You may find this difficult to believe: there are people in this world who don’t like musicals. I don’t mean Cats or Grease or Mama Mia. Of course they’re awful. There are people who think that in real life, whatever that is, people don’t sing when they’re happy, or even when they’re sad, or dance when they fall in love. Pragmatists and literalists and puritans all. Roundheads abound. I can feel you shuddering at the thought.
The other afternoon I watched Shall We Dance on tv. Many of my teenage years were misspent watching old films on BBC2 on wet Saturday afternoons. You now know almost everything worth knowing about me. I couldn’t really follow the plot, but I know Fred Astaire was a ballet dancer called Petrov, born Peter P. Peters. In what may be the only inelegant moment of his life he wears a dressing gown with a large, swashy P embroidered on the chest pocket. Ginger Rogers wears a coat with sleeves made from wolf fur. If it had been filmed in colour it still would have looked monochrome, the way the Ascot scene in My Fair Lady does. The colours used are black, white, dove grey and the palest flesh. Even Ginger is blonde.
Fred wants to swap ballet for tap and he loves Ginger, who is a Broadway star. There are misunderstandings and an art deco Atlantic liner. Fred dances in time with giant pistons in the cleanest engine room you’ll ever see. He and Ginger get hitched so they can then separate. What are the grounds for divorce in this state? Ginger asked the Justice of the Peace. Marriage, is his reply. They tap dance in roller skates. In a number as interesting to psychologists as it is to aesthetes, Fred dances with thirty women holding Ginger masks, one of whom is Ginger. The music is by the Gershwins which is a way of saying it’s sublime. One of the songs is They Can’t Take That Away From Me, the saddest love song ever written. It always makes me cry. All this adds up to joy, both off and on screen.
That theme, that the pleasures of Low Art are as worthwhile as the pleasures of High Art, runs through many of his films. In Easter Parade he recruits Judy Garland to replace Ann Miller in his musical act. He begins wanting Judy to be as ‘sophisticated’ as her predecessor but realises that her charms are more earthy. In The Bandwagon there is a sort of reversal of Shall We Dance; Cyd Charisse is a ballerina who condescends to appear in a musical comedy, which, in an extension of the theme, is first imagined not as a vehicle for pleasure, but as a modern retelling of Faust. Only when Faust is jettisoned, when everything is simplified, when it’s all Freddified, is the show a hit. In Funny Face Audrey Hepburn is a serious young woman who wears black and works in a bookshop. She wants to go to Paris to meet the Empathicalists, who I’m sure weren’t modelled on the Existentialist set of Montparnasse. The only way she can get there is by being a muse to Fred’s Avedon-like fashion photographer. I ‘m going to spoil everything by telling you that Fred gets the girl and the girl gets Fred. Light and happiness carry each of those days.
Thin as charity, cheerful as Christmas, Fred walked on three inches of air. His step was the lightest tap tap tap. He was as loose as change. His bones are filled with not marrow, but helium. His legs, not blood and muscle, but like clean linen drying on a line in a Summer breeze. He was, you may be surprised to learn, Cole Porter’s favourite singer. Cole liked the way he could hear every word he’d written when Fred sang it. His voice holds up well against Judy Garland’s, both joyously dishevelled vaudeville tramps, as they walk up the Avenue.
You might well put Fred Astaire high in your list of best-dressed men of the twentieth century. His straight up and down body always looked beautiful with clothes on, his socks matching his shirt which matched the ribbon around his boater. Or wearing his tie as a belt, knotted at the side so the line isn’t spoiled.
He was brilliant at comedy numbers. Here he is in Royal Wedding, singing and dance-fighting with Jane Powell, while chewing gum and doing an accent, in a charming number called How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life.
He was always looking for ways to innovate, whether dancing with a hat stand or disembodied feet, which isn’t as gruesome as it sounds. Look at this, also from Royal Wedding, the most breathtaking dance you’ll see today, maybe this month, maybe ever. I’ve watched this scene possibly a thousand times and whenever I think I’ve worked out how it was made the idea slips away, evaporates into open-mouthed wonder. Something about the set moving and the camera staying still, maybe the camera moves with the set… It doesn’t matter. It is, indeed, a special effect. And that’s why I love Fred Astaire.