Monday, May 10, 2021

Vital Viewing (May-December Hoofers Edition)

 


Actor, singer, and, above all else, dancer Fred Astaire was born on this day in 1899 (he died in 1987.) He had many dance partners during his long career, starting with his sister Adele when they were both still kids. Besides her, there was Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, Petula Clark, and, of course, Ginger Rogers, with whom he danced with through ten films. Yet when asked in 1973 who he thought was his best partner, Astaire named none of those well-known ladies but instead a woman who may not be as famous today as she suddenly found herself to be one October night in 1958: 


"Barrie Chase is the best partner--she's the latest partner that I've had, and believe me, that girl has got it--that girl can dance."

Fred Astaire's movie career was winding down toward the end of the 1950s. The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957), and Silk Stockings (1957) are today all considered film classics, and yet lost money upon their box office releases. Part of it was these movies were very expensively-made, and couldn't just be popular but needed to be very popular to turn a profit. Another was that teenagers were making up a bigger share of the moviegoing audience, and they wanted rock 'n' roll, not the Tin Pan Alley stuff that had provided the background music for Fred's fancy footwork. Now, these teenagers' parents did still want that Tin Pan Alley stuff, but they had stopped going to the movies, preferring to stay home and watch TV.  And TV was where the 59-year-old Astaire's immediate future lie. It wasn't going to be a regularly scheduled series, though, but one of those things that occasionally replace regularly scheduled series: a special. To make sure this special wouldn't be confused with a run-of-the-mill variety show, producer-director-writer Bud Yorkin convinced Astaire that it should be him alone with no guest stars. Astaire agreed that there should be no guest stars, but he wasn't about to dance every dance solo. So he went out and got himself a partner.


The 25-year-old daughter of a Hollywood screenwriter, Barrie Chase had appeared in the chorus lines of several 1950s movie musicals, including White Christmas, Hans Christian Anderson, Brigadoon, Pal Joey, and two movies with Fred Astaire himself, the first of which was Daddy Long Legs. Astaire later professed not to have first noticed her in DDL, but, ironically, on the set of a Gene Kelly movie, Les Girls, where he spotted her through an open door at MGM. Impressed, he gave her a small, uncredited part in the aforementioned Silk Stockings, where she momentarily performs the can-can in front of three decadent Bolsheviks. It doesn't sound like much of a breakthrough, and it wasn't, but then came An Evening with Fred Astaire. Here's Fred and Barrie in Techni--no, in early color videotape, but it holds up just as well:

                                            

I love that finger-snap of resignation at the end. For all his expensively-tailored duds, Astaire had a touch of the everyman about him.

Fred has better luck with Barrie in this clip, but it's in the oddest place. Jazzman Jonah Jones explains:

Now that's the kind of "taps" I wish they'd play more often at funerals!


An Evening with Fred Astaire was one of the great television successes not just of 1958 but the 1950s as a whole. In addition to winning its time slot in the ratings, it won an unprecedented nine Emmys, including a controversial one for Astaire for Best Actor (in his defense, Fred rhetorically asked, "I'm an actor, and this Emmy is for a performance by an actor, isn't it? When I do a difficult pantomime in a dance which tells a story, what do they think it is? Tiddlywinks?") The special was much written about in its day, and when it was rerun three months later, the rerun won its time slot! Between 1959 and 1968 there were three more television specials with Astaire and Chase. Also, the two danced on the 1960s variety show Hollywood Palace, and acted and danced together on the anthology show Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theater in a comedy story titled "Think Pretty." In 2017, the then-83-year-old Chase discussed her famous dance partner in a BBC interview:

An 83-year-old woman in a miniskirt and stilettoes?! In the comment section of the YouTube page from which I snagged this video, the consensus seems to be, if she still got the legs for it, why not? You can certainly see where all those years of dancing paid off.




Barrie Chase's time in the limelight lasted just under 15 years. In 1972, she married for a third time to a doctor and, quite voluntarily, left show biz, left fame, to raise a family. The nearly 50-year absence has taken its toll on her name recognition, I'm afraid. Her legacy is now cemented to just one phase of Fred Astaire's legendary career. It's all they asked her about in that BBC interview. That's not the case with Ginger Rogers, who died at 83 in 1995. When she gave interviews late in life, sure, she was asked about Astaire--that was unavoidable--but there were always questions left over about the many things she did on her own, such as the Oscar she won for Kitty Foyle, her appearance alongside Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door, and the classic romantic comedies Bachelor Mother and The Major and the Minor. I suspect that if Barrie Chase had hung around a little longer, like Rogers she would have been forever associated with Fred Astaire, but not exclusively so. Barrie Chase did do things on her own. As with other dancer-singers of that era, like Ann-Margaret and Joey Heatherton, she had her own nightclub act. She danced solo on a Hollywood Palace in which Astaire didn't appear. She did a few dramatic roles, most notably, and most credibly, as an unfortunate young woman who is brutally raped by Robert Mitchum in the original 1962 version of Cape Fear. If you prefer to see her in much lighter fare, she's the last surviving credited cast member of...

...this popular 1960s comedy:


Though he was a lot closer to her in age than Astaire, the dance team of Shawn and Chase just never took off.




16 comments:

  1. I like his cameo appearance in "Old Movie Stars Dance to Uptown Funk". :)

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    1. Mike, I just now finished watching that video, and I counted TWENTY-FOUR Fred Astaire cameo appearances, more than anyone else.

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  2. I've not heard of her and how interesting to read. How good was Astaire when dancing, but his acting style was in the context of the time. It is hard to judge from today's standards. I don't remember Chase in It's a Mad World, but I was very young when I first saw it.

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    1. Andrew, I don't think Astaire was a very good actor at all in the 1930s, which is why Ginger Rogers (never even close to being his equal as a dancer) is so important to those movies. It's her abilities as a comic actress (as well as her sex appeal) that is the glue that holds the musical numbers and non-musical scenes together. Now, Astaire did become a much, much better actor as time went on. See him some time in 1959's nuclear apocalypse drama On the Beach (which, if I remember correctly, Andrew, takes place in your part of the planet.) He's very good in that and more than holds his own alongside Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner, and Anthony Perkins. I'm not going to look to see who Astaire was up against in the Emmys, but I accept his explanation that he was acting as well as dancing.

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  3. Hi, Kirk!

    Happy birthday in heaven to Fred Astaire. Tin Pan Alley song and dance routines were not my favorite forms of entertainment, and therefore I missed many of Fred's performances on the big and small screen. It's exciting that Fred named little known hoofer Barrie Chase as his favorite dancing partner. I like her hair twirl in the routine for "St. James Infirmary Blues." She reminded me of Joey Heatherton. I can't help wondering what Fred thought of Joey and if he ever performed with her. Joey will be 77 in a few months and Barrie will be 88 this year. I thoroughly enjoyed Barrie's recent BBC interview. She comes across as a friendly, humble, down to earth woman.

    Thanks for remembering the great Fred Astaire, good buddy, during a week when we lost three big names of my youth: actress and rock video vixen Tawny Kitaen, New Orleans R&B pioneer Lloyd Price, and Johnny Crawford, child actor on The Rifleman TV series who also had a measure of success as a pop recording artist.

    Have a great week, good buddy Kirk!

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    1. Shady, I googled "Fred Astaire" and "Joey Heatherton" and came up nil. The two just never crossed paths, I'm afraid, as enticing as that is to envision. As far as Barrie Chase reminding you of Heatherton, she would have reminded you even more so after 1965. When putting this piece together I looked at videos of Astaire and Chase on the later specials, but decided not to use them because the clips were somewhat blurry compared to the 1958 special. But in those later clips, Chase is wearing the same kind of revealing outfits that Heatherton wore. The dances are also a bit more erotic. This could mean Chase was influenced by Heatherton (or vice-versa) but it's just as likely that Chase and Heatherton were both influenced by the Sexual Revolution going on around them at that time.

      RIP Kitaen, Price, and Crawford. Though I can't really say I was a fan of hers, Tawny's death was the one that rattled me the most as her 15 minutes of celebrity occurred not too long after I graduated from high school.

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  4. I can't say she made a big impression on me. I hope she was happy married to the doctor. Fame is not the life for everyone.

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    1. Debra, I bet she got free check-ups long before Obamacare (I just remembered, you're in Canada and may not know what I'm talking about. We could use your system here.)

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  5. Oh how I loved his films. I enjoyed him personally with Ginger Rodgers and Ann Miller. There was just something about the chemistry with those two.

    And it's funny, one of my guilty favorites of his movies, and I believe may have been his last movie, was Finnian's Rainbow, with Petula Clark.

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    1. I'll admit Tommy Steele makes a rather unique leprechaun, Maddie, but it's telling that he never ended up on a box of Lucky Charms.

      Maddie, I did some more googling. Fred Astaire's last film was, of all things, a horror movie, a genre he wasn't really known for. Ghost Story, which came out in 1981. I remember it being just OK, but he was good in it. As for Astaire's last movie musical, it depends on how you define the term. Finian's Rainbow was his last FICTIONAL musical, but he and Gene Kelly--playing themselves--sing and dance in-between the classic MGM clips in That's Entertainment II.

      One last tidbit on Finian's Rainbow. That rather novel blend of magical fantasy and Southern racial politics was dreamed up by lyricist Yip Harburg, who also wrote all the lyrics to the songs in The Wizard of Oz (and, though uncredited, the final draft of the screenplay.)

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  6. Hello Kirk, Although I like Fred Astaire well enough in his old movies, I was not overwhelmed by these clips. The age difference is a little glaring (let's face it--Astaire looked somewhat cadaverous even when he was young). Considering he was supposed to be the perfect gentleman, naming Chase as his favorite partner wasn't such a gallant reference to his previous ones, all of whom delighted various audiences.
    --Jim

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    1. Jim, as it creepy as it may come across to many now, that's just the way it was in movies made during the 1950s and '60s. Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Frank Sinatra, William Holden, and Dean Martin all wooed (and won over) females young enough to be their daughters in that era. And a fella didn't have to be all that handsome or sexy to do so either. I ended this post with a clip from It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Well, in that movie Milton Berle is married to Dorothy Provine. When that film was made, Berle was 55 and Provine 28. In fact, Berle was the same age as Ethel Merman--who played his mother-in-law!

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  7. I adore Astaire's dancing and also am a big fan of his singing. Cyd Charisse was an especially elegant partner (Dancing in the Dark). Wonderful review!

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    1. Oh, yes, Kass, Cyd Charisse was one of the great movie dancers, hitting the soundstage floor with both Astaire and Gene Kelly in several films each.

      I just now watched "Dancing in the Dark" again on YouTube, and note at how at the end Fred and Cyd both look blissfully enervated as they ride away in a New York Central Park horse-drawn carriage.

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  8. I remember watching Its A Mad Mad Mad World with my parents. They love that movie.

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    1. JM, the family that watches slapstick together, stays together.

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