Wednesday, August 19, 2009
Two Articles on the Legacy of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire
Ginger with first husband, Lew Ayres and Lela Rogers in 1934.
Below are copies of two articles about on Ginger Rogers and the lasting impact of Ginger and Fred's dancing. The first really gives a frank, somewhat haunting insight into Ginger as a person as well as an actress/dancer.
An excerpt from an interview with Ginger in Modern Screen by Gladys Hall in 1935.
"Yes, I get what I want from life," said Miss Virginia Rogers to me, "except---except for one thing---I want to go to college!"
"College?" I echoed stupidly, "you want to go to college?" I had expected anything but that. Some nostalgic reference, however, reticent, to the recently divided home of young Mr. and Mrs. Lew Ayres. Some faintly spoken regret, perhaps, for teh mortality of young love....
But---Yes," laughed Ginger, laughing at me, not herself, "yes---why not? Lots of professional women do go, you know. Maybe I will, someday. There are so many things I'd like to learn. And would get so much out of college if I syould go now---more than I would have gotten a few years ago. I'd know now what I want to study, what course I want to take. I've learned concentration---dancing teaches you that. I've learned patience, I think. I'd care more about learning than I would have cared a few years ago. I'd be able to choose what I want and to go after it.
"I really think that I only woke up four years ago. Before that I was asleep or numb, or something. Perhaps it's just that I've grown up. My ideas, like my face, are shaping differently, losing baby contours. I seem to see everything in sharper focus. I don't believe that I saw anything at all---not really---four years ago."
I had been watching Ginger and Fred rehearsing. Tirelessly. Almost religiously---over and over again, perfecting perfection. And watching Ginger, in pale yellow overalls, pale green polo shirt, red-gold hair flying...I'd thought: She has everything she or any other girl ever wanted from life. Yes, in spite of what may have grieved her and caused her separation from Lew. For she is young and famous and wounds heal swiftly for the young, and the rainbow is still arched and her dancing feet are only beginning the arc...She has youth and beauty and fame and jewels. She has riches. She has a mother who adores her. She has cars and friends and fine feathers. And she has Fred Astaire for a dancing partner. She is tops at the box office. There is nothing lacking---nothing that can be replaced or achieved. And then we sat down to luncheon in the RKO commissary and Ginger sipped iced tea and nothing else---because she was rehearsing again after luncheon and one can't rehearse on a full tummy. And I told her what I had been thinking, or some of it. I said: "You have got everything you ever wanted from life, haven't you? In spite of---" Ginger vroke in, grinning, "But I never wanted very much. I never thought about it---"
No but---" I said, "all your dreams have come true, haven't they? All young girls of having fame and riches and---and love. And so you must have dreamed. And even if some dreams never stay true, forever, you've had them all, haven't you?"
And Ginger's pale young face, guiltless of any make-up, framed by that tawny silk hair sobered as she said: "Of course, I haven't got everything. No. Wait---I haven't got everything only because there is no such thing. I mean, there is no such thing as having everything. We are all mortal and being mortal means being limited, and so none of us has capacity for everything. No one can have everything. Because for every dream dreamed there arises another dream. For every hope hoped there emerges another hope." And I found myself thinking "And for every love does there arise another love to take the old love's place?" And Ginger replied: "It is an old saying and a true one---that the more we have the mroe we want. It's like eating---the more you eat the more can eat! 'Everything' is limitless, don't you see? There is no end to it."
"NO, NO, for anyone to make the boast that he or she has everything is like going to school and graduating and then saying: 'Well, now, I know all there is to know. I never need to read ontoher book or hear another lecture or study another subject.' So stupid, that attitude. Because the thrill and the glory and the whole come-on of living is just because there are no limits. There is no saturation point. For every goal is, when you have reached it, only a sign-post pointing the way to the next goal. The end is never reached.
"I certainly never dreamed of being an actress, of all things! I never thought about having a lot of money. Mother earned what would be called a sensible amount of money as a newspaper women---enough to make us comfortable. The people I knew then all lived nicely, but modestly. I never thought about movie stars and their fabulous lives at all...but, if I had thought about them, I would have put them in the same fantastic category as Alice In Wonderland or something like that.
"I never thougt about having a lot of money because I really need so little. If I cared about the things that money can buy I wouldn't go about as you see me now, dressed in cotton overalls anda dollar sweat-shirt. Oh, I like to get all tricked out now and then and go out with a crowd and have fun. But I can live without expensive clothes and still be happy. I don't give a darn for jewels. My first ermine coat didn't make a different girl of me.
"When I was a little girl I only had one ambition that I can remember---I wanted to be a school-teacher. I think that was because I adored my English teacher. She lived at home with us for a term or two and I used to think that anyone so pretty and gentle and wise would be the perfect one to copy. I wanted to be just like her.
"NO, honestly, you can't have everything in a world so 'full of a number of things.' I'd like to go to college as I've said. I'd like to try to write. I don't know whether I could write or not, but I'd love to have the time to try. I'd like to compose music, too. I don't say that I could do that, either---though I have written a song or two.---but I would like the time to work at it. I'd like to have the time to be a little bit domestic. I think I really am a housewife at heart. Most girls are, if you strip off the cellophane wrappings of their professional lives, whatever they may be..." (And I found myself wondering whether this may be the Why Of It...whether the little housewife-at-heart who hasn't time to be a housewife might be teh explantion of a little wife who doesn't perhaps, have time to be a wife? For Ginger is, I think, essentially whole-hearted. And where she couldn't give her whole heart and her whole time and her whole devotion she would rather not give at all...)
"You know," Ginger was saying, "I have to live in my own house as I would live in a hotel. I never get the time even to plan a menu. I never have the least idea what I'll have to eat from one meal to the next. I never have the least idea what I'll have to eat from one meal to teh next. I never have time to count the linens, to arrange flowers, to fuss over things---and I'd love to. When the maid tells me that we need three more table-cloths, I phone a shop and tell them to send me three new table-cloths and then I never see them until they are on the table.
"I'd like to be able to go out more---to do silly, on -the-spur-of-the-moment things, like going on picnics and down to Venice to do the chute-the-chutes and things. But I'm usually too tired when I come home from teh studio to do anything except fall into bed and to sleep. When I'm rehearsing I do go out now and then just to keep in step with life. But when we're in production it swallows us whole and we're seen and heard no more---save on the sound stages."
AND how would that go, I thought, with marriage...? Marriage and its multiple demands. The studio and its slavery. Alien bedfellows, I am afraid.
"So you see," said Ginger, "all of the many things I have---this 'everything' you speak of---I can't use. I remind myself of Midas---everything he touched turned to gold but what good did it do him? He couldn't eat gold. He couldn't inhale any fragrance from golden flowers. And when he turned the one object he loved more than anything or any person in the world, his little daughter, he could get no warmth or affection from her---for she, too, had turned to gold!"
(Perhaps, I thought, perhaps Ginger was saying more than she knew, revealing more than she thought...for may it no be that, here in Hollywood under the greedy grasp of the Great God Studio...young, ardent, hopeful marriages, like Midas's daughter, also turn to gold?)
"I have things" said Ginger, "and more than just things, I know. I have clothes, but I have no chance to wear them. I'd like to do some personal shoping now and then. I'd like to window shop and hunt for bargains and try things on, the way girls like to do. I can't. When I need new clothes I phone again. I call a shop and tell them to send me three or four dresses and then I choose the most likely one and I can't wear them because I haven't been able to shop for the right accessories for them...."
Ginger puased for a moment and looked out the window...spread before her Irish blue eyes were the mammoth sound stages, the machine shops, the offices, the gardens, the whole vast body of the study where she reigns supreme---a star...and I wondered what she was thinking, what values she waws weighing in her mind. She didn't say. I knew that she wouldn't say. For if she talked to one she would have to talk of all---and there are some matters even a star cannot be expected to discuss with all.
SHE said finally, "I'd love to have a baby. Of course, I would, naturally. I shall adopt one some day. It seems to me," said Ginger, her bright blue eyes wistful, as if asking a question, "that it is just as fine to adopt a baby as it is to have your own. Don't you think? To choose a baby beacause of all the babies you have see that baby is the one you want most? I sort of agree with Kathleen Norris when she said recently, that the real motherhood is to love every baby born and not only the babies born to you...
"Movie babies certainly cost a lot, too," Ginger laughed, her eyes coming back from Neverland. "I read in a recent articlesomewhere that a certain very big star;'s last baby cost her exactly $150,000---because of her having to be out of production so long. Time is very valuable to a movie star.
"You see, I am amphasizing the fact, now, that there is no such thing as having everything that meets the eye. I know that other girls must wonder wht there is left for me to want. That's what I'm trying to tell them. And I'm not disparaging the things I have. I not making light nor little fun of fame, so-called, of money and success and all that. Not for one minute. I'm happy. I wouldn't cahnge places with little Susie Glutz who works in a an office for anything. Even though Susie is probably just as happy as I and with just as good reasons. Even though Susie is certainly normal and I'm not. Vecause we are not really normal, not when we are 'movie stars.' We can't be. It is very much, I think, like running a temperature all of the time. And, after awhile, we get so keyed up that we couldn't live any other way. We would feel depressed and weak if we didn't at high pressure every instant. I know that I work better, the harder the pressure. It is literally true that the less time I have, the more I can accomplish.
"I ENJOY 'fame.' I really love it. I get a kick out of being recognized and praised and spoiled. There are times when it is tiresome, of course. But there are times when everything is tiresome. There are also times, most times, when it is thrilling and satisfying to find my name in electric lights. I enjoy the fan letters and the compliments and the consideration of being a star. I wouldn't be honest if I didn't admit it.
"But just because I do love it and value it, there is a drawback. I think it must be something like having a very beautiful and successful child for whom you have worked every night and day, whom you have watched grow and for whom you feel a great love, a great pride of possession. And just because you love it so much, that love is hot through with fear. For supposing anything should happen to it? Supposing that you should lose it.
"That's the way I feel about my work. Supposing something should happen---the industry or to my part in it? Of course I'd be hurt. Terribly hurt. I'd hate it. I'd be miserable. So that even when you do have everything, presumably, in the work you are doing, at any rate---even that is marred by the fear of loss, accident, of fate..."
In the doorway the assistant director was beckoning. Ginger waved a hand. "Time to go," se said to me. "I can't be five minutes late. I'm always late for everything, except my work. They've got me trained in the studio. So...I guess we can about sum it up like this: I get everything I want from Life except---TIME. Time to go to college, time to be a housewife, time to shop and play and experiment, time to have a baby, time to be normal..."
They Seem to Find the Happiness They Seek
By ALASTAIR MACAULAY
Published: August 14, 2009
This part is especially accurate: "Astaire choreographed, and the specifications he made for how the camera should follow him set unsurpassed standards: Film the dancers full-frame, without close-up; keep reaction shots to a minimum; run the dance in as few takes as possible, preferably just one." That technique revolutionized the way dances were filmed.
WHEN people fall in love, they opt for an experience that others have had before. Very often that’s what they have in mind: they would like to share some of what happened to Romeo and Juliet, or Lizzy and Darcy or maybe just their parents. One of those archetypes of romance was born 75 years ago, with the release of “The Gay Divorcee,” starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine films together for RKO, including “Roberta.”
The cinema has had many classic couples: several, in fact, in 1934, the year of “It Happened One Night,” “Twentieth Century” and “The Thin Man.” But it has never had another couple who enshrined romantic love so definitively in terms of dance.
Dancing together, Astaire and Rogers expressed many of love’s moods: courtship and seduction, repartee and responsiveness, teasing and challenge, the surprise of newfound harmony, the happy recapture of bygone romance, the giddy exhilaration of high spirits and intense mutual accord, the sense of a perfect balance of power, the tragedy of parting and, not least, the sense of love as role playing. It’s startling how many of those shades are already present in “Night and Day,” their first romantic duet together, in “The Gay Divorcee.”
The story has often been told. Astaire (1899-1987), after years of partnering his sister, Adele, broke through to a new romantic seriousness in 1932, when partnering Claire Luce onstage in London in Cole Porter’s “Gay Divorce,” particularly in the number “Night and Day.” He went to Hollywood as a fully grown star in 1933. When he and Rogers (1911-95) were given fifth and fourth star billing in RKO’s “Flying Down to Rio” that year, their brief fling in the “Carioca” number became its biggest sensation.
“The Gay Divorce” was promptly adapted for the screen as “The Gay Divorcee” for the new star team. Astaire and Rogers went on to make seven more RKO movies together in the 1930s. Astaire choreographed, and the specifications he made for how the camera should follow him set unsurpassed standards: Film the dancers full-frame, without close-up; keep reaction shots to a minimum; run the dance in as few takes as possible, preferably just one.
He went on to partner many other women. (Astaire aficionados like to debate who, after Ginger, complemented him best. Rita Hayworth? Cyd Charisse? Eleanor Powell? Gracie Allen?) But though he developed the artistry of his solos in the 1940s, his screen chemistry with Rogers has never been matched.
Watching “Night and Day” as danced by Astaire and Rogers in “The Gay Divorcee,” we can’t tell how much Astaire adapted it since performing it with Luce, and Rogers is not yet as supple and skilled a dancer as she would be two years later. Yet we see the Astaire-Rogers alchemy in full force. Much of it has to do with Rogers’s multifaceted reactions to Astaire.
Her face is riveting because it has such restraint. Among the breathtaking aspects of her performance are her sudden stops to address him (as if acknowledging the force field between them); the suggestions that at one point she is helplessly sleepwalking but that, at another, having great fun; the very sweet way she implies that love (and dancing with a partner) is something she is happily learning as she goes along; the ripples that pass at different moments through her spine and pelvis; the huge, determined strides she takes to break away from him at one juncture, and then, when he stops her, the mysteriously fluent near-slap she gives him (and the soft way she watches him as he reels back across the room). Astaire leads throughout and is compelling. But her responses, from face to foot, give this duet its depth.
Two years after the “Gay Divorcee” Rogers reached her apogee in “Swing Time” (1936). By now she has a dancer’s body as beautiful as any the screen has ever seen. The glimpses of her legs in their “Pick Yourself Up” number (her calf-length skirts fly as they tap) are enough to make you gasp. Her spine can now arch and bend in many ways, all apparently full of feeling; the slenderness of her waist is always ravishing.
Yet she never looks rarefied or trained. For that matter, she doesn’t behave like a great beauty and isn’t presented as one. Her ordinariness and spontaneity (just watch her arms and hands) are central to her attractiveness. While she always retains these qualities, there are parts of “Swing Time” (and other Astaire-Rogers movies of their prime) in which she and Astaire become divinities and, together, epitomize glamour, love and dance.
Perhaps the high of highs is the “Waltz in Swing Time,” filmed in one take. Astaire is in black tie, Rogers in full-length white. This dance is a novelty number, like several others in their films (“The Carioca,” “The Continental,” “The Piccolino,” the tap dance on roller skates, “The Yam”) and probably the most miraculous in terms of pure dance. They’re moving fast and percussively, yet the impression is of an unbroken slow-traveling legato flow. They’re combining swing and waltz rhythms (it feels like riding two horses at once), yet the impression isn’t of rhythmic virtuosity so much as of impulsive rapture.
It’s my impression that Astaire and Rogers have become even more classic than ever. Now that ballroom dance has been repopularized by “So You Think You Can Dance,” the Astaire-Rogers image is often invoked. (“Burn the Floor,” the skillfully repellent stage musical currently on Broadway, which features 16 stars of “So You Think,” has an episode in which one couple and then another appear dressed as Astaire and Rogers, with the music quoting their “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number from the 1936 “Follow the Fleet.”)
Only in the 1960s did the Astaire-Rogers duets first receive serious critical attention as great choreography. In 1965 Arlene Croce, who until then had been best known as a film critic, founded Ballet Review magazine (which flourishes still), and one of her two remarkable contributions to the first issue was the essay “Notes on La Belle, La Perfectly Swell, Romance.” (It was republished in 2008 in Robert Gottlieb’s “Reading Dance” anthology.)
In 1972 Ms. Croce followed this with one of the best-loved works in dance literature, “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book.” In prose that perfectly rises to the thrill of these classics, she herself produced a classic. It has been quoted and cited in innumerable books on Astaire and Rogers, on Astaire, on film musicals and on romantic comedy. It’s out of print now, but since it has been reissued in the past, it’s fair to hope it will be reissued again.
In the 1960s and ’70s you had to wait for Astaire-Rogers movies on television or in revival houses. In the case of “Roberta” (1935) you often had to wait years. Ms. Croce rightly calls this “their most ebullient film.” But MGM (which remade it in 1952 as “Lovely to Look At”) tried to bury it for decades. Now you can get a DVD boxed set of all 10 Astaire-Rogers movies and watch “Roberta” to your heart’s content. The “Swing Time” DVD can be watched with a commentary by John Mueller, whose 440-page study “Astaire Dancing” (1986) is as indispensable to Astaire studies as Ms. Croce’s book.
Ms. Croce’s taste and eminently quotable prose and Mr. Mueller’s detailed analysis hang over two recent books, Hannah Hyam’s “Fred & Ginger” (Pen Press Publishers) and Joseph Epstein’s “Fred Astaire” (Yale University Press). These are, however, diametrically opposite writers. Mr. Epstein casually remarks, “I cannot remember whether I’ve watched ‘Top Hat’ five or six times, but I continue to find new little things in it,” whereas Ms. Hyam, no less casually, says about the “Waltz in Swing Time” that “it is necessary to watch it at least a dozen times before we can even begin to grasp the wealth of detail in which it abounds.”
I don’t need to read 191 pages on Astaire by someone who has watched “Top Hat” only six times at most (“dull as the script is,” Mr. Epstein writes of it) and relies heavily on references and quotations from the writing of others. At one point Mr. Epstein tells us that “Astaire probably overrehearsed,” at another why he needed to rehearse so much.
After quoting from Edwin Denby, Ms. Croce, Mr. Mueller and Charles (Honi) Coles, he gives us this aperçu of his own about “Top Hat”: “You have this pretty girl and this far from handsome yet smoothly attractive guy, and the two of them join together to dance like nobody else, before or since, and some terrific music is playing much of the time, so what the hell, but wouldn’t it be great if life had more such moments: glamorous, romantic, elegant, yes, and uncomplicatedly happy.” By the way, “Top Hat” seems to be the Astaire film Mr. Epstein has watched the most.
Ms. Hyam, by contrast, is an Astaire-Rogers nerd. She has little sense of context outside their movies, she scarcely attends to the music, and too much of her writing consists of plodding exposition. Some of the best points occur in the notes at the back. (In the main text she finds the script for “Top Hat” to be “clever, witty.” You have to turn to the notes to see how she points to the symmetry with which Astaire says, “If I ever forgot myself with that girl, I’d like to remember it,” and Rogers, 20 minutes later, says, “I’ll make him remember me in a manner he’ll never forget.”)
But her book is as knowledgeable as it is loving. When she disagrees, seldom, with Ms. Croce (in “Top Hat,” for example, she finds Ms. Croce misses the point of the “several dreamy backbends” — Ms. Croce’s phrase — in “Cheek to Cheek”), she makes you see why. (This spectacular duet probably isn’t as moving as it should be, not, I think, because of the choreography but simply because this is their least spontaneous performance. Its filming was notoriously complicated by the way Rogers’s stunning dress kept shedding feathers all over the set; even after revisions and multiple takes, a few feathers are still falling on screen.)
As Ms. Hyam proceeds, she makes points that send you back to watch the films again. Of the “Waltz in Swing Time” she quotes both Ms. Croce and Mr. Mueller to good effect before adding, “One astonishing sequence among the so many: when Rogers, facing Astaire, joyfully curves her body for him to vault over it, twice, and a third time presents her slightly inclined back for him to repeat this most intimate maneuver — just before they both rush headlong, in each other’s arms, into the final stage of the dance.” When you check it out, you find that you love the number even more as a result.
Neither book refers to another classic, James Harvey’s “Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges,” which perceptively sets Astaire and Rogers in full film context and gives us much more to see and consider. And neither reflects on the baroque intricacy of the numerous shows within films and dramas within dramas with which these movies abound.
The sense that Fred and Ginger keep playing roles (roles within their roles) ought to make them in these films more artificial, more tongue in cheek; but instead it gives them — and the different aspects of love they express — depth and complexity. Often when they’re doing a dance scene that (the plot tells us) they have rehearsed and that they are performing for an audience (which applauds) they turn out to be at their most spontaneous and piercing, and their love seems at its most real. Ms. Hyam is right: We need to keep returning to these movies. Hilarious and entrancing as they often are, they endlessly repay close study.