Physical Comedy on Film
Sophisticated, Funny and Physical: The Romances of Astaire and Rogers
Physical comedy brings to mind Moe, Larry and Curly bopping each other over the head. Or it might suggest Lucille Ball stuffing chocolates into her mouth, her blouse or anyplace except on the conveyor belt in the neat little rows the candy-making supervisor intended. (Or better, her boozy bout with VitaMeataVegamin, the Peppy Picker-Upper.) A thousand reruns of a thousand theatrical shorts, like “The Three Stooges” films, and a hundred thousand reruns of sitcoms from “I Love Lucy” to “Seinfeld” (even that cerebral show had people climbing in and out of windows on occasion) pretty much give us our concept of what theatrical physical comedy is all about.
In short, we think of slapstick, defined by the TheatreCrafts.com glossary as:
Two pieces of wood loosely joined at one end, which make a loud “slap” sound when used to hit something / someone. 2) Form of physical comedy where people get hit, covered in custard pies or showered with water.
If you think of either of those classic definitions when you think of the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, you wouldn’t think the films were physical comedy at all. And yet, according to The Columbia World of Quotations:
Film comedy, as well as film art in general, was born from delight in physical movement. The essence of early filmmaking was to take some object (animate or inanimate) and simply watch it move….”
There is the AHA! moment. Fred and Ginger did nothing if not move. They were, after all, dancers. But the supporting cast — particularly to ‘regulars in their movies, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore — brought comic movement to the films they were in that, frankly, get more belly laughs than Astaire and Rogers.
The Columbia quotation also mentioned, however, that the great silent movies “revolve around the body and the personality of its owner.” There is no doubt that Astaire and Rogers had personality. They had so much personality that they became cultural icons that remained in the popular language for decades after they quit dancing together, and after Fred — who carried on longer — quit dancing at all. It is not uncommon today to hear someone say of a couple of good dancers, “They’re a regular Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.” It is said even by people who’ve never sat down and watched one of their nine black and white efforts from the 1930s, or the single color picture, The Barkleys of Broadway, made more than ten years later, in 1948.
All but one of the Astaire-Rogers movies were made in the mid-1930s, shortly after sound had been added to films in the previous decade. The comedy in the “talkies,” the same source notes, “revolves about structure and style — what happens, how it happens, and the way those happenings are depicted.”
That’s a good description of the physical comedy in all the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies, but particularly apt for Top Hat (1935), possibly the signature film of the series. Who does not think of Fred Astaire in a top hat and tails?
Let’s get physical, Depression-era style
The opening scene of Top Hat gets the physical comedy off to its elegant, upper crust, understated start. In it, Astaire as American dancer Jerry Travers, is in a members’ sitting room at London’s stodgy Thackeray Club, a gentleman’s club, to meet his friend Horace Hardwick, played by Edward Everett Horton.
A butler allows some ice to clink in a glass. Two old geezers flick their newspapers in annoyance.
Astaire coughs behind his own newspaper, peering out to see the predictable reaction to the unseemly noise, revealing his irreverent characterization at the same time. Soon, Horton approaches the front desk and asks in normal tones if Travers has arrived; he is shushed.
Eventually, Hardwick and Travers quietly make their way out of the hotel but Travers can’t resist; he steps out of the lounge onto the hardwood vestibule floor and does a dozen tap steps, which brings the members grumbling to their feet.
The concept behind the movie is one used often in the Astaire-Rogers romantic comedies, mistaken identity. Hardwick is a budding impresario, responsible for Travers’ new London show. Hardwick has just gotten married; his wife is waiting for him in Venice, where she intends to introduce their mutual friend Jerry to a nice young lady in hopes he will settle down. But the young lady, Ginger Rogers as Dale Tremont, is still in London as well, awaiting a weekend trip to meet Hardwick’s wife (Madge, played by Helen Broderick) while showing off the work of Italian designer, Alberto Bedini, played by Erik Rhodes.
In the natural comedic way of things, Dale runs into Jerry by chance and they hit it off. But then Jerry sends her flowers billed to Hardwick’s room and a bellman points Jerry out to her, so she’ll have a name to go with the face of the man she’s interested in; he had just called himself “Adam” since she said she didn’t know him from Adam in an early line. Unfortunately, in that instant, Horace and Jerry trade places and Dale ends up thinking it is her friend Madge’s husband with whom she is falling in love. And, of course, Jerry and Horace know nothing abut this. Neither does Madge at first. When she does hear of it, what she is told is, naturally, also wrong. The film traverses a familiar comedic trail, straightening out one mix-up only to see another get started. Since it is a comedy, it all must work out in the end. On the way, however, there are a number of instances of physical comedy that are almost too subtle to consider comedy in the broad sense, except under the definition given by the Columbia volume; “what happens, how it happens, and the way those happenings are depicted.”
And style, of course, must be present. The Astaire-Rogers films are nothing if not stylish. In this case, the sets are huge, spare, very Art Deco but in an almost cartoonish way. Still, they provide ample highly polished floors for Astaire to strut his stuff.
Astaire/Travers meets Rogers/Tremont to begin with while strutting his stuff. He breaks into dance in Horace’s suite, which is above Tremont’s. She wakes up, storms upstairs, gives him a piece of her mind and takes a piece of his heart. He spies a sand filled cigarette snuffing can in the hallway, sprinkles the sand on the floor of Horace’s suite and does a soft-shoe to put Tremont to sleep. It also puts Horace to sleep, and Travers himself slumps into a chair after his final ‘sand dance’ step.
Two of the first three scenes in the movie (the club and the sand dance) are the sorts of gentle physical comedy that pervades the film.
Next up is a scene in which Travers trades places with a hansom cab driver taking Tremont to a riding academy. She doesn’t know it is Travers until he taps some dance steps on the roof of the cab, where the driver’s feet rest. She looks up through a peephole and sees who it is, to her consternation. During her ride in the park, a thunderstorm arises, and Travers does too, in the cab, to save her. Instead, they end up dancing in the gazebo. Their first (one of only two or three) kiss of the movie happens when Tremont skitters into his arms, frightened by a loud clap of thunder.
While the Astaire-Rogers physical comedy is romantic physical comedy, supporting actor Eric Blore paints broader strokes. But he, too, stays away from pratfalls and madcap activity. His physical comedic talents depend on a very mobile face, with glittering eyes and a large mouth. He makes his lines, too, into physical comedy. He delivers them with wit, but also with a slew of ‘sound bite’ embellishments. When he seethes, as he often does at something he doesn’t like, it is a physical act, full of hissing and puffing and extending of cheeks and narrowing of eyes.
The namesake dance as comedy
The movie is called Top Hat, so of course there must be one someplace. And there is. It is a huge, all-male musical number in Jerry’s new London show. A platoon of dancers mimics his dance, finally disappearing for his solo, and reappearing as ducks in a carnival shooting gallery. Jerry takes his cane, used almost as a dancing partner, and ‘shoots’ them one by one with it. They crumple in the background, and Jerry gets a standing ovation. He also ‘shoots’ the Thackeray Club, which had come en masse to see the show and inhabits a large box at stage right. While none of this is belly-laugh material, it is certainly amusing, and highly creative. And it perfectly fits the requirement that, in movies with sound, the physical comedy elements obtain some of their effect from their surroundings. There is a catalog of low-key comic bits that also gain their effect though the characterizations and setting rather than the actions themselves. Bedini becomes a comic Italian, clicking his heels and threatening people with a sword. There is a good bit in which Travers and Bedini are trying to decide who has the bigger key to Tremont’s room in yet another mix-up.
There are two slaps that we see; Tremont flattens her hand on Travers’ jaw. There is one we don’t see; Madge gives Horace a black eye. This would, of course, be a punch and much more violent than a slap, which leaves only a temporary sting. So we are shown that it did happen, but not shown the act itself. In fact, this bit of business is so subtle that the laugh is dependent on its not happening.
The aftermath, though, is also comical. Horace asks his manservant, played by Blore, to order him a steak. They are in different rooms discussing this, so Blore doesn’t know why Horace wants the steak. Blore orders steak, mashed potatoes, green beans. When it comes, he calls out, “Where do you want the steak, sir?” The predictable answer and accompanying action is pretty broad comedy for this movie.
But the other best bit of broad physical comedy is also Blore’s. He has been sent to shadow Tremont and does so by masquerading as a gondolier. He gets distracted, pushes his gondola pole into the bed of the canal too far where it sticks. He hangs onto it, the gondola goes on, the pole breaks and Blore plunks into the water.
Feathers and Fred
The moment on which the progress to completely straightening out the romantic messes depends is the “Dancing Cheek to Cheek” number. It is a beautiful, typical Astaire-Rogers duet, with lovely, floor-covering, swirling dance steps and enough ‘swing’ in it to keep it from ever being boring, or too balletic. But it also has Ginger Rogers in an amazing dress that appears to be mainly feathers. It is mainly feathers, and the fact that the dress was late arriving from the designer and that it shed feathers all over Astaire’s black pants and the black bakelite dance floor made it more hazardous than humorous, and it caused a rift during the production between Rogers, who had actually conceived it, and the rest of the cast and crew.
At one point, according to a report on reelclassics.com, Fred Astaire said, “Everything went well through the song, but when we did the first movement of the dance, feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote.”
Ginger said there were some flying feathers, but it wasn’t that bad. Still, Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan used the whole incident to create a mocking send up (also reported on reelclassics.com, of “Cheek to Cheek:”
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.”
The behind-the-scenes horseplay that apparently accompanied this production would seem to be inevitable. The characters were very akin to the real Astaire and Rogers; it was organic growth, not enhanced by artificial sweeteners. What went on in front of the cameras — a hint of animus at times, some mix-ups, and some distress but in the end a gentle meeting of like minds — went on behind them.
As it turned out, Astaire apologized to Rogers for his making light of her stunningly effective costume by giving her a gold feather charm for her bracelet and affectionately calling her ‘Feathers’ for years to come.
It is, in these movies and also in the lives of their stars as the Columbia definition says it is: “Whereas the silent performer was a physical being,… The sound performer was both physical and intellectual at once.” short compendium of more Fred and Ginger physical comedy
Naturally, all of the Fred and Ginger movies contained physical comedy. Here’s a small catalog of some of the best bits from some of their nine other efforts:
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Rogers and Astaire were not the stars of this one, but the second love triangle. Rogers was billed higher than Astaire. It was her 20th film, his third. But they stole the show with the Carioca number. Some call it the most erotic dance number in a movie of the era, and perhaps it was. But it was also mildly amusing because of the physical elements. Says Reelclassic.com about the posture of the dance, commented on in the movie by the dancers, the characters Honey and Fred:
Honey (Rogers): “What’s this business with the forehead?”
Fred (Astaire): “Mental telepathy.”
Honey (Rogers): “I can tell what they’re thinking about from here.”
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Another mistaken identity plot. Ginger is running from Fred and gets her skirt caught in a steamer trunk and ripped off. There are some cute dog-walking bits on the ocean liner’s ‘doggie deck.’ Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton lend their mobile faces to this one, too.
Follow the Fleet (1936)
This has a comical dance number, Let Yourself Go, with Fred and Ginger competing with other pairs who were literally amateurs recruited from an L.A. nightspot, in a dance contest. No contest.
Swing Time (1936)
After Top Hat, this one probably has the best physical comedy. It is, naturally, a love story, this time between Penny (Rogers) and Lucky (Astaire).
Again, the setting is everything in the physical comedy in this film. In once scene, Lucky takes a dance lesson from Penny, although he is only pretending to be a klutz. She doesn’t know that, and says, “Listen. No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money.” Eric Blore, playing her boss, overhears and fires her. At that point, Lucky reveals his skill and the pair dance out of the building arm in arm, much to Blore’s confusion.
Shall We Dance? (1937)
This one sees the dancing pair getting secretly married to each other, only they aren’t really, and then they are. Really. It has the greatest number of comic song/dance numbers of any of the films. They are:
Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” a dance on rollers skates, with Fred and Ginger falling in a heap at the end.
They All Laughed,” a number that produced a bunch of lasting tag lines, although not so many as the tomayto/tomahto stuff from “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”
I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck,” is also a rather comic number for one of these films.
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
In this one, the sidekick who moves the physical comedy is Oscar Levant, the same pianist/singer who sidekicks for dancer Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. And he plays pretty much the same role: the wiseacre city guy who ends up a long way from home, New York. In this case, it’s not Paris but the Gold Coast of Connecticut at a stately home. He can’t take the fresh air and peacefulness. Along with Fred and Ginger (the Barkleys), whose marriage is being tested, he sings the wry “Weekend in the Country.”
Bright Lights Film Journal. 2003. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/32/followthefleet.html.1 June 2003.
Columbia World of Quotations. 2001. Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com.3 June 2003.
Elizabeth.” May 30, 2003. http://www.reelclassics.com/Teams/Fred&Ginger/fred&ginger10.htm.3 June 2003.
Fred and Ginger: America’s Greatest Swing Dancers.” 2003. http://www.usaswingnet.com/fred&ginger.htm.2 June 2003.
Ginger Rogers Official Web Site. 2003. http://www.gingerrogers.com/about/bio2.html.4 June 2003.
Kathie Fry. “Physical Comedy on Film: Shall We Dance?” 2003. http://inlineskating.about.com/library/weekly/aa001228.htm.3 June 2003.
Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, Chapter 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Solid! An online encyclopedia of lounge, big band, classic jazz and space age sounds. 2003. http://www.parabrisas.com/d_astairef.html.1 June 2003.
TheatreCrafts.com Glossary. 2003. http://theatrecrafts.com/glossary.4 June 2003.
Hat, RKO, 1935.
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