A Sex Symbol Named Fred: TOP HAT

By Chris Bamberger

TOP HAT (1935) dir. Mark Sandrich

In 2007 National Public Radio played an excerpt of Fred Astaire singing “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and asked listeners to describe in a single phrase the quality of his voice. One participant’s entry was, “The boyfriend you longed for before you found out about sex.”

Oh, really?

Donald Spoto, in his biography of Audrey Hepburn, describes her one-time co-star as having “nothing erotic or even sensual about him… Fred Astaire was a gentleman up there on the screen—so much a gentleman, in fact, that there was never an atom of erotic appeal about him.”

It gets worse.

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A Year of Women in Cinema, Part IV: Tilda Swinton in SNOWPIERCER • Saturday 9/23 at 1:15, 6:30

In reviewing a recent book about Astaire, New York Times book critic David Thomson further disseminates this notion by stating that “[Astaire’s] terrifying concentration and his refusal to acknowledge certain appetites lead to a conclusion seldom reached about performers in ballet or other musical forms: Fred Astaire was not human, not sexual, not sexed.”

Can any of these people have ever seen Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance? Of the 10 films the performers made together, not one is without an Astaire-choreographed dance of either flirtation or seduction, and the most famous are immensely erotic.  Conventional wisdom has it that each dance was in fact the censorship-dodging means of symbolizing sex, but more accurately they usually represent emotional interaction including sex, or some pre-sexual romantic experience. The most blatant example is the fervent “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee. We do have Ginger gazing up at Fred afterward as if he has just made the earth move for her, and then he offers her a cigarette. But given that her character is all tensed up about her pending divorce process, it doesn’t seem as if she would give in that completely.

Top Hat, the fourth film of the Astaire-Rogers pairing, is certainly among their frothiest; in the ongoing debate as to whether it or Swing Time (number 6 in their canon) is the best (or most quintessential) of the partnership’s efforts, your opinion might just depend on your mood. Swing Time takes place in an at least comparatively grittier world, more reflective of the Great Depression and its deprivations, and the movie’s acting performances are more nuanced and touching. Top Hat’s wedding-cake rendition of Venice and its impossibly wealthy and light-hearted world may make it more artificial, but, disbelief handily suspended, the audience gets sharper pacing, zingier lines and equally euphoric dancing.

The film in fact includes two of the dances most indicative of some stage of lovemaking (in the more old-fashioned sense of the word, this also encompassed the ardent spiritual wooing that preceded the physical activity). Next to “Night and Day,” “Cheek to Cheek” is the most pointed example of Astaire seducing Rogers, and “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” pulls off the trick of portraying the sexes as equal while shouting, “Viva la difference!”  As “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” begins, their characters have already met, courtesy of Fred’s having woken Ginger and begun the disintegration of her ceiling with his taps in the hotel room above. During “No Strings,” he established not only his self-assurance, but his determination to remain free as a bird from commitment—only to have his future come fuming through his doorway.

He is happily ready to accept coupledom by the time he corners her on a bandstand during a heavy rainstorm and tells her in song just how glad he is to be stuck with her there. Her riding habit allows her to look cool as she imitates his movements to spark the ensuing dance, and they gradually make their way toward a terrific buildup of romantic tension, not touching though they become increasingly swept up in their smoothness and in each other. Then—well, let Richard Corliss describe the denouement:

The horn section starts bleating like impatient klaxons, modulates seven times, up the whole scale, as the dancers do slide-taps, facing each other, too close for comfort. Something’s got to give, and it’s the music. The trumpet blasts a kind of sexual cavalry call, to which the two respond with a furious stomp; they’ve got firecracker feet. Fred takes Ginger in his arms and leads her in eight spins, as delirious as they are precise. The courtship is over. This is the real thing: sex as hot, fast fun, two people in perfectly matched abandon, too rapt to notice their surprise at the other’s expertise, at how beautifully and energetically they dance as one.

So has Adam already eaten the apple, as Ginger’s employer Beddini suspiciously asks her in the next scene? Given the sublime sublimation of “Cheek to Cheek,” maybe not yet.

There are several lovely dance themes and some unique footwork in this passionate duet, but perhaps the most striking is the series of languorous dips into which Fred lowers Ginger. One friend who viewed “Cheek to Cheek,” a dance instructor who tends to prefer the more overt sexiness of blues dancing, was suitably impressed by the implications of this. Here is how John Mueller describes it in his dance-by-dance analysis of Astaire’s works in Astaire Dancing:

The seduction is seen, in part, in the ardor and forcefulness of the partnering—Astaire’s attention is fully on Rogers, and he is constantly pulling her into the dance, surrounding her, encasing her in his arms, and more startlingly, wrapping himself in her arms. The progression of the seduction is traced through a repeated choreographic nuance, the supported backbend. Several times Rogers falls backward in Astaire’s arms, and each time the backbend gets deeper, longer, more luxurious, more sensuous, the last one suggesting utter surrender.

As has often been observed, Ginger Rogers contributed greatly to the emotional impact of these dances by way of her subtle, intelligent acting style. Of the partnership, Arlene Croce writes: Ginger Rogers “brought out [Astaire’s] toughness and also his true masculine gallantry. . .” She could also act while dancing; only with her did there seem to be genuine emotions passing between partners while on the dance floor.” Mueller also pointed this out, stating in the most unassailable of terms that “the reason so many women fantasized dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.”

Fred Astaire plays in the main an insouciant imp in this picture, but the seducer in him catches fire. Admittedly he is far from the usual male lead, and it confuses Joseph Epstein, another Astaire essayist who doesn’t get the point: “One roots for Fred Astaire in his movies in good part because he isn’t all that sexy… He was this little guy, skinny, with big ears, a long chin, and too wide a forehead, whose only chance is to get the girl onto the dance floor, where he will let his feet do his seduction for him.” The dismissal of Astaire as a believable leading man outside his dancing originates in part from the notion that women couldn’t possibly find slight or unconventionally handsome men desirable, an idea that has been fed by the different perception that (unfortunately for many men) has taken root in recent decades of what constitutes male attractiveness.

As to the aforementioned grumble about Astaire’s “refusal to acknowledge certain appetites,” this probably refers to his reluctance to include kissing scenes in most of his films. Even had he chosen to, it is arguable whether it was necessary. The absence of Hollywood clinches underscores the very point that the dances by themselves were expressive enough of fulfilled desire. Then, too, some exquisite expressions of unfulfilled longing were the near-kisses that were far more common in Astaire-Rogers films than in those of any other romantic team in cinema.  As soon as Astaire begins to dance, however, he becomes sure-fire lady-killer material even in the judgment of viewers dismissive of his physical appeal. As the not-dismissive Kerry Douglas Dye puts it in his “Guy Movie of the Week” review of the movie: “When I’m feeling in a singing! dancing! sort of mood, but still want to see something kind of macho, I like to pop in my favorite Fred Astaire flick, Top Hat. See, Astaire’s as macho a guy actor as any Charles Bronson or Lee Marvin, only he gets the girl and saves the day by singing and dancing, and being witty and always keeping his cool and always being one step ahead of the other guy… In ‘Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,’ he pantomimes machine-gunning down about 20 of his fellow tuxedo-clad dancers. See, he owns this world. Don’t mess with him.”

Those who see Fred Astaire as testosterone-deprived, and those who see no concealment of his agenda of conquest in his dancing, seem to completely breeze past one another. But it stretches the credulity of the latter community that it isn’t obvious to everyone who is paying attention: Fred Astaire is all about sex, really—the kind women most dream of. He had a way of seeming as if he were trying to please his partner as much as himself, an intensely ardent and affectionate way of looking at her. He also was forceful and gentle at the same time;  he dominated without being domineering about it (give that a try sometime, guys, and let’s see how you do), and the result was a unique eroticism that puts Fred and Ginger’s beyond all other “ballroom” partnerships.

In Sue Rickard’s essay on censorship’s effects on the Astaire-Rogers dances, she describes him (and I paraphrase her heavily here) as having a mastery of his and his partner’s body that suggests not only the power to be strong, but also the power to be gentle. With “great lovers” like Valentino and Clark Gable, it is their gentleness that is hidden, and the discovery of it imbues their characters with a thrilling potential. With Astaire, the power of his masculinity is magically revealed when he begins to dance. Rickard’s argument is that Astaire’s non-dancing persona is the perfect cover for the erotic significance of much of his dancing.

It’s also worth pointing out that Astaire portrayed characters who were humorously self-deprecating, self-effacing, and sweet even in light of their preternatural talents (men similar to the real Fred Astaire). For those not impressed by actors or lead characters with huge egos, that in itself adds to the appeal.  Astaire’s unique and powerfully sexual persona became apparent to theatre critics at the time he made the transition from one-half of a platonic partnership (he began his stage career dancing and singing with his older sister, Adele) to solo artist and leading man, and numerous articles written during his film career indicate that he was considered a romantic movie idol.   So why all these attributions of asexuality? Part of it stems from the unceasing comparisons of Astaire with Gene Kelly, a more macho and conventionally babelicious dancer who also expressed a more directly steamy image (“I’m the Marlon Brando of dance,” he said, “and Fred’s the Cary Grant”); what irony it is that Kelly is less often visualized with his female partners. Perhaps the more sensible comparison is of Astaire with Frank Sinatra—another skinny little guy with a funny face who expresses a masterful determination within his tenderly romantic courtship style that earns him the swoons of women and the admiration of men alike.

Astaire’s trademark was the top hat, white tie, and tails about which Irving Berlin wrote a song for him to sing in this movie. On the first sighting of Astaire in that “monkey suit,” some fall party to the perception that Astaire was a swank, a toff; always the effete aristocrat. In truth, the perception is a deception; Berlin’s song is about the throwing off of that image despite the snappy dress and having fun in whatever way one pleases. And the dance is about the male power to be elegant and groomed and yet tough under fire—a strong and quick-thinking male who exudes sexual power and wins the day.

In sum (and shouldn’t we all know this by now?), it’s true that clothes don’t make the man—no matter how marvelous he looks in them.

A Year of Women in Cinema, Part IV: TILDA SWINTON: WORLD'S GREATEST ACTRESS • 20 films featuring Tilda Swinton, September 14–23