I’ve been a Fred Astaire fanatic since the age of 13 when I saw “Top Hat” for the first time on “Million Dollar Movie.” One of my favorite Astaire duets consists of two perfect halves that form an even more perfect whole—the “Begin the Beguine” number from “Broadway Melody of 1940.” While the second portion is famous as a candidate for “Best Tap Number Ever Filmed,” the first half is perhaps even better, in both choreography and execution. It’s a shame it doesn’t enjoy the renown of the showier tap section, because it’s one of Astaire’s best, even though he and Eleanor Powell were something of a mismatch—she was too tall for him, they had zero romantic chemistry and their styles were, to put it mildly, quite dissimilar. Nevertheless, Astaire, who choreographed his own numbers (with the assistance of Hermes Pan and other dance directors), played to her strengths, producing an unforgettable result.
“Broadway Melody of 1940” has one of those idiotic, forgettable musical plots (and they make fun of opera?) which hinges on the wrong hoofer (George Murphy) mistakenly getting the job that rightfully belongs to his vaudeville partner (Fred Astaire). Eleanor Powell is the dancing star of the Big Show Murphy gets hired for. It’s a waste of time to even discuss this, because what matters is the score by Cole Porter which in addition to “Begin the Beguine,” includes “I Concentrate on You.”
“Beguine” is unusual in several respects. Originally introduced in Porter’s 1935 Broadway show, “Jubilee” (book by Moss Hart), it disappeared when the musical closed after lasting the season (For fans of theatrical trivia, Montgomery Clift, then age 15, played a prince in this production, which was designed to capitalize on King George V’s silver jubilee). Aside from its introduction in a not-immortal show, “Begin the Beguine” was thought to be too long for comfort—108 bars at a time when 64 bars was the norm—which may have discouraged recording in the age of 78’s. But Artie Shaw, ever the innovator, rescued it in 1938, resulting in both a hit record and the creation of a standard.
The “Broadway Melody” version opens with a sultry singer (Carmen D’Antonio dubbed by Lois Hodnott) performing against a tropical background (love the dress, hate the scenic pea pods). We’re in glorious black and white with mirrors, stars and a glass floor (which required excessive air conditioning on the set to prevent cracking caused by heat-generating lights). If the song sounds somewhat odd, it’s because the creative team dropped the B phrase of “Begin the Beguine”‘s A-A-B-A-C1-C2 structure. A troop of female dancers appears, presumably swaying like palm trees, and then Eleanor makes her entrance. Since I haven’t the faintest idea what she’s doing—leg kicks and arm-chopping seem to be the very antithesis of any beguine, but that’s just my opinion–we’ll simply forge ahead.
Fortunately we don’t have to wait too long for Fred’s entrance at 2:23 in the clip above, and there’s an immediate –gasp!–moment. Because of the mirrors, he seems to enter from the rear of the stage, so his appearance from stage right is wonderfully disorienting. The duet really begins at 2:52, and from this point on, it’s as important to listen as it is to watch. Astaire loved to play with music, and the audible steps and taps he and Powell produce are consistent as either complement or counterpoint to the rhythm of the song. This technique goes to the essence of his talent—the best example of his artistry as a dancing percussionist is the ending of “Bojangles of Harlem” in the film “Swingtime,” when he taps, slaps his clapper-filled gloves together and then slaps his hands against his heels in rhythms that change from bar to bar, ultimately trippling the tap pattern (It’s a mindblowing performance.)
This section of “Begin the Beguine” is wonderfully controlled. Like the flamenco it invokes, it’s tightly held—not constrained, but rather imparting a sense that the dancers could break free if they wanted, but choose not to. I particularly like the incredibly graceful hands and arms both Astaire and Powell display, the syncopated, accented steps at 3:44 and that killer stall of the music on the phrase “When they begin…” at 4:53 (hold that thought, because we’ll be coming back to it in a bit). The ending of this half of the number, beginning at 5:24, is a marvel. It’s still tightly controlled, but watch the counterpoint as it builds to a climax—they completely circle the stage, she spinning, he matching her move by turning at half her speed. Wheels within wheels. If you look closely you can see Eleanor Powell bust a big grin, and it’s fun to see her delight in the result.
Unfortunately you immediately have to brace yourself for a chorus sung by “The Music Maids,” four pseudo-Andrews Sisters clad in the most hideous plaid outfits ever sewn. Their hats don’t match their dresses, their dresses don’t match the tropical theme, and since we really have no use for them, they can’t exit soon enough, following a hopping line of female dancers.
Even if you’ve never seen “That’s Entertainment” (and why are you reading this blog if you haven’t?), you’ll probably recognize the tap portion of the number that follows, starting at 6:48–it’s been as anthologized as Saki’s “The Open Window.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s a great number. Swing suited Astaire, and Powell is obviously having a ball, as she should have. The big band arrangement is not quite as edgy as Artie Shaw’s, which it imitates shamelessly, but it’s still a perfect accompaniment (Hollywood homogenized more products than your local dairy). The dancers dazzle with their conversation in tap, but for me the highlight of this section is how it mirrors the first part of the number: the off-the-beat stomp at 7:47, and best of all, the stalling of the music once again at the words “When they begin…” at 8:00. Oh, by the way, they end by circling each other as well as the stage, just as they did in the first half of the number. Parallel structure!
This, ladies and gentlemen, is the genius of Astaire—simply one of a kind.