. Ruta Lee is constantly scampering about with the rest of her staff, getting whisked around by Prescott’s every whim.

She champions a change in direction for Quality magazine as they’ve gotten a bit lax and set in the status quo, and so she catalyzes a pink extravaganza to shake up the fashion world. It just might work.

Astaire is as affable as ever, remaining mellow with age and yet the models he has to deal with, in his line of work, are shown to be ditzy and a dime a dozen. He proposes an even bolder deviation from the norm than Prescott. The idea: Taking a bookkeeper, frumpy and austere at first glance, and turning her into a starlet.

Hepburn makes for the sweetest intellectual, running a bookshop that gets overrun by a magazine syndicate in Greenwich Village. She’s all but lost in the fray while simultaneously giving Avery the touch of inspiration. It’s right there in her face.

As she flees from the editor’s frenzied staff of ladies, intent on finding her and making her over, it’s in the darkroom where she seeks refuge and comes face-to-face again with Avery, who lightens her spirits and makes her feel at ease. Now I can check another thing off my list, as Hepburn and Astaire share a lovely darkroom dance together, which I hardly remembered from before.

In the end, she takes a minor liking in the idea of traveling to Paris for a photo shoot, even if it’s only a means to get her closer to the philosopher that shes always deeply admired for his work with empathicalism. Apparently, it’s all the rage in some circles.

At any rate, a new kind of fashion icon is born. She’s denoted by “Character, Spirit, and Intelligence.” Imagine that. Of course, the bookish Jo Stockton doesn’t see it either. She confesses, “I have no illusions about my looks. I think my face is funny.” Upon closer observation, the near autobiographical aspects seep out again.

Because, if memory serves me right, Hepburn never considered herself attractive or glamorous, even if she was seen as such the world over. Her figure was too slight or her nose too this, and her eyes not enough that. It’s the typical human fallacy to only see the blemishes and imperfections. We either have too big a view of ourselves or too little. It takes other people to straighten us out. We see a funny face, and they see the character that dwells therein — the adorableness and glamour Audrey Hepburn personfied.

In Funny Face Hepburn also gets to relive some of her training as she initially had an extensive background in ballet and dance as a teenager. Her most visible number comprises a beatnik hangout teaming with new and peculiar forms of artistic expression. There she is right in the midst of them whipping around with a peppy hand-clapping verve that sees her arms and springy ponytail flying too.

Back on the fashion circuit, she’s turned into a stunning pink bird of paradise with the spotlight beaming down on her and everyone entranced by her pure exquisiteness. Meanwhile, Astaire gives his cane dances of old a facelift with an umbrella and overcoat, including a brief interlude as a whimsical matador.

“He Loves and She Loves” has them at their most euphoric, acting outt a wedding scene that can never be. They are co-workers and nothing more. But when the fashion gala is made a shambles of, and they have a major tiff over a certain French philosopher named Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair), it looks to be the end of the story. However, we’ve seen enough movies to know not to get up and leave in the seventh inning. There’s a comeback in the ninth.

Hepburn’s voice makes an appearance in all of its demure glory. While not spectacular in nature, I’m a proponent of hearing people’s actual voices when they’re given the task of trebling through a tune. I’m of the sentiment that I would rather hear an unadorned, even “warts and all” performance opposed to the airbrushed “dubbed” showings that were so prevalent. Hepburn was a particular casualty of this phenomenon in My Fair Lady (1964), even as her quivering rendition of “Moon River” goes down as one of the most intimate performances on film. I rest my case.

While not the most cohesive musical out there, we have enough glimmers of fun and frivolous entertainment to more than satiate our wants. Of course, our stars are two of the most sunshiny personalities the movies ever bore, and together there’s the expected amount of good-natured amiability. At least, in the end.

Likewise, Cole Porter and the rich imagery courtesy of Stanley Donen, Richard Avedon, Technicolor, et. al. make the balloons brighter and the wardrobes all the more luxuriant. A true feast for the eyes, as they say, even if the plot could be tipped over with a feather.

3.5/5 Stars

The Band Wagon (1953) with Fred & Cyd

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Some may recall the opening titles of Top Hat (1935). They play over a man’s hat only for the head under it to move as the names subside, and we find Fred Astaire under its brim in his coat and tails. Now, well nigh 20 years later, the same imagery is being called upon.

There’s an auction going on, including the sale of, of all things, a top hat evoking the same Astaire and Rogers musicals of old. It’s not in much demand as the man who formerly wore it, to much acclaim, is now a has-been. In fact, the biographical aspects of the picture are striking even when we can’t quite discern the fiction from the half-truths. Maybe that’s the key.

Already Fred Astaire himself had announced retirement several times, though one could hardly concede his career had stalled. In another bit of fitting parallelism, Adolph Green and Betty Comden penned a husband and wife duo for the storyline much like them (sans marriage). The head maestro character had some inspiration in Jose Ferrer who at the time had at least three shows on Broadway and was starring in a fourth.

The dashes of authenticity are all but undeniable as is a minor cameo by fawned-over heartthrob Ava Gardner. Consequently, I always thought the actress shared some minor resemblance to Cyd Charisse who was promoted to leading lady in this movie.

Out of these details blooms a picture that’s a fascinating exercise in touched-up reality because we see the ins and outs of a production with a behind-the-scenes narrative akin to Singin in the Rain. It makes us feel like we’re a part of something on an intimate level.

The early “Shoeshine” number with Astaire checking out a penny arcade, shows the inherent allure of a Minnelli-Astaire partnership. Because it was Astaire who made film dancing what it is, intent on capturing as much of the action in full-bodied, undisrupted takes. The focus was on the dancers, and there was an examination of their skill announcing unequivocally that there was nothing phony about them.

But as technology began to change and more complex camera setups became possible, this newfound capability was seen as an aid to the art rather than a detraction. Gene Kelly was of this thought as well. With the combination of sashaying forms and a dynamic camera, there was a greater capacity to capture the true energy that came out of dance. One could argue reality was lost, but some other emotional life force was gained.

And we see that here with Astaire grooving around past fortune-tellers and shooting galleries with the world tapping along with him. He and the real-life singing shoeshiner, Leroy Daniels, build an indisputable cadence through a momentary collaboration. It proves infectious.  Minnelli who himself had a background in set design seems most fully in his element surrounded by extras, colors, and any amount of toys to move around and orchestrate.

When Jefferey Cordoba (Jack Buchanan) finally signs on to direct and joins this dream team, he brings an endearing brand of histrionics with him. At his most quotable, he says, “In my mind, there is no difference between the magic rhythms of Bill Shakespeare’s immortal verse and the magic rhythms of Bill Robinson’s immortal feet.”

“That’s Entertainment!” captures his pure enthusiasm for the industry, giving anyone free rein to tell a story, where the world and the stage overlap and as the Bard said, all the various individuals are merely players.

However, this show previously envisioned as a happy-go-lucky musical hit parade soon takes on a life of its own, morphing into a retelling of Faust. We see Tony Hunter stretching himself as an actor, something Astaire himself was probably uncomfortable with. Likewise, he’s equally nervous about starring with Gabrielle Gerard who is a rapidly rising talent, thanks to the controlling nature of her choreographer boyfriend (James Mitchell).

Aside from her skill, her height is also something that the veteran dancer is self-conscience about. He smokes incessantly. She never does. So they each bring their insecurities and nerves to the production, erupting in a series of miscommunications during their first encounter. Still, the show charges onward regardless.

Even as the production proves to be a trainwreck and opening night approaches, it is the joint realization that they’re both out of sorts helping Tony and Gaby right their relationship. They take a ride through the park and wind up in arguably their most integral dance together.

Because it says, with two bodies in motion, what every other picture that’s not a musical must do through romantic dialogue or meaningful action. And it’s like the Astaire and Rogers films of old. Similarly, dance is not simply a diversion — something pretty to look at —  but it becomes the building blocks for our characters’ chemistry.

I find their forms marvelous together, both equally long and graceful side-by-side and in each other’s arms. The movements are so measured, effortless, and attuned, leading them right back into their carriage from whence they came.

Cordoba gets progressively carried away with his vision in what feels like tinges of The Red Shoes. Pyrotechnics and an excessive amount of props mask the core assets of the show, which are the performers themselves. What was purported to be a surefire success, just as easily becomes a monumental flop as the social elites walk out of the preview like zombies leaving a wake. Even if the image is laughable, it also acts as a reminder that all great forms of entertainment start with human beings.

“I Love Louisa” is a kind of musical reprieve as the whole gang, from the stars to the bit performers, try to shake the shell shock. The fun is put back into the players, their art, and this whole movie as Tony resolves to take their production in a new direction — as a musical revue.

I couldn’t help watching Cyd Charisse, for some reason, during the song. No, she’s not the focal point, but there she is prancing about and having a merry old time with all the extras in the background. They’re all a community of people enjoying their failure together. Bonding over it. It’s bigger than one individual. It’s easy to acknowledge The Band Wagon might be thoroughly enjoyable for these periphery elements alone.

There are a couple, dare I say, throwaway placeholders to follow. Certainly, not the best of musical team Schwartz and Dietz. But “Girl Hunt — A Murder Mystery in Jazz,” is a labyrinthian sequence capturing the essence of the dark genre through voiceover and stylized visuals being interpreted through muscular dance. There are dual roles for Charisse as the deadly female. The action culminating in a seedy, smoke-filled cafe complete with a final showdown with a femme fatale in drop-dead red.

In this redressed form, they’re a stirring success. We are reminded sentimentally that the cast has become a family and Tony is their unlikely head. There’s one rousing reprise of “That’s Entertainment!” and Fred and Cyd (not Ginger, sorry folks) share a kiss.

The Band Wagon is a testament that Astaire was far from washed up and Charisse proves herself ably by his side as one of his best co-stars.  What imprints itself, when the curtains have fallen on this backstage musical, is just how congenial it is. There are few better offerings from MGM, capable of both exuberance and something even more difficult to find these days: bona fide poise. Singin in the Rain is beloved by many and yet The Band Wagon is deserving of much the same repute, whether it’s won it already or not.

Just watch Astaire and Charisse together. Her beauty is surpassed only by her presence as a dancer. He might be 20 years older and yet never seems to break a sweat, pulling off each routine with astounding ease. Look at his elasticity in the shoeshine chair as living proof. And when they strut, extending their legs with concerted purpose, it’s immaculate. We call them routines but they are not, imbued instead with a gliding elegance that looks almost foreign to us today. There’s nothing else to be said. It’s pure class personified and they make it deeply enchanting.

4.5/5 Stars

Three Little Words (1950) and Tin Pan Alley

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Here is a tale of Tin Pan Alley and the ensuing partnership of real-life songwriting duo Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The cast was what had me deeply intrigued because, in this day and age, my only connection to the two songsmiths is “I Wanna Be Loved by You,” memorably performed by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like it Hot (1959). In this film, it’s given a cutesy performance by an up-and-comer named Debbie Reynolds.

However, that’s not much of a background to go off of, but boy, do I enjoy Fred Astaire and Vera-Ellen. Having them together is a tantalizing proposition indeed. Red Skelton always struck me more as a mainstay of Ed Sullivan Show reruns than an actor and Arlene Dahl was a relatively recent discovery. Still, each performer contributes to the overwhelming appeal.

Three Little Words immediately introduces an opening number with Astaire and Vera-Ellen which starts things off on the right foot with its toe-tapping assets. They are a close-knit song-and-dance pair with talk floating between them about getting married. She’s in love with him. He’s in love with her…and his work.

Their next performance of “Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home” might be the film’s finest hour as far as the dance numbers go, showcasing the technical expertise of its stars who make it look delightfully effortless. I could not help recalling first Keaton’s One Week (1920) and then a bit of Chaplin from Modern Times (1936) in his dream house with Paulette Goddard.

Because here we have the continuation of the same motif as articulated this time around by Astaire and Vera-Ellen. The novelty is taking something so integral to American life, that is the home, gender roles, and the cult of domesticity as it were, and personifying it visually through metaphor and movement. It works wonders in such a colorfully abstract space.

It’s no coincidence that Keaton and Chaplin were comics of a very physical nature. Likewise, the dance of Astaire with his leading lady is equally silly, in a sense, but also so very inventive in how it expresses the mundane rhythms of life many of us experience every day. It’s my favorite out-and-out moment in the picture.

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Because I’ve always maintained a fairly conflicted relationship with musical biopics. The prime example might be Yankee Doodle Dandy, which has spectacular moments thanks to the indelible James Cagney, but it also comes off rather flat and insipid in other patches. The agenda is complicated by the fact that we are taking a real person’s life and trying to dress it up. We can hardly look at it like fact and yet we are often dealing with real names and real places. It’s this odd brand of authenticity that feels sanitized and in some ways totally fake.

But if we take it for what it is, enjoy the dance numbers, and disregard the dubious guises that men like Astaire and Red Skelton are putting on, it’s easy enough to enjoy their charms. There are glimpses of how the musical creative process works and a vaudeville nostalgia wafts over the picture, which no doubt endeared Astaire to the project. One slight nod I picked up on was Gloria De Haven playing a character (I think) named after her father, Carter De Haven, though her mother was on the Vaudeville circuit as well.

It’s a fluke knee injury that finally leads to the unlikely pairing of our two down-and-outers. It begins down a contentious road and never quite rights itself, but along the way, they crank out such well-received hits as “My Sunny Tennessee” and “So Long Oolong” both unquestionably catchy.

You begin to understand more deeply the culture of the time when every family had a piano in the living room to gather around and radio had yet to take over the country. In such a period, sheet music and tunes crafted by the likes of Kalmar and Ruby were all the rage.

Because they could be reprinted and replayed time and time again. Thus, it wasn’t so much about the artist, unless you had the good fortune (and the money) to see them live. It was about the writers and lyricists who could pen catchy tunes agreeable to a wide audience. That was the way the industry went. We were a long way off from rockability, disc jockeys, and record sales.

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While Kalmar finally gets it into his skull to marry Jessie thanks to her prodding, Ruby continues to pick the wrong girls, starting with a flirty nightclub dancer (Gale Robbins) who has about a million beaus at her disposal. His friends watch out for his interests, and he ultimately winds up with a beautiful actress (Dahl as the real-life Eileen Percy), under hilarious circumstances. She’s a big deal now, but Ruby doesn’t remember that they’ve met before…

The creative output continues in spurts from more songs, then distractions, then Animal Crackers with the Marx Brothers, and more songs. Ultimately, a spat breaks up the partnership for what seems like the last time. Though Ruby is now married and equally happy, the wives know their men need to get back together.

With a certain amount of forethought, both missuses strike up a reunion between their husbands by giving them a bit of a helpful push instigated by Phil Regan’s popular radio show. In one regard, nothing has changed. They’re still as ornery as ever, but they retain that same glimpse of brilliance — smiles breaking over their faces one last time.

Three Little Words was probably more true to life than some biopics of its day and amid what is dressed up or relatively accurate, the most interesting ideas on the table have to do with the creative collaboration between two men. It’s true that in such instances, opposites attract. One is usually musically-inspired, coming up with tunes just like that, and the other able to tinker with words to make them fit perfectly with a melody. On their own, they would be nowhere, and yet together, they’re able to literally create music to our ears.

But the other side of such a partnership is the invariable disagreements that arise. There’s the inevitable conflict that comes from two personalities with personal vision and diverging personalities. The most iconic examples I always go back to were The Beatles because by the end you had three leads with John and Paul and George. Although Harrison was the third-fiddle, after the breakup, he would release arguably the greatest album of any of their solo careers: All Things Must Past.

However, sometimes there’s also a lack of interest and then a desire for a change of pace. In this story, Bert is obsessed with being a magician and even tries his hand at playwriting. Meanwhile, Harry has always held onto the aspirations of being a big-league ballplayer. The real miracle is that they stayed together for so long, crafting such a bevy of classics.

3.5/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Fred Astaire

In our ongoing series of Classic Movie Beginner’s Guides, we focus on a single person from Classic Hollywood for those who want an overview.

This week let’s look at one of the preeminent film dancers of all-time: Fred Astaire! After starting out on the stage with his sister Adele, during the 1930s Astaire tapped his way toward cinematic immortality thanks to his coruscating partnership with Ginger Rogers.

They were paired in a number of screwball-infused musicals that still rank among the best pictures the Hollywood dream factory put out during the 1940s. What set Astaire apart was his tireless choreography, the graceful elegance of his figure, and his often underrated singing voice introducing the world to a bevy of classics.

Top Hat (1935)

The Movie Projector: Top Hat (1935)

The romantic rebuttals are only a pretense for this glorious extravaganza replete with Art Deco stylings and a stupendous screwball cast loaded with the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Astaire introduced a pair of Irving Berlin classics in “Cheek-to-Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” as he and Ginger dance away off toward perfection.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) directed by George Stevens • Reviews, film + ...

A worthy successor to Top Hat, Swing Time assembled the talents of George Stevens and Jerome Kerns offering Astaire yet another immortal classic, “The Way You Look Tonight.” However, the splendor of Fred & Ginger together is magic with number after number feeling like an absolute knockout including the likes of “Pick Yourself Up” and “Waltz in Swing Time.” They balance charm with elegance divinely.

Easter Parade (1948)

Easter Parade (1948) directed by Charles Walters • Reviews, film + ...

Fred Astaire finally got paired with Judy Garland in this Holiday-themed looker blooming with glorious Springtime Technicolor and luscious costuming. “Happy Easter” and “Drum Crazy” start him off on a particularly jovial note, and he never looks back. The compositions of Irving Berlin are swell as is the easy-going rapport of Astaire and Garland carrying the picture away into loveliness.

The Band Wagon (1953)

Howard Hampton on Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953 ...

As his finest late-period work and an impeccable companion to Singin’ in The Rain, Fred is partnered with the always elegant Cyd Charisse as they dance their way through the sartorial splendor of Vincent Minnelli’s picture. Astaire gets one of his peppiest numbers with “A Shine on Your Shoes.” The real showstoppers are “That’s Entertainment as well as an epic film noir finale.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Broadway Melody of 1940, You’ll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier, Three Little Words,  Royal Wedding, Funny Face, Silk Stockings, On The Beach, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, etc.

Easter Parade (1948): Judy & Fred Together At Last

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There’s a slight disclaimer that must go with Easter Parade. It has very little to do with Resurrection Sunday. More so, it’s a premium excuse for a lavish musical. At least in this regard, it thoroughly accommodates its audience.

The show starts off gloriously, not with dialogue, but with song, reminiscent of the great operettas of old or the future works of Jacques Demy where the film is buoyed by a range of voices imitating the joyous chorus of life. Here we have the seemingly ageless Fred Astaire strutting down the street greeting folks, doing some window shopping, picking out a hat as models file by and everyone chimes in with “Happy Easter!”

What becomes immediately apparent, even as we are thrust right into song, is the immaculately colored world, bright and cheery, personifying the holiday festivities and simultaneously satiating audiences who come to expect such glorious decadence from Technicolor movie musicals of the age. It rarely disappoints in terms of pure opulent set design.

When Astaire spies a bunny in a toy store window, it inspires his finest number in the picture, a worthy precursor in fact to his shoeshine number in The Band Wagon (1953). Because what sets it apart is how alive, lithe, and playful it is. Gene Kelly was imbued with this ability too, but you have to witness it to completely understand the magic when environment and inspiration coalesce.

They could animate the world around them by taking lifeless objects and turning them into tools to personify emotion. Like all the preeminent performers, they take the tirelessly rehearsed and make it feel like the epitome of the organic, in a way that suggests we are discovering something precisely at the same moment they are. We are part of the magic born out of the moment.

Astaire banging on drums and xylophones. Twirling sticks and tossing toys like, well, a kid in a toy store. The story hasn’t even started yet, and he’s already made Easter Parade into something special. It’s when you’re reminded that these lavish musicals were at their best when they momentarily lost their plotlines through acts of artistry and inspiration that still managed to somehow advance the narrative.

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At some point, the exposition must arrive and with it a plot. It comes in the form of Don’s ravishing and vain dance partner. Nadine (Ann Miller) is intent on striking out on her own and commanding a larger audience. In fact, she’s already made up her mind and signed a contract with Ziegfeld, leaving Don to start from scratch with a new partner. Regardless, there’s no denying the chemistry they had together. Astaire and Miller absolutely light it up in “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.”

However, now feeling betrayed and saddled with a bit of a Pygmalion complex, he convinces himself that he can turn any second-rate performer into his costar, and he just happens to pick Hannah Brown (Judy Garland). The unassuming starlet splits her time as a waitress at a local bar while struggling to differentiate her left foot from her right. She looks like a hopeless case. Not so!

Fresh off his quality success in MGMs Good News (1947) from the year prior, Peter Lawford is inserted in the storyline as the close friend of Don and Nadine, caught in the middle of their personal and professional squabble. When he meets Hannah in the rain, it only makes things more complicated. One could wager that the handsome and youthful Lawford is partially miscast, but he has a good-natured charm that makes us disregard any of that. We like him as much as we’re supposed to.

From their initial encounter, the Astaire and Garland relationship is front and center, evolving into the film’s most important dynamic. So far the movie is coming through on its promises. Again, we’re not all that interested in their acting per se, unless I’m just speaking for myself.

What actually strikes my curiosity is seeing them perform in tandem because they were consummate professionals who knew the Hollywood circuit like the back of their hand by now. Astaire, though still looking so spry, had years already logged with Ginger Rogers and others, not to mention stints on Vaudeville and the stage. Garland of course, though still quite young, had, since adolescence, been trained up and groomed in the ways of Hollywood. The shining examples early on, of course, being The Wizard of Oz and then her onscreen partnership with Mickey Rooney.

“Couple of Swells” endears itself as a delightfully corny number with our stars ruefully ditching the fine attire for artful dodger, tramp-like garb. Buying into their affectionate relationship by this point is no difficult task. They’ve made us believe in it.

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In truth, Garland had never met Astaire before their teaming though she had purportedly wanted to work with him for many years because he was the tops — the best of the best.

The rest of the production’s background is tumultuous, and the actual details sketchy at best. Scriptwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett were initially called upon only to have their draft touched up by Sidney Shelton. Vicente Minnelli was removed as director at the behest of Garland’s psychiatrist, deeming it better for her to work without her husband.

We might also call it an odd chance of serendipity as Gene Kelly (Garland’s co-star in many MGM musicals) was also slated for this project until he broke his ankle playing volleyball (right before production commenced).

Who was coaxed out of retirement to take on the role instead? Only the best: Fred Astaire. And Astaire would retire numerous other times thereafter, but you just cannot keep a man who was born to dance like he was away from the floor. Thank goodness he would come back for numerous more efforts. His successes in the 50s are too innumerable to count.

Simply put, he makes every movie he’s in worth watching for the mere chance that you will glimpse something spectacular. Paired with Garland, a world-class performer in her own right, there’s no missing, even if both have more iconic pictures. That’s probably more a testament to their iconic careers than the merits of Easter Parade. Because it all but delivers on everything you come to expect from the two names written above the title.  There’s a good chance you’ll be left with a broad smile on your face.

4/5 Stars

Shall We Dance (1937): Fred, Ginger, and The Gershwins

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The name Gershwin is synonymous with “The American Songbook” and part of the draw of Shall We Dance is how it included two of them: both the brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Ira would tragically pass away that same year. However, together they provided the compositions and lyrics for the film which, in some sense, feels like an atypical Astaire and Rogers vehicle.

While Mark Sandrich is in the director’s chair once more following The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Follow The Fleet (1936), there are some unprecedented deviations from the normal foolproof formula. Namely, Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, an American who trades in his taps for a Russian ballet company. He’s certainly will always be a hoofer in most people’s eyes, and it does feel oddly out of character.

What hasn’t changed is his instant infatuation with Rogers, a famous tap dancer in her own right, named Linda Keane. But he must contrive some sort of gimmick and thusly takes up the persona of the touchy Russian dancer “Petrov” to antagonize her on the road toward love. Meanwhile, he tries his very best to evade the flirtations of his former dance partner Denise (Ketti Gallian) who looks to snatch him up.

Of the earliest offerings, Astaire gives us the treat of his cane dancing like he did in Top Hat and then there’s a fine boiler room number, “Slap that Bass” supported by a host of African-American performers thrumming with a healthy dose of character.

The film’s most catastrophic mix-up comes when the newspapers begin promoting a secret marriage between our two stars, thanks to a cockamamie story Peters cooked up on the spot to keep his former suitor at bay as he leaves on an ocean liner.

Petrov and Keane develop some chemistry dog walking together on the deck of the ship only for the gossip swirling about to reach a fever pitch. Astaire’s bumbling boss, Mr. Beard (Edward Everett Horton) uses it as the perfect chance to get rid of her for good. Meanwhile, Eric Blore as his ever-huffy hotel clerk tries his best to figure out the marital status of Petrov and Ms. Keane when preparing their rooms. They leave him ceaselessly befuddled.

Then, a second nefarious scandal is cooked up by Keane’s road manager (Jerome Cowan feeling out of place with the screwball elements), who does his best to kill the upcoming marriage his star has embarked on.  Thanks to some late-night photography and a mannequin bearing a striking resemblance to Linda, the news spreads like wildfire. What are his motives, you ask? He’s got his own reasons.

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Not surprisingly, the closest thing we get to the Astaire and Rogers numbers of old are also the film’s finest entries, including the comic tune “They Laughed at Me” sung by Rogers before being joined in a routine by Astaire. After they sneak out to get away from the publicity hounds, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” proves a handy follow-up number.

The extended sequence purportedly took a plethora of takes, upwards of 100, while the final fall into the grass left Fred and Ginger with black and blue backsides. They suffered and yet as the audience, we no doubt reap the benefits, especially because Shall We Dance hardly has their traditional big numbers like a Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936) so seeing them on skates together is nearly consolation enough.

They show everyone by getting married, making it easy enough to get divorced so Linda can marry the man she’s meant to. Since their movies always took a page out of screwball comedies anyway, it makes sense this picture is another riff on the comedy of remarriage, which could be a sub-genre all its own.

Ultimately, two shows are merged in an instance of inspiration and yet that doesn’t mean that Petrov’s got the girl. An oddly disconcerting final number follows as Astaire dances with a host of gals all donning Ginger Roger’s face, disrupted by a shushing war instigated by our favorite misfits Blore and Horton. Though the picture could have used a feisty female like a Helen Broderick or Alice Brady, there’s also never enough of Blore and Horton to suit their faithful fans. They make every film a little more colorful, and it would hardly be an Astaire-Rogers picture without a stellar supporting cast of veteran jokesmiths.

Surveying Shall We Dance, it’s certainly not at the top of the pantheon of the movie musicals that these two icons made together, but it’s ripe with some of the usual delights in spite of a laborious plot and a different brand of dancing than we’re used to. It’s hard to complain too much about the results. There’s no doubt the entertainment value for true aficionados still remains.

3.5/5 Stars

The Gay Divorcee (1934): The Astaire & Rogers Foolproof Formula

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The plots to the Astaire and Rogers musicals are usually deceptively simple. Thus, thanks be to their dancing transcending it all. The affair opens in some posh corner of Europe where the always dithering Edward Everett Horton is sitting with Fred Astaire who has to prove his identity to get out of paying a check. They’ve both conveniently misplaced their wallets. After a routine complete with pretty girls and dancing fingers, he gives an impromptu performance of his own bringing down the house and proving he really is world-renowned performer Guy Holden.

Later on, at the docks, a fellow American, arriving in England (Ginger Rogers), is meeting her lovably fatuous aunt (Alice Brady) only to have her dress accidentally caught in a travel trunk. The man who comes to her aid and subsequently rips her garment is, of course, Astaire. Being a gentleman and genuinely taken with her, he gives her his coat to cover up, but the damage has already been done. She finds him a bit bothersome. You can tell it instantly by every look of disdain she throws him. Meanwhile, he eats up any pretense to talk with her, though she dismisses his advances. It’s how the story always goes.

He turns his resolve to find the girl, matched with the everyday occurrence of getting dressed to go out on the town, into the number “Needle in a Haystack,” which has Astaire exuding his typical elan on taps. Of the millions of women around, he’s looking for one very particular needle, and he’s not above canvassing the streets, even if it’s an insurmountable task, made increasingly apparent through montage. It goes to all this trouble only to very coincidentally rear-end her as he’s rubbernecking (adding yet another reason for her not to like him much).

Meanwhile, Egbert (Horton) is looking to make his father proud of him in the family law firm, though he’s never seemed to have much gumption or stomach for the trade. His worst nightmare, Hortense (the same Alice Brady) comes back into his life also bringing with her the proposition of a case that just might be his opportunity to assert himself. Mimi, the same woman constantly harried by Holden, is looking to get out of a loveless marriage and so the inept lawyer suggests setting up a rendezvous with a professional gigolo to end the union for good.

He invites Guy along for the ride knowing the sunshine, gaiety, and girls might do him good as a distraction for his lovesickness. He needs to forget this girl he’s so taken with. However, they’ve failed to compare notes. It doesn’t take extra-sensory perception to read where the picture will go from here, in fact, there’s hardly a need to continue. The human mind might do a finer job in its vivid imagination to derive what complications will arise from such a premise.

It’s a pleasant surprise to see Edward Horton doing a little saucy jig, “K-nock K-nees,” which also proves an early showcase for 40s wartime superstar Betty Grable if you’re able to recognize her. Likewise, in the subsequent scenes, Eric Blore is delightful as ever, this time as a waiter with his typical crisp & snooty delivery, ably sparring with the comic foibles of Horton.

Fortuitously, he turns up in several more instances to serve up the tea things along with idle chatter to anyone who will lend an ear. Astaire and Rogers’s first number together is the Cole Porter standard “Night and Day,” only to birth further misunderstands thanks to one ironic code phrase, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Don’t ask for an explanation.

“The Continental” is an impressively glossy number that until Gene Kelly conjured up his American in Paris (1951) dream sequence, clocked in as the industry’s longest continuous dance number. Some of it involves our leads, but not the whole thing. It feels much more like a Busby Berkeley extravaganza.

And yet right there you understand the exquisite nature of Astaire and Rogers because they made dancing into something intimate and personal. It was between two people as much as it was a lavish production number, and that’s what resonates with us even after the curtain falls and we’ve been wowed by the expansive nature of the staging.

Yes, the geologist husband finally makes his token appearance as expected and the hired romancer Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) continues to bumble along in an effort to play his raffish role. Of course, Astaire proves far more convincing in the part of the lover finally getting the girl as expected.

Does any of this matter? Hardly. But it’s one final opportunity to get Astaire, Rogers, Blore, Horton, and everyone else in a room together. That’s surely enough to recommend this frolicking trifle of gaiety starring everyone’s favorite couple on taps. There’s nothing better to lift your spirits than Astaire and Rogers.

4/5 Stars

Classic Movie Beginner’s Guide: Ginger Rogers

As we continue to look at musicals our recent beginner’s guides have been focusing on stars at the center of some of the best films of the era. Today let’s focus on Ginger Rogers.

Aside from being part of the incomparable dance partnership with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers was also an accomplished comedienne and a tested dramatic actress who showed surprising elasticity throughout her varied career. Here are just a handful of her best movies.

Gold Diggers of 1933

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Some might forget Busby Berkeley started to choreograph a new syntax for the movie musical and crucial to one of the industry’s most successful Depression_era backstage dramas was Ginger Rogers. Joining forces with Joan Blondell and Aline Macmahon, among others, they build on the success of 42nd Street.

Top Hat (1935)

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For some people, this is the ultimate Astaire and Rogers movie featuring some of the most extravagant sets and career-defining numbers together. The cast is rounded out by old favorites like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. However, of course, the main attraction amid the screwball foibles are our shimmering leads, Rogers sporting her iconic feathery ensemble.

Swing Time (1936)

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Others will say this George Stevens-directed feature is actually the greatest Astaire-Rogers pairing and who would blame them? The dancing is phenomenal and the songs equally amicable including standards like “The Way You Look Tonight.” Surprise, surprise, Ginger and Fred are magical together yet again.

Vivacious Lady (1938)

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So many films could earn this spot but Vivacious Lady is buoyed by the real-life chemistry and friendship of Ginger Rogers and James Stewart. The material is fairly light, but they handle it with ease. In a turning of the tables, Stewart was yet to be a big star and Ginger Rogers vouched for him. Greater things were yet to come for both of them.

Worth Watching

Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow The Fleet, Shall We Dance, Stage Door, Bachelor Mother, Kitty Foyle, Major and The Minor, I’ll Be Seeing You, Monkey Business, etc.

On The Beach (1959): Peck, Gardner, Astaire, Perkins, and Apocalypse

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I recall my dad sharing a recollection about On The Beach. Back when it came out he went to the drive-in with his family, and they took in the movie. He fell asleep part of the way through only to wake up and the movie was still going. While not necessarily a profound observation, the film is unequivocally long. For some, it will verge on the doldrums, especially for a story about the end of the world.

However, I am tempted to like it for some of the creative decisions it chooses (and in my father’s defense, he never said he outright disliked the movie). It acts as one of the first prominent films detailing the aftermath of a nuclear war. Also, unlike many of its contemporaries, it leads with a cold open closeup on Gregory Peck’s face as he commands a submarine. The camera is quick to maneuver through the space showing us all the levers and nobs with shipmen scurrying around carrying out their various duties.

It’s already a different feel than something like Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). We can actually breathe because there is no suffocating atmosphere to speak of. That’s what makes the emptiness of the space on the outside so startling. It’s almost too open; it’s all but void of meaningful life except for small envoys existing far enough away from the disaster zones.

Conceptually, the apocalyptic near-future is an intriguing world to come to terms with, just as it is frightening. Because it’s a hybrid society still existing in the world and only time will tell if it can subsist.

We familiarize ourselves with a segment of humanity now living in Australia, and America seems to be decimated. Everyone refers continually to “These Days” — it implies the allowances made in such extreme circumstances. People cannot go on living the way they always did, and things formerly unheard can happen without so much as a bat of an eye.

Shortage leads to a random assemblage of old and new technology to get by. For transportation, electric trains and horse-drawn carriages have a function. And yet for amusement, folks still have beach days soaking in the sun as if nothing is awry. It seems like small consolation for the 5-month expiration date being put on the world.

At first glance, On The Beach doesn’t seem to be about much. It’s really about one major event scattered with the residuals of human relationships. One of our main players is Commander Dwight Towers (Gregory Peck), a widower who lost his family to the catastrophe while he was on duty. Currently, he has come to Melbourne to receive a briefing from Admiral Bridie (John Tate) on what they might possibly do next.

Struggling with survivor’s guilt, Towers strikes up an intimate relationship with one Moira Davidson (Ava Gardner). A radio signal originating in San Diego calls him back to the sea, and he heads out, unsure if he will ever see her again — yet another person he must reluctantly say au revoir to.

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Anthony Perkins fits into the story as a younger version of Towers, Lieutenant Peter Holmes. He still clings onto his young family while worrying about what might happen to their slice of marital bliss. Because she is less-remembered, I am apt to especially be interested in Donna Anderson who gives a sincere performance as his wife (though it starts to unravel as the clock ticks). Mary cannot bear the implications of their society, as they have a newborn and with her husband away, there will be no telling what will happen to them. It unhinges her.

The most ominous shot during the voyage is an eerily empty Golden Gate Bridge, indicative of the entire West Coast. It’s literally dead. When they finally arrive in San Diego, it proves to be a near ludicrous dead-end involving a window shade and a coke bottle. Even Yankee know-how wasn’t able to avoid utter destruction.

It occurs to me On The Beach is not trying to exploit the situation, but it is using the backdrop to say something as Stanley Kramer always tried to do with his pictures. While he’s not the most virtuoso of filmmakers, his intentions are always upfront, which is admirable.

The director always aligned himself with fine acting talent even affording a trio of former musical stars shots at dramatic parts to reshape their prospective images. That in itself takes unwavering vision. In this one, Fred Astaire gets his chance as the hard-drinking, chain-smoking, acerbic scientist Julian Osborn. You’ve rarely seen him this way before. Whether it entirely suits him is relatively beside the point. Gene Kelly and Judy Garland would follow in a pair of uncharacteristic departures in Inherit the Wind (1960) and Judgment at Nuremberg (1961).

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Whereas the source novel apparently laid out who was to blame, the film develops a level of senselessness because no one — even those holding the highest clearance levels — seems to know how the tripwire was set off. They can only speak to their current reality. It makes an already disturbing situation a little more unsettling since there is a sense of universal ambiguity.

The questions linger. Might it have been an accidental mistake leading to the annihilation of our entire world, people all but expunged from the surface of the earth? It’s a chilling thing to begin admitting. Julian (Fred Astaire) is forced to acknowledge he doesn’t know.

It could have been some bloke who thought he saw something on a radar screen knowing if he hesitated his people would be obliterated. If this were the case, he would have only succeeded in setting off the dominoes. In fact, this nearly happened in real life one fateful day on September 6, 1983, to Stanislav Petrov, though he chose to wait, and it proved to be a faulty signal from his equipment.

It’s evident mutually assured destruction is a horrible system to wager on. And once you are past the point of no return, the apocalypse is a horrifying entity if there is no sense of hope. Most films must choose between inevitable doom versus some kind of hope.

In the waning days, we are antsy for finality, and it makes you realize just what the circumstances bring out. Waiting around for the end of the world sounds awful. And yet On The Beach manages to land the dismount even if the interim is slow-moving. True, there aren’t a flurry of events and there are a few asides — like Astaire winning the Grand Prix — which feel slightly superfluous to an impartial observer.

However, again, some kind of statement is being put to the fore, more nuanced than we might initially give it credit for, if not altogether succinct. It’s not simply an alarmist diatribe but there is a sobering urgency to it. The film foregoes the austere religiosity of the street preachers for something perceived to be much warmer.

Ava Garner standing on the shore, kerchief waving in the breeze, watching the receding figure of Gregory Peck on the deck of his sub is the movie’s indelible image. We need people around us to love and be loved by. Of course, some ill-advised individuals (myself included) live their everyday lives just waiting around for something. Hopefully, it doesn’t take nuclear devastation to kick our lives into overdrive.

3.5/5 Stars

Holiday Inn (1942): White Christmas and Blackface

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Let me put this out in the open. Christmas movies are some of the most difficult films to regard subjectively because the majority of them are either tied to our childhood and fond memories, which are as much a part of the experience, or the alternative; they were not a part of our traditions at all. White Christmas (1954) is a personal movie for me — one that I have known intimately for years — where all the lines and songs play like old friends.

Holiday Inn, not so much. It plays well on paper and I am usually a subscriber to the original always being the best. However, even in a highly subjective, not-so impartial way, it’s hard for me to go out on a limb for it. The one glistening asset it does maintain — fluffy and welcoming as Christmas itself — is the introduction of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” for the first time.

It’s slipped inauspiciously into the film within a quiet interlude, not a huge stage extravaganza, as Bing croons with Marjorie Reynolds sitting by his side. The little ditty, of course, would go from being just another Irving Berlin tune to the highest-grossing Christmas single of all-time.

It’s staying power never ceases to amaze because the yearning, the vocals, everything about it taps into something deep and resonant as the season itself. There’s one word for it: hope. It’s an expectancy in what is coming.

In music terms, it meant gold or rather platinum. Either way, it’s still with us today. If this was the only reason to see Holiday Inn, it would probably be worth it just to get a glimpse at history. So there we have it.

The picture sets would actually be reused 12 years later with White Christmas and we have a similar dynamic between Bing Crosby and his costar. There’s even an eerily similar dressing room scene in both. However, as much as I love Danny Kaye, a man of many talents, comedic and otherwise, he was still the second banana. He was really good at his role, but he’s the number two man.

Fred Astaire’s no supporting act. Because Bing Crosby might have been a hot commodity in the 1940s, but even if Astaire wasn’t quite as big as he had been even a couple years before with Ginger Rogers, he was still Fred Astaire. You do not lose his past histories and former glories in the blink of an eye. So the dynamic, if anything, is that of equal footing. It becomes a duel between the crooner and the virtuoso man on taps. It’s fitting their very personas are built into the plot.

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Bing wins out with “White Christmas” while Astaire gets a few jabs in himself. The drunk dance is the film’s best and the height of jocularity. According to legend, Astaire had some bourbon to get into the scene. It’s the age-old maxim, you have to be really good at what you do to make it look so bad — Astaire obliges by stumbling and bumbling his way around with perfectly choreographed precision.

Unfortunately, Holiday Inn, in all its seasonal gaiety, stops stone-cold with blackface. I knew it was coming, and it still repulsed me, effectively souring everything that comes in its stead. It isn’t made any better by the fact it functions as part of the plot — used as a disguise. It happens because Fred Astaire always ends up stealing his buddy Bing’s woman — leaving him heartbroken.

He already lost Lila (Virginia Dale), who wound up running off with a millionaire, so he’s not about to lose the effulgent starlet (Marjorie Reynolds) who found herself at his humble countryside establishment. Jim (Crosby)  even finds a very sneaky way to make sure she doesn’t make it to a floor show with Ted (Astaire)  in front of some Hollywood agents. She one-ups him when she gets wind of it and so Fred is forced into an “impromptu” firecracker solo.

The ending has a ball poking fun at the meta elements in this storyline. Linda is now a rising Hollywood starlet harboring hurt from a lost love — the usual hokum — as her director describes to her on set. This is the part she’s meant to play. Of course, we know she’s living it; there’s no need to act.

However, what better place for a refrain of “White Christmas” than a movie set. Because someone is waiting in the wings. Bing Crosby with his pipe, his tinkling of the bells, his whistling, and of course, his velvety voice. He ruins the take for the imaginary movie, but he makes the real movie that much better.

Holiday Inn is passable if only as a showcase for two of the greatest talents of the generation in Astaire and Crosby. They carry it valiantly with their song, dance, and ladlefuls of charisma. Thank goodness, as the plot and just about everything else, is thin.

3/5 Stars