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," "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 can
still 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 really playing the drums), all while looking
as though this wasn't grueling hard work at all, as if it was
, 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

secret film school
film financing

© 2007 Sam Longoria, All Rights Reserved


  1. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Hi, Sam. The reason Terry Moore has that little look on her face while Fred and Leslie are Sluefooting it: her character, Linda, is in love with the young swain who just got outclassed. She is hoping that her uncle Jervis (Astaire) is in the midst of stealing young Julie away so that Linda can have Jimmy. By the way, Jimmy is played by a dancer named Kelly Brown, who was the dad of The Turning Point's Leslie Browne.

    BTW, there's a conference coming up on Astaire. For more info, just to to FAconference dot org.

  2. Anonymous10:18 PM

    Couldn't agree more with the thought that Fred Astaire was/is just about the coolest guy EVER.
    One of the reasons I married my husband is because he shares a birth date(May 10)with Mr. Astaire. Thanks for posting the clips.

  3. marcco2:20 AM

    totally agree with you sam, i LOVE this astaire movie, it's among the best of his fifties work...the musical orchestration of this film is also killer-- astaire, caron, the choreography, and the music just knocks me out!!

  4. Anonymous6:12 AM

    You are right. "Fred Astaire is obviously the coolest human being who ever lived, in the history of the world." Thanks for the post. I am a 29 year old, just discovering Fred Astaire, and I tell you, he has been such an enrichment in my life. THanks again.

  5. Mine too.

    In this modern world of the exalted mediocre, I find it encouraging that "the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire" (thank you Cole Porter), once strode the Earth.

    Fred wasn't just great. He WORKED HARD at being great.

  6. Anonymous7:58 AM

    Thomas Edison said "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration..."
    Have you ever really paid attention to a kid as they play? They are totally focused, they seem to have boundless energy, they give it 100%, and love what they are doing. They try new things and just shrug and move on to the next thing if it doesn't work they way they expected, but they don't quit, they find a way around any problems.

    It's fun for them.

    All the true geniuses I've ever read about or heard about, seen, or met have those characteristics! ...and that's probably why it looks and feels like it's easy--they PLAY in an adult venue...!

    I think you just might fit that category too, Sam! LOL
    I've always been glad I had the chance to work with you!