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Gotta Sing! : Fred Astaire movies make a complete songbook of composers’ classics

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Say Fred Astaire and, of course, you think dancing. But there was more to Mr. A than graceful, fancy footwork.

A new segment of PBS’ “Great Performances” highlights the magical vocal moments of Astaire’s 60-year career.

Hosted by his “Funny Face” co-star Audrey Hepburn, “The Fred Astaire Songbook” features film clips of Astaire performing standards by such legendary composers as Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Singers Liza Minnelli and Melissa Manchester, composer Burton Lane, bandleader Peter Duchin, the late choreographer Hermes Pan and film critic Richard Schickel offer comments on the technique and style of Astaire’s singing.

If the special whets your appetite, you just might find Astaire singing at your local video store.

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In the late 1920s, Astaire and his sister Adele starred on Broadway in the George and Ira Gershwin musical Funny Face. Nearly 30 years later, Astaire starred in the exquisite 1957 film version ($14.98, Paramount Home Video) with Hepburn.

In the movie, directed with style and panache by Stanley Donen in Paris, Astaire plays a sophisticated fashion photographer who spots a mousy young woman (Hepburn) working in a funky New York bookstore and turns her into a high-fashion model.

The engaging Kay Thompson also is on hand as Astaire’s boss.

The Gershwin score includes such classics as “Funny Face,” “How Long Has This Been Going On,” “He Loves and She Loves” and “S’Wonderful.”

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Astaire first sang Gerswhin on screen in 1937’s Shall We Dance ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video), one of the last Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals for RKO.

In this witty comedy, Astaire plays an American ballet dancer, pretending to be Russian, who falls in love with an American musical-comedy performer. Of course, she finds him obnoxious and a snob.

Along their bumpy road to romance, Astaire performs “Slap That Bass,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Shall We Dance.”

Damsel in Distress ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video).

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“Damsel” is a breezy bauble, directed by George Stevens. Astaire plays an American visiting London who woos an English heiress (a wan, unmusical Joan Fontaine). George Burns and Gracie Allen are around for comic support as Astaire’s friends.

The Gershwin score includes “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “A Foggy Day in London Town.”

Another entertaining but little-known Astaire film is 1943’s The Sky’s the Limit ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video), in which he plays a World War II pilot on leave in New York who falls for a pretty young photographer (Joan Leslie). Astaire performs the great Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen songs “My Shining Hour” and “One for My Baby.”

Astaire also appeared in several films featuring great Irving Berlin tunes, including Holiday Inn ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video); Easter Parade ($19.95, MGM/UA Home Video) and Follow the Fleet ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video).

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The best of the Berlin lot, though, is 1935’s Top Hat ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video).

Astaire and Rogers headline this magical musical about mistaken identity and love. Astaire gets a chance to warble “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” and “Cheek to Cheek.”

Be sure to look for the newly restored version of “Top Hat,” which includes more than 10 minutes of footage originally cut when “Top Hat” first came on television in the 1950s.

Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields composed the Oscar-winning score to 1936’s Astaire-Rodgers musical Swing Time ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video). Many critics and fans consider this one of the team’s best.

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The plot is simple and sweet: Astaire is a down-on-his-luck dancer and gambler who falls for dancer Rogers. The only problem is he’s engaged to a wealthy young woman (Betty Furness).

The score contains such standards as “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up” and the Oscar-winning tune “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Astaire croons to Rogers.

The dance numbers also are outstanding, including the lovely “Waltz in Swing Time,” which took more than 30 takes for the two to get perfect, and Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem.” And let’s not forget composer Cole Porter, who supplied the songs for such Astaire films as Gay Divorcee ($19.95, RKO Pictures Home Video); Broadway Melody of 1940 ($29.95, MGM/UA Home); and You’ll Never Get Rich ($29.95, RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video).

In 1957, Astaire starred in the film version of Porter’s last Broadway hit Silk Stockings ($29.95, MGM/UA Home Video), a musical version of the classic 1939 Greta Garbo film “Ninotchka.”

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Astaire plays a movie producer in Paris who warms up a beautiful but cool Russian (Cyd Charisse), on a mission in Gay Paree. ‘Silk Stockings” is not vintage Porter, but Astaire does sing one of the composer’s loveliest songs, “All Of You.”

“Great Performances’s” “The Fred Astaire Songbook” airs Friday at 8 p.m. on KOCE and at 9 p.m. on KCET and March 17 at 8 p.m. on KVCR.


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