Broadway Melody of 1940: Mirrors, mirrors everywhere, to reflect the brilliance of Powell and Astaire.
This week’s homework assignment finds Fred Astaire and company in peak form.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
If Orson Welles is credited with introducing the ceiling to cinema (he didn’t), then the “Begin the Beguine” number here should go down as the Citizen Kane of scuffless, glass-floored musical extravaganzas. It took more than elbow grease and a river of Johnson’s Wax to pull it off: each of the 10,000 lightbulbs in the highly-reflective firmament was present and accounted for, thanks to the film’s true auteurs: set designer Merrill Pye and cinematographers Oliver T. Marsh and Joseph Ruttenberg. (The best that can be said of Norman Taurog’s direction is the story never gets in the way of the numbers.) It took 8 weeks to construct what was at the time the largest set ever erected for a musical. A cyclorama consisting of 30-foot mirrors curved around two-thirds of the soundstage. MGM had to build the thing from scratch, pouring 6500 feet of molten mirrored floor in giant wooden frames; there wasn’t a glassmaker in town capable of doing the job. According to TCM, the mirrored surface “had to be kept at temperatures near freezing to guard it from cracking under the lights.” Fred Astaire and co-star Eleanor “Queen of Tap” Powell rehearsed on a covered stage. The end result is nothing short of staggering.
Swing Time (1936)
The best of RKO’s cycle of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, if for no other reason than — and with all due respect to Mark Sandrich and William Seiter — George Stevens (A Place in the Sun, Giant), the greatest director the duo ever worked with. In an era known for kaleidoscopic overhead shots and immense soundstage divertissements, the “Pick Yourself Up” number here was modesty personified. Looking to apologize for caddish behavior, professional hoofer Fred takes a disastrous turn around the dance studio with angry instructor Ginger. Dance studio laird Eric Blore overhears his employee dressing down a prospective customer and fires Ginger on the spot. All is forgiven when Fred credits Ginger with his sudden turn for the terpsichorean, which causes them to start all over again. Even with Stevens at the helm, when it came to the dance routines, it was Astaire who called the shots, insisting that numbers be covered in one continuous head-to-toe take. Give or take an occasional cutaway to “swivel puss” Blore, that is precisely the manner in which this plays out. It’s amazing how much ground is covered in such a relatively tiny space, one of the smallest ever to accommodate a studio production number. Stevens got his start as a cameraman in silent movies. A 21 jewel Rolex could take its cue from the precise movement both outside and inside the circular practice area.
The Band Wagon (1953)
Could it be that the shoeshine stand has outlived the arcade, or was the polishing station at the foot of Horton Plaza booted to make room for the expansion that never was? Either way, both are put to extraordinary use in Vincente Minnelli’s Technicolor triumph The Band Wagon. In the annals of cinema, there isn’t a more famous shoeshiner than the one played here by Leroy Daniels. Fred Astaire stars as a Gloomy Gus, an outmoded and largely forgotten song and dance man uncertain of where his next gig will come from. A stroll down Minnelli’s bustling replica of 42nd St. lands Astaire at a borderline psychedelic arcade where he quite literally trips over Daniels. The game room is lit so brightly that it can be seen from space. And colorful? One had best don a pair of cheaters before gazing directly at Daniels’ electric pink hosiery. Astaire’s desire to capture the number in one continuous take couldn’t be accommodated; it took a half-dozen edits to cover the four-and-a-half-minute number. (At least I think it’s 6 cuts. So dazzled by the music and mise-en-scene was I that I kept losing count.) Theirs was a brief friendship, spontaneously forged by two men’s ability to celebrate life’s dull points through dance. Ironically, Astaire wasn’t too far removed from the character he played; the role gave his career a much-needed helping hand. Daniels went on to play Lucky Leroy on several episodes of Sanford and Son as well as working opposite Rudy Ray Moore in a handful of blaxploitation epics.