Monday, November 10, 2008

The Man for All Musicals

Generally speaking I'm not a fan of stage musicals, or their movie versions. The music of some of the old and much loved composers just makes me cringe, and I can't stand the excess and mostly phony sentimentality of the stories. The technical bombast and bizarre themes as well as the music of many newer musical don't thrill me either. As a reviewer, I try to avoid the ones I know I loathe, when I can. Why burden readers and be preemptively unfair to the production by clouding things with my own bad mood?

Yet there are some movie musicals I greatly admire, and musical movies that are among my absolute favorite films to watch repeatedly. I love the Beatles movies, and I'm an absolute sucker for The Glenn Miller Story. I caught it on TCM the other night and fell for it again--as phony a biography as it is. The previous night I caught the last half of The Gay Divorcee, one of the first Astaire-Rogers movies. Fred Astaire movie musicals are my Great Exceptions. They always provide delight, and at times they've been enthralling.

Joseph Epstein's new book on Fred Astaire (Yale University Press) suggests why it's possible for me to admire the Astaire musicals so much, while remaining unmoved by most other musicals. It's because these movies are together a singular phenomenon, in that they brought together talents that were each exceptional. "Nobody has ever been able to explain the clustering of talent that shows up at certain points in history," Epstein writes, but it happened with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, especially because of the composers who wrote especially for them (or really, for him): Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and Jerome Kern. Together they did some of their best work. The list of classic songs that Astaire introduced is astonishingly long--"Night and Day," "The Way You Look Tonight," "They All Laughed," "Top Hat," "Let's Face the Music and Dance," etc as well as lesser songs that are still brilliant, like "I'd Rather Lead a Band." And then it was over--"bang!, pretty much vanishing forever."

Clustering is one thing, synergy is another. Porter and the Gershwins in particular recognized that Astaire's voice and singing style were perfect for their songs, and they wrote--wrote better, in fact--with that in mind. There were other fruitful coincidences: movie technology was finally up to the task of creating sparkling worlds of song and dance; Astaire and Rogers, whatever their difficulties, were a perfect screen pair, and in their best movies, they were surrounded by great comic role players, like Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore.

Much has already been written about the particular magic of Fred Astaire. Epstein calls it his charm, which he defines as "elegance made casual." The challenge for each film was to sustain and spread that charm to the entire movie--the scripts, cinematography, sets and performances--for its entire length. There were several near-total successes--Top Hat being the closest to perfection-- but Astaire's charm and his dancing could overcome weaker elements, even weak songs, to a greater or lesser extent. Some of his signature dances occur in lesser films, mostly without Rogers. While Epstein gives short shrift to these, I happen to like The Sky's the Limit, Blue Skies, etc.

But such is the delicate balance of this magic that it's hard to pin down exactly what went wrong in some of the films that failed even for me, such as the two Astaire did with the actress he considered his best dance partner, Rita Hayworth. Epstein is not much help here. In fact, this book seemed generally badly written to me, and sloppily edited. I prefer the earlier Astaire and Rogers by Edward Gallafent (Columbia University Press), which is more complete, more factual and less interpretive, with lots more evocative photos.

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