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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

 

Dancing and romancing

One reason I love old Hollywood musicals so much is that the dance numbers. Well, really it's the reason, but there's something particular about those dances that you don't see in modern movies so much, even in many modern movie musicals: the restraints of the era, which prevented any serious intimacies between the characters barring the odd stylised clinch, means that the dances take the place of sex scenes. While being completely decorous, they're also completely physical - and in the interactions of the dancers, a wonderful and various chemistry takes place, that expresses a great deal about the burgeoning romances.

Take three particularly fine examples: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Top Hat, Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds in Singin in the Rain, and Judy Garland and Kelly again in Summer Stock.

The chemistry between the actors is completely different. The relaxed, tender naturalness of Kelly and Reynolds is entirely unlike the sparky, spiky playfulness of Astaire and Rogers; Astaire flirts with Rogers, teasing and tapping at her, while Rogers sneaks up to him just as he's sneaking up to her, matching his steps in a sly refusal to be outdone; conversely, the deceptive simplicity of Reynolds' and Kelly's steps, almost like a traditional ballroom waltz in places, is graced by perfect synchrony and a locked, romantic gaze. When Kelly draws Garland out in dance, on the other hand, a different kind of flirtation is taking place, a struggle for propriety on her part combined with a mischievous invitation on his, more engaged than the mischievous showing-off of Astaire that Rogers rises to: Kelly is tempting Garland more than teasing her, and she flares up in self-assertion, only to give way to overjoyed exuberance on her part that leads him almost racing to match her in impressed delight. The Astaire-Rogers and Kelly-Garland dances follow the same basic structure: man begins the dance, woman joins him and matches his steps, and the two end up dancing together, but the knowing, humorous undercurrents of Rogers and Astaire's flirtation are entirely different from the outbursts and reunions of Garland and Kelly's.

I'm having a busy week, so I don't have much more to add, but go look at those clips; they're a real treat...

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