Thursday, November 22, 2007

In praise of Fred Astaire

Filmmaking - There Was A Man Dept.

What's kept me going, and sane, and alive this year, is watching Fred Astaire dance, over and over, in this particular picture,
1955's fantastic "Daddy Long Legs."

I have rented it so many times, I could have bought a dozen copies of it on DVD by now. It's onscreen in my editing room, where I'm hard at work on my book and editing a little feature I shot.

This is the FOURTH film version of the "Daddy Long Legs" novel. It's a musical.

I love musicals. MGM musicals were the best. ("Singin' In The Rain," and "The Bandwagon," are my two favorites.)

I love MGM musicals, and this is one of the absolutely best MGM musicals ever made, right up there with "Singin' In The Rain," and "The Bandwagon," except for two things:

1) It was not shot in 1:37 three-strip Technicolor, but in really good 1:2.4 Cinemascope De Luxe color.

2) It was made at Fox, not MGM.

Fox made good musicals, too, like "Hello Dolly," and "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes," and many others, but Fox musicals were different from MGM musicals.

Fox musicals were a little than the MGM product, but the MGM dancers were better dancers, the MGM cameramen were better cameramen...they wore their art on their sleeve at the Freed unit. Trust me, MGM was the best studio in town.

Other Fox musicals were really good, but "Daddy Long Legs"...swings! Man, it's great, and the reason is the incomparable Fred Astaire.

Astaire beyond compare.

To call Fred Astaire merely a dancer is to label Einstein a failed patent clerk. Yes, Fred danced, in many ways he was the dancer, but he did so much more, including think up new ways to dance, new music to dance to, new props to dance with, new styles to dance in, and new ways to be photographed while dancing.

(Fred's contract gave him unprecedented control over how he was to be photographed. He insisted he be shown head-to-toe, in long single takes with minimal cutting and camera movement).

Camera technique following Fred is sparse and elegant, and the "cutty" approach of a music video is nowhere to be seen, which is why we still can watch them. The excitement comes from the dance, and is not synthesized from the cutting or camera gymnastics. Fred does the dancing, the camera follows.

As he said: "Either the camera dances or I do."

This is bold stuff, when your main competition, making dance pictures, is Busby Berkeley, just down the street.)

Fred's ability to sing and act, and do these incredibly intricate dance routines, and astonishing work with hand props, (while actually playing the drums), all while looking as though this wasn't grueling hard work at all, as if it was
EASY, and as if he was having more fun than human beings ought to be allowed, lead me to the inescapable conclusion, that without any exaggeration, Fred Astaire is obviously the coolest human being who ever lived, in the history of the world.

Fred here at the age of 56, as good as he ever was, a decade past his announced retirement, enjoying the silly "Slue Foot" college dance, with young and lovely and incredibly gifted Oscar-nominated dancer Leslie Caron. (She's still working, and won an Emmy in 2007.)

Who wouldn't enjoy a talented gorgeous 24-year-old partner? C'mon. Force yourself.

Check out Leslie's college swain, who's hopelessly outclassed. Sure, Fred's older,
but he's FRED ASTAIRE. Sorry, kid.

Even when Fred dances silly near the end of this number, he's just too cool for  words. Notice how they use costume color to draw your eyes to Fred and Leslie, past 200 or so pastel background jitterbuggers? Music by Ray Anthony and his Orchestra.

I've met a few of these cast members, including stunningly gorgeous Terry Moore (Howard Hughes widow), who turned my knees to water, in person in 1985.

Terry plays Fred's niece, Linda, who watches the outclassed kid's reaction closely, a little concerned Uncle Fred is Slue Footing with frosh Leslie, like their age difference is significant or something.

The bittersweet undercurrent to this picture is that Fred had just lost his real-life wife of 21 years, just before "Daddy Long Legs" began production, and they had to delay shooting for Fred to cope with his grief, and work through it. Unbelievable.

This picture was written by Henry and Phoebe Ephron, Nora Ephron's parents. (Nora wrote and directed some favorite pictures, among them "Sleepless In Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally," and "You've Got Mail.")

Breeding will tell. The writing in "Daddy Long Legs" is just wonderful.

Fifteen years earlier, Fred at 41 sparkled with Eleanor Powell, known at MGM, as "The best tap-dancer on the lot." Here is an electrifying terpsichorean courtship display, as Fred & Eleanor "Begin The Beguine," in "Broadway Melody of 1940."

In many ways, this is as good as it gets.

Parting Shot

Because I couldn't resist. Here's Fred at 47, at the peak of his powers, fittingly in a picture at Paramount. 1946's "Blue Skies."

It was billed as "Astaire's last dance" of "Astaire's last picture," the Technicolor send-off of his (first) retirement.

Yes, the cane jumps. Yes, those 9 guys are all Fred. Yes, he makes it look easy, but this number took "five weeks of back-breaking physical work," to shoot.

Not bad, Fred. Not bad at all, for one Frederick Austerlitz of Omaha, Nebraska, whose RKO audition report read, "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances."

Sam Longoria

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