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THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK CLICKS ITS HEELS PART 1

A RECENT London Review of Books article celebrates Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in three of their ten classic movies: Top Hat, 1935; Swing Time, 1936; and Shall We Dance, 1937. The music for these films came, respectively, from three great American composers, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin.

Sure, there’s marvelous dancing (and Ginger did everything Fred did, backwards and in high heels, of which more anon). But I am also reminded how well the Great American Songbook is represented in these three movies. Here, in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow, are tidbits gleaned from Michael Wood’s “At the Movies” feature in the London Review of Books, April 4, 2019, together with my usual Internet sleuthing.

Top Hat. One of the Irving Berlin standards written for this 1935 screwball musical comedy is “Cheek to Cheek.” There’s a good story concerning Ginger Roger’s ostrich-feathered dress for its dance routine. “I was determined to wear this dress, come hell or high water,” Rogers said, “And why not? It moved beautifully.”

Alas, it also shed clouds of feathers with every toss and turn. Astaire recalled, “It was like a chicken attacked by a coyote.”

Later, Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan presented Rogers with a gold feather for her charm bracelet and an accompanying ditty: “Feathers—I hate feathers/ And I hate them so that I can hardly speak/ And I never find the happiness I seek/ With those chicken feathers dancing/Cheek to Cheek.”

Top Hat, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, music by Irving Berlin, Warner Bros., 1935.

“Putting on the Ritz” also appeared in Top Hat, but not for the first time: Its debut in Harry Richman’s 1930 flick of the same name is noteworthy as the first song in film performed by an interracial ensemble.

And who today can hear “Putting on the Ritz” without imaging it done by Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder: “It’s ‘Fronkonsteen!”) and The Creature (Peter Boyle) in the 1974 movie Young Frankenstein?

Image from Young Frankenstein, starring Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, and Cloris Leachman, 20th Century Fox, DVD: 1998.

Backwards and in High Heels… The wonderful “backwards and in high heels” line originated in a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon by Bob Thaves.

Frank and Ernest, by Bob Thaves, 1982.

The line had been attributed to scads of people, included Ginger Rogers herself. Though Wikipedia says her official website attributed it to Thaves, neither the quote nor this attribution appears at the current Ginger Rogers website.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll continue dancing with Ginger and Fred through Swing Time and Shall We Dance. There’ll be surprising cameos as well. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019

2 comments on “THE GREAT AMERICAN SONGBOOK CLICKS ITS HEELS PART 1

  1. Bruce Troxell
    May 25, 2019

    A tip of my top hat for remembering Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from one of my favorite movies.

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