Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bonus Quote of the Day (Joseph Epstein, on Fred Astaire)

“He was this little guy, skinny, with big ears, a long chin, and too wide a forehead, whose only chance is to get the girl onto the dance floor, where he will let his feet do his seduction for him. And yet root for him, we do. We do so because he is almost always coming from behind. Part of Fred Astaire’s charm is that in many of his movies he is something of an underdog. In the scripts of the movies he appears in, one or another kind of misidentification, bungled opportunity, or other bit of bumbling occurs, which, in the football phrase, gives Astaire very poor field position which he is under the necessity of making up ground. The point is that if only he can get these lovely women on the dance floor, victory will be his, and everyone will dance happily ever after.”—Joseph Epstein, “Fred: The Astaire Way to Paradise,” The Hudson Review, Spring 2008

Between the two great male dancers of the movie musical, my preference has always been decidedly for Gene Kelly—the more athletic and blue-collar one, with the guy-from-the-streets Irish grin that doesn’t even melt when he’s singing (and, of course, dancing) in the rain.

But this long piece by Joseph Epstein—one-time editor of The American Scholar (as well as, under the “Aristides” pseudonym, that periodical’s column of nonpareil personal essays)—is so impassioned and well-argued that it will force me to the DVD player to put my prejudice to the test. At very least, it makes me want to read his argument at greater length in the full-scale biography he recently produced.

It was a long way from Omaha to Hollywood and an even longer distance from Frederick Austerlitz to his entertainment alter ego, Fred Astaire—born on this date 110 years ago.

The plots of his films might have been as confectionary as cotton candy, but, as Epstein reminds us, the dancer’s rise to stardom was anything but insubstantial, as Astaire sought to live up to the impossible standard he set for himself as thoroughly as Kelly did (though without the latter’s equally unrelenting drive to make everyone else on the set meet that yardstick of perfection, too).

Footwork, of course, became the primary method by which Astaire exerted his charm, but the image accompanying this post illustrates yet another means that this most unlikely of leading men expressed his joie de vivre to a nation that badly needed it during the Great Depression.

To paraphrase the Gershwin brothers, it’s the way he wears his hat.


Jayne said...

the way he wears his hat indeed. they just don't make 'em like these guys anymore, do they Mike? And although I've always loved them both, my preference was always for Gene.

MikeT said...

Nope, they broke the molds with these guys, Jayne. Everybody else pales by comparison.