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Astaire & Rogers / LATimes


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Must be the week for pieces in the major newspapers' Op-Ed sections about classic films.

 

After the NYTimes wrote a piece about Dashiell Hammet and the Thin Man films (also posted in this forum earlier), the LATimes follows on Friday with this piece about the Astaire/Rogers flms of the '30s by David Gelernter.

 

(Tho I agree that the films are 'National Treasures', I think the inferences and conclusions Gelernter draws are contrived and dishonest. "Great art is usually escapist". Aw, come on. He has to know that isn't true.

 

Kyle in Hollywood)

 

Great art, and it has all the moves

 

The 1930s films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers should be considered national treasures.

DAVID GELERNTER

 

August 12, 2005

 

I'M ON THE COUNCIL of the National Endowment for the Arts, which means I get a privileged overview of the American arts scene. But the most exciting news in American art right now (in my opinion, not the NEA's) has to do with works that everyone can get a look at ? a series of black-and-white movies that are over 60 years old, the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films of the 1930s.

 

Astaire made nine movies with Rogers during the '30s. I've always considered them the crown jewels of American film, arguably of all American culture. The first batch are finally appearing this month in high-quality DVD versions, nearly eight years after the first DVD players were sold in the U.S. Obviously public demand for these movies hasn't been overwhelming. Why do Americans pay so little attention to their own national treasures?

 

Partly it's the art community's fault. The memory is fading at last ? but during the 1980s and '90s, New York's Whitney Museum of American Art tried hard to convince us that true art is the ongoing struggle to express hatred for the U.S. mainstream and do it as offensively as possible. The Whitney's influential biennials were dominated by hilariously hyperventilating denunciations of racist, sexist, homophobic, hypocritically "religious" America. And that was dead-typical at the time. Museums thrived on upper-middle-class business, but the nation at large saw "art" as an unpleasant form of toxic waste.

 

That wasn't always true. And the Astaire-Rogers masterpieces (like Jackson ****'s widely admired drips, Willem de Kooning's slashes and Mark Rothko's glimmering hazes) made it clear that art doesn't need a message. Great art is usually "escapist": Check out the gorgeously colored late-medieval miniatures of the Limbourg brothers, or Titian's blowzy nudes, Vermeer's subtly erotic domestic scenes, Ingre's romantic fantasies, Matisse's luminous and ebullient cut-outs, Joseph Cornell's mesmerizing micro-worlds in glass-fronted wood boxes. I could go on.

 

The Fred-and-Ginger escapist masterpieces reach from "Flying Down to Rio" (1933) to "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939) ? all black and white, all brilliant. Astaire and Rogers worked together once more, on "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949) ? a gently amusing color film that comes nowhere near the quality of their earlier stuff.

 

Astaire may be the greatest of all American dancers; Astaire and Rogers are certainly the greatest dance team. He succeeds where Disney's "Fantasia" tries and fails: He lets you see music. He was a peerlessly great dancer in part because he was a great musician: His piano solos in "Roberta" and "Follow the "Fleet" are highlights of the series. The Astaire-Rogers films of the '30s also include (hypnotically catchy) songs by Vincent Youmans and the Cole Porter mega-hit "Night and Day." Irving Berlin wrote three of these scores, Jerome Kern two, George Gershwin one. How to explain all this talent in one short series of films? Easy. It was a miracle.

 

These are quintessentially American masterpieces: Astaire and Rogers are virtuoso artists, but they never seem unreachable or untouchable. He's charming but funny-looking, she stops just short of beautiful. The films are sweet but never sentimental, romantic but rarely soppy, witty but never sarcastic or bitter or political. Gershwin's hit "They Can't Take That Away From Me," which debuted in "Shall We Dance?" ? is a lovely, sad and moving song, in a major key. American all over.

 

These films are great art, but they're also tongue in cheek. Only the dance numbers take themselves seriously. The dialogue never bogs down; the champagne scripts are wry and dry. The super-glamorous sets are deliberately over the top, sometimes hilarious.

 

Rogers (so we're told) once said, "I did everything Fred did, but backward and in heels." The claim is so silly that I can't believe she ever made it. Her technique is nowhere near Astaire's. When the going gets tough, she steps aside and lets him do his stuff. She has only one dance solo in the series; he solos in every film.

 

Yet none of Astaire's other dancing partners holds a candle to Ginger. Her seductive, wise-cracking cool and lyrically elegant way of moving make up for her technical limitations. She might be the most underrated great actress in American film. Katharine Hepburn is supposed to have said, "He gives her class, she gives him sex" ? and that story I believe, because the claim is true. The Fred-and-Ginger dances are controlled thermonuclear explosions of romantic passion. The censors would have banned them if they'd been sharp enough to see what was happening.

 

The greatest moment in the whole series comes in "Swing Time," when Fred dances alone before a projected backdrop of three shadow-Astaires to a song that pays tribute to the black dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. At one point, Astaire stands with his back to the viewer, feet planted, hands swaying in an ocean of music. His barely moving figure sweeps you into another universe ? as great art always does. The subtext is moving too: a plain vanilla dancer plus a Jewish composer paying homage to a black hero.

 

The debut of these DVDs reminds us that we can't possibly know America if we don't know Astaire and Rogers ? and that without great art, we are only half alive.

 

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I just don't know what to say about this. While I appreciate old films (or I wouldn't be hanging around here) I do not like the tone of the first part of this article. In my opinion, all art is valid. The author's comments about the Whitney Museum are as nasty & vile as the art he claims the museum shows. I don't see how protesting against racism, sexism or hypocritical "religious" middle American is bad, because sometimes the truth hurts. So flame away folks.

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Well, Brakenhe, you made it through the weekend without getting flamed about your post here. (Seems there is enough of that going on in other areas of this forum to keep them happy anyway.)

 

Your criticism of the opening commentary mirrors mine. To dislike the Whitney Biennials is one thing but their mission has nothing to do with classic American art forms like film. And museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, among others, are ernestly dedicated to the appreciation and preservation of American film treasures. But it doesn't fit the author's thesis that cultural institutions (i.e. 'liberals') prefer "toxic waste" to "escapist" art, so the writer will just be "nasty and vile', as you rightly point out, and hope no one notices the omission.

 

The other glaring omission comes at the end when the author attempts to raise the Bojangles number of 'Swing Time" as the expression of artistic brilliance. To not mention that the number is performed in blackface had to be intentional and while I have a tolerance for such decisions when used in a non-derogatory manner, I wouldn't go so far as to say this musical number was the apex of American film culture or American art. In fact, it would make more sense to say that it was a not-so pale (used intentionally) imitation of the true art and artistry of Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson. That the author would prefer the artifice of Astaire (no matter how talented he may be) to the origianl art of Mr. Robinson demonstrates how blind, biased and dishonest some white male writers can be.

 

And to think this man has a seat on the Council of the National Endowment of the Arts. How depressing.

 

Wanna bet he thinks Thomas Kincaid is a National Treasure too?

 

Kyle in Hollywood

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Although I think Gelertner overstates his case -- and I wonder if it should have been made in a piece like this, anyway -- he's got the basic facts right.

 

I know because I was covering the arts scene in this part of the country during that crazy period when it seemed that art was worthless if it didn't have a "message." I said it then, and I'll say it here and now: polemicists make lousy artists, and artists make lousy polemicists.

 

I prefer that artists stay away from overt messages of any political stripe, because it narrows the audience for their work. Art should belong to everyone.

 

As Gelertner said, great art is "escapist" in the sense that it is not tied to a message like a tin can. Think about it: what is the message in Da Vinci's La Gioconda, or Toulouse-Lautrec's dancing girls, Van Gogh's Starry Night, or even Grant Wood's American Gothic? None that I can see, but those works have appealed to generations of art lovers, and will for years to come. Have any of the artists in the Whitney biennials achieved that status yet? Do you know any of their names or their works? I doubt it.

 

But Gelertner does make a few mistakes here, perhaps unknowingly. According to George Feltenstein, senior vice president of marketing at Warner Home Video, the demand for the Astaire-Rogers films has been overwhelming. In fact, he said in an interview with the Onion A&V Club earlier this year that they have been some of the most-requested films in his seven years at his present position at WHV. The reason that they haven't been released until now is that the films needed to be restored, and it took a long time to find the best elements.

 

And it was former Texas governor Ann Richards who said, "Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in heels." Which proved that she didn't really watch the movies very closely, because Fred and Ginger dance side by side as much as they dance cheek to cheek, if not more so.

 

Gelertner rightly singles out the "Bojangles of Harlem" number in SWING TIME because it was a culturally diverse tribute before there was a phrase to describe it. Look closer -- here you have a German dancer, a Greek choreographer, a Jewish composer, and a female lyricist paying tribute to a black dancer.

 

It's worth pointing out that this was not the first or the only musical tribute to Bill Robinson in those days. Robinson himself taught Will Rogers how to tap dance in Rogers' last film IN OLD KENTUCKY (1935), and Rogers gave a more-than-credible imitation of his mentor. Al Jolson also paid tribute to Robinson in "Who's the Swingingest Man in Town?" from his 1936 picture THE SINGING KID, and in some ways, I think Jolson had better moves than Astaire. Then there's the 1939 film HONOLULU, where Eleanor Powell blacked up in tribute to Robinson and performed his famous step dance. But Astaire took it beyond tribute because he was the best-known (if not the first) white dancer who was influenced by black dancers, in both his rhythm and approach to the dance. The others put their feet into it, but Astaire added his heart as well. And that made all the difference.

 

(I'm not going to digress on the subject of blackface performance here, partly because it's out of place and partly because it's more complex and far-reaching a subject than most people realize. I'll just say that blackface performance was a rite of passage for a very long list of performers, many of whom you'd recognize and some of whom would surprise you. And racism was the furthest thing from their minds.)

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Yes, well said. The nature of art makes it such that it is valid in and of itself, perspectively, in that the creator's perspectve is, perhaps unduplicatable. Therefor the only remainng paradgm to be of interpretive use is whether the artist has an artistc concept and appreciation, somehow verfable.

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darcjoan,

Given the mechanics of this forum, I'm not sure to who or what was the direction of your response. I learned one has to either direct it to a writer by name as I have above or at least quote from the post to which you are replying. Either way, by the end of the second line, I was rather lost. And that is probably my fault.

 

To coffeedan1927,

The minute you wrote that Ann Richards said the infamous quote about Ginger Rogers, I knew you were correct and could hear her saying it in my mind. I think it is a line she uses often but it is still a great line.

 

From your profile I see you are in Cincinnati: Ground Zero in the Culture Wars of the 80's. Wanna share your opinion of the Mapplethorpe photos?

 

Back to the article in question -

When Gelernter writes "art doesn't need a message", I couldn't agree more. I appreciate your examples of 'messageless' artistic expressions more than the obscure references of the author. Its as if he was being deliberately obtuse. If you are writing an opinion piece, it seems to me it would be paramount to make yourself understood. Perhaps you could conjure up images to the references he listed. Save for the Vermeers, I sure couldn't and I try to be culturally literate.

 

As I said in the first post, reading "great art is usually 'escapist'", is when I bristled. Ask me to name great art and I would quickly list Picasso's 'Guernica', any Diego Rivera mural, a Dorothea Lange migrant photo, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf', 'Death of a Salesman' and 'Porgy and Bess'. None of which I would call "escapist".

 

Gelernter writes of being 'swept into another universe - as good art always does' by the Bojangles homage. Wonder if he would appreciate being swept into any of the above universes or just dismiss it outright as propaganda of the liberal left. Sometimes art should take one somewhere one doesn't expect or want to go. Being uncomfortable or challenged isn't all that bad.

 

I guess my biggest problem with the praise for the Bojangles number in 'Swing Time' is that the performance could have been inserted into virtually any Astaire/Rogers film. Heck, it could have been in any of the 'Broadway Melody' films. The number didn't emerge from the narrative in any special manner the way 'Never Gonna Dance' or 'Let's Face The Music and Dance' do. Its just another nightclub performance. And if you are writing to celebrate Astaire & Rogers, why not choose to write about their best number as a duo/partners?

 

And I don't think there is anything racist about Astaire appearing in blackface by Astaire himself or any of the collaborators. (I do cringe at the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland minstrel number in 'Babes On Broadway' or 'Strike Up The Band') I do question the author's omission of the fact in his appreciation of the number. It seems suspicious to not mention it. If it makes no difference, then why not mention it.

 

Thanks for reading this.

 

Kyle in Hollywood

 

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I am a huge Ginger and Fred fan and while I was reading this thread...I just wanted to clarify that the quote:

 

"Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels." Originally came from the cartoon Frank and Earnest by Bob Thaves....Though, I must say that it has been used several times over the years.

 

http://mitglied.lycos.de/HelmutSteinle/Fred-Astaire/Ginger-Rogers/ginger-rogers-x1.html

 

There is the link if anyone wants to take a look at the cartoon.....

 

Tabitha

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Thank you to someone correctly identifing this quote.

 

The amount of times David Gelernter misquoted someone. I couldn't stand to read the article anymore. Besides the fact that I felt he had no idea what he was talking about, except in the terms that yes, the Rogers/Astaire movies are treasures.

 

Firstly his reference to Ginger's lack of dancing and dance ability make me want to go take him and force him to watch every dance scene she ever did for any movie. I really wish people would look at their facts. The dances were all mainly choreographed by Fred and his close friend Hermes Pan. Besides the fact that based on plot, it would be absurd for some of Ginger's characters to solo dance. Also the fact that Mark Sandrich (who directed half of their movies) and Ginger never got along with each other, could have also played in.

 

I'd address the next person by name but I forget who mentioned this. Who ever was talking about the backwards and in high-heels comment and said that the writer obviously didn't watch the movies very carefully as they did most dancing side to side not cheek to cheek. First off, the quote was not ment to be taken so literally. It was merely to acknowledge that the dancing duo was in fact two people who both derserved notice not just Fred Astaire and some random girl he's dancing with. Second: as someone who actually does what Ginger and Fred do (ballroom dance) there are plently of time when I'm not face to face with my dance partner, especially if we were to be tapping I wouldn't be, but I think everyone would still refer to the dancing me dancing backward. Here's this for an idea, occasionlly the female moves foward, does that also dispel this quote?

 

If I'm taking to strong of an opinion, sorry. The ignorance of some posts (mainly the LA times article) aggravated me.

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I was sort of irritated by the comments about Roger's dancing ability to. Anyway to use something like oh, Ginger didn't have as many solo numbers as Fred as a proof that her skill was not on par with that of Astaire is just stupid. I don't know that much about dance technique. All I know is that as a viewer I enjoy Ginger Rogers as much if not more then Fred Astaire

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Coodles for taking a stand against that article. Again, I had to clarify that cartoon quote earlier and agree that it was not to be taken literally, as someone posted earlier. I took tap dance because of Fred and Ginger and it is not easy, especially for Ginger in those heels. I remeber reading somewhere that during the "Never Gonna Dance" number it took more than forty takes. In the middle of filming Ginger noticed her shoes filled with blood, and she finished the number- what a trouper!

 

I would also like to point out, that Ginger could dance and sing...and act! She has several roles that displayed her versatility! Kitty Foyle is my favorite!

 

Anyways...The Rogers/Astaire films are treasures, any idiot knows that!

Tabitha

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