Was Fred Astaire an Auteur?
Reflections on some research
My research for an upcoming dance film, essentially a dance musical film, has led me to revisit my favorite genre, the Hollywood musical. Like any director worth his salt, I’m researching what has come before me to better inform and guide my own vision. The following stems from my thinking about what makes a movie musical great, or specifically what creates the “magic” that draws us into the far-fetched and often ludicrous world of Old Hollywood Musicals. For answers, I picked up a few books on one of my favorite movie stars, Fred Astaire. As is typical for frolicking workaholics such as myself, what began as casual reading has turned into a casual blog post.
Reading Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, the extent of Astaire’s influence on the development of the Hollywood musical impressed itself upon me. Even as a relative newcomer to Hollywood, Astaire was actually a stage veteran able to influence a great deal about how the musical numbers looked. A consummate professional who was no doubt extremely conscious of the shortcomings of Hollywood musicals up until that point, given the constraints in sound and camera technology, Astaire was very particular about how dance numbers were shot and edited.
This brings me to the question of authorship. Auteur Theory, which I researched in modest amounts for my thesis on John Ford, was the once-fashionable and always controversial idea that the director is the primary author of his films. As Andrew Sarris notes, “to look at a film as the expression of a director’s vision is not to credit the director with total creativity. All directors, and not just in Hollywood, are imprisoned by the conditions of their craft and culture.”But Hamilton, Emma & Rolls, Alistair have suggested that authorship should not be confined to directors. On certain films, writers or even actors can be considered authors. Perhaps then we should look again at Mr. Astaire.
It would be laughable to consider Astaire to be the author of any of his films, let alone the Astaire-Rogers series that he is perhaps most known for. After all, Astaire’s role was limited to his performance and to choreographing in collaboration with Hermes Pan. One should not discount the other luminaries who contributed in fragmentary amounts to that series of films, such as Irving Berlin and the Gershwins. However, the argument for Fred as the primary author of the body of work that makes up his dance sequences and the style he displays makes more sense than, say, crediting any of the directors, writers or even songwriters, who came and went throughout the ten films at the behest of studio machinery. Croce does detail how certain writers were responsible for the types of stories, the tone and the humor that characterized these films. But Fred’s contribution to the dance sequences is what raised these films above the standard musical comedies of the era. There’s a reason we casually refer to such movies as “Fred Astaire movies” - it was his contribution that we remember them for.
I suppose that this interests me on a personal level. To identify Fred as an auteur without being a writer or a director suggests the ways in which dancers can have influence on cinema.
Astaire changed the movie musical. Croce wrote that, “Astaire’s means and his style were not available to his imitators, but he was technically the greatest revolutionary in the history of the movie musical. He forced camerawork, cutting, synchronization and scoring to ever higher standards of sensitivity and precision.”Up until then, filmmakers could not capture intricate choreography. Demonstrative of the type of dancing in early Hollywood musicals, as Jeanine Basinger writes in The Movie Musical!, that the chorus girls in The Cocoanuts, an early Marx Brother feature, “aren’t really dancers; they’re more like a marching drill team. Their steps are simple, and anyone could do them. The girls are all short and somewhat plump, pretty rather than glamorous, and certainly not providing viewers with a line of dance that is athletic or visual.” One of the problems was that the heavy, primitive technology stifled choreographic possibilities. According to Croce:
the camera was enclosed in a booth to keep the sound of its motor from being picked up, and since it was forbidden to move the microphone as the performers moved, musical numbers took on a particularly cataleptic quality. You played, sang or danced to the mike, wherever it was. You did a nice little dance, and if you wanted the taps to register you didn’t travel it far. Nothing was too active or too ambitious. The camera didn’t move much either.
The greatest innovations in movie musicals to make these sequences tolerable and even impressive were made by dance director Busby Berkley. His apparent fondness for abstraction took the emphasis away from bad choreography and individual performers and emphasized shapes, patterns and formations of dancers. The choreography demanded little talent from the performers, but the effects were impressive nonetheless. Berkley experimented with overhead camera angles and wide masters to present dancers in inventive shapes and configurations. As a landscape gardener arranges flowers, Berkeley arranged and filmed the dancers and the soundstage was his Versailles.
However, whereas Berkley’s philosophy was camera-centric, Astaire’s philosophy was performer-centric. Basinger writes that Astaire, “was aware that in the early years of cinematic musicals, the ability to use multiple cameras to photograph a dance from different angles had brought excitement and newness to choreography.”Indeed, cutting away to reaction shots, closeups of dancing feet or angles of the performers from different vantage points “let the audience in the movie house see what audiences in the theater could never see.” However:
Astaire rejected these ideas because they broke up the dance, destroyed its line and this it's poetry and distracted viewers from his movements. He demanded control of the camera, and essentially asked it to follow the dance, respect the dancers, and bring greater emotion to the viewers by making the dancing mean something in the story or by showing dancing in a way that made them feel like a part of it.
The still primitive nature of the movie musical forced Astaire to move the artform forward so that it would showcase him as well as any stage. As dance critic and historian Brian Siebert put it in What the Eye Hears, “Astaire’s dancing wasn’t ideal for film as he found it. It was ideal for film as he made it.”
Synchronizing music to dancing was one puzzle that had not yet been solved. Dance sequences came to be filmed to piano accompaniment with the orchestral and band arrangements dubbed in later. However, as Croce details, syncing the music later would prove terribly difficult and, “in desperation, film cutters would cut away to crowd reactions, yapping dogs, gurgling babies - anything to avoid getting sight and sound together.”It was these reaction shots that Astaire would later insist on doing away with.
On a related point, in his memoir, Steps in Time, Astaire details how agonizingly hard it was to synchronize the taps with the visuals, writing:
The foot sounds had to be dubbed in, due to the difficulty of picking them up satisfactorily on the set during the shooting. If it was a tap dance, all those sounds had to be matched back to the picture. In order to do it, you are also obligated to wear earphones, through which comes the distorted sound of the original pre-recorded track. In recent years the use of a remote unit consisting of ear plugs without overhead wires helps some but it’s still a laborious chore. These technicalities are heavy on me because of the number of musical numbers I am always concerned with.
For full disclosure, I’m not exactly sure who wore the headphones and how they worked, but that excerpt certainly conveys the complications that synchronization entailed. Croce writes that,
No one until that time had insisted on so exact a synchronization of picture and sound. Astaire could detect disparities where everyone else saw wholeness and perfection. He would say to the editor, “Move the film two sprocket holes ahead.” (Film moves at the speed of 24 frames a second and there are perhaps four sprocket holes per frame.) Then he would look at the result as it flashed through the Moviola and say, “No, maybe one.”
This is where we see a type of auteur at work, at least within the sphere of the dance. Astaire maintained enough control of the creative process throughout to ensure that his artform was translating to the new medium. Here’s another illustrative story: Astaire eagerly showed up to a showing of The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, his last RKO film with Ginger, at the Radio City Music Hall. Croce writes that, “it was evident to him that something was wrong. The sound coming across the vast distances of the theatre from the loudspeakers behind the screen reached his ears a fraction of a second too late - too late for Astaire. He rushed to a phone and called the studio in Hollywood. ‘Get someone over here right away,’ he said, ‘the film is five frames out of sync.”
It is commonly known that Astaire had a lot of influence in how his dance numbers were shot during production. He wanted the musical numbers to showcase the dance itself, uncompromised and actually well-displayed by the medium, which was still beholden to heavy camera, lighting and sound equipment. Croce writes that:
The choreography was frontally planned, with full head-to-foot framing - no close-ups, no overhead shots. One has the impression of watching every moment from an ideally placed seat in a theatre. After ‘Night and Day’, in which Sandrich’s camera shot through window blinds and from under tables, the camera angles were reduced to three at most - central field, medium right angle, medium left angle. For most of the RKO series Astaire set up three cameras to shoot simultaneously; later one camera recorded the whole dance.
Less commonly known is that in order to achieve the desired effect, a special rig was built bearing his name, ‘The Astaire Dolly.” H. C. Potter, who directed The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, described it as a contraption that would ensure that the camera maintained a steady distance from Astaire so as to keep him well in frame. Potter said that:
“It was on tiny wheels with a mount for the camera that put the lens about two feet above the ground. On it rode the camera operator and the assistant who changed the focus and that’s all. Fred always wanted to keep the camera in as tight as possible, and they used to shoot with a 40 millimeter lens, which doesn’t give you too much leeway. So every time Fred and Ginger moved toward us, the camera had to go back, and every time they moved back, the camera went in. The head grip who was in charge of pushing this thing was a job to watch. He would maintain a consistent distance, and when they were in the midst of a hectic dance that’s quite a stunt.”
For a relatively new film star to have such creative control to the point that new filming techniques are being invented to accommodate his+++++ vision is quite unprecedented. Keep in mind this is the era of the studio system, which is typically thought of as being exploitative of its talent, with actors having little control over the films they appeared in. Why was Astaire able to command such power? Perhaps his star power carried over from his days on the stage with sister Adele. Perhaps producer Berman and others knew well enough to defer to Astaire since Hollywood had still not built up expertise in the movie musical. Nonetheless, it should be clear by now that Astaire’s contributions to the films were more than just a player. He was an author of the product itself.
Finally, we should visit Astaire's creative process and his hand in creating the musical numbers themselves. Astaire’s deep appreciation for the choreographic process and intimate knowledge of music - which composers like Irving Berlin and Jerome Kern acknowledged and respected - gave him a skillset upon which to put his own stamp upon the musical. Croce writes that, “there are probably numerous instances when he even affected the actual composing. The songs did not pass through an arranger before they came to him. They came to him directly, and the arrangement was laid out, after weeks of rehearsal at Hal Borne’s piano.”Borne was Astaire’s personal rehearsal pianist but his contributions to the musical along with Astaire and choreographic collaborator Hermes Pan are notable. It’s worth visiting their creative process in detail, courtesy again of Croce:
Astaire and Pan would begin by listening as Hal Borne played. Then they would start moving about, experimenting with different approaches, taking the music in small sections…it was difficult too, because he had a horror of repeating himself…Borne would improvise, building extended figures around the written notes, or making up hummy tunes if the songs weren’t ready. Astaire would pick up on this, and Borne in turn would pick up on Astaire’s and Pan’s movements as they danced. Work would continue in this improvisatory fashion until Astaire was satisfied. If the number was a duet, Pan would assume Rogers’ role and would teach it to her and rehearse it before she rehearsed with Astaire.
So Astaire had collaborators. Maybe he’s not quite auteur then, but what fascinates is the leeway and creative space this self-contained unit was given. Composers trusted Astaire and his team to mold their songs in ways that would suit them. This also must have required great trust on the part of directors and producers. Astaire had a realm of authority and control over the process that was respected and that’s probably why the dance sequences turned out as well as they did.
Of course, the Astaire-Rogers vehicles consist of more than simply the musical numbers. Indeed, the stories and characters that were constructed to mold to their respective screen personas and talents were the product of varied but consistent team of players at RKO, including producer Pandro Berman, frequent director Mark Sandrich, screenwriter Allan Scott and directors of photography David Abel and Robert de Grasse. Edward Gallafent’s study Astaire and Rogers gives more attention to the plot and characters of the series as a whole, a series of films whose plots and characters draw from and reference each other, as well as Astaire and Rogers real-life personas. Gallafent’s study aims to be “giving the films back to at least some of the Hollywood professionals who shaped them.”
While these professionals certainly had a hand in crafting the series, in other ways authorship is difficult to assign. Take for instance, art design. Set designs for films like Top Hat were typically assigned to Van Nest Polglase, but that was merely a pen name for the RKO art department. Croce writes that “as head of his department at RKO, Polglase read scripts, estimated budgets and handed out assignments. He undoubtedly collaborated in an advisory capacity on designs, but the actual designing was done by draftsmen under the supervision of a unit art director.”The distinctive art deco look of the early Astaire-Rogers vehicles then was the product not of a single author but of the well-oiled dream machine at RKO. Croce notes that art director Carrol Clark has been overshadowed unfairly in his contribution to the décor of these pictures, but then “no single person appears responsible for it.”
It was a similar case with music direction, which at RKO was headed by Nathaniel Shilkret. Indeed, “Shilkret conducted but did not himself compose or orchestrate the music heard in the Astaire-Rogers films. The music director delegated these assignments to groups of arrangers, sometimes sketching out themes that he wanted developed in the main titles and underscoring. For the musical numbers, Hal Borne’s piano arrangements were the basis of orchestrations.”In other words, Astaire’s personal pianist had a higher degree of influence on the orchestrations than did the musical director, which speaks a lot of Astaire’s sphere of authority.
Perhaps he isn’t an auteur in the way that most professional film scholars would describe. But then we’re not interested in Astaire as professional film scholars, at least not in this article. We’re mostly interested in a tongue-in-cheek sort of auteurism, one that describes how a song and dance man, born and raised practically in the theatre, was able to influence the movie musicals he starred in. This carefully concentrated sphere of auteurship shines through in a field of collaborators and in the comfy plane of formulaic storytelling to create movie magic and change cinema forever.
The takeaway for artists should be clear. If you truly know what you’re talking about, stick to your guns. Maintain that purposeful myopia guided by your confidence and clarity of vision. You are the myth makers.
Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, (Da Capo, 1968), 36.
Hervé Mayer. Emma Hamilton and Alistair Rolls (eds.), Unbridling the Western Film Auteur: Contemporary, Transnational and Intertextual Explorations Oxford : Peter Lang, 2018 file:///C:/Users/alexc/Downloads/inmedia-1344.pdf
Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, (Outerbridge and Lazard, Inc, 1972), 135.
Jeanine Basinger, The Movie Musical!, (Albert A. Knopf, 2019), 38
Brian Siebert, What The Eye Hears: a History of Tap Dancing, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), 227.
Fred Astaire, Steps in Time: An Autobiography, (Da Capo, 1959), 201.
Edward Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers, (Columbia UP, 2000), 8.