Welcome back to #TopFiveTuesday, a bit of content aggregation that’s sweeping the nation! This week finds us looking to this Sunday’s staff pick screening of The Band Wagon, one of the best movie musicals ever crafted, and specifically zeroing in on Fred Astaire! Unlike Fred’s hairline, our appreciation for his work is far from receding, instead growing with each passing year. So without further ado’s let dig into…
THE TOP FIVE FRED ASTAIRE DANCE NUMBERS!
1. Royal Wedding – Off the Wall
(Dir. Stanley Donen | USA | 1951)
The joyful counterpart to Inception’s gravity-bending action sequence, this number sees Astaire literally scaling the walls of his room, so happy he is to have found love. It is the kind of simple literalizing of a well-known concept (head over heels) that the movies pull off in such a magical fashion. It’s hard to imagine any other actor pulling off this number, either, as Astaire makes the routine (accomplished via a custom-made set rolling on an axis) look carefree. Speaking of which…
2. Carefree – Astaire/Rogers chopped & screwed
(Dir. Mark Sandrich | USA | 1938)
A personal favorite, Carefree eschews many of the traditional elements of an Astaire/Rogers pairing, going easy on the musical numbers and amping up instead the screwball comedy-flavored love triangle as its center, with Astaire as a reluctant psychiatrist probing the dreams of his friend’s fiance, Amanda (Rogers). Hypnotism, a musical number called “The Yam”, and hijinx ensue. In particular I am shouting out the sequence wherein Amanda dreams of dancing with her doctor in a surreal dreamscape, with their number almost entirely unfurling in slow motion. It’s a choice, and while few will point to Carefree as the apex of their partnership, I respect the massive swings it takes!
3. Easter Parade – Frederick Astairium’s Wonder Empairium
(Dir. Charles Walters | USA | 1948)
Initially meant to be a Gene Kelly/Judy Garland pairing, Astaire put a pin in his retirement and stepped in after Kelly fractured his ankle (via the ‘having an extremely normal one’ way of stamping his foot in anger after losing a volleyball game) and the results provided both Judy and Fred with their greatest box office success. If you can get past the concept of this being a musical number predicated on a 49 year old man gaslighting a young boy into giving up the stuffed bunny he covets, it’s yet another incredible showcase for Astaire’s seemingly limitless dexterity. Also, as a person frequently subject to idle percussion sessions on whatever surface is nearby when I’m in deep (or shallow) thought, it’s a piece tailor made for me.
4. Steppin’ Out: Astaire Sings – You down with FA/OP? Yeah you know me
Throwin’ a curveball on this week’s list, as we shift out of the realm of cinema into one of my very favorite albums of all time, Steppin’ Out: Astaire Sings. In 1952, Astaire teamed up with legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and a host of Verve’s finest studio musicians to craft jazz renditions of some of his most-famous numbers. Nobody will argue that Astaire had the finest voice in the realm of musicals, but his delivery is as rhythmic and smooth as his movements, and pairs delightfully with these rearrangements. In particular, I’m pointing towards this album’s rendition of Top Hat, White Tie and Tails, as Astaire is swept away in the moment at the 3:32 mark and starts an impromptu tap session in the studio. It’s a joyous moment, and one that shows just how deeply ingrained performance is in his DNA.
5. Top Hat - Machine Gun Freddy
(Dir. Mark Sandrich | USA | 1935)
REDUX! We’re going back to the Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails well with its original performance in the movie Top Hat. Written by Irving Berlin and taken to the next level by Astaire’s fancy footwork, this number reaches its ecstatic peak when our guy unleashes a torrent of Tommy-Gun-taps to knock over the fleet of Fred-plicates. All of these examples highlight this fact, but you never see the rictus grin that so many musicians put on when in the midst of extreme exertion. Astaire always made the difficult seem ordinary, and the impossible seem utterly attainable. There’ll never be another like him, and you should head to the Oriental Theatre this Sunday for proof of it!