Watching Astaire and Rogers films again, especially the classic trio of Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937), leaves all kinds of old impressions intact. The air is light, the stars are perfectly matched in their plot-driven attempts not to get along with each other except when they’re dancing. Rogers needs to be sulky a lot of the time, but that makes her smile, when it appears, a sort of secret she herself is surprised to have. Astaire is incessantly perky, always ready with the next trick or fiction. He doesn’t find this job hard – he doesn’t find anything hard – but it is clearly a job, which slightly changes the meaning of the perkiness. The supporting actors are as impeccably over the top as ever: Eric Blore as the simpering, snobbish English servant or manager; Helen Broderick as the friend who has seen it all before, several times; Edward Everett Horton as the dopey impresario whose every take is a double-take. Horton is missing from Swing Time, soon to be released in a newly restored version by the Criterion Collection, but everyone and everything else is there.
Still, I now see all kinds of details I hadn’t seen before, or hadn’t stopped to think about. There is the careful, non-intrusive touch of the directors (Mark Sandrich for Top Hat and Shall We Dance and George Stevens for Swing Time); and there are the differences among Irving Berlin (Top Hat), Jerome Kern (Swing Time) and George Gershwin (Shall We Dance) as composers. There is some amazing dialogue (in this case by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano – Allan Scott is credited on all three movies): ‘What are the grounds for divorce in New Jersey?’ ‘Marriage’; ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know you well enough to tell you the truth.’
We have known since the appearance of Arlene Croce’s marvellous Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972) that ‘dancing is often the only real, the only serious business’ in these movies, but we may not have remembered how much and how variously they are about dancing. In Shall We Dance a Russian star of classical ballet played by Fred Astaire wants to tap like Fred Astaire, although his manager thinks this slip into popular nonsense may wreck his career. The character isn’t Russian, his actual name is Pete Peters, and he rather apologetically says the urge to tap is ‘just the Philadelphia in me’. In Swing Time Ginger Rogers sarcastically calls tap dancing ‘sap dancing’. In Top Hat, Astaire dances compulsively and keeps awake the woman downstairs, who is Ginger Rogers. When she complains, he pretends – but is he pretending? – that dancing is an affliction and that he needs her care. A little later he spreads sand on the floor so that he can still dance and not interrupt her sleep. ‘I’ve appointed myself her official sandman,’ he says, and by the end of the performance he himself is dropping off, the music sags and he falls into a chair. Later in the film, a dance number includes the mock execution of a whole male chorus, lined up for the one-man firing squad formed by Astaire, his snapping feet and his rifle-imitating cane.
The most elaborate thematising of dance occurs in Swing Time, starting with its title, taken from a central number that is a ‘waltz in swing time’, an unlikely but convincing combination of tradition and trend. The tones run improbably from slapstick to the melodrama of almost mangled fate. Penniless in New York, Astaire meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), who is a dancing teacher. The joke about the pennies anticipates the lyric of the film’s last number. Himself a professional dancer trying to become a businessman, Astaire pretends to need a lesson, and overdoes his impersonation of ineptness, falling on the floor several times, the last time bringing her down too. After the first slip she sings the great song ‘Pick Yourself Up’ to encourage him; after the last she says he’s hopeless, and her manager (Blore) fires her for breaking the dance studio’s code: never turn a client away. This is the film’s second ironic reference to capitalism as a model for behaviour. Right at the start, Astaire was supposed to be getting married. His fiancée’s father disapproved fiercely of her alliance with a dancer, but when Astaire announced he was giving up dancing and going to make a lot of money (by gambling, although he didn’t say that, just made the Freudian slip of calling stocks stakes), the angry father turned into a grovelling fan. Making money, he said, ‘shows character’. Later in the film, when Rogers isn’t talking to Astaire, he and a friend picket her room, and there is discussion of comrades and arbitration – the other side of the 1930s. Swing Time is not a political film but it knows that dancing isn’t exempt from politics, and a great deal of the plot hinges on who owns the band and the band leader, and therefore can choose who dances.
This question comes up because Astaire, having lost Rogers her job, gets it back for her by showing how much he has learned in such a short time, conscripting her for a dazzling tap number full of leaps and twirls. Blore isn’t taken in, but sees the opportunity and gets them a gig at a nightclub, where the band, initially, will not play on: the leader fancies Rogers and doesn’t want to give a rival an opportunity. Astaire then wins the ownership of the band in a gambling scene. Perhaps the once irate father wouldn’t have minded: gambling shows character too, when you’re winning.
By the end of the film, the rather awkward plot has sorted itself out. Astaire loves Rogers but can’t bring himself to break his promise to his fiancée. Rogers doesn’t know anything about the fiancée and wonders why Astaire is so erratically hot and cold – hence the wonderful song ‘A Fine Romance’, sung in the snow. Finally, it turns out that the neglected fiancée loves someone else, and Astaire is off the hook. ‘Gee, that’s swell,’ he says, remembering only a moment later to feign regret.
Earlier, he had said goodbye to Rogers in the number with pennies (‘I’m left without a penny/I’m left without my Penny’), thinking he has to abandon both her and their dancing for the different footing of marriage. Before the number starts, Rogers asks him if the girl he loves dances beautifully. He says yes. She says she means the girl he’s going to marry. He says he doesn’t know and anyway he isn’t going to dance again. He does dance with Rogers this one time, but the great sequence doesn’t bring them together for anything more than a magnificent reprise of the tunes and movements of the movie, and she leaves him bent over in stylised anguish. What ‘Never Gonna Dance’ means by the end of the number is ‘If I can’t dance I’m nobody, and I don’t want to dance with anyone but Penny.’ The fancy faux-French of the lyric (‘La belle/La perfectly swell romance’) shouldn’t mislead us. This happy end nearly didn’t happen.
There are fantastic songs in all of these movies, and many of them have had long lives in other repertoires. The film most crowded with riches, rather undersold as George and Ira Gershwin thought at one time, is Shall We Dance (‘They All Laughed’, ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’, ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’), and both Berlin and Kern generally offer easier lyrical rides, letting the swell romance have its say without too much ironic counterpoint. This isn’t true of ‘Never Gonna Dance’, though, which is beautiful but close to a musically managed torture; and the key song in Swing Time, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’, memorably dedicated to Rogers as she is washing her hair, runs through the film as a sort of pre-emptive memory, telling us what will last if nothing else does, and has a curious sense of low pressure about it, makes no demands. It’s not ironic or funny, but it is a comment on the grasping modes of ownership that keep cropping up in the film. This may be part of the reason why Croce wants to call this work ‘the true miracle film of the series’.