John Franceschina,
Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire
Oxford University Press, $35 (cloth)

Kathleen Riley,
The Astaires: Fred & Adele
Oxford University Press, $27.95 (cloth)

When we picture Fred Astaire, it’s usually with Ginger Rogers. They glide across the polished floor of a hotel ballroom, and the crowd vanishes around them. They get stuck under a gazebo in the rain and find themselves in each other’s arms. They roller skate through Central Park to escape nosy reporters, and even though Rogers is angry and tired, they end up coasting about in unison. Time after time, Astaire and Rogers’s dancing makes squabbles, mistaken identities, and the threats of rival suitors fade away.

Or maybe we picture Astaire in his solos, upping the tempo of everyday life by dancing while getting dressed or playing golf, with a hat-rack, or up the walls and onto the ceiling.

But we probably don’t picture him as a child on vaudeville, eclipsed by the charms of his big sister Adele, or as a grown man dancing behind closed doors with his arms around the choreographer Hermes Pan. Two new books, Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires: Fred & Adele and John Franceschina’s Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire argue that we should.

Most of us know, intellectually, that making a movie takes a lot of people a lot of work: rehearsals, budgets, the push and pull of collaboration, all of it dependent on the deftness of camera operators, directors, designers, and publicists. But it can be hard to know all of that in our guts, especially when Astaire is dancing. He makes each step seem the spontaneous product of its situation. The camera’s unobtrusive framing heightens that impression: Astaire’s whole body is in constant view, usually in one long take. If you tune in to, say, a dance sequence from the recent Step Up Revolution, where the camera cuts to a new angle every few seconds, it’s impossible to forget that the images are being shaped by technology, by choreographers, by directors, and by editors. Astaire, on the other hand, gives you the sense that you’re seeing, in Riley’s words, an “unpremeditated, effortless form of expression.” Surely he’s just up there being himself, a version of the same character he seemed to play in nearly all his films.

Riley and Franceschina look beyond that image of steady perfection by focusing on the collaborators who helped shape Astaire’s artistic sensibilities. First up was Adele, with whom Fred performed for more than two decades. In 1905 their mother took them from Nebraska to New York, where they enrolled in dance classes and worked on their vaudeville acts. In one, they played a miniature bride and groom, dancing up and down a pair of illuminated wedding cakes that doubled as keyboards. Rap the right place, and the sound of bells would peal out. Another routine, the brainchild of choreographer Ned Wayburn, cast them as bored siblings on a Sunday afternoon, acting out their parents’ tiffs. Fred wore a gray baseball uniform modeled on those of the New York Giants.

By the ’20s the Astaires had climbed the ranks to musical comedy stardom, on Broadway and in London. Adele blossomed into a spritely, foul-mouthed gamine, and she tended to steal the show. If even half of the reviews Riley quotes are true, Adele was charming enough to get by on a combination of natural talent and sheer nerve. Fred kept up with her Jazz Age insouciance onstage, but behind the scenes he was obsessive, insisting that they rehearse for hours. Their relationship wasn’t unlike those in the screwball comedies he would make in the ’30s: she flits about and feigns annoyance, he scolds and supports her, and their comic squabbles throw their dancing into beautiful relief.

When Adele retired to marry a British lord, she cartwheeled into the dining room to meet his family. Fred did one more stage show without her, then headed west, to Hollywood. He met Hermes Pan during rehearsals for the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, and soon Pan became the only person whose artistic advice Astaire, the willful perfectionist, would even consider heeding. They’d spend days dreaming up routines on a soundstage no one was allowed to enter without permission. During these weeks of secretive creation, Pan played Ginger Rogers. Later, he taught her the dances, and during postproduction, he dubbed her taps. Astaire and Pan thought alike, danced alike, and oddly enough, looked alike. But Pan—shy, gay, and possessed of a thick Southern accent—rarely appeared onscreen, and never with Astaire. They were only filmed dancing together once, in a scene that was edited out of the 1940 movie Second Chorus. If that doesn’t already seem like an accidental symbol of what can happen to our cultural memory, consider this detail: Pan, covered by a sheet, plays a ghost.

• • •

Books such as Riley’s and Franceschina’s are supposed to pull up the sheets of memory and show us the stories underneath—the unique combination of talent, work, and timing that made Astaire’s dancing look so beautiful and free.

Riley’s excavation is relatively successful, but she’s faced with a problem: there are no films of Fred and Adele dancing together. Riley must rely, instead, on sound recordings, letters, reviews, photographs, and other second-order materials, or on the glimmers of Adele that show up in the films Fred made without her. If Riley can’t give us dances, she can give us the effect of the dances: it was with Adele that Fred learned to showcase his partner, to appeal to a crowd, and to project a sense of “youthful wholesomeness and . . . infectious delight.” One of their most beloved routines, the run-around or Oompah Trot, involved clasping arms and galloping in circles around the stage at ever-increasing speed.

Oddly, Riley writes better about dances she can’t see than Franceschina does about dances he can. Franceschina is a capable researcher. He’s culled from interviews, newspaper articles, and Pan’s own memoirs to craft a thorough and useful catalogue of Pan’s professional life. (Franceschina covers Pan’s entire career, not just his work with Astaire, though Astaire—as evidenced by the book’s subtitle and cover photo—is the marketing pull.) But Franceschina doesn’t seem to know how to translate dance into prose, and his descriptions feel like lists. His account of the solo Pan staged for Astaire in Let’s Dance—Astaire plays the piano first with his hands, then with his body, tapping on the lid and sliding his feet across the keys—doesn’t convey the sheer thrill of the scene or what it means to break through the constraints of habit, to bend objects to your will, to treat your body as an instrument and hurl it into a duet. Emotional weight isn’t the only thing missing. Franceschina doesn’t give you a sense of Pan’s choreographic language, his artistic legacy, or the wider context in which he lived and worked.

In films Astaire has the freedom both to mingle with the wealthy and to mock them.

That’s a shame, because context is crucial for understanding the dances Pan and Astaire made together. At the most basic level, there’s the context of plot. Astaire’s dances aren’t meant to stand on their own; they help drive along the films’ narratives. Take, for example, the scene “All My Eggs in One Basket” from Follow the Fleet. Astaire and Rogers start out dancing in unison, but when Astaire changes up the steps, Rogers doesn’t follow. Like a broken record, she’s stuck, and Astaire has to pull her out of the groove, again and again. Watch this routine as a clip on YouTube, and it’ll be plenty charming, but you’ll miss part of its genius. Astaire has gotten Rogers to dance with him because she’s sad and anxious—stuck, like that record, in her feelings—and he wants to distract her. The dance turns grief into a gag, a feat that gets to the heart of how comedy works, and what it’s good for.

Context also matters for understanding the world beyond the screen, a world that films both reflect and refract. During the 1930s American class-consciousness had reached new heights, and Astaire’s characters responded accordingly. In films Astaire has the freedom both to mingle with the wealthy and to mock them. He often has a rich buddy, played by Edward Everett Horton as a bumbling fool. Astaire, on the other hand, can hop a train near the beginning of Swing Time (1936) and wind up in a swanky nightclub a few scenes later. He identifies with down-and-out Depression-era audiences, but he also fulfills their desires and aspirations, going wherever he pleases.

Astaire’s freedom extends to dance styles, too. One moment he’s tapping out complex rhythms and challenging Rogers to do the same, and in the next he floats one arm onto her waist and twirls her into a waltz. That versatility came from substantial training. As a young boy, Astaire began dancing in women’s pointe shoes, and he wore them in some of his earliest routines with Adele. Their first teacher in New York, Claude Alvienne, was married to the “toe dancer” La Neva, and the kids saw the Danish ballerina Adeline Genée perform in The Soul Kiss 28 times. On vaudeville, brother and sister played alongside acrobats, contortionists, comedians, and trained seals. They learned tap, and later, exhibition ballroom. They looked up to the nineteen-teens idols Vernon and Irene Castle, who popularized ragtime dance and made it seem respectable. They appeared in operettas with European settings as well as jazzy musicals. All these sources added up to a style that could veer from elegance to rebellion.

Astaire juggled his influences carefully, emphasizing some and downplaying others. In his 1959 autobiography Steps in Time, he recasts his early forays in pointe shoes as bravura, writing that he was just “showing off.” Taking lessons at Alvienne’s, Astaire recalls, he was more interested in the giant stick his teacher rapped on the floor to keep time than in dancing itself. He had little patience for rules. “I wanted to do all my dancing my own way, in a sort of outlaw style,” he writes, and, with evident pride, he quotes tough-guy James Cagney’s assertion that Astaire’s dancing had “a little bit of the hoodlum” in it.

In the opening scene of Top Hat (1935), Astaire waits to meet a friend at a tony London men’s club, and his every movement seems to offend the aged members. The fold of his newspaper, his cough, and the impish slump of his shoulders in a wingback chair might as well be forms of protest. After much hush-hushing, Fred, about to leave, unleashes a defiant clattering of taps on the marble floor. The bluebloods are shocked, but later in the film, they still come to the theater to see him perform. He sings about the pleasure of fancy dress and high society, and then uses his cane to gun down a chorus of men in top hats, white ties, and tails.

“At the risk of disillusionment,” Astaire writes in Steps in Time, “I don’t like top hats, white ties, and tails.” Audiences loved his recklessness, but for all the ways Astaire resisted charges of elitism, he was as graceful as any imagined aristocrat, and that, too, endeared him to audiences. He played both roles at once. This was a man who, Riley tells us, was photographed doing an “inappropriate” Charleston with Lady Edwina Mountbatten in London in 1926. Queen Mary scolded the future countess, but presumably had no power over the young American. Besides, by then Fred and Adele were already buddies with the prince of Wales and the duke and duchess of York.

• • •

Fans of movie musicals often debate the merits of Astaire and Gene Kelly as if the men were polar opposites: Astaire is long and lean, while Kelly is taut and muscular. Astaire appears in evening dress, while Kelly favors rolled-up shirts to show off his ample arms. Astaire dances in the ballrooms of expensive hotels, while Kelly dances on the street or at a construction site. Astaire plays members of the elite, while Kelly’s a regular guy. But when you watch Astaire’s movies, you’ll see him straining, like Kelly, to be manly, lowbrow, and edgy.

Those elements of Astaire’s persona emerge, in part, from the devil-may-care attitude with which he approaches elite styles and characters. But they also come from tap dance itself, which is about as loud, unruly, and assertive as movement can get. Sometimes tap riffs on a received rhythm and turns it into something new, like a jazz drummer taking a solo. (Astaire, like many tap dancers, also played the drums.) At other times, tap invents its own rhythm altogether, without needing music to authorize it.

That rebellious, willful quality is part of what draws Astaire’s character, Pete Peters, to tap in the 1937 film Shall We Dance. Peters is a Midwesterner who’s changed his name to Petrov to make good on the ballet stage. But the pretense is getting him down, and he’s been teaching himself jazz and tap in secret. While the company practices on the deck of an ocean liner, he sneaks into its recesses, literally and metaphorically beneath polite society, to listen to the rhythms of a black jazz band. First to the music of “Slap that Bass,” and then to the rhythm of machines—a gimmick Astaire and Pan came up with after playfully improvising to the sounds of a cement mixer on the RKO lot—Astaire exorcises his ballet habits. When his arms drift into first position, he flings them to one side. When he grabs the railing like a ballet barre, he shakes his hand with annoyance. When he extends his legs and arms into third arabesque, he frowns, disgusted, and resumes tapping. When he finishes, up on an elevated walkway, the black men down below him grin and cheer, as if to send him off with their blessing. As the jazz scholar Joel Dinerstein explains in Swinging the Machine, the “Slap that Bass” scene is a fantasy of cultural cooptation, where the folks you steal from love you for doing it.

If tap stood for manliness, it also stood, more particularly, for black manliness—which, according to old, ugly stereotype, is as manly as there is. So perhaps it’s no coincidence that, after Astaire dances “Slap that Bass,” he comes back on deck and is finally able to charm Rogers, who, until now, has rejected his advances. And his blackface routine “Bojangles of Harlem,” from Swing Time, begins just moments after Rogers plants a kiss on his lips.

Astaire woos Rogers, in part, with persistence: he gambles away the suit in which he’s supposed to dance with her and pickets outside her door for forgiveness. When she speeds off in her car, he shows up with a roadblock so she’ll have to stop and talk. When she can’t sleep because of his tapping in the hotel room above hers, he feigns a disease that can only be cured through her embrace. These advances drive their film plots along, but it’s dancing that raises the stakes of romance. Astaire and Rogers work out their rivalries with tap challenges. And they work out their romance in dreamy ballroom sequences that seem to make their surroundings vanish. In “Cheek to Cheek,” from Top Hat, he dances her away from a crowded, hotel dance floor, across a bridge, and into a gleaming white dream of a set where no one will disturb their growing love.

• • •

Whether Astaire is dancing with a partner or on his own, he drifts across the film screen with such casual elegance that you’d be forgiven for thinking he did the same in real life. In fact, as Riley and Franceschina make clear, his art was the product of years of toil and refinement. Still, biography can only get you so far. Yes, Astaire started life as the son of a working-class Austrian brewer and became—with the help of many collaborators—Hollywood royalty. Yes, he spent years honing his skills, and he never let up, even when he was a major star. And yes, he kept performing long past the age when most dancers would have retired. But we keep returning to Astaire not for his life story, but for his films. He moves through his own cinematic world with a freedom that’s almost unimaginable, and his world feels haunted by our own. Astaire gives form to our hopes and aspirations.

In the 1935 movie Roberta, Astaire plays a bandleader who’s travelled from Indiana to Paris, where he runs into an old flame. Rogers’s character has reinvented herself as an Eastern European countess and successful nightclub singer, but Astaire knows the truth. She’s a good old American girl, and back home, the two of them used to put on shows in a barn. His teasing brings her down to earth, and after she rehearses the song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” for her set at the Cafe Russe, they swap jokes, punctuating their punch lines with taps. Soon, Astaire is tossing Rogers moves, testing her, and she fires them right back. Then they dance in unison, and when the music fades away, they make their own with their feet. By the end of the scene, strands of hair are beginning to escape from Rogers’s coiffure. She and Astaire collapse on a pair of chairs, laughing. Dance has reminded them of who they really are, and how they really feel about each other. Still, they’re a long way from Indiana. The movie culminates in a high fashion show, and Astaire’s best friend, a former football player, gets together with a princess.