Fred Astaire, Easter Parade and Experimental Cinema

About a dozen years ago, at work, in the lunchroom, I got into a heated argument over the nature of movie musicals. It wasn’t really an argument, per se, but it was a severe disagreement, and neither of us would concede. He said they were unrealistic and therefore dumb, and I countered that they were unrealistic and therefore liberating.

I wasn’t well-versed in the history of movie musicals and I’m still not. I’m a fair-weather fan: I like the hits (West Side Story, Swing Time, etc) and some others, but I do think some of the most interesting and unusual uses of a camera in a Hollywood film prior to the 70s happens in musicals. With so much “unreality” happening within the framework of the film (people bursting into song at any given moment; locations being transformed in dance floors; fantasy sequences), musicals encouraged creative solutions. (Off the top of my head, I suggest checking out my post about Dorothy’s entrance to Oz.) And many of these solutions involved using the camera, lighting and sound recording devices in new and unusual ways.

My first example (I hope to present others in subsequent posts) is from Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade, directed by Charles Walters and Robert Alton in 1948. It’s pretty legendary and stars Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. Even though I’ve heard it mentioned over the years, it’s mostly that “Couple of Swells” number that gets talked about (that’s the one where Judy and Fred are dressed like hoboes). So when watching the film ten years ago and I saw the Astaire number “Stepping Out with My Baby,” I was totally surprised. It’s six minutes long and takes place live on stage, before an audience.

It begins with a lot of dancers.

Soon Fred comes out, singing and dancing.

Next he’s dancing with the ladies.

Finally he’s alone center stage and something happens in the final two minutes that blew my freakin’ mind:

Naturally, since it’s a movie musical, no on questions its believability or logic (how can he be dancing in slow-motion during a live performance?!). The only logic is what looks beautiful. And to accomplish that, the filmmakers (including Fred Astaire, who was closely involved in the filming of the choreography) cooked up something that is visually stunning, cinematic and unconventional.

But is it “experimental filmmaking”? My feeling is that if the filmmakers, regardless of the size of the budget or the expected audience, are telling their story in an unusual manner and using the camera in ways that haven’t been beaten into the ground, then, yes, I’d call that experimental. Oh, hell, it’s not the work of avant-garde pioneers Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage, but it’s not exactly run-of-the-mill either. I mean, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot of slow motion footage happening in American cinema, not for another couple of decades.



Filed under Film, Music

10 responses to “Fred Astaire, Easter Parade and Experimental Cinema

  1. Chris Houghton

    By my count Fred beat Kurosawa by six years – The Seven Samurai’s use of slow motion in action sequences was considered ground breaking.

    As for musicals being a playground for experimental filmmakers, does anyone remember back in the 80’s when Zbigniew Rybczynski was turning MTV on its ear? I vaguely remember him giving an interview (probably on Night Flight) where he said pretty much what you said in your post, that music videos were a nice place for an experimental filmmaker to tinker and play.

    • Thanks for reminding me of Kurosawa; you’re so right, Chris.

      And I’m glad to hear I’m echoing Zbigniew. Jeez, remember when he was the du jour? And same could be said of Night Flight. Wow, that was the first place I saw Eraserhead.

  2. Pauline Villa

    I saw this movie when I was a little older than Harry. Well, maybe not that young. Never forgot it. Only Fred could make dancing with a cane seem like he was making love to it. And Judy. OMG! Never saw her beautiful or happy.

  3. Elizabeth

    You’re right, of course: They’re liberating exactly because they don’t hew to logic or realism. (I always smile at the use of a “dream sequence” in musicals, because the whole genre is one big dream sequence.) Which is why the good musicals are so good, and the bad ones have no excuse (you can do whatever you want, and you’re doing…that?).

    That Fred bit is brilliant!

  4. Kim Do

    Great post! So how’d they achieve that effect? I’m guessing shooting Fred’s solo in front of overcranked rear-screen projection and then slow the whole thing down so the chorus is back to real time and Fred ends up in slo-mo city?

    • I’m not 100% sure how they did it, but the footage of Astaire looks too crisp to think it was shot at 24fps and then optically printed to be slowed down. In other words, the footage of him was shot at prob. something like 96fps.

  5. Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this post really forced me to do so, Excellent post!

  6. Pingback: 40’s movies marathon – part 112 « Bjørn Stærk's Max 256 Blog

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