Thomson on Astaire

Phil Ford

This is turning out to be a pretty good wheeze: have David Thomson write my blog posts. Three is a magic number, so I’ll stop with this one, but I’ll end with the best: an appreciation of Fred Astaire that becomes, en passant, a perfect encapsulation of the film musical.

There is something very suggestive of Americana in the way a Napoleonic battle is tuned into a name without roots or etymology. Yet how evocative that name is: run the parts together and the result is as rhythmic as Frenesi: separate them and it could be Fred a Star or Fred on a staircase, astride the stair—thus Astaire, l’esprit d’escalier.

It is proper to respond in this way because so much of Astaire is a matter of stylish carriage, and I do not think it accidental that the name evokes some special serene agility. This leads to the questions, is Astaire a movie actor? and what makes for great acting in the cinema? There is a good case for arguing that, in the event of a visit by creatures from a far universe, ignorant of the cinema, one would do best to show them some steps by Astaire as the clinching evidence of the medium’s potential. Better that than the noble actors—Olivier, Jannings, Brando, Barrymore, et al. Astaire is the most refined human expression of the musical, which is in turn the extreme manifestation of pure cinema: the lifelike presentation of human beings in magical, dreamlike, and imaginary situations. That might be thought to imply that Astaire’s dancing depends on illusion. Not so. He was always the most technically exacting and ambitious of screen dancers, the most eager to perform in uninterrupted setups. In the 1920s, it would have been possible to see him dancing virtuoso routines on stage. The spatial and temporal continuity of theatre would have made clear how difficult the feat was. Cinema wipes away the sense of difficulty and substitutes the ease that permits every transformation needed by the chronic dreamer. Astaire is not a great dancer so much as a great filmed dancer. Nureyev on film is less than in the flesh, because he is himself most stimulated by an actual audience and a real leap. Astaire, like all dreamers, is a perfectionist who loved to work in the feverish secrecy of a studio towards the flawless image of his own grace. He lends himself to the detachment of cinema because he is a rather cold, even indistinct personality who celebrates the spirit of elegance as channeled through rapid, photographed motion.

Awesome. Elsewhere in this small essay Thomson writes what must be one of the best sentences of critical evaluation ever tossed in the direction of the film musical: “Yet once Astaire was asked to partake of earnest melodrama, it was a strain to watch him at all. In play-acting, he is downright shifty: like a philosopher at a bingo session, there is the embarrassing and depleting sense of a man having been caught on the blind side, but gamely trying to be polite.” There’s a funny moment in The Band Wagon where Vincente Minnelli actually exploits this side of Astaire, when the veteran song-and-dance man tries to serve his director’s pretentious vision by hamming it up — it’s a nice self-aware moment.

Here is an excerpt from the almost incomprehensibly cool “Girl Hunt” ballet from The Band Wagon (a film Thomson calls “fragmented” and “less dramatically necessary,” whatever the hell that means). If this isn’t Cop Show, I don’t know what is.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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5 Responses to Thomson on Astaire

  1. Kip W says:

    Fred did everything Ginger did, only frontwards and wearing a tuxedo.

  2. Kip W says:

    And he could sing a bit.

  3. ben wolfson says:

    But—what happens next??

  4. Lisa Hirsch says:

    Of course that is the magnificent Cyd Charisse, who could dance circles around Ginger.

  5. Phil Ford says:

    The legend goes that the studio remarks on Astaire’s first Hollywood screen test were “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little.”

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