All my life, I have dreamed about being a dancer. I have always been mesmerized by all forms of this visual art. When I was nine years old, I was in several dance classes…ballet and tap. I was ecstatic. I practiced all the time. My teacher told me I was too young to start wearing toe shoes. I would have to wait a few years to develop my legs and get the proper foundation. Oh, I can’t tell you how many times a day I would practice ballet positions pushing and shoving my feet to do things they clearly were not meant to do. “Bar” workouts were torturous for both my teacher and me. And in my tap class, my “tap, step, ball-change” left much to be desired. My dance academy was chosen to be on television for a huge recital number. My group was performing to the song, I’M LOOKING OVER A FOUR-LEAF CLOVER. I wore black leotards, my tap shoes, white tights, and a green crepe’ paper tutu. I was in hog heaven even though I was placed in the very back row for the entire number. In my heart and mind, I was the star, but in reality, my dancing was a total mess. I was told a few years later by my teacher that I just didn’t have the “legs” (or coordination) for being a dancer. A girl can dream, right? I was devastated, but as I grew older, I used to tell everyone, including my own d students, that I had a dancer’s soul. And I always have. Their strength and gracefulness take my breath away. This is why I used to devour all the Fred Astaire films. He was magnificent and timeless. I chose two of his films this week simply because of the iconic production numbers and because they feature Fred and two (of his ten) beautiful dancing partners. THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934) and THE ROYAL WEDDING (1951) still make me get up off my couch and start tap-tap-tapping.
There will never be another Fred Astaire. He was indeed one of a kind. He made every complex dance routine look easy as pie. Fred left nothing to chance. He practiced every minute detail until it was sheer perfection. There are many stories about how the dancers in his production numbers danced on bloody bandaged toes. But that’s the price of being a professional dancer, especially decades ago. The most magical part of all this was how long Fred could do what he did. Not only career-wise but also in the length of dance routines.
In THE GAY DIVORCEE, there is one of the longest dance sequences of all time. THE CONTINENTAL was seventeen minutes long. It entailed approximately fifty dancers, all wearing different forms of black and white evening gowns paired with men in white or black tuxedoes. Lines of dancers in perfect sync with every step. All while a full orchestra played, and Betty Grable sang. And throughout the number, Fred Astaire and the incomparable Ginger Rogers commandeered the entire upbeat, never-ending tune. THE CONTINENTAL went on to win an Oscar for Best Song. I still can’t get it out of my head, and I rewatched this movie several days ago.
THE ROYAL WEDDING featured the most legendary dance numbers ever created. This is where Fred sings, YOU’RE ALL THE WORLD TO ME and then proceeds to dance in a 20-20-foot rotating “squirrel” cage. With every piece of furniture bolted to the floor and cameras hung on all the walls, Fred was able to dance on the ceiling and side walls. It blew everyone away. If you look closely three times, you might be able to see the film slightly break continuity. This was to allow the technician to turn the cage. A brilliant, spectacular performance. Also, in this film, Fred dances with a coat rack. Difficult footwork that would take most to their knees. Fred tried out thirty different coat racks before the crew built him a specialized one for this dance. The coat rack cost $900. A steal for what audiences were treated to witness.
In THE ROYAL WEDDING, Fred’s partner was Jane Powell. They played a brother/sister dancing duo. (Much like Fred did years before with his own sister in real life.) Jane and Fred’s chemistry was adorable. Their happy faces lit up the screen. They sang and danced their way into our hearts. You can’t help but smile when watching the two of them do their thing.
Dancing with Ginger Rogers felt much different. They were a match truly made in heaven, and that is why they went on to dance in several more movies together. Their unconditional partnership is what is taught in dance classes and on Broadway still to this day. Ginger could mirror Fred’s movement, breaths, and style, and she did it in heels. What an astonishing combo.
The plot lines to both THE GAY DIVORCEE and THE ROYAL WEDDING were not deep. Mostly boy meets a girl…falls for the girl…boy must overcome some obstacles…and then the boy gets the girl. Cue the songs and huge dance numbers in between. These movies are to be appreciated for their musicality, humor, fantastic costumes, sets, and the sound of those “tap, tap tapping” tap shoes. Entertaining and joyous. I always smile, grin, chuckle, and dream when watching a Fred Astaire movie.
THE ROYAL WEDDING and THE GAY DIVORCEE will never go out of style. They are elegant, charming, sophisticated, and witty. They belong in our memories forever. They bring light and love with each frame projected on the big screen. Classic musical movies that are storybook romance extravaganzas. Make sure to wear your dancing shoes when watching. I did, and I don’t care who saw me dance on my couch and coffee table while attempting my tap, step, ball-change routine.
THE GAY DIVORCEE and THE ROYAL WEDDING are available on TCM.