Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 3: Follow The Fleet and Swing Time

5. Follow The Fleet (1936) is based on Hubert Osborne's play Shore Leave (1922), which was turned into a stage and film musical composed by Vincent Youmans (who later wrote the music for Flying Down To Rio (1933)). The sailors-on-shore-leave plot has been used many times since, including in the Comden-Green-Robbins-Bernstein musical On The Town (stage version 1944, film version 1949).

Follow The Fleet also bears a strong resemblance to the third Astaire-Rogers film, Roberta (1935). Just as in Roberta, Fred's buddy is Randolph Scott; here the two play Navy sailors "Bake" Baker (Fred) and "Bilge" Smith (Scott). Just as in Roberta, Scott is the main romantic lead, while Fred and Ginger are the secondary couple; and just as in Roberta, the story is centered on uniting the main couple in order to save an inheritance (in Roberta, a fashion boutique; in Follow The Fleet, a ship.)

The tone of the movie is set by the first scene on shipboard just before the boys go on shore leave in San Francisco, with Fred singing Irving Berlin's hilarious patter song "We Saw The Sea":

We joined the Navy to see the girls,
But what did we see? We saw the sea.
Instead of a girl or two in a taxi
We were compelled to look at the Black Sea
Seeing the Black Sea isn't what it's cracked up to be.
At the ten-cents-a-dance Paradise Club they separately encounter Bake's old dance partner Sherry Martin (Ginger) and her bespectacled schoolteacher sister Connie (the singer Harriet Hilliard, later of "Ozzie and Harriet" fame). Sherry performs at the club, and we see her sing a great version of "Let Yourself Go" with a backup trio that includes Betty Grable. While Sherry and Bake are getting reacquainted, Connie is getting a makeover from Lucille Ball (in a bit part) and other dancers at the club. When she emerges without her glasses and dressed in one of Sherry's silver-lame gowns, the aptly named Bilge (a love-'em-and-leave-'em type who'd earlier spurned her) suddenly takes notice. Unfortunately, the combination of Scott's callous character and his leaden screen presence make it hard for me to care whether he gets the girl—in fact, Bilge would clearly be bad news for the smart and sincere Connie.

The whole club sequence flows from one incident and number to the next. After her transformation sparks Bilge's interest, Connie sings "Get Thee Behind Me, Satan," a song that would have made more sense in the movie for which it was originally written, Top Hat (1935). In that movie, Ginger's character is trying to resist her attraction to a man she thinks is married; in this one, Connie has done everything she can to captivate Bilge, so it's not clear why she's suddenly singing "I want to resist...I mustn't be kissed." In any case, her resistance evaporates as the song ends, and she leaves the club with Bilge to take him home—and cook him a meal, of course...

Meanwhile, Bake and Sherry return from backstage and inadvertently get involved in a dance contest. Their dance to "Let Yourself Go" is one of their most exhilarating numbers together:

One of the remarkable things about Roberta, one of the models for Follow The Fleet, is that Fred & Ginger's romance is almost an afterthought to the story of Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. This offhand treatment of the Fred-Ginger romance was corrected in Follow The Fleet, where Bake and Sherry have a number of obstacles to overcome. Bake gets Sherry fired from the Paradise Club and then inadvertently sabotages her audition for a new producer by pouring bicarbonate of soda into her glass of water, thinking he's undoing her rival. Sherry—having performed a terrific tap solo (her only solo dance in the series)—then finds herself hiccuping through a reprise of "Let Yourself Go." In retaliation, Sherry provokes a fight that gets Bake confined to his ship.

All is made right, though, on the night of the big benefit show that Bake and Sherry stage to help Connie salvage her ship. That show involves the improbably elaborate but gorgeous "Let's Face the Music and Dance" production number:

In her Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book Arlene Croce compares Follow The Fleet unfavorably to Roberta; she calls the earlier film "ineffable" and this one "a bore" (p. 96). In my estimation, Roberta has the fatal flaws of forcing us to imagine Randolph Scott as the head of a Parisian fashion house, and forcing us to watch Scott and Dunne (rather than Fred and Ginger) work through all of the romantic complications. Follow the Fleet makes Scott a sailor (a better fit for his he-man persona) and provides a plot for Fred and Ginger, two vast improvements over the earlier film. I find Follow The Fleet, aided by its great Irving Berlin score, to be one of the most exuberant and satisfying of the Astaire-Rogers musicals.

6. Swing Time (1936) has a reputation in some quarters as the neglected masterpiece of the Astaire-Rogers films. Arlene Croce writes "There never was...a greater dance musical" (p. 103).

Hmmm. This is another movie where my opinion diverges from Croce's. For me, Swing Time is something of a letdown after the delights of Top Hat and Follow The Fleet, mainly because the plot is so contrived. Fred is the professional dancer and gambler "Lucky" Garnett, whose pals (including Victor Moore's slow-talking sleight-of-hand specialist "Pop") conspire to keep him from his wedding to Betty Furness' Margaret. They convince him that he has to have his formal pants cuffed; pantsless, Lucky misses the wedding. When he finally gets there he does make a deal with Margaret's father, though—if he can earn $25,000 at gambling, the wedding is still on. (What concerned father would refuse that offer?) Penniless Lucky, still dressed in his wedding outfit of top hat and tails, then hops a freight train to the big city to make his fortune and win the girl, and Pop scrambles on after him.

No sooner do they make it to New York than they (literally) bump into Penny Carrol (Ginger), an instructor at an Arthur Murray-style dance studio. This setup leads to what's admittedly the cutest of their meet-cute scenes, where Fred pretends to be unable to dance in order to take lessons with Penny. She tries to give him the brush-off and is about to be fired for discouraging customers by the prissy owner Eric Blore when Fred gets the idea to show him what he's learned in his first lesson (to Jerome Kern's wonderful "Pick Yourself Up"):

Lucky and Penny decide to form a dance partnership. Much business then ensues involving rival nightclubs and the winning and losing of the contract of Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa) and his band, who are apparently the only dance band in New York. To complicate matters, Romero is in love with Penny—like Eric Rhodes' Alfredo Bedini in Top Hat, he's an utterly non-credible rival to Fred. At least this plot line does provide an excuse for Lucky and Penny's audition number, "Waltz in Swing Time." Swing Time is generally praised for how well the songs are integrated with the script, but beautiful as this dance is, it's basically an item number. Unlike "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" or "Cheek to Cheek" or "Let's Face The Music and Dance," "Waltz in Swing Time" doesn't tell a story about the characters (though when the dance is so enjoyable, who's complaining?).

There's actually another item number in Swing Time: "Bojangles of Harlem," a solo with chorus that Astaire dances in blackface. Croce calls this "the homage...of one great artist to another" (p. 107), and it is surely intended as Astaire's tribute to the great tap dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. And as a dance, it's astonishing—Astaire wears taps on his palms as well as his shoes, and sets up complex counter-rhythms between the music, his feet and his hands. And in the middle section of the number Astaire dances in and out of synchronization with three "shadows" (created by trick photography, not by dancers behind the scrim). But it's hard to get past the blackface thing. While I realize that blackface is a complex cultural phenomenon—even black performers donned blackface—its association with racist stereotypes overwhelms its more nuanced meanings. I have to confess that this sequence, brilliant as it is, is hard for me to watch.

Back to our story, where Lucky vacillates between trying not to earn the $25,000 so he can stay in New York and woo Penny, and acting cool to Penny every time Pop reminds him of his engagement. This push-me pull-you relationship is comically encapsulated in "A Fine Romance," where first Lucky, then Penny (after she learns of his engagement) take turns rebuffing the other (and singing the verse). Penny decides that she's going to marry Romero after all, giving Fred and Ginger the opportunity to dance a beautifully poignant farewell duet together to Kern's "Never Gonna Dance"/"The Way You Look Tonight."

The denouement, though, has to be one of the least convincing in the series. Romero falls for the same, lame "your trousers should have cuffs" gag that prevented Lucky's wedding to Margaret at the beginning of the film. And then Penny, learning of Lucky's now permanently broken engagement, decides amid gales of forced laughter that "There isn't going to be any wedding"—to Romero, at least. To me this scene reeks of the writers' desperation to wrap up the movie, and confirms the truism that watching other people laugh is rarely funny. Fred and Ginger do get a coda, though, where they sing "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight" simultaneously in harmony, as snow falls on New York. A lovely ending to a film that for me—whenever Fred and Ginger aren't dancing, at least—doesn't quite live up to its reputation.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 2: Roberta and Top Hat

As we've proceeded with our re-viewing of the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies, it's gradually become clear that there are (at least) two templates for their movies. The first, the one we all remember, is outlined in the introduction to Fred & Ginger Part 1. The second template is based on the two-couple conventions of comic opera: there's a leading couple around whom the romantic complications center, and a secondary couple who provide most of the comedy. The surprise in the second type of film is that, even when they're top-billed, Fred and Ginger play the comic secondary couple. As in...

3. Roberta (1935): You'd think that it would have been obvious to everyone how well the Astaire-Rogers star pairing worked in The Gay Divorcée (1934), but for Roberta they were returned to supporting roles. The film was planned before The Gay Divorcée was released, so perhaps that explains the filmmakers' caution in falling back on the Flying Down to Rio formula.

The movie was based on a Jerome Kern stage musical of the same title. As was the usual practice, several numbers from the stage show were cut, and new songs—"Lovely To Look At" and "I Won't Dance," also by Kern—were substituted.

The lovely Irene Dunne gets top billing as Stephanie, the main designer at a glamorous Parisian boutique. When Roberta's owner dies and leaves the shop to her American nephew John Kent (Randolph Scott), he and Stephanie clash at first before they realize they can't live (or run a business) without each other. Stephanie and Kent are the serious romantic couple, and so Dunne doesn't get to give full play to the wonderfully wry comic persona she later displayed in movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). She does sing the Kern classics "Lovely to Look At" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" in a high operatic soprano that, because it doesn't have a hint of jazz in it, sounds like it should be in a different film. The stolid Scott is typecast as an American lunk who gets in over his head in both business and love.

Fred is Huckleberry Haines, leader of the Wabash Indianians dance band. Ginger is Lizzie Gatz, Huck's hometown sweetheart who went to Paris to make her fortune and now performs as the cafe singer "Countess Scharwenka." With Dunne and Scott going through the all the romantic plot twists and misunderstandings, all Fred and Ginger are given to do is banter, sing and dance together, which they do superbly. In "I'll Be Hard To Handle," Ginger sings the song in her "Countess Scharwenka" accent, and then she and Fred launch into a tap routine that reprises the relationship of their characters while it showcases the actors' easy comic rapport (at about 1:35 you can hear them laugh together for a moment over something invisible to us mere mortals):

Delightful as this is, it's their second dance together that's the iconic number from Roberta: the fluid "Lovely To Look At/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" duet, with the lithe Ginger in a clingy black satin gown and Fred in the white tie and tails that he'd make his trademark in the title number of their next film, Top Hat (1935):

In The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book Arlene Croce calls this movie "their most ebullient film" (p. 46), and speculates that it's because during the filming of Roberta the super-hit success of The Gay Divorcée was becoming apparent. Whatever the reason, the high spirits evident in this film carry over into at least their next three collaborations, starting with...

4. Top Hat (1935): This was the first of their films to be written specifically for Astaire and Rogers, but it essentially follows the model of The Gay Divorcée—initial antagonism and mistaken identity inevitably being overcome by love. Rogers plays Dale Tremont, friend of Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), wife of the theater producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who is putting on a London show featuring the American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers (Astaire). Got all that?

Dale comes to believe that Jerry is Horace, and so she is outraged by his romantic pursuit of her around London and all the way to Venice (or perhaps I should say "Venice," since no attempt is made to made the Venice locations look like anything other than the huge Art Deco film set that they are). And Dale is very puzzled by Madge's eager matchmaking between her and the man she thinks is Madge's husband. Of course, ultimately the confusion is cleared up, but not before Fred and Ginger sing and dance through some terrific Irving Berlin numbers written for the movie.

Fred's solos to "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" (in which he first wakes up his downstairs neighbor Ginger with a tap routine, and then puts her to sleep with a soft shoe reprise), and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (in which he "shoots" a male chorus line with his walking stick), are justly famous. But—no surprise here—I find his duets with Ginger to be the highlights of the film. First is "Isn't This A Lovely Day," where Fred and Ginger conduct a charming courtship dance in a deserted gazebo in the middle of a sudden downpour:

(This scene should look familiar to Bollywood fans, as it's the original to which director/writer Karan Johar is paying homage in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).)

Fred and Ginger's second dance together is "Cheek to Cheek," which begins with Fred singing "Heaven, I'm in heaven..." Easy to believe when he's dancing with Ginger. This is the number with the famous ostrich-feather dress; according to Croce, it was designed by Rogers herself. It floats around her beautifully, especially when Astaire twirls her, dips her, or lifts her into the air—a suggestion of heaven, indeed, in what is probably their best-known (and perhaps loveliest) duet:

I find the plot of Top Hat to be a bit too thin—is it really conceivable that Dale wouldn't realize her mistake almost immediately, or that she would so readily agree to marry the fop Bedini (Eric Rhodes, of course)?—but I realize that the plot is beside the point. Top Hat is delirious tongue-in-cheek fun, and it was a smash. It's still probably the movie people are most likely to be thinking of when they think of an Astaire-Rogers movie. Amazingly, though—in my humble opinion, at least—they still hadn't reached their peak.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 1: Flying Down To Rio and The Gay Divorcee

You may think you remember what a typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie is like. There's initial antagonism—they meet cute, but while he's instantly smitten, she is unimpressed. He pursues her; she rebuffs him, but eventually acquiesces to a dance. As they move in a sweeping, fluid duet to a gorgeously romantic song, now a standard, that was written for them—Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," say, or "Cheek to Cheek"—she finds herself falling in love with this odd-looking but beautifully graceful man. Their courtship dance is observed, aided and impeded by a cast of comic supporting actors which include Edward Everett Horton (a continually exasperated best friend), Eric Blore (a fey waiter or valet), and Eric Rhodes (a vain foreign competitor for Ginger). All the characters move in a world of elegant cafés, resort hotels, tuxedos and evening gowns—and this at the height of the Depression.

So it was a bit of a shock to discover, as we began to re-watch the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies for RKO Pictures (excluding the musical biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), that only two of their first five movies together actually conform to this model. And it's also surprising how contingent the beginning of their partnership seems. One of the greatest dance pairings of the 20th century came together as a matter of chance (which, as we will learn in their second film together, The Gay Divorcée (1934), "is just the fool's name for fate"). Fred was famously (if perhaps apocryphally) screen-tested and found wanting: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." Ginger was the better-known and more experienced movie actor, but she had mainly played supporting roles as a wisecracking chorus girl. In two of their first three films together Astaire and Rogers are not even the top-billed stars. But as Katherine Hepburn famously (if perhaps apocryphally) said of them, "He gave her class, and she gave him sex."

1. Flying Down to Rio (1933): But neither class nor sex is much apparent in their first film together, which barely qualifies as an Astaire-Rogers film. She's fourth-billed, he's fifth, and they have only one brief number together. But they provide the only sparks of interest in a plot that seems like it was thrown together over lunch on the first day of shooting. Dolores Del Rio is a sultry Latin bombshell who so bewitches blond bandleader Gene Raymond that he follows her with his entire orchestra down to Rio de Janiero. Raymond wins the girl and rescues her father's hotel (which has been denied an entertainment license) by—of course!—strapping dozens of dancing girls to the wings of airplanes and executing a Busby Berkeley-style aerial production number over the beach.

Ginger plays Honey Hale, the singer in Raymond's orchestra, and Fred is Fred Ayres, Raymond's accordion player/assistant conductor/sidekick. They don't take the floor together until midway through the film during the novelty dance number "The Carioca" (music by Vincent Youmans; lyrics by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn). As the lyrics have it, "it's not a foxtrot or a polka," but rather an odd dance in which the partners touch foreheads while executing a complicated tango step. Not even Fred and Ginger can make this look graceful, and at one point they make a joke of it by knocking their heads together and then staggering around the dance floor as if dazed. You'll feel a bit dazed, too, if you watch this movie, which is for Fred and Ginger completists only:

According to Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972), Ginger wasn't even originally cast in Flying Down to Rio: "Rogers might not have been in the film at all if Dorothy Jordan, who had been cast, hadn't decided to marry Merian C. Cooper, the head of the studio, and go off on a honeymoon rather than dance with Fred Astaire" (p. 25). Fortunately for all of us, Ginger seized that chance, and it led to star billing in their next film together.

2. The Gay Divorcée (1934) was based on a Cole Porter stage musical, The Gay Divorce (1932), which was Fred Astaire's first (and final) Broadway hit without his partner and sister Adele; after its success, he went to Hollywood. In the transition from stage to film, many things were lost, including most of Porter's songs ("Night and Day" was the only survivor), but a few things were retained, including both Eric Rhodes (as a preening professional adulterer) and Eric Blore (doing his waiter routine). Edward Everett Horton is Fred's best friend, a dim lawyer who takes on the task of getting Ginger divorced from her elderly, indifferent husband. (Indifferent to Ginger? Of the many implausibilities in this film, that might be the hardest one to swallow.)

There's a good Astaire solo number near the beginning of the film, "A Needle In A Haystack" (music by Con Conrad, lyrics by Herb Magidson). Fred gets dressed in a natty suit while dancing around, over and on the furniture in his sitting room, all the while singing about his quest to find the girl he's suddenly smitten with (who is—who else?).

In the worst idea in the movie Horton, a non-dancer, is partnered with Betty Grable in a novelty number, "Let's K-nock K-neez"—thanks to Horton's inability to dance, Grable is left to carry the very weak comedy of this number on her own.

In fact, it's amazing how much screen time is taken up by characters other than Fred and Ginger; it looks as though the studio still had doubts about their ability to carry a film. They don't even get to dance that much together, just two numbers. The first is Porter's "Night and Day," the model for every falling-in-love ballad that followed. It's taken at a significantly faster tempo than, say, Ella Fitzgerald's later version, but even so it's fluid and beautiful. Ginger finds herself alone with Fred; she tries to leave, he prevents her, and they fall into a swooning dance until her half-hearted resistance is overcome. At the end of the dance Rogers gazes at Astaire in what seems to be unfeigned wonder:

One thing to be aware of in this clip and in the others to follow is how beautifully they're shot: the takes are long (sometimes an entire, minutes-long dance is a single take!) and medium shots are used to make sure both that the dancers' bodies are generally visible from head to toe, and that the viewer has a sense of the space that they're moving in. That was due to Astaire, who choreographed and directed his own dances.

The second Fred-Ginger number is "The Continental" (another Conrad/Magidson song), modelled explicitly on "The Carioca," and similarly involving armies of black and white clad dancers executing precision steps in front of a vast white edifice while we wonder what's happened to Fred and Ginger, who disappear five minutes into this 17-minute marathon. Fortunately they return to dance up and down the stairs at the very end.

So, many of the elements of the classic Astaire-Rogers films are present in this one, but the script isn't nearly as clever as it should be, and far too much time is taken up with tired vaudeville routines involving the other characters. Much better things were to follow...

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Why Lagaan and Rang de Basanti didn't make my list of favorites

This post is probably going to get me in trouble, but I thought I'd address a couple major absences from my favorite Bollywood films of the 2000s list. Both Lagaan (Land Tax, 2001) and Rang de Basanti (Paint It Saffron, 2006) will make many people's best-of-the-decade lists, both films won a slew of awards and were India's official entries for Best Foreign-Language Film at the US Academy Awards. So why are they missing from my list of favorites?

The first thing to say is that I wasn't trying to make a list of the "best" films of the decade, but of my personal favorites--that is, films I'm drawn to see multiple times. Neither Lagaan nor Rang de Basanti falls into that category. The reasons that particular films speak to us and others of equal quality don't can be mysterious. Still, I'll try to explain why I left each film off my list.

Lagaan is the story of a group of Raj-era villagers who, during a devastating drought, face having to pay a ruinous tribute to the British. Being a sporting type, though, the cartoonishly evil captain of the local British regiment offers to forgive the tax for three years if the villagers can beat his crack cricket team. The villagers have never played the game, don't know the rules and have no equipment, but having no choice they accept the challenge. Led by Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) and aided by the British officer's sympathetic sister Elizabeth (Rachel Shelley), the ragtag villagers must overcome their caste prejudices and romantic rivalries to unite and face the British in the Big Game.

Which takes up the entire second half of the movie. And that's where the problems arise for me, because Big Game movies are suspenseless. We know the underdogs face almost impossible odds, we know the dominant team will build up a near-insurmountable lead, and we know that at the last possible moment--spoiler alert!--the underdogs will snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. The other suspenseless question at stake in Lagaan is whether the hunky Bhuvan will come to reciprocate Elizabeth's growing love or remain true to his village sweetheart Gauri (Gracy Singh).

--End of spoiler--

Obviously, an uncertainty about the outcome isn't the only reason to watch a narrative. We know, for example, how a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie will turn out even before the opening credits roll, and theater troupes haven't stopped putting on productions of Hamlet just because the audience already knows the ending. But in the case of Lagaan, the rewards of the performances (of its Indian cast, at least) and of Ashutosh Gowariker's direction aren't enough to counterbalance the long, slow unfolding of the inevitable that is its second half. For me.

Rang de Basanti actually has a somewhat similar narrative structure--a disparate group of Indian men comes together and, with the aid of a young British woman, overcomes their differences in the service of a larger goal. In this case the group is made up of pleasure-seeking, apolitical young men who agree take part in the British woman's film about the Indian independence movement. In the process, they learn about the courageous and non-sectarian freedom fighters such as Bhagat Singh and Chandrasekhar Azad. The men's awakening political consciences then inform their plan to expose and avenge the government corruption that has resulted in the death of a friend who was an Indian Air Force pilot.

Like the earlier freedom fighters, the modern-day group turns to violence. Unlike the freedom fighters, though, the modern-day group is not living under the military occupation of a foreign power that has imposed press censorship, arrest without warrant, indefinite detention without trial, secret tribunals, and which has massacred a peaceful and unarmed crowd of men, women and children gathered to celebrate a religious festival. Instead, the modern group lives in a flawed and corrupt but still functioning democracy with a relatively free press.

So when they decide--spoiler alert!--to assassinate the government minister and the industrialist who are responsible for their friend's death, it seems more a failure of imagination than an act of revolutionary justice. And when the minister becomes hailed as a martyr to terrorism, their strategy backfires in a big way. So their next step is an armed takeover of the All-India Radio station, from which they broadcast details of the cozily corrupt relationship between government and business; then they all die in a hail of bullets as the station is stormed by security forces.

--End of spoiler--

But what a waste. Again, their actions seem more motivated by a martyr complex than by a realistic assessment of what would be needed to effect change in their society. Do they consider becoming investigative journalists, exposing misdeeds and directing press campaigns against the incompetent, venal and corrupt? Do they join or create organizations dedicated to bettering the lives of the victimized and powerless? Do they pledge themselves to the Sisyphean task of making a sustained difference? No--working for change in incremental ways is brutally hard and largely unacknowledged work. I felt that Rang de Basanti, in its glamorization of violence, was actually expressing a profound despair about the possibility of real, long-term change in Indian society (and in modern global capitalism in general). That despair may indeed be well-founded, but I felt that the characters--largely children of privilege themselves--hadn't yet earned it.

So that's why neither film is one I'm eager to see again, and why neither made it onto my list of favorites for the past decade. Alternative perspectives are welcome.