Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly at the Brattle
They were a study in contrasts — in personal styles, in modes of masculinity, in American musical-comedy legacies. Fred Astaire was a natural aristocrat, movie musicals’ closest equivalent to Cary Grant, and the films that made him famous, his magical collaborations with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s, were mostly built on French-farce models — like the Gershwin stage musicals he’d performed with his sister Adele in the ’20s, before she abandoned her career to marry an English lord. He was astonishingly lithe, perhaps the most graceful man who ever walked — let alone danced — across a movie set, and though he remains a peerless romantic icon, he wore emotions lightly, with a trace of irony, even self-mockery. Compact Gene Kelly was a prole, an athlete, a two-fisted Irishman like Jimmy Cagney, and his style was rooted in vaudeville and the brash, crowing apple-pie musicals of George M. Cohan. He could play sailors (which Astaire did only once, in Follow the Fleet) and heels (which Astaire never did successfully); the Broadway show that bought his ticket to Hollywood, Rodgers & Hart’s Pal Joey, was the first musical comedy ever built around a 24-carat louse. He played more-likable protagonists in the movies, of course, but they sometimes had an edge, they were usually frankly sexual (like the heroes John Garfield played in straight pictures), and they always wore their hearts on their sleeves. The most daring Astaire number may be the “anti-dance” he performs with Rogers at the climax of the 1936 Swing Time, “Never Gonna Dance,” where they stylize romantic longing by pulling continually apart, fighting their bodies’ impulse to cling together. For Kelly it’s the “Alter Ego” number in Cover Girl (1944), where, frustrated in love, he battles his own demon (another Kelly) on a dark, deserted street until he finally blows a gasket and heaves a garbage can through a shop window.
AN AMERICAN IN PARIS: Kelly was a prole, an athlete, a two-fisted Irishman like Jimmy Cagney.
You can see them juxtaposed in the Brattle Theatre’s marvelous week-long series “Shall We Dance?: Starring Fred Astaire & Gene Kelly,” which serves up a baker’s dozen of their movies. It includes three of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Swing Time (May 24), my personal favorite, and, double-billed on May 21, the ineffable Top Hat and the lesser-known Shall We Dance, with its towering Gershwin score. Kelly dances with Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl (May 23) and with the winningly bashful young Frank Sinatra — both men playing sailors — in On the Town and Anchors Aweigh (both May 20). Here are the three undisputed MGM musical classics of the early ’50s: Kelly as an émigré painter in An American in Paris (May 22), and the two hilarious Comden & Green–scripted backstage musicals, Singin’ in the Rain with Kelly as a movie star in a Hollywood weathering the transition from silents to talkies, and The Band Wagon with Astaire as a movie star making a theatrical comeback in a musical version of Faust that threatens to be a turkey (both May 19). The series also features one of the three films in which Kelly partnered Judy Garland, The Pirate (May 22), and one of the two Astaire made with Bing Crosby, Holiday Inn (May 23) — beloved for Crosby’s debut rendition of “White Christmas” but at its most dynamic in Astaire’s Fourth-of-July firecracker dance solo. And you can see Astaire dancing on the ceiling in the rather pallid Royal Wedding (May 24), though the highlight isn’t that gimmick-laden, widely anthologized clip but the number he executes in a gymnasium setting earlier in the picture.
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