The Magazine

Fred & Ginger

The romance of dance.

Jul 29, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 44 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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Astaire and Rogers
by Edward Gallafent
Columbia University Press,
256 pp., $24.95

THE PLACE of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as the American dance couple, perhaps even the American romantic couple, seems secure. The very phrase "Fred and Ginger" still evokes a sense of elegance, glamour, and romance. Broadway is abuzz with news about "Never Gonna Dance," an adaptation--set to open next season--of the 1936 Astaire-Rogers classic "Swing Time." "Top Hat," which usually vies with "Swing Time" for consideration as the pair's best film, is also rumored to be in line for a Broadway treatment. All ten of the duo's films are now available on video and sell quite well.

Just as Fred and Ginger go on and on, so do attempts to explain their appeal. University of Warwick lecturer Edward Gallafent offers the latest such effort in "Astaire and Rogers." One may wonder why Gallafent bothered, since by all accounts the definitive analysis of the Astaire-Rogers partnership has already been written. Arlene Croce, the respected choreographer and longtime dance critic for the New Yorker, published "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book" in 1972, and, as one critic recently noted, "It has become impossible to make any informed statement about those films without having consulted Croce's book: she set the standard for discussion." Her book is not only thoroughly informative about all aspects of the films, but full of snappy, witty prose that is almost as fun to read as watching Fred and Ginger dance.

But Gallafent believes that Croce--along with others, such as John Mueller in his encyclopedic "Astaire Dancing"--too readily dismisses the films themselves. For instance, when discussing Astaire and Rogers's unforgettable first romantic adagio dance, to Cole Porter's classic "Night and Day," Croce declares that the rest of the film ("The Gay Divorcee") "falls away in retrospect"; she also quips that "Roberta," the pair's third film, "came as close to plotlessness as that ideal Astaire-Rogers musical we all like to think they should have made."

By largely dismissing the films' plots and preferring to focus on the dances (as well as the magnificent music and lyrics of Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin), Croce and others have missed something crucial, in Gallafent's view. It does no good to consider the songs and dances apart from the films, he writes, because "the dance sequences answer questions raised elsewhere and raise other questions which it will be the business of the film to answer." Viewed both individually and as a series, the films "know what they are doing and do it intelligently."

IT'S HARD not to sympathize with Gallafent's aims. Carried too far, an approach that overemphasizes the dances turns the films into something whose plots and comic moments we merely suffer through to get to the "good parts." And Gallafent does offer some intriguing insights. He is right to stress the importance of viewing the ten films as a (somewhat) coherent series, because this explains the increasing self-consciousness of the films as they progressed. In the pair's later movies, the well-established partnership of Astaire and Rogers placed new demands on the plots. It was no longer enough to show the two meeting (or reuniting after many years apart) and becoming a couple; everyone expected that. Thus the later films, sensing the imminent end of the partnership, increasingly stressed the passage of time and the possibility of negation, and began to create drama out of purposefully delaying or even denying the expectations of the couple's fans.

For example, in "Swing Time," after Fred and Ginger's first spectacular dance, we spend twenty minutes waiting for them to overcome various obstacles so they can dance the "Waltz in Swing Time"; the line "There isn't going to be any dance" becomes a running motif in the film. In "Shall We Dance," the couple teases the audience by walking Ginger's dog on board an ocean liner, striding in rhythm to George Gershwin's charming incidental music. You can see 1937 audiences squirming in their seats at this point, thinking, "If they'd just get rid of that silly dog, maybe they'd finally start dancing!"

Viewed in this light, "The Way You Look Tonight" in "Swing Time"--which, not coincidentally, Fred sings, but he and Ginger do not dance to--becomes, in Gallafent's assessment, "a pivotal moment in the cycle, the first explicit recognition, or imagining, of an ending. It celebrates the couple's achievement while recognizing it as both transient (because of their mortality) and enduring." Heard this way, Dorothy Fields's touching lyric has more meaning for us today--"Some day / When I'm awfully low, / and the world is cold, / I will feel a glow just thinking of you / and the way you look tonight"--because, as Gallafent notes, "Astaire's 'some day' is now, and the predicted glow, ours."