Lost in the Movies: Musical Countdown - The Gay Divorcee

Musical Countdown - The Gay Divorcee

This is an entry in the Wonders in the Dark musical countdown - an epic enterprise; make sure you check out the whole thing!

If writing about movies is like dancing about architecture, then writing about musicals is like trying to draw a blueprint for a tap dance. Here I try to make both ends meet.

The words below the fold are from Arlene Croce’s seminal “Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book.”

The images (some fragments, some fully framed) are from a single number, “Night and Day,” the only sequence in the film where Fred & Ginger dance by themselves, three minutes out of nearly two hours but the very essence of the picture and their partnership.

Finally, there is a video clip of the number in its entirety. Music and lyrics by Cole Porter, choreography by Fred Astaire, dancing by you-know-who.

The hope is that, senses sharpened by the indirect evocations of Croce’s prose, and the lingering snapshots of motion, you will view the piece with renewed appreciation, much as one might press one’s nose up against a pointillist painting, viewing all those little dots as isolated phenomena before stepping back to take in the big picture, all without losing sight of the magical details which give it its essence.

As Arlene Croce writes, opening her study of the sequence, “This incomparable dance of seduction is a movie in itself.” Enjoy.

"They’re alone in a ballroom.
It is night with an ocean park in the background.
Abruptly she turns and crosses the set; he blocks her.
She crosses back and he blocks her.
She turns away,
he catches her wrist,
their eyes meet
and he dances ingratiatingly.
Again she turns,
again he catches her
and she walks into the dance.
When she stands away, he pulls her by the hand
and she coils against him, wrapping herself in her own arm, and the free hand holds that wrist.
In this position, together as if cradled, they just drift…
Astaire adopted the stage choreography, and no more thrilling or more musical dance had ever been presented on the screen. The song was already a classic; to watch it danced almost forty years later is to hear it for the first time.
Like all great choreographers, Astaire frequently works against the music. The steps are in perfect counterpoint, and the tension builds like a dramatic undertow.
There is one extraordinary occurrence:
the moment when she makes a sudden decision and strolls away from him.
(Rogers never walks,
she always strolls.)
When he approaches,
she appears to strike him,
and he staggers back
the length of the stage.
Mysteriously, the moment is on the same level with everything else – it’s a dance moment and it tells us much about Astaire and Rogers. They never break their stride. They don’t act when they should be dancing.
Rogers at this point in the series dances a little stiffly and she loses her line in her turns. But her style is brilliant and she knows exactly what she’s doing.
The wonderful ending is all her:
The way she gazes up wordlessly at this marvelous man she’s been dancing with exalts him, her, and everything we’ve just seen."

- Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, published 1972

Read the comments on Wonders in the Dark, where this tribute was originally published.

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.

How The Gay Divorcee made the ‘Elite 70′:
Greg Ferrara's No. 8 choice
Pat Perry's No. 35 choice
Allan Fish's No. 35 choice

Visit the complete archive of all the Astaire-Rogers dances.

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