Six Damn Fine Degrees #89: Fred & Ginger in Carefree

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

They don’t make ’em like they used to. It’s a familiar refrain when people talk about old movies, to the point of being a cliche. Frequently it’s trotted out by rose-tinted nostalgics who want to decry that modern films aren’t as good as they were in their day. But it can also apply when you watch a film from yesterday that has a plot that, for strikingly obvious reasons, you couldn’t – and definitely shouldn’t – tell now.

If the past is a foreign country, then the story synopsis for the 1938 Fred and Ginger vehicle Carefree is akin to watching North Korean television. They are most certainly doing things different there. The briefest summary is that Fred Astaire plays a psychiatrist, asked by his friend – a charming but coasting Ralph Bellamy – to use his powers of psychiatry to get his girl to agree to marry him. The girl in question is Ginger Rogers and, of course, the Doctor and his new patient can’t stand each other before realising they are in love.

The path to their happy ending, however, goes via an atypical path of sedation, inhibition-dropping drugs and hypnotism. As Astaire’s Doctor tries various means to get Rogers to marry his pal, then to get her to stop falling in love with him. Before, finally, he admits that he loves her meaning he’s got to race to the wedding to sock the hypnotism out of her.

Of course, nobody really goes to a musical for the strength of the plot – a fact that applies tenfold to Fred and Ginger movies. Where the plot exists as a flimsy excuse to string together a number of musical set-pieces, treading a predictable path to ensure we get Fred and Ginger together by the end.

Even the need to dramatically portray the romance isn’t really necessary. Rarely in the talking scenes of any of their movies does it ever feel like they’re in love. Astaire invariable plays a charming, yet relaxed bachelor, for whom the whole business of falling in love never registers more than a minor consideration in his debonair lifestyle. Whereas Rogers is the feisty modern woman who’s excelling in a Man’s World. The sideline frippery of them falling in love and getting together is never going to do anything to change these characters.

And ultimately, the people making these films know they never need to bother spending too much time on the plot, or in dramatising how two strong characters might make a connection. Because they knew that they can get all that by showing the couple dancing together. A sweet synchronised movement when dancing together is worth a fair few lines of dialogue.

Which comes to the reason I ended up watching Carefree, one of their less famous pictures together. I was captivated by a short dance sequence I spotted on social media, an enchanting few minutes where Astaire dances with a hypnotised Rogers. In the modern era, you can enjoy these sequences as short standalone videos easily disseminated. I take no pleasure as a cinematic purist in saying this, but I don’t think I got much more enjoyment sitting through the plot of the film to see this in context than I did watching the clip in the first place. After all, they weren’t that bothered with all that context at the time they made the film. And it shows. So why should I be?

But they were bothered with the dancing. Maybe that points towards a curious future for their performances, better enjoyed in the focused format of our social media age? They don’t make ’em like they used to, but there still might be a place for ’em somewhere.

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