Adele and Fred Astaire, circa 1921. An echo of what was to come with Fred and Ginger in their great film dance numbers, such as “Night and Day,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Never Gonna Dance,” the dramatic set-pieces that were the highlights of “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), “Follow the Fleet” (1936), and “Swing Time” (1936).
An interesting new book, “The Astaires: Fred and Adele,” by Kathleen Riley, is reviewed by Ethan Mordden in the Wall Street Journal (and WSJ Online), March 3, 2012. The next four paragraphs that follow are my comments posted on WSJ Online in response to the review, comments that I’ve slightly modified here.
The review describes the Astaires as “anti-modernist” in the 1920s, at a time in which art in general was “in despair,” and the Astaires’ “‘defiant New World optimism’ proved a remedy.” While I don’t disagree with these points, I don’t think they offer an adequate rationale for why, as the reviewer concludes, live theater in general and musical theater in particular declined to the point of — and these are my words: unfortunate irrelevance decades before the beginning of the 21st century.
Even more than nihilism in the arts or realism on the stage, the Broadway musical (and the stage in general) as it existed in the twenties and early thirties was essentially destroyed by the one-two punch of sound motion pictures and television. The kind of “self-generating” talents described in Mr.Mordden’s review were discouraged, then made virtually extinct, by the stultifying uniformity of the industrial production practices of the American film factories, better known as “Hollywood.”
Fred Astaire’s first film (Adele retired in 1931, never appearing in movies), was “Dancing Lady” for MGM in 1933, in which he essentially played a dancing prop for, of all people, Joan Crawford (who I love, but who was paired opposite Clark Gable in musical?). It wasn’t so much a backstage musical as an unintentional parody of a Broadway backstage musical. Although Hollywood, particularly RKO in the 1930s and MGM in the 1940s, would eventually develop some pretty decent models for the film musical, those models died or were retired along with the “original” talent of the Astaires, Garland, Kelly, Gershwins, Berlin, Kern, Rogers, Hart, and so on, with the final blow being the beginning of the era of dominance by home entertainment through the medium of television in the 1950s.
But it may not all be grim news. The digital age, with the internet seeming to be a level playing field allowing artists to bypass the central control of the industrial entertainment complex, already provides the opportunity for a renewed form of “self-generating” talent to express itself.
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The book is The Astaires: Fred and Adele, by Kathleen Riley, (Oxford University Press, 3/1/2012, 241 pages, $27.95, hardcover, Barnes & Noble lists it for $17.88, with “free express shipping for members,” and as an e-book for NOOK, at $12.08; Amazon lists the hardcover at $18.07 with “Free Supersaver Shipping,” and Kindle edition for $9.99; I’m sure there are other bargains out there as well.)
I don’t normally flog new books, or even recommend ones I haven’t completed reading. I also devote virtually no space in these essays to subjects that have been as well covered as say, Fred Astaire. But Adele Astaire and Fred Astaire together were among the most important figures in the popular performing arts of the 1920s and, like many stage stars of the era, they stood poised at what neither they nor the public quite realized at the time was “the Great Divide” in the history of popular culture in America, and the world for that matter. With sound motion pictures, technology completed its conquest of the popular arts that had begun with mechanical recording of sound, then motion pictures.
The Astaires — as a team — would not make the transition. Adele married royalty and retired. Hollywood was, initially, flummoxed by Fred. But beginning with Flying Down to Rio (RKO, 1933), and continuing through his entire career in motion pictures, Astaire created a new form of dance not just recorded on film, but integrated into film. But that’s an entire subject for another day. I’ll leave it at this: nearly a hundred years have passed since the Astaires first came into the public consciousness and this is the first detailed examination of their work together. That alone makes the book worth publicizing to the extent I do so here.
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Silent film aficionados to this day mourn the destruction of the shadow play by the tyranny of technology, i.e. sound, and the loss of the many stars of the apex of silent film, and the perception that they were dumped in favor of a hoard of stage players experienced in delivering dialog for relatively few dollars. But Broadway — and live theater in general — was the other, and arguably much bigger, loser in the battle for the attention of the entertainment-seeking public.
For most of human existence, live entertainment was the only form available. Live theater and music were able to accommodate recorded music and photo-plays without dialog, but three decades into the 20th century, the change accelerated to the point where, now, nearly all entertainment art forms are electronic, at home. Thus, it may hard for many of us to understand that there exists precious little evidence of the Astaires together in performance, no motion pictures, only still photos, a handful of sound recordings and the memories of the few still alive who saw them.
Only two of the Astaires’ Broadway musicals made it to the screen with an Astaire (Fred) in them. Not until the 1950s were The Band Wagon and Funny Face adapted in Technicolor and widescreen format for movie audiences smack in the middle of the big buzz of 13 inch, square, black and white, VHF antennae television. Fred Astaire’s last Broadway musical hit of the 1932-33 season, The Gay Divorce, was adapted in 1934 by RKO and renamed The Gay Divorcee so as not to appear to make light of “divorce” as a legal or moral matter. (Isn’t it rather odd and foreign to us now that divorce was the controversial word in that title back then?) It was the first film with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers atop the credits.
Their first film together, Flying Down to Rio, for RKO in 1933, has them billed around fifth or so, with Ginger Rogers topping Fred for the only time in their careers. It is a film bursting with a new enthusiasm for the movie musical, which had been decidedly overplayed in the first round of sound in 1928-31, then pausing for a deep and necessary breath before exploding “down to Rio by the sea-oh!” Corny and rough around the edges are what makes it my sentimental favorite of the Astaire/Rogers films.
It was also the first of their films that I saw on the late-late show circa 1972 and, not realizing it was their debut, wondering why the hell so much time in a “Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers” movie was devoted to Delores del Rio (lovely though she was) and the blondest man I’d ever seen, Gene Raymond.
I couldn’t, however, get over the hotness of the young Ginger — especially her signature tune, “Music Makes Me.” It does, indeed.