By Marcelle Clements
From The Dog Is Us, 1985
Fred Astaire is my hero, and I don’t care who knows it. “Gimme a break!” sneer the technocrats, the pseudo-dandies with the punk haircuts, all those who favor business lunches and open relationships. Yes, they will mock, but I don’t care. Indeed, my sentiments regarding Fred Astaire are almost of a missionary nature. After all, everyone’s got his prescription for improving the world: these days, social critics beg for less narcissism, environmentalists for conservation, and Republicans for lower taxes. I say Fred is our ticket. I say: Bring back moonlight!
Naturally, I speak of Fred Astaire as metaphor. Consider how certain concepts evoke, beyond themselves, the pinnacles of Western culture. The Acropolis. The sonata-allegro form. The British Museum. The Theory of Relativity. Fred Astaire. But whereas in the history of our civilization there are many landmarks of power, money, and, more seldom, beauty and wisdom, only Astaire consummately exemplifies casual elegance. I speak not merely of the now venerable dancer, but of the concept of the icon of finesse, the embodiment of grace, the paragon of romance. Fred Astaire is the summum bonum of debonair charm, a quality that, alas, is disappearing from our cultural shores.
I happen to believe that the public TV stations in this country should run Fred Astaire movies all night, every night. It would indeed be a public service. We could all go to sleep with the sets on and, just as we are subliminally influenced by commercials we thought we hadn’t noticed, we might unconsciously absorb some of the glorious Astaire allure that we who are stranded in the eighties so desperately need. Think of all we’d learn: how to walk, how to dress, how to banter, how to dance “The Piccolino.”
But no, we enthusiasts are left to peruse local listings for the sporadic appearance of our idol. He’s always worth the wait for the “Late, Late, Late Show.” The more I see of these films, however, the more a bizarre and compelling urge overtakes me. I want to find Fred Astaire. Not in Top Hat, not in Carefree, not in Swing Time, but, you know, in Real Life. Not the literal Astaire, of course. What I’m looking for is the Fred Astaire attitude, the mood, the subtle certain something that made life seem, how shall I say, worthwhile, in 1935….
Needless to say, my search so far has been perfectly futile. Otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. I’d be dancing on some parquet floor wearing a dress made of ostrich feathers. (And I’d be blond, but that’s beside the point.)
The most splendid moments in the Astaire films are the simplest ones, those in which he subtly turns the merely pedestrian gesture into the natural expression of exquisite grace.
Why can’t I find Fred Astaire? Is his persona a total fiction? It’s odd, but the Astaire character as I imagine it seems so plausible, so likely, that I simply can’t understand why he’s only to be found on celluloid. Why, there must be hundreds, maybe even thousands of Fred Astaires out there. You know, guys who can strike a jaunty pose next to a candelabra without getting their hair singed; guys who assure you that not only are they in heaven but they can hardly speak when they’re dancing with you cheek to cheek. Most guys I know won’t even dance cheek to cheek except as a joke, and it’s usually with one another. But so far I’m not discouraged. I’m keeping my hopes up and staying on the lookout. One thing I’m convinced of: I’ll know the real thing when I see it.
I’m sure Fred Astaire doesn’t read paperbacks. (Whether he reads at all is another matter, but never mind, you know what I mean.) And he wouldn’t own a digital clock. He’d never wake up angry in the morning. You couldn’t pay him to be rude to a waiter. And he would never, never have a recording machine answer his telephone.
Speaking as a woman, I pine for Fred on numerous occasions. I pine, for example, when the man who walks into the restaurant ahead of me allows the door to slam neatly in my face. I pine when my lover comes to breakfast in his jockey shorts. I pine when my editor rudely insults me without subsequently tearing off my glasses and falling in love with me. (Actually, I believe it’s Humphrey Bogart who tears off girls’ glasses and falls in love with them, but you get the general idea. In fact, as it happens, I don’t wear glasses.) I even pine for Fred Astaire seasonally. In the spring and summer, I pine for the tender hand-in-hand walks in appropriately bucolic surroundings. And in the fall and winter, I pine on schedule once a week, in splendid solitude, for the entire duration of “Monday Night Football.”
I think the trouble with young men today is that they don’t have any romantic ideals. And it’s no wonder: all of their role models are hicks, schlepps, stiffs, or studs. After all, who is there? Richard Gere? Robert DeNiro? Bill Murray? Please. I mean, in your heart, you know these people have terrible table manners. And as for their wardrobes, it’s strictly heartbreak city.
I’m not saying they should bring back white tie and tails—though that would be lovely at crucial points in a relationship, the first time a man spends the night in one’s apartment, for example. But let’s be realistic; what with the frequency of one-night stands these days, the dry-cleaning bills would be astronomical. Certainly, the very least men could do, in memory of the great silhouette, would be to try and develop some Attitude about what they wear, instead of contenting themselves with whipping out their MasterCard as soon as they’ve found their size. Think of how great Astaire always managed to look, though he may in fact have been wearing a business suit, a sailor’s outfit, or even one of those ridiculous ascots.
Glamour, after all, is a state of mind.
And if you think dress is not all that important except on nights out, you are sadly mistaken. “It is only the shallow people who do not judge by appearances,” said Oscar Wilde, who knew a thing or two about such matters. Why, Fred Astaire looks impeccable in pajamas! His dress, his carriage, his manners all evoke that sexiest of attributes, breeding. And that’s why, whether he was cast as a millionaire, a psychiatrist, or a struggling vaudevillian, Astaire always managed to convey an ambience of affluence and glamour. The Attitude, so well illustrated by his wardrobe and, of course, his dancing, was also marvelously epitomized by the tilt of his hat, the way he descended a staircase, the way he phrased a song, the way he made Ginger Rogers feel, the rose in the bud vase. No, no, they can’t take that away from me.
Glamour, after all, is a state of mind. Granted, Astaire is a superb dancer. And granted, he got plenty of help in his films by way of props, sets, the costumes of his partners, to say nothing of some great scores. But for the truly ardent Astaire enthusiasts, for the hardcore, guts-to-the-wall fans, the most splendid moments in the Astaire films are the simplest ones, those in which he subtly turns the merely pedestrian gesture into the natural expression of exquisite grace: his gait when he crosses the street, the way he enters a room, how he holds his cane, the instant in a dance when he pauses and looks into his partner’s eyes. Now, next time you’re spending the evening in a disco, look around. Need I say more?
But my hero isn’t only charming, glamorous, refined, and elegant. He is also honorable, brave, and audacious if need be, and this despite his obvious (and so endearing!) natural timidity. Fred Astaire dared! He dared to go after the girl, he dared to wear spats, he dared to call Audrey Hepburn “Funny Face,” he dared to dance. He was somewhat homely, not particularly tall, much too skinny, yet he dared, dared to be a movie star. But even when he was bold, he had grace—none of this brassy vulgarity so evident in the behavior of the contemporary go-for-it set. After all, would anyone ever accuse Fred Astaire of being coarse or pushy? Certainly not. He remained modest and restrained and he still got the girl or the job. Even when he had a temporary setback, he did not throw a nasty tantrum. If Joan Fontaine was (for the moment) unresponsive, he did not turn on her like a Doberman pinscher and inform her that she was a repressed lesbian and a disgusting ballbreaker. No, not once in any of his numerous films did Astaire ever exhibit the urge to utter a primal scream. I guess no therapist had ever told Fred to Look Out for Number One. He may have sulked every once in a while, but he always remained civilized. At worst, he’d go out in the London fog and sing a little.
He embodied that uniquely American combination of energy and looseness, but he added to it a Continental gloss, the result being an irresistible mélange of chic and good humor. He’s perfect.
In fact, Astaire’s boyish cheer is part of his appeal. It seems impossible not to be fond of Fred Astaire. He is inexhaustibly good-natured. (Who else could put up with Edward Everett Horton?) Even in these cynical times, his perennially winsome mien seems pleasant rather than irritating. And I speak as one who is ready to kill when a waiter says “Enjoy” as he places a plate in the vicinity of my seething bosom and clenched jaw….The Astaire genius consists in never dancing over the line. And this is the magic one looks for, in vain, among the business-lunch/open-relationship types: good cheer without doltism, warmth without mawkishness, elegance without archness, nonchalance without indifference, and excellence devoid of arrogance. He embodied that uniquely American combination of energy and looseness, but he added to it a Continental gloss, the result being an irresistible mélange of chic and good humor. He’s perfect.
All right, I know. I know the Astaire films are hokey. I know people watch them as camp artifacts, as frivolous confections filled with air. But let them eat hot dogs. As for me, I’m hooked on soufflés. I’ll take it: the candelabra, the carnation in the lapel, the bashful smile, the top hat, and even “The Yam.” I can’t help it. Try as I might to maintain the proper contemporary disdain for sexist film as much as I may attempt to regard with mere contemptuous amusement the absurd plots with their chestnut devices of mistaken identities and the inevitability of the wedded-bliss conclusions, I can’t help it, I’m sold. As far as I’m concerned, the worst part of watching Fred Astaire movies is the bilious aftermath of two solid hours of being jealous of Ginger Rogers.
Just think how much better the world would be if more people felt as I do: All personal problems would be resolved as soon as boy got girl, which would invariably occur. There’d be champagne parties every night, and all the men would be clever and wonderful dancers, and all the women would be beautiful blondes wearing dresses made of ostrich feathers. Why, there’d even be moonlight again.