Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Carefree

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Carefree

At its finest, Carefree walks on air, and this is due in no small part to Ginger Rogers. Her collaboration with Fred Astaire is of course legendary, and they have some outstanding numbers on display here. But the film is a musical comedy with a surprising emphasis on the latter. In addition to being a captivating dancer and the perfect partner for Fred, Ginger was what they like to call "a deft comedienne" and she carries most of the film's comedic elements on her own. She's hypnotized, anesthetized, arrested, swept off her feet, and punched in the face. She is a master of the wheeling, leering, google-eyed grin, in a form that reminded me of her Stage Door co-star Lucille Ball. Watching this movie tonight confirmed what Stage Door had led me to suspect: I really, really like Ginger Rogers.


But of course it's Astaire's movie too and he has the first number, in which he proves he can tap and hit golf balls at the same time. Yet it's quite a while before the music begins, and for the time being we get a rather silly psychoanalytic plot (only enlivened when Ginger takes her pratfalls). Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound gets a lot of flack for its ham-handed Freudianism, but compared to this film, Spellbound's the frickin' DSM-IV. I got a D in college-level psychology, but I'm pretty sure actual hypnosis has scant resemblance to what we witness in this story.

Of course, no one watches Carefree for the psychological insights, and when the great dance setpieces really get going, they're breathtaking. There aren't too many (I don't remember Top Hat being so stingy with the goods) but what's there is worth the wait. Among the most notable numbers is "The Yam" in which the camera becomes a part of the dance, swept along by the winding, circular motions of Astaire, Rogers & co. off the dance floor, around the veranda, and back inside again. It's hard not to see this intoxicating sequence as a direct precursor to The Conformist.

Another famous dance, perhaps the most famous in the film, occurs earlier in the movie. It's not as acrobatic or complex as "The Yam," but it is utterly sublime. After gorging on a country-club dinner, Ginger sinks into the sofa and begins to dream. Amidst a lush, fantastical garden, complete with lily pads the size of small dance floors (no coincidence), Astaire coos "I Used to Be Color-Blind" to his smitten lover, then takes her arm and gracefully whirls her around...only to have the film stock slow down, intensifying the experience until, many swirling steps and a yawning leap later, she bends back in his arms and then leans forward gently...to kiss him.

In the 1973 book The Great Movies, writer William Bayer observes, "The kiss in Carefree was, quite possibly, the logical end to their collaboration. When Astaire and Rogers danced together they achieved a delicate tension between reality and abandonment, infatuation and realization...It is in these heightened moments of pause, when fantasy (his) and earthiness (hers) lie in the balance, that one may observe the essence of their chemistry...But the source of their power to enchant is the tension between them, and once it was released in the kiss...that power was gone. It had to happen. Their magic was too delicate a thing to last forever."

And yet perhaps it was the kiss felt round the world. That kiss may be the death of the Astaire-Rogers mystique but it's a rapturous death, sending forth shock waves that reverberated throughout the filmgoing consciousness. One can almost see the fertile cinematic sensualism of Godard, Bertolucci, Scorsese...sprouting up like radioactive mushrooms in its wake. Not only because it climaxes the teasing interplay of what Bayer refers to as "eight films and five years," but as the culmination of a sequence which purposefully slows down the blink-and-you'll miss it nonchalance of the duo's dancing, heightening the romanticism of the celluloid confection that Hollywood could concoct in its sleep in those days (or so it seemed; a lot of professionalism went into these films...). It isn't just Ginger's dream, but all of ours, lying half-awake in a Depression theater or a 21st century couch, gazing up at the screen...

(sorry for the subtitles, but they will disappear when it really matters):


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