It's just possible that the movies offer no more sublime pleasure than watching Fred Astaire dance. Astaire was more than just the screen's premier song and dance man and the most distinctive light comedian of his era -- an era that spanned more than four decades. In his dancing, Astaire made music corporeal: He was its medium, its physical expression -- music, in the flesh. Watching Astaire is one of the main reasons why people have fallen in love with the movies. And, luckily, a good number of his best are out on video.
1935, B&W, 97 minutes, The Nostalgia Merchant, $19.95.
Astaire carried dancing on the screen into the realm of the magical, and in 10 films his magician's assistant was Ginger Rogers. In 1935 and '36, Astaire and Rogers made three films in succession, "Top Hat," "Follow the Fleet" and "Swing Time," which represent the pinnacle of the most divinely sustained romantic collaboration in the history of the movies. In "Top Hat," directed by Mark Sandrich with music by Irving Berlin, the white-telephone style of continental chic that their films embodied is in full, satiny flower. The movie is dazzlingly rich looking -- a dream vision of '30s swank and elegance. The numbers, especially "No Strings," in which Fred sand-dances Ginger back to sleep from the floor above after awakening her, his steps creating a lullaby rhythm, and "Isn't It a Lovely Day," one of the most sweetly seductive rain dances ever filmed, create an exalted lovers' vocabulary. And "Cheek to Cheek," with Ginger resplendent in her white-feathered gown, is the film's definitive romantic statement -- its parting, heavenly kiss.
FOLLOW THE FLEET
1936, B&W, 110 minutes, The Nostalgia Merchant, $19.95.
The most gum-smacking American of the Astaire-Rogers series, "Follow the Fleet" seems saltier, more down-to-earth than its predecessor, but the dancing is just as inspired. Fred plays a sailor (dressed in the nattiest of sailor suits) and Ginger his old partner and girlfriend, who try to help their friend Connie (Harriet Hilliard, of "Ozzie and Harriet") hook Fred's shipmate Bilge (Randolph Scott). The plot, as director Mark Sandrich presents it, is serviceable at best -- the Scott-Hilliard subplot is especially creaky -- and the musical numbers aren't as well integrated, but Irving Berlin's music is breezy and energetic, and the dances, among them "Let Yourself Go," "I'd Rather Lead the Band" and the best of the comic duets, "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," are classics (they were choreographed, as were all the dances in the series, by Hermes Pan). The last number, "Let's Face the Music and Dance," is the moodiest, most radiantly concentrated of their romantic duets -- a distillation of stardust and melancholy.
1936, B&W, 105 minutes, The Nostalgia Merchant, $19.95.
Arguably the best movie of the Astaire-Rogers series, "Swing Time" is the most consistently entertaining, most imaginatively plotted of their films. Directed by George Stevens, the movie works almost as commentary on their films in general, with the cat-and-mouse lovers' games thrown into high relief, culminating in "Never Gonna Dance," with Fred's announcement that, if he can't dance with Ginger, he'll never dance again. The idea of dancing as a metaphor has never been more vividly, or exquisitely, expressed than it is in this routine and others, particularly "Pick Yourself Up," "Waltz in Springtime" and even the nondance numbers, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "A Fine Romance." These songs, by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, epitomize their appeal -- they gave dance the ecstatic charge of sex.
1948, 103 minutes, RCA, $29.95.
Astaire and Judy Garland worked together on screen only once, and the results were just as you might imagine. As partners, they didn't have the romantic chemistry that Fred had with Ginger, but they shared something else: a kind of old trouper's respect for the other's genius. Irving Berlin wrote the music, which you'd be hard pressed to top, especially "It Only Happens When I Dance With You," "Steppin' Out With My Baby" (with Fred in slow motion) and the title song. The movie's high point, "Walking Up the Avenue," done in vagabond rags, is one of Astaire's best -- and Garland's. They bring out the ham in each other, and glorious pork it is too.
THE BAND WAGON
1953, 111 minutes, RCA, $29.95.
Arguably one of the two or three best musical films ever made, and, along with "Singin' in the Rain," the wittiest and most sophisticated of the '50s Technicolor musicals. Vincente Minnelli directed this satire of theatrical egotists, written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, in a splashy, mock-garish style that's a sendup of Broadway vulgarity and, at the same time, rather beautiful. Of all of Astaire's partners, Cyd Charisse may have been the best dancer. And, unlike Rita Hayworth, she managed to come across as sexy without making Astaire seem bloodless and wimpy. Their "Dancing in the Dark" duet in Central Park, where the characters discover whether a classical ballerina and an old hoofer can dance together, seems to have been danced all in one loose, spontaneous motion. And their final "Girl Hunt" sequence is a torrid piece of movie dancing (it's the closest Astaire has ever come to conveying sex onscreen.) The movie is full of great songs, provided by Howard Deitz and Arthur Schwartz, including "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plans" and the "Triplets" number, which Astaire performs with Nanette Fabray and Jack Buchanan. Singing "By Myself," Astaire expresses some of the aloofness and exclusivity -- his sense of himself as one of a kind -- that was always a part of his persona. And a rare thing he was -- a breed of one.
Other recommended Astaire films on video: Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Shall We Dance, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Holiday Inn, You Were Never Lovelier, Funny Face, Silk Stockings.