Some things are indelible in our culture--and for more than half a century now, the image of Fred Astaire putting on his top hat, tying up his white tie and dancing in his tails has represented an archetype of breezy American elegance and savoir-faire.
In a film dancing career that embraced every pop form from the Carioca (1933) to the Ritz Roll and sock (1957), that found him complementing every kind of partner from Rita Hayworth to Bing Crosby, that synchronized his movement with fireworks, with a revolving hotel room and with multiple refractions of himself, Astaire never managed to escape or even modify the character he defined in the mid-'30s. All the changes of pace--and of partners--all the exceptions to the rule only made his identification with Ginger Rogers, Irving Berlin and a white never-never-land Venice all the more potent.
More than once, Astaire--who died Monday at the age of 88--tried to destroy the image himself. “I must admit that I don’t like top hats, white ties and tails,” he wrote in his 1959 autobiography, “Steps in Time.”
“I am always arriving at dinner parties not wearing a dinner jacket when I should, or vice versa.
“Also, invariably, I don’t know how to get there or what time to arrive. Things are always spilling on the tablecloth in front of me. Not always my fault, but nevertheless there it is. Take beet sauce or beet salad. I have had some devastating experiences with beets.
“The carefree, the best-dressed, the debonair Astaire! What a myth!”
Astaire’s book is full of stories that undercut his achievements--stories about being hit with Ginger’s sleeve or swamped in Ginger’s feathers--but the great Astaire-Rogers duets (choreographed by Astaire, usually with the assistance of Hermes Pan) cannot be diminished by anecdotes. Like Astaire in formal wear, they redefined American style and class with a new spontaneity and verve. Moreover, they expanded the expressive possibilities of exhibition ballroom dancing into contexts that had formerly belonged to the ballet adagio.
A duet like “Never Gonna Dance” from “Swing Time” (1936) is not merely a display of dancing ability, though one shot alone reportedly took 40 takes before Astaire was satisfied. It conveys the conflicts of the characters, summarizes their relationship through quotations from previous sequences and deepens the silly backstage-romance storyline into a timeless statement about lost love. The steps are drawn from the vernacular, but the number itself is unsurpassed as an example of the artistic possibilities of dance for camera within a conventional narrative.
Astaire has always been generally regarded as a tap dancer, but in “Follow the Fleet” (1936), you can see his extraordinary range: an intricate, inventive rhythm-tap solo (“I’d Rather Lead a Band”) matched by an explosive pop-dance competition involving Rogers and two other couples (“Let Yourself Go”) followed by an eccentric Astaire-Rogers comedy duet full of showbiz shtick (“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket”) and the sublime, daringly stylized dance-drama “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” with its impossible glamour and its weighty sense of Depression-era doom.
It’s easy to get fixated on the accomplishments of the classic Astaire-Rogers films and ignore all that came later in Astaire’s career. Fact is, in any era, he worked at the top of his and his medium’s capacities. Right now, in this period of home video, more of his work is available all at once than at any time before. Happy the man or woman who can replay “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” “One for My Baby” or “A Shine on Your Shoes” at will. Happy the nation that will never lose its vision of him stepping out with his baby and dancing cheek to cheek . Of course, Astaire never liked watching his old movies. “It’s rather appalling to me to think that they may still be running a hundred years from now,” he wrote.
Perhaps, but for some of us, it’s a comfort and a blessing to look forward to many, many more evenings of watching Astaire dance and to marvel at how at least once in history dancing has gained a victory over time.