Top Ten: Fred Astaire's Partners
Every August, TCM dedicates one day to one exclusive star. It's times like these I'm thankful to the television gods for both airing TCM and for creating the DVR; Summer Under the Stars covers a vast array of different films and I can always find at least five that I've been dying to see. This August is a bit different because I'll also be contributing to the SUTS Blogathon that runs alongside the programming, hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. I really wanted to cover a bunch of people, but things have been absolutely bonkers for me lately. I have other blogathons I already committed to that I still have to write for, I'm going back to IU shortly, and I had gallbladder surgery recently that kept me away from my blogging (but not my film viewing!). Because of all this, I just chose three wonderful stars -- sorry, my beloved Gene Tierney and Kate Hepburn! -- and today I bring you the first of those. For the complete list of entries, click here. There's no way you could be sorry.
Writing about Fred Astaire poses quite the problem because there is so. freaking. much. you can say. Do you write about just one film? One dance? One partner? His life? His influence? I immediately knew I didn't want to narrow it down to a single movie and I've already written about the Astaire-Rogers collaborations (here, here, here, and here). So for Astaire's day, I decided I would make a list, arguably my favorite type of post to do. I'm fascinated by all of the actor's dancing partners in some shape or form and realized it might be fun to do my personal top 10 ranking of who I consider Astaire's best female film partners . Now, this means a few things: 1) I'm leaving out group dances such as the ones with George Burns and Gracie Allen (A Damsel in Distress) or Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray, and Oscar Levant (The Band Wagon). 2) Notice that I said female -- although Astaire would tell interviewers that Bing Crosby or Gene Kelly was his favorite partner to spare his leading ladies' feelings, I'm leaving the fellas out. 3) I'm only covering movies, which obviously don't include Astaire's TV specials with Barrie Chase or any other appearances. One day I'd love to compile a list for the people I'm excluding, but for now let's agree/argue/heatedly debate/discuss these fabulous women and their placing...
Film: Holiday Inn
And already I'm cheating the system. But somehow it felt wrong to favor one over the other when they both get about the same amount of screen time with Fred. I also really wanted to include them because who ever remembers Reynolds or Dale? Holiday Inn is a great favorite of mine, and I appreciate the teamings of the B-actresses with Bing Crosby and Astaire. I mean, these girls could dance! "You're Easy to Dance With" is wonderfully snappy and fun, but Reynolds gets three really amazing routines with the master, one where he's totally smashed and she thinks it's a gag, another in period costume that gets progressively sillier thanks to Bing's interference, and the incredibly memorable "Be Careful, It's My Heart." Quick note: for some reason this last routine is constantly mistaken as one done by Astaire and Rogers -- don't ask me why or how.
9. Jane Powell
Film: Royal Wedding
Although they play brother and sister, the chemistry is still there between Fred and Jane, just in a different way. They're so much fun to watch together, it makes you a little sad that the film introduces love interests for the duo instead of letting them be. (Although without Sarah Churchill's character, we probably wouldn't have gotten Astaire's dancing on the ceiling, so...) I love love love their number "How Could I Believe You When You Said You Loved Me When I Know You've Been a Liar All Your Life?" It's funny and ridiculous and purposely over the top. Never a dull moment with these two, that's for sure. [Royal Wedding has fallen into the public domain, which is great because it makes it very easy to find, but sad because many copies have awful quality. A good YouTube version can be find here.]
Film: Broadway Melody of 1940
As Astaire wrote in his autobiography Steps in Time, Powell "put 'em down like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself." While this is a great asset for sure, it also always limited Powell from doing any really romantic dancing. I appreciate Ellie immensely, honestly I do, but I miss the kind of connection that you'd find between Astaire and the other ladies. It's just a horse of a different color with Powell, which is more than fine. "Begin the Beguine" is highly impressive -- quick, skillful, gorgeous to look at. Powell and Astaire regarded each other with the greatest respect, and it's clear to see.
Film: Daddy Long Legs
Astaire appreciated the screenplay for Daddy Long Legs because it dealt with the ages of its leading man and lady head-on instead of trying to ignore it. As I've bemoaned before in my post for Sabrina, I try not to let the actors' ages influence my feelings for any movie, and it's no different for this absolutely charming tale about an American millionaire who anonymously sponsors an 18-year-old French orphan in order to give her a better life in the U.S. It's a little more intricate than that, but you'll have to watch the movie to see for yourself. Nothing really becomes romantic until about halfway in, and when it does, it's delicate and hesitant, like the characters themselves. People often criticize Caron for looking stiff during the beautiful "Something's Gotta Give" number, but once again I disagree. I also really enjoy "The Sluefoot," an unbelievably fun routine at a college dance that shows the kids that Astaire could definitely still dance circles around them. For Caron, DDL was one of many ingenue roles she'd have early in her career and she does a great job.
Film: Funny Face
Like Leslie Caron, Hepburn's outing with Astaire is somewhat criticized for the age difference between the two. I say, "Poppycock!" You put two of the most charming people in one of the coolest movie musicals and you've got a match made in cinematic heaven. I've tried to find fault with the pairing after hearing many a bellyache, but I just can't. Despite the chic clothing and the beguiling direction and look of the film, Hepburn and Astaire form a simple, sweet couple that are trying to reconcile their major differences before it drives them apart. Their declaration-of-love dance, "He Loves and She Loves," is sumptuous in so many ways, and let's not forget that Audrey totally holds her own in her solo "Basal Metabolism," a number that remains fresh and delightfully kooky to this day.
Films: Three Little Words, The Belle of New York
Let's all give a round of applause to the glory that is Vera-Ellen. Equally adept at sweeping balletic grace and tapping jazzy beats, Vera-Ellen was truly one of the best. I cannot believe that White Christmas is her sole legacy for non-classic film fans -- she just had so many great hits. Vera-Ellen's contributions to Astaire's filmography are two of the most underrated, with Three Little Words being my favorite of them. Although she was always dubbed (despite singing for herself on the stage before Hollywood came knocking), there's no substituting for her dancing talent. She had a fun rapport with Fred too, which is on full display in numbers like "Thinking of You" and "Mr. and Mrs. Hoofer at Home."
Film: Easter Parade
You could write a small, depressing novel on all the missed projects that were intended for Astaire and Garland, two of the world's greatest talents. I think we're all grateful for the one we do have, though. Judy and Fred are a genius coupling and so great to watch. She got him to loosen up enough to do the perfectly hammy "A Couple of Swells," and she added a beautiful comic touch to their early dancing scenes when their characters are trying to break in their new act. Plus, nobody can sing a torch song like La Garland ("Better Luck Next Time").
Films: You'll Never Get Rich, You Were Never Lovelier
I've read my share of literature on Astaire as you can imagine, and more often than not sources say that the redheaded wonder that was Hayworth was Fred's favorite partner. It's easy to see why -- the pair share a lovely rapport, both exhibiting warmth, wit, and elegance. I'm not a big fan of their first outing, You'll Never Get Rich, but I adore You Were Never Lovelier. Seeing it makes you sad that Rita and Fred weren't put together more often, it really does. Especially since Hayworth was such a fabulous dancer! Have you seen "Shorty George" or "I'm Old-Fashioned"?! She was so talented, more than she was ever given credit for.
Films: The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings
Astaire described Charisse perfectly when he dubbed her "beautiful dynamite." The Band Wagon probably portrays the dancer's versatility the best -- soft, dreamy, and sweetly balletic in "Dancing in the Dark," but then sexy, crisp, and cool as a cucumber in the "Girl Hunt Ballet." Simply a knockout. The only thing that keeps me from placing Cyd as number one is, unfortunately, her acting, which is somewhat limited. She was never laugh-out-loud funny like Garland or outrageously charismatic like Hayworth. BUT Charisse is in a class by herself when she's dancing, particularly when it's with Astaire. Watching them do "All of You" or "Fated to be Mated" or anything else is sheer joy.
Films: Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, The Barkleys of Broadway
Come on, you all saw this coming. Much as I love bucking the trend, Ginger deserves this spot. Out of all of Fred's partners, she was the best actress, comically and dramatically, which perfectly translates to her dancing. My God, just watch her during "Pick Yourself Up" -- she's surprised at Fred's dance skills, but quickly catches on until they're moving in sync with one another. Her character realizes she and Fred have something interesting happening between them, so she gets a little cockier and a little freer as she puts on a face that says "What, this ol' dance? It's nothing" when we all know it's mind-blowing. She becomes so absorbed in this wonderful moment that her character forgets how annoyed she was with Fred's, or how he tricked her into thinking he was a terrible dancer. For years after their 1930's pictures, Ginger's shoes just couldn't be filled. Separate, they were clever, attractive, and full of good humor. Together, they became magnetic, irresistible, and simply gorgeous to watch. Nothing compares to any one of their dances, whether it's the embodiment of heartbreak "Never Gonna Dance," the bursting happiness of "I'll Be Hard to Handle," the outright silliness of "Putting All My Eggs in One Basket," or the romantic and top-notch "Let's Face the Music and Dance." If you could only see one Fred Astaire movie in your lifetime, you've gotta pick one with Ms. Rogers.