The Magazine

Fidgety Feet

The energy, and ingenuity, of Hermes Pan.

Oct 7, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 05 • By KATE LIGHT
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So fast and furious were films made, and such was the whirlwind of productivity, that after signing his first RKO contract, Pan worked on The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), and Top Hat (1935). After completing Top Hat, he received a whopping $250 for two-and-a-half weeks on I Dream Too Much (1935), working with nondancer Lily Pons; he then staged elaborate numbers for Ginger Rogers in In Person (1935). At the height of his work with Astaire, Pan was still in his 20s; and although he was working at the top, it was many years before his income would reflect this. It takes a lot of $250 weeks to make a $13,000 down payment on a home—as he was able to do in 1937. 

While the Astaire films loom largest in Pan’s history and affections, we learn that he also choreographed Kiss Me, Kate (1953), Porgy and Bess (1959), My Fair Lady (1964), Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Darling Lili (1970), and dozens of other films. And though, like Irving Berlin, Pan could not read music, he kept pace with the luminaries: Kalman and Ruby (Hips, Hips, Hooray! 1934), Cole Porter (The Gay Divorcee), Jerome Kern (Roberta), the Gershwins (Top Hat), Berlin (Shall We Dance), Rodgers and Hart (Pal Joey, 1957), Rodgers and Hammerstein (Flower Drum Song, 1961), and Lerner and Loewe (My Fair Lady). 

Pan loved and cared for his choruses as much as he did the big names: Casual photos show him on the beach, smiling in the midst of lady choristers. Quietly homosexual, sometimes with a committed partner, his private life remained out of the spotlight, while gossip columns linked him with many a starlet. The 55 photographs in Hermes Pan whet the appetite; the stories are a feast. 

Astaire never wanted to be associated with one dance partner only. When he sometimes filmed with lesser dancers, or nondancers, it was up to Pan to make it work; coddling insecure stars and playing to their strengths were among his skills. When Paulette Goddard danced with Astaire in Second Chorus (1940), she could hardly believe it: She rehearsed hard, did the number in one take, looked great—and never danced again.

Pan once said that Fred Astaire hypnotized both his audiences and his partners. While maybe not a hypnotist himself, Pan could captivate his audience with one original staging idea after another, built from the sights and sounds around him: construction noises and rubble, band-room paraphernalia, a Fun Show, buffeting rainstorms, a coat rack. We learn that dancing on the diagonal, instead of straight towards the camera, best captures the sense of motion, and that soundstages in the 1930s recorded singers and orchestras at a distance of about a block apart. In one Pan/Astaire film, on an extremely resonant stage, taps were recorded live for the first time ever, instead of being overdubbed. We’re told of the heavily sequined sleeves, in Follow the Fleet (1936), that Astaire dodged in take after take, and that eventually smacked him in the face so hard it made him bleed; and of the feathers shedding all over the Bakelite floor during “Cheek to Cheek.” 

Pan was a stylistic sponge: He choreographed Mexican hat dances, square dances, Persian-influenced dances with finger cymbals, Spanish zarabandas, re-creations of Vernon and Irene Castle’s ballroom dances, jitterbugs, salsas, waltzes, polkas, swimming dances for Esther Williams, ice dances for Sonja Henie, belly dances, dances to gospel music, a strip for Pal Joey, a basketball dance, and a chorus line of 11 elephants, whom he found easy to work with. And he made the most of nondancers such as Douglas Fairbanks, Betty Hutton, Peter Lorre, Cary Grant, Kim Novak, and Liv Ullmann, a testament not only to his choreographer’s talent but his psychological skills. 

His collaborations with Fred Astaire alone place Hermes Pan in the ranks of the greatest choreographers. Hermes Pan leaves us eager to search out gems we may have missed or taken for granted, or to spot the man himself onscreen—and to celebrate this stellar, tireless, peerless career.

Kate Light, poet and violinist in New York, is the author, most recently, of Gravity’s Dream and the libretto to Once Upon the Wind