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Vol. LXV, No. 38
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
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DVD Review

Pick Yourself Up for a White House Screening on Ginger Rogers’s Centenary

Stuart Mitchner

I was told that upon being asked to name his favorite among his books, Charles Dickens answered, “I love them all, but in my heart-of-hearts, I have a favorite child and his name is David Copperfield. “Well, though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.

— Ginger Rogers (1911-1995)

Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

— from President Obama’s Inaugural Address

I’m imagining a Depression scenario where someone in distress walks into a movie theater looking for a respite from reality and walks out an hour and a half later ready to face up to the challenges and fight the good fight, reassured that Longfellow was right, “life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is not its goal.”

In 1936, the year Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were dancing across the screens of the nation in Swing Time, the unemployment rate was 16.9 percent. In 2011, when the country is once again struggling economically, the rate’s 9.1, and if anyone is in need of a respite, it’s our beleaguered president. So let’s imagine that after exhausting himself trying to get us out of the hole we’re in, the commander in chief sets about lifting his own morale with a White House showing of Swing Time. At first, he’s yawning, having been awake half the night trying to devise a way to dance his jobs bill around a “loyal opposition” as ruthless as the crippled banker Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. He’s still yawning even as Fred Astaire does pratfalls pretending to be a hapless neophyte dancer goofing a lesson from the pretty dancing teacher played by Ginger. But as soon as she starts singing, the prez comes to attention. She’s telling him to pick himself up, dust himself off, and start all over again. It’s his Inauguration Day pep talk, same words, same idea. How cool is that! All this time he’d thought the line had come to him out of nowhere, and here’s plucky Ginger delivering the same message back when FDR was dealing with the same issues and a less toxic version of the same opposition.

Look at Ginger

The best is yet to come. When Ginger tells Fred he’ll never learn to dance, she loses her job, which is his cue to demonstrate to the owner of the dancing school that she taught him plenty. After he shows off his footwork with a fancy bit of business to let her know that her clumsy student is a master, she hardly has time to be astonished before she’s in his arms and they’re bound for dance heaven. Here’s where Ginger gives the president the lift he’s looking for. Fred may be the one leading, making it happen, but the inspirational force of charm, spirit, grit, and beauty is the partner who seemed at first to have merely thrown herself on the mercy of his genius. She’s happy, smiling, kicking up her high heels, doing wonderful things with her skirt, tugging it this way and that, lifting it to her knees and higher as she cavorts, no airs at all; she’s the essence of natural, at once sexy and sweet, womanly and girlish, and she’s doing everything he is; she’s not merely keeping up with him, this isn’t borrowed splendor; she’s matching him move for move, and then taking it to the limit in her own style.

The prez knows you can’t love Fred; you can only be in awe of him. He has too much polish, too much sheer sophistication, too much immaculate virtuosity. But look at Ginger! What a joy she is! Boys and men, girls and women, old and young, all become her, put themselves in her place. Everyone watching is Ginger because she lets everyone into the dance. And the beauty of the “Pick Yourself Up” number is that it feels so real, so right, so on the spot spontaneous, even though you know it’s been laboriously rehearsed.

Shampoo

A few scenes later, when someone in the room mentions that it’s Ginger’s 100th birthday this year, the prez goes “Sssh!” He’s so wrapped up in the movie, he thought he was alone. He doesn’t want to hear numbers like 100 years when she’s so alive up there on the screen washing her hair as Fred starts playing the piano and singing “The Way You Look Tonight” in the adjoining room. Jerome Kern’s song goes right to the aching heart and soul of romance; it’s irresistible, Ginger’s stopped washing her hair, listening, touched, drawn toward the song and the singer, her face luminous in soft focus, her eyes shining, her hair all soapy; she’s doing what she did before, this time not by dancing but by simply giving herself to the swelling movement of the melody; this is what she’s all about, feeling the music for us the way she felt the dance, and here again her response more than matches his performance. So into the other room she goes, her lovelights glowing as she reaches to touch his shoulder with her sudsy, shampooey hand, and he turns to her, it’s the big moment that in another, lesser movie would end with a kiss and words of love, but not when the adoring woman is in a bathrobe, the top of her head a frothy mass of soapy hair (according to her autobiography, they had to use whipped cream because real shampoo kept dripping down into her eyes). As Fred does a doubletake, Ginger sees her sudsy self in a mirror and retreats.

Down to Earth

The tune that will follow you around and have you incessantly humming, whistling, and even singing it to the annoyance of family and friends is “A Fine Romance,” in which lyricist Dorothy Fields rhymes “no kisses” with “this is” and gets away with it. Like “Pick Yourself Up,” it’s Ginger’s song, and she gives it a full measure of down to earth charm, striding inelegantly about in the snow in high heels, making the song as natural as she is, what with lines like “a couple of hot tomatoes” and “yesterday’s cold potatoes.” Performed in the falling snow, with Ginger not just singing it but selling it, a celebration of love’s vagaries and imperfections, it’s enough to make heads of state feel like schoolboys. The president is smiling. Maybe he’s thinking about his on-again off-again romance with his fretful, disappointed base.

A Dance for Hamlet

In “Never Gonna Dance” Ginger’s energy and identity are fully absorbed into Astaire’s concept. If Fred were a writer, this would be his Hamlet. What he does with the three words of the title and Kern’s resonantly soulful, melancholy melody makes the song a failed prophecy, given who’s singing and the dance it prefaces. It’s like Hamlet telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercise” and then spinning fantastic word-pictures like the “majestical roof fretted with golden fire.” Shakespeare and Swing Time may seem an unlikely combination, but watch what happens when the man who is “never gonna dance” sidles up to the love of his dancing life, his partner in posterity, and begins walking her into a duet to the majestic melody of “The Way You Look Tonight.” In that same “what a piece of work is man” speech, Shakespeare could be describing the radiant merger of these two beings, “in form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!”

As for the president, he’s looking subdued but energized. Maybe he’s thinking that if so splendid a triumph can be achieved under the banner of “never gonna,” he might orchestrate a campaign for 2012 in which he sidles up to the electorate and begins walking it slowly but surely into the “express and admirable” dance of a second term. But first he needs to rerun the “Pick Yourself Up” sequence and the verse that gave him a rush, where Ginger sings, “Work like a soul inspired till the battle of the day is won. You may be sick and tired, but you’ll be a man my son!”

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