Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
by W John Mueller
(Knopf, 448 pp., $45)
Sinatra: My Father
By Nancy Sinatra
(Doubleday, 340pp., $50)
One mercy of living between 1930 and 1960, if you took notice, was the good fortune of having the show put on by Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Not that their worth erased in 1960, when they started to move toward saloon chairs, golf, and more humdrum ways of passing their tune. You can still see The Gay Divorcee, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Blue Skies, or Silk Stockings; and you can listen to In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, or Only the Lonely. Those pieces have not dated, as popular songs and movies are supposed to. What is sublime or wounded in them now always was so.
Astaire may have meant most in the mid-1930s and Sinatra in the mid-1950s, but their old glories are intact. Call them brilliant, graceful, touching, original. That’s not enough. Fred's electric proud turns and Frank’s wavering falls were ways of greeting a messed-up world. They are peaks in the American musical, a mode that covers more than just stage shows and movies. Song and dance are a response to life as comprehensive as speech, say, or being realistic. Musicals are not made now as they were once at
RKO and MGM, but music and dance are everywhere on television: most commercials are musicals of some sort, and even the news has its tune. We have music now before health insurance, work, or realism.
BETWEEN 1930 and I960, America produced art that is more conventionally called great: Faulkner, Wright, Parker, Rothko—place your bets. Fred and Frank seem so much more basic. Can we take their popularity seriously? Just because they were so accessible and entertaining, one may pass over the puzzles in their solitary natures and the tensions that existed between them and media created for transience and fun. But greatness comes with special needs and demands. It alters its media and our expectations. Fred and Frank showed their transcendence by not showing the strain. That does not mean their stuff is easy, or casual. We know that an Astaire step or a Sinatra phrase is out of common reach. But heroes in the shower do it Frank’s way, and any hotshot on the dance floor is likely to be called Fred. More than popular, they made singing and dancing general, hopeful habits.
But neither of them wanted the difficulty of their greatness to loom over us. If magic can go wrong, it is only a trick. So Fred excelled in movies and Frank in the recording studios, cauldrons for the perfectionist, where both of them could throw out the mistakes and let the work come up as astounding but as natural as a sunrise.
Astaire and Sinatra are both regarded as old men now, though Fred, at 86, is 16 years older than Frank. They are retired from most things except lasting public affection, television commercials, and those dismal incidents that define the business of being a celebrity. And here are two books—one magnificent, one circumscribed—both meant to celebrate, yet both revealing a great deal about the souls of these artists’ geniuses.
John Mueller is a professor of film studies at the University of Rochester as well as an authority on dance. He has interviewed Fred Astaire, yet he keeps a distance from him of the sort that Fred maintained with so many of his partners. There is little here of Fred's life—just a sentence or so on his two marriages, one to a woman who had never seen him on stage, the other to one (surely the only one) who had seen none of his films. We do not even learn the process by which Frederick Austerlitz, once of Omaha, Nebraska, became Fred Astaire—perhaps the most poetic name change in show business, Nancy Sinatra is Frank’s daughter. She makes the claim so many times you wonder if there is an inheritance dispute in the offing.
MUELLER’S book is as well set up as a tested lecture. There is a general introduction that raises key issues in looking at Astaire’s pictures—the development of his career, the authorship of the pictures, his way of working, the elements of his style, his use of film. Thereafter, there is a chapter for every musical film (We are spared On the Beach and those other “straight” performances.) These chapters do not assess the films as wholes. They take it as given that the plots or the drama are foolish pretexts for the numbers. There were 212 numbers, Mueller reports, with 133 “fully developed dance routines.” And of those, he proposes, 75 are “at or near the masterpiece level.” All the numbers are analyzed as extensively as a book can manage. For instance, on “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat (a five-minute sequence), Mueller writes about 1,200 words to accompany 28 frame enlargements. The book has over 2,300 photographs, not one of which catches Fred off-guard. Being clumsy was his sin against the Holy Ghost; there may have been so little life in these photos because he was so set on being perfect.
Part of Astaire's legacy is his cool, elegant charm, which manages to be simultaneously detached and obsessive. It’s like a Cole Porter song or a Noel Coward joke in human form. The faunlike dandyism is lyrical, saintly, asexual, and stylistic, and it left its mark not just on dance, but on writing, design, and behavior. In never seeming gay, but in trading macho for manners and sweat for polish, Astaire has had a huge, enigmatic influence—and sadly, it is one that Mueller overlooks.
His book is dead set on the dancing, and it draws upon great ingenuities and felicities of book design to keep the text and pictures swinging along together. Every picture is black-and-white, as if the sensibility of the RKO movies was God-given and proper, a bone structure that stares through all the later color. Mueller and his publisher have done us an immense service. This accumulated study of Astaire’s dances is a treasure of reference supported by shrewd research on the productions and warm informative writing on the routines. I would be surprised if the greatest Astaire expert didn’t need and learn from this book. I’d guess that Astaire himself will spend hours with it, finding those tiny flaws no other eye sees. Indeed, the book is very close to the storyboards he might have made as he conceived and rehearsed his dances.
IT IS A shortcoming of the book that we don’t learn enough about how Astaire created. Mueller describes the remarkable ratio of preparation to shooting. For example, for the solo dance in Royal Wedding in which Fred traverses the walls and ceiling of a room, he used some of the ten-week preproduction rehearsal time and all of 13 specific rehearsal days before shooting the four-minute, five second number in a day and a half.
That is model moviemaking economy, long since abandoned in Hollywood. But it is also the search of a man who wants to sort out rough drafts and errors in private, an artist who is aroused by film’s deep and rather dark affinity with perfection. Mueller accepts Astaire’s word that he just tried out steps until something developed. Was there no advance notation or drawing, no plan, when the great dances are so structured? It would say a great deal about Astaire’s art if we knew it had been all in his (or his choreographer, Hermes Pan’s) head. It would appear more instinctive, perhaps, and add a fervent secrecy to the perfectionist, a zeal in which it was always a compromise for him to have a partner.
Moreover, while Mueller makes it very clear that Astaire took over the choreography and the filming of his numbers, he does not always pursue that power to its logical end. Very soon after Astaire joined RKO and agreed to the commercially viable partnership with Ginger Rogers, he established the dances as his province. He was absolutely firm that filmed dance depended on the uninterrupted coverage of the Full figure in a context of space that allows us to feel the dynamics and the danger of human
movement. And so the great numbers have very few cuts, and nothing as stupid as close-ups of twinkling feet. Late in his career Astaire could do nothing about that gaffe when Francis Ford Coppola directed him in Finian’s Rainbow (and the same fault mars Coppola’s Cotton Club).
YOU might say that Astaire was simulating the audience's view of a stage. But that’s too simple. For the camera does move with his dancing, laterally as a rule, maintaining the couple's relationship with space, decor, time, and destiny, insisting on enclosure and the challenge, no matter how headlong and rapturous the motion. This is not mere coverage; it is a sustaining discipline that matches and incites the motion. The dancers never get away; they never fly. The camera is as hard as the floor, and as susceptible to gorgeous imagery. But it does not yield to the fantasy of dancing on air. Despite all the inane plots of Astaire films, space is as real 'and moral as it is in Edward Hopper paintings. The lack of cutting is what gives us the now in which such perfect things are done—as in Bob Beamon’s Mexico City long jump. But it is the relentless keeping up of the frame that makes perfection seem matter-of-fact, too, a shot or light in the dark, a poised moment in the disorder of eternity, so beautiful because it just happened as time passed by.
There are some lumps in the cream—fatuous cutaways, moments when décor obscures the dance, and downright ugliness. (And they survive along with the glories. If Astaire was in real control why were these “bad” shots even filmed, let alone used?) No setup in a musical is arrived at casually. It is fairly clear that while Astaire called for and got repeated takes of the dances from his preferred point of view, there were also extra shots (or extra cameras?), providing cruder footage that was likely to used in the editing.
Mueller does not say much about how the editing proceeded on Astaire’s films, though many of the lapses from purity are occasions on which tidy-minded editors might have “saved” a misstep or introduced a “breather” in an otherwise perfect shot. Astaire, in other words, had more movie control than any other dancer of his age, and it was control that understood the nature of film as well as Renoir or Ophuls did. And yet it was not complete. We don’t know why it retreated. We have to imagine some sudden shift from authority to shyness in Fred, lust like those instants when his dances end and life resumes.
In the same way, the greatness of the numbers is beset by feeble plots and comic business to rival the love stories in Marx Brothers films. If we grant that Astaire took charge of his dances, then we have to allow that he was indifferent to the films as wholes. That’s regrettable. For the movie musical had a potential that knocked against the industry's conservative faith that we needed “realistic” plot scenes every now and then. And so Fred agrees to talk to Ginger, chatting as best he can, when he has already seduced her under the sweet, metaphoric cloak of “Night and Day.”
Mueller concedes that that number (from The Gay Divorcee) is a milestone in the integration of story and numbers. It does not just advance the plot; it lifts it to a level of passion not available to Camille or Stella Dallas. It is a rare height. Too often, the clumsy plots lurch on laboriously to their happy endings, unaware that narrative contentment is beside the bliss of the dances. Astaire knew and was liked by his composers—for he was also an enchanting singer—but he seems never to have sought the opportunity to conceive a whole show, to make musical the text, instead of wondrous episodes.
Astaire gave his all for grace at a time when the world was mad. He was as antisocial as any obsessive, but he took a chance on songs and dances in which two people meet and merge, then part in, returning to a natural, Keaton-like aloneness, the place where perfection imagines. Fred Astaire vanishes if you look all the way to the end of his being. There is a magician’s nothingness there, a serenity that cannot stop its attempt at unhindered happiness for four, five, even six minutes, but it is never warmed by it. Desire counts on never reaching its object. And so he backs off, as if the song somehow had become “I Won’t Dance” or “Never Going to Dance Again.” There is no charity as great as Fred’s forgiving the world for not being dance all the time.
IF Frank Sinatra is one step less extraordinary, is it because he was more conventionally unhappy? Astaire’s engine has to do with his capacity for rapture, so godlike its way of disarming Sinatra abided by a more reasonable disquiet. He was sad that his woman had gone, that he was the last man in the bar at a quarter to three, that hopes had turned sour. But Sinatra has kept an eye on bigger crises. In 1945 he promoted and played in an Oscar-winning short film, The House I Live In, recommending universal religious and racial tolerance. He gave voice, appearance, and honorary gang membership to JFK. More recently he has presided over Reagan’s inaugural galas. In the “For the Record” section of
Nancy Sinatra's album/tribute, as the 1960s wax, we see the dedication of the Frank Sinatra Youth Center for Christians, Moslems, and Jews in Nazareth. We see Sinatra being named a Commandeur de la Santè Publique by De Gaulle, Man of the Year and Entertainer of the Century by this body or that, getting an honorary doctorate in humane letters from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Order of the Leopard from the Republic of Bophuthatswana (“the first white person to receive this honor”).
FRANK has been very wary of books. He made threatening noises to deter Kitty Kelley from writing a biography of him. So he has picked his own author, in-house, for what Doubleday modestly calls “the celebrity book of the decade.” (What happened to good old "the"?) He’s talked to her, and it's likely that no one else would have won his trust. He’s dug up old family snapshots, and his participation has prompted a legion of other celebrities to tell us what a champ Frank is. But celebrity is America's last ideology—flabby, promiscuous, camp—and we know the encomiums are as available as the awards. There are plenty of good stories and unmistakable signs of Frank’s candor and generosity, and of his sense of life as all anecdotes and gestures. Sometimes the pals set up an odd disharmony. Never seen Frank throw so much as a punch, one says. But another warns that he is one tough little guy. Phil Silvers talks of Frank's startling kindness, but he is not allowed to tell the whole story of how Sinatra never forgave him for a small remark.
It's a more crushing book than anything Kitty Kelley might write, because it reveals lo nakedly what the Sinatras believe in. At the back of the book there are pictures of the record sleeves, stills from the movies, and a ten-page section, 20 pix to a page, like a wall papered with lottery tickets, of Frank with other celebrities or with those people whose burning ambition it was to have their pictures taken with him. The text is put together with the same awkward, insecure, unblushing overkill. Nancy writes like someone afraid she’s going to forget the full load of compliments to heap on her father’s chip-heavy shoulders. Her only relief from this duty is talking about herself; there is an entire chapter on her marriage to Tommy Sands and her recording “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”
And yet something fascinates, and a life is disclosed. Sinatra wanted the world, and he got enough of it for success to vanquish his own desire. Something happened. Sinatra went from being a skinny, rather homely New Jersey kid to a bandstand beauty with Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. You can see his looks alter in the pictures, the cocky street smarts and resentment peeled away to show wonder and unhindered yearning. Millions of women loved him. They wanted to rescue him from malnutrition and that aching want; they longed to nourish him. He had a safe wife, Nancy, another New Jersey Italian. They would have three children. He made several light movies, in the best of which he was Gene Kelly's buddy. He made it. And then he lost it, as if he needed to reinvent desire
HE left Nancy and the three kids to go with the raging beauty of Ava Gardner. It wouldn't last as long as the divorce from Nancy or the guilt. Among all the homilies from stars in this book, there are a few comments that stick. One is from Raquel Welch; “I think Frank is suspicious of most women. He thinks they only go for him because of who he is. That's why he likes Nancy, his first wife. She knew him when he was nothing, and he trusts her absolutely.”
As he broke with Ava Gardner, he lost his recording contract and was dropped by his agent. It's too much to say he was in the pits; probably the collected membership of the Order of the Leopard could have managed on what he had. But he felt he was down, and he found a mordant emotional charge in the feeling. He is sentimental about underdogs. He got the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity and at Capitol he started to make his classic albums, some of the new long-playing records in which a dozen songs sustain a single mood or reverie.
What had made Sinatra novel as a band singer in the late 1930s and early 1940s was his disdain of jauntiness and hollow cheer. This kid wanted things he didnt have, and the need was sexy because of its frankness. He never kidded the songs. He believed in them with a self-dramatizing courage that showed he might be a good actor. Historically, this was no small thing. In the culture of rock we no longer marvel at heartfelt emotion in popular music. But in the early decades of this century singers were guarded. The lyrics of songs were reckoned to be as silly as the rhyme schemes. If riot, you had to face the hunger for love and sex they masked. Bing Crosby was the model for tranquilizing his own material. This was a very white response to the lurking content of songs. Blacks were allowed the blues and their alarming sexual directness, but whites had a mocking self-control. (Astaire, too, is of interest in this history, for he had a high, light clean voice that subdued the implications of the lyrics. He made you hear music, not the message.)
Sinatra’s voice was always warmer, rougher, more experienced and literary. His approach was earnest, lovelorn, and sexy, and he meant what he said. He got away with it, because he defined a new sincerity and made it necessary. Another singer of the 1950s, Johnny Ray, was laughed into obscurity because he was so hurt he cried. Sinatra had too much taste to weep, and his songs were too good to need it. But he was the singer who told us to face what popular songs were about—and so he ushered in Elvis rock, and he made the blues white.
WHEREAS Astaire was alone—not just in solo dance routines, but dancing with women with the respect a botanist might feel for a prize leaf—Frank was lonely, gloomy, horny, and a little sorry for himself. The risk of sentimentality was usually offset by his love of singing. He had worked for years at diction and breath control; all through the 1950s he took pride in seeming a little drunk while being superbly controlled. Even so, if you replay great albums you can hear the monotony of melancholy—“Here’s That Rainy Day”—a wistful slowness that comes close to taking charge of the singer. It’s there in the very expressive album covers—a lonely Frank, brooding, not far from the lyric outcast.
Those album sleeves are like stills from his best movies. His Maggio deserved an Oscar. Sinatra had ancient eyes in a head that seemed too large for his body He looked at fellow actors like a reformed alcoholic watching booze dry. He was happy not to sing in pictures, and he took great chances showing nastiness on the screen. He gave a virtuoso performance in The Man with the Golden Arm, and he was ratlike as a would-be assassin in a small film called Suddenly, hard to see now because its action foreshadowed the shooting of JFK. He was flat-out brilliant as the comedian Joe E. Lewis in The Joker Is Wild, and never less than worthy in Some Came Running and The Manchurian Candidate.
THEN something happened, worse than the earlier fall. He must have known he had become untouchable, and his need for art was a little less than his longing for reassurance. In 1959 the New York Post called him the Love Voice of the Century. How do you handle such nonsense? He slipped back into being a New Jersey businessman. His face began to fill out, and he was on his way to being plain, dumpy, and a little grouchy, not too temperamentally inclined to use the saving device of his wicked grin. He not only kept the company of Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford, but he began to elevate their nerd instincts into a supposed model for new gentlemen. It was all a touch Playboyish, and eerily close to JFK’s tastes. The group’s natural home was Las Vegas their achievement was in growing old without suffering the tests of and maturity that had challenged Sinatra’s best songs in the 1950s.
He kept his voice, but the albums were less coherent and more complacent. He made more films, but he did not hide his boredom, or the laziness that chose any script if gang members were around. He became a celebrity suspicious of the press, so hugely important that he began to see the trivial ways he was being wronged. The later songs are “My Way” and “New York, New York,” coarse and intransigent. They turn vulnerability into armor, and come perilously close to the spirit of Billy Martin and Donald Trump.
None of which matters too much, or any more than having his picture taken gangsters. Entertainers and outlaws have always kept company in America—like George Raft and Bugsy Siegel, each wanting to be the other. I have no idea whether Mob lobbying helped Frank get the part of Maggio, or whether his ownership of the Cal-Neva gambling lodge at Lake Tahoe was tainted. This book uses whitewash like its author uses eyeliner that’s part of its grimness. Frank might appreciate his Pal Joey image see that no one in America be less than tickled now to hear that, yes, Sam Giancana did get him the Maggio role. Why shouldn’t a gangster have a little taste? And why can’t ol’ blue eyes have more humor?
Astaire is probably just as famous as Sinatra. Yet Fred laughs off celebrity, with that same polite, rather nervy smile he had at the end of stunning dance routines. He won’t have it; it’s not what he came for. He was a dancer and he trained his face to be blank and abstract, like Keaton and the other desolate Pierrots. But Sinatra ate up celebrity, because he wanted respect. In the same way, he always sang about satisfaction and the slim chance of getting it. Fred never notices satisfaction. He is only interested in being in heaven, and like all angels he is a little lost away from it. He got older and less supple, but he has never changed: he was always a dancer who put up with life. Sinatra was someone who wanted to make it, for whom singing was the prime way. But the way and its self-righteousness have come to dominate his rather bitter view of the world.
Sinatra is the inescapable mood music for a part of our lives, even if we should be careful of the self-pity he sometimes ordains. But Astaire is something more—he is an advance on nature, enough like us to show us what the body can do, but with a grace that is also unearthly, like that of E.T. or the moon. There is the friction of hurt in Frank’s voice, but Fred was always serene. We hear that Ginger’s feet bled after some scenes had been shot and shot. But Fred’s? It can't be. Does the moon bleed?
David Thompson’s American Beauty, on the life, work, and the legend of Warren Beatty, will be published by Doubleday in the fall.
This article appeared in the March 31, 1986 issue of the magazine.