Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lady of the Dance

We're having an fun discussion over at Self-Styled Siren:

Astaire or Kelly?

I have to admit to loving movie musicals. My little guy comes by his taste biologically; I have favorites and preferences, but almost anything from Gold Diggers of 1933 to Sweeney Todd is grist for my entertainment mill. So when I stumbled into Campaspe's discursion on "Dance as Soliloquy" I followed with fascination her dissection of probably the two best known movie hoofers: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

I've always enjoyed Gene's work more than Fred's, probably because I just don't have the feel for the ballroom basis of Astaire's style, and the technicolor musicals of the late Forties and Fifties are more kinetic than the black-and-white Thirties versions. But even in the Sixties Fred was the Thirties; you could almost see him looking around for his white tie and tails. Kelly is more the modern, and his dancing has a "West Side Story" sort of muscularity to it that makes Fred seem slight by comparison. The singing voices match: Gene a little rough at the edges, Fred wispy and croony, a sort of Rudy Valle' in tap shoes.

But I didn't actually post this to talk about the guys - Campaspe's doing just fine on that subject. I wanted to talk about Ginger Rogers.

First, because I've always enjoyed the hell out of her as a dancer and actress. And second because she's usually thought of - when thought of at all, these days - as "Mrs. Fred", the other half of Astaire and Rogers. But she did good work, both before Fred and after, and she's a hell of a tough, sexy woman who should be respected for her own work, not just as the arm-candy of half of the Great Dancers of Movie History. Gene Kelly has never really been "paired" with another dancer, although I understand his favorite partner as Cyd Charisse. Ginger is linked with Astaire in a way that none of Kelly's female leads has been. Which, IMO, is kind of unfair. Ginger was a good, solid working actress, and has chops of her own.

She worked all over in Hollywood, as chorine, as the wisecracking sidekick in "gold Diggers" and "42nd Street". She did comedy as varied as "The Major and the Minor" to slapstick "Monkey Business" with Cary Grant. You haven't seen World War Two homefront pathos until you've seen Ginger jerk tears as the "Tender Comrade" (although I've always been suspicious of her fervid denials of the "socialist" subtext there. C'mon, Ginge: either you're in on the gag or you're just that dumb - you can't have it both ways).But...because my mind is always on sex (being male)...the one thing I've always thought curious is the idea that Ginger "gave (Astaire) sex", that is, made their dancing believable as courtship and/or consummation.

First of all, Ginger wasn't - couldn't be, really - physically the sort of woman Hollywood typically casts as "sexy". She was slender and relatively small (she had to be, to dance comfortably with Fred, not himself a big man), and in common with dancers lacked the mammilary opulence we think of as conventionally sexy. She only seems "oomphy" next to Fred; her body isn't insistently female. If anything, her sex appeal is generated as much in her head as in her loins.

(If you get the chance, try and catch "Monkey Business" - it shows every so often on Turner Classic Movies. It's notable for the pairing of Ginger in her maturity with the latest ingenue starlet - Marilyn Monroe. For my money, Ginger plays La Monroe off the screen. But go, watch, see what you think.)

While the later Rogers did fill out nicely, even then her physicality was as much attitude as pulchritude. It always was. Go back and look at her earlier work, cornball stuff like "Rafter Romance" in '33 or "42nd Street". She's just a slip of a girl but she's all woman. It's the cocky, tough little showgoil attitude that makes her seem like such an earthy hoyden.She and Fred are a terrific dance team and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that she consciously worked to soften her edge and let Fred "lead", if you will. With Kelly, you're left thinking that all this sweaty dancing is going to lead to something else...sweaty. You never see Astaire sweat and you suspect that he probably doesn't...sweat. And I think that has a lot to do with Ginger lending him a certain authority without ever becoming his doormat. And she had to do some pretty good acting to make him into a plausible "romantic" lead in that sense; he's almost asexual although "charming" in a Thirties way.

The often-quoted line about her bringing the sex, BTW, is from Kate Hepburn, who claimed that Fred "gave her class", which I think it a rotten slur on Ginger. Yes, she was a difficult, Red-baiting Republican with some serious mother issues, but on screen "Feathers" was always my ideal of Hollywood class and professionalism.But as for the "she gave him sex" thing?

I've always thought that Ginger just seemed a little TOO sexy for Fred.

Picture if you can the honeymoon "epilogue" of a Fred-and-Ginger picture (not easy, given the wan sexuality Fred projects on screen): there's wispy little Fred in his boxers, hands clasped protectively over his groin, standing by the turned-down bed staring transfixed - a midnight deer in the headlights, Balboa gazing upon the vast Pacific from that peak in Darien - at Ginger, emerging from her frou-frou nightie like a great pink-and-cream battleship emerging from the sea-smoke.

You can see by his rabbit-eyes he knows, and by her knowing smirk that she knows he knows, that the shattering blasts to come are going to sink him without a survivor.


Lisa said...


"Rabbit eyes," "Wan sexuality" -- nobody has captured Fred better!

To be honest, I never thought much of Fred and Ginger, though they were a fine dancing pair. I'm afraid I can't really get my mind off Gene Kelley, you see... This must be a male thing, to see the smouldering sexuality behind the ice princess mask that I see.

That is o.k.; you could be right. Or maybe, we just imagine that she's more sexual as, well, a pear would be more sexual than Fred.
But Gene...

BTW, Kelley's widow wrote a withering letter to the NYT rebutting a Maureen Dowd piece a month or so ago. What a brilliant woman Ms. Kelley seems, and what a fine man Kelley himself must have been, judging by her letter.

FDChief said...

Lisa: I agree that GK is a smouldring humk o' man-meat. And his ethics and politics I admire. I have always had issues with the man's personality: he seems to have ranged from a hardnosed perfectionist (according to Debbie Reynolds, his co-star in "Singin' in the Rain") to flaming asshole (according to Esther Williams, who hated him long after they made "Take Me Out To The Ball Game".). Not an easy man to work with in some ways. But his politics were in the right place, as opposed to Ginger, who, frankly, was a freaking right-wing nutjob. (She was also wierd about Christian Science, and her marriages seem to have been troubled for reasons that she had a lot to do with.)

But the funny thing is that, for a woman whose real sex life seems to have been...difficult, on the screen she comes across - I wouldn't call it "smouldering" - as fresh, open, fun and physical. Someone you could have a torrid night of passion with and then spend the next morning laughing over the comics and coffee in bed. Which just makes her more admirable as an actress.

Glad to hear that the Widow Kelly took the time to defenestrate MoDo, whose obsession with the Clenis would be laughable if it wasn't so damaging.

Lisa said...


Right, well, as MoDo ages she's getting bitter, thus the clenis fixation.

As for torrid roll-in-the-hay, coffee and comics next morning: first, I compliment you on your concept of what constitutes a good combo. Ginger was always smiling, clean and tidy, and one had the impression she was "approachable," and certainly after dealing with Fred, ready to receive a man of even middling prowess with gusto.

But for my money, Carole Lombard fits the bill better -- fun, sexy, intelligent. . . .But you did say, "comics," didn't you? And maybe you were limiting yourself to song-and-dance teams (?)

As an aside, if I were Gene, I imagine I'd have a bit of an ego, too -- wouldn't you?!