Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!
I’ve written about my ambivalent relationship to the musical genre before. It moves beyond ambivalent into downright ignorance when it comes to the musicals of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Sure, I’ve seen Singing in the Rain, but I have failed so far when it comes to other classics, such as An American in Paris. And if you were to ask me about Fred Astaire… well, it’s better not to ask me about Fred Astaire, unless you enjoy the sound of silence. It’s not that I dislike him, it’s more that I simply don’t know him.
Okay, that’s not entirely true. I’ve seen and enjoyed Funny Face, though I found it difficult to accept the difference in age between Astaire and the female lead, Audrey Hepburn. And I have seen Easter Parade. It’s undoubtedly charming, but for someone whose taste in musicals leans more towards the 1970s (if I had to put a number on it – I’m thinking of the likes of Jesus Christ Superstar, Fiddler on the Roof and obviously All that Jazz), it’s also a slight, dated film. Don’t go in expecting much in the way of plot or characterisation: these films are first and foremost a showcase for the singing and dancing talents of their leads, in this case Dorothy herself, Judy Garland, and the aforementioned Mr Astaire, whose abilities were once pithily summarised as “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little.” by someone whose critical faculties would at best deserve the description “Can spell a little.”)
About two thirds into Easter Parade, there’s a setpiece that’s entirely designed to showcase Astaire’s considerable dancing talent. If you can get past the brownface makeup, it’s a nice scene – there is no one who out-Astaires Astaire. But there’s a moment towards the end of the sequence that goes beyond nice. It made me sit up and pay attention: while the dancers in the background continue their choreography, in the foreground Astaire’s movements slow down until he seems to be moving underwater or dancing on the moon.
It’s a downright surreal moment, even when your brain realises what you’re watching. Obviously it’s a special effect. Obviously the two layers were recorded separately and then slow-motion Astaire was superimposed on the background. These days, any kid with a smartphone and a freeware video editor could do such an effect. But watch it and – like those forced perspective shots in The Lord of the Rings, where Elijah Wood looks half the size of Ian McKellen simply because he’s standing several feet further away from the character – it’s sheer movie magic.
If you’re not already sold on old-school movie musicals, if you’re not already a fan of Fred Astaire or Judy Garland, Easter Parade is probably not the best place to test the waters. But that one scene, where Fred Astaire briefly outdances time and gravity? It’s one for the ages.
The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.