NATIONAL INFERIORITY complexes die hard, especially when cultivated by the intelligentsia. Among its other salutary effects, the career of Fred Astaire has surely dealt a blithely devastating blow to the notion that Americans are obliged to look to Europeans for suitable models of personal style, polish and class. It ought to be an enduring source of national pride that the most ingratiating, classy presence imprinted on the most popular art form of the century -- a vision of elegance whether standing, sitting, walking, reclining or loping but best of all in the act of singing and dancing -- was achieved by a slight, diffident, funny-looking yet supremely graceful native son of Omaha, Neb.
To mention a few of the songs: "Night and Day," "They All Laughed," "A Fine Romance," "A Foggy Day," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," "One for My Baby," "Puttin on the Ritz."
To mention a few of the dances: Astaire breaking down Ginger Rogers' resistance during the "Isn't This a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain" downpour in "Top Hat" and then twirling her in her feathery evening gown through "Cheek to Cheek"; Astaire and Rogers winning the dance contest in "Follow the Fleet""; Astaire and Rogers on roller skates in "Shall We Dance"; Astaire tapping up a fireworks display in "Holiday Inn" and dancing with three silhouettes of himself in "Swing Time" and dancing in slow motion against a chorus line in normal motion in "Easter Parade" and joining Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan as the hostile infants in the hilarious "Triplets" number from "The Band Wagon."
One tends to forget that Astaire's remarkable rhythmic spontaneity and finesse also made him as exceptional clown. In "Follow the Fleet," for example, he does a syncopated bit of typewriting that can set little kids off on a prolonged giggling jag. Facially, Astaire bears a striking resemblance to Stan Laurel, but when he first emerged as a star, he was often compared in awe and affection to Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, the best loved movie characters of the silent and early sound periods, respectively.
Astaire will be a month shy of his 82nd birthday when the American Film Institute honors him with its ninth annual Life Achievement Award on Friday, April 10, at a gala banquet in the Beverly Hilton. The ceremony will be taped by CBS for telecasting at a still undetermined date.
The AFI Theater is anticipating the celebration with a series of 19 movies, including all the Astaire-Rogers vehicles. The series climaxes the weekend of April 3-5 with three performances of "Top Hat" and "The Band Wagon," a heavenly double bill showing Astaire at the contrasting peaks of his movie career -- with Rogers at RKO in 1935 and showcased by producer Arthur Freed and director Vincente Minnelli at MGM in 1953.
Astaire's significant period as a movie star is the quarter-century from 1933 to 1957. During those years he appeared in 30 musicals, at least half of them already cherished as classic Hollywood entertainments. The other half is sometimes lightly, sometimes heavily seasoned with classic individual numbers it might be preferable to see excerpted and anthologized, a service the producers of the AFI ceremony may be thoughful enough to provide, at least in part.
The AFI Theater series is slightly marred by four significant omissions -- "Easter Parade," "Funny Face," "Holiday Inn" and "Royal Wedding." The first two were dropped because they were recently shown as part of other retrospectives. Some excuse. The latter pair was either overlooked or considered expendable, although "Holiday Inn," a huge co-starring hit for Bing Crosby and Astaire in 1942, would seem a more important period piece than the obscure "Second Chorus" with Paulette Goddard. The badly neglected "Royal Wedding," the first solo directing credit for Stanley Donen, contains two of Astaire's most astonishing solos -- a pas de deux with a coat rack and his gravity-defying dance up the walls and across the ceiling of a hotel room.
The term "life achievement" applies with unusual aptness to Astaire's show business career. Although his movie appearances have dwindled down to occasional character roles over the past two decades, Astaire remains active after 75 years as a professional entertainer, interrupted at intervals by four or five temporary retirements. Astaire will attend the AFI gala fresh from the location of "Ghost Story," a movie version of the Peter Straub occult thriller.
Astaire's career began officially in December of 1905 when he and his sister Adele, 18 months older, made their professional debut at a vaudeville house in Keyport, N.J. One of the more informative passages in Astaire's almost resolutely superficial, colorless autobiography, "Steps in Time," published in 1959, is his description of the patently adorable act that sent them on their way to eventual adoration in New York and London as the most charming musical comedy team of the '20s.
They performed on prop wedding cakes, which Astaire recalled as "remarkable electrical and mechanical contrivances, about six feet in diameter and two feet high. They could be danced on and were equipped with musical bells which could be played with hands and feet. Electric lights were built into the structure so that at the proper moment they flashed on and off.
"The purpose . . . was to provide a background for a novelty miniature bride-and-groom number. Adele being thhe bride and I the groom. The costumes were fancy. Adele was in white satin and I was in full evening dress -- black satin knickerbockers, white tie and tails. And naturally -- a top hat. There it was. The evil idea was planted way back there . . .
"Our act was crazy." We not only danced on the cakes but up and down the musical stairs leading to them, while playing 'Dreamland Waltz' with our toes. After that speciality the cakes lit up, we made an exit, and Adele returned for a solo. Then I appeared in my solo, a buck and wing on my toes, bowed off in a hurry, and returned as a lobster. Adele, meanwhile, made a quick change and became a glass of champagne. In these costumes we did an eccentric dance duet, then played more tunes on the musical cakes with our hands and feet."
Although it couldn't have seemed so at the time, Astaire made his transition from stage to screen at a fortunate moment both for him and the movie musical. The worst technological problems caused by the transition from silence to sound had been solved, paving the way for the proper exploitation of a song-and-dance man with a uniquely agile, fluid style. In addition, Astaire arrived just in time to assert the primary of dancing stars. a
As Arlene Croce observes sardonically in her splendid critical appreciation. "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book," the new musical spectacles directed by Busby Berkeley were full of ingenious devices for eliminating professional dangers. ("Gold Diggers of 1933" and "42nd Street" had revived the musical in mid-1933. "Flying Down to Rio" was the Christmas 1931 sensation at the new Radio City Music Hall. Curiously, Ginger Rogers was instrumental to the success of all three.)
But, as Croce points out, the advent of sound made it possible for "an assortment of aging, balding, skinny, tubby, jug-eared, pug-faced and generally unprepossessing men" to become singing and/or dancing stars: Astaire, Chevalier, Crosby, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, et al. The problem was that Astaire hadn't established himself as a romantic leading man. The serendipitous teaming with Ginger Rogers in "Flying Down to Rio," his tentative first feature at RKO, sandwiched between the Broadway and London runs of "The Gay Divorce," brought him that needed romantic appeal at once -- to his great surprise. Katharine Hepburn summed up their chemistry in a famous remark at the time: "She gave him sex and he gave her class." Croce refines this astute observations as follows: "In Ginger Rogers, Astaire met a kind of genial resistance. She brought out his toughness and also his true masculine gallantry, and so a new partnership was born and a career was saved."
The credit for this partnership, which often encountered considerable resistance from the partners themselves during six gloriously productive years, seem to belong to several key figures at RKO. It appears that David O. Selznick authorized the signing of Astaire after a confidential screen test in January of 1933. Selznick remained keen on Astaire "in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line" because "his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even in this wretched test." At any rate, Astaire had been signed by the time Selznick left RKO for MGM at the end of February. Two of Selznick's closest associates. Merian C. Cooper and John Hay ("Jock") Whitney, were also partial to Astaire. Whitney, in fact, had been one of the angels on "The Band Wagon." Cooper succeeded Sleznick at RKO.
Rogers recalled the association as "a divine blessing" in an interview in the late '60s, adding that "I don't think blessings are one-sided." In their case the blessing has, of course, been projected onto millions of moviegoers and will survive as long as motion picture reproduction and projection systems remain in working order. Astaire and Rogers perfected a romantic illusion that becomes more satisfying and precious as time goes by.
Pauline Kael once summed it up by evoking a recurrent image from their films: "When Fred Astaire sang a bit of verse to Ginger and then reached out his hand and whirled her into the dance, that dance and their whole series of dances together were the most exquisite courtship rites the screen has ever known."