As in the case of American in Paris, it is about 30 years or more since I last saw this film. I remember liking it but not being awe-struck by it. I must have had extremely high standards back then. Having seen it again, I can say that, in parts, it is a wonderful musical – those parts being a few inimitable dance routines.
Fred Astaire’s “improvised” routine to “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” is simply a superb summation of the artistry of the man. He starts out seated at a piano, playing through and singing the tune while, during the line-breaks, spinning round on the stool and tapping through the fills. It looks as if he really is playing. Maybe on the sound-tracked he was over-dubbed, but it does look as if he was really playing the thing. And then he launches into one of his solo routines, along the lines of “No Strings” or “When There’s a Shine on your Shoes”. This was a man who expressed himself most fully in movement. Not to be unfair to Gene Kelly, he was another such, but he was more concerned with conveying power and weight. And to be honest, there were people who conveyed it more effectively – such as Burt Lancaster or Yul Brynner. Fred Astaire is always on springs, ready to explode into action. Compare this sequence to the one in American in Paris where Kelly annoys Levant with a fairly poor Gershwin tune – “Tra-la-la (This Time It’s Really Love)”. He grins like an idiot and teeters around like a skittle about to overbalance: a man trying very hard to pretend to be exhilarated. Astaire’s routine here is, on the other hand, pure excitement. And yet nothing was left to chance. He would have rehearsed it all immensely thoroughly…and then rehearsed some more to make it just flow naturally and easily and effortlessly. He throws Eleanor Powell’s conveniently spherical powder-compact onto a tent roof and then catches it in his hat. However, since there is a droop in the tent canvas, there is a dip in the trajectory which delays the flight: Astaire timed it perfectly.
Eleanor Powell has been watching from the wings and suddenly realises who is the better dancer out of Fred Astaire and George Murphy – one of those tangled musical plots that do not really bear unravelling in detail (if only they had told Richard Wagner) – and she suggests they go to lunch together. They “extemporise” a dance to a tune that the waiter conjures out of the jukebox. Here were two people operating at their limits, testing each other and having fun: you can see it on their faces. Their celebrated “Begin the Beguine” routine is perhaps more intricate and highly wrought but as an expression of feeling, of joy in movement, of joy in partnership, it is not so good. It lacks the spontaneity of the jukebox number, even though that was obviously far from spontaneous.
The “Begin the Beguine” routine is clearly a virtuoso effort from everyone involved. The designers created a set of polished floors and mirrors and an endless vista. The cinematographer and electricians ensured that there were no reflections of lights and technicians, merely the dancers, singers and orchestra, despite the elaborate camera movements tracking everyone. It is truly an amazing tour de force of technique. And yet, for me it is surpassed by the sheer joie de vivre of that jukebox routine. I am glad that Powell claimed it as her favourite dance routine on film. For once, she had more to do than tapping and whirling, getting thrown around by 20 muscular men and doing somersaults – she had done one of those numbers earlier on “All Ashore”. This dance, for once, allowed her personality to shine through doing what she did best: dance.
You do have to feel for poor George Murphy, though. Until Fred Astaire came along, he was Powell’s partner. This film made it clear that although he was a pretty good dancer he was no match for Astaire. And then when Gene Kelly came along a year or so later, it would be made clear that he was second-fiddle to him as well. And bear a thought for Freed and Nacio Herb Brown – the overture quoted their eponymous song…collecting those royalties again