This is probably an old debate, and one we’ll never get the answer to, but I think it’s a fun question to consider nonetheless. I haven’t done Classic Movie Monday in a while, and I thought it would be a nice change of pace to post about two of the greatest Old Hollywood dancers of all time.
I was inspired to write about them when I came across a short clip of an older Astaire and Kelly dancing together for an MGM special. I only caught the tail end of it, and I can’t find it anywhere online anymore, but they were both wearing tuxes and dancing magnificently as always. They may have been past their prime, but the beauty and precision of their movements never went away.
My first Astaire movie was probably Holiday Inn. And I hated him in that movie. Absolutely hated him. I thought he was his character, so for a long time I didn’t like watching him in other films. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, I first saw in Singin’ in the Rain. And we all know that’s one of the most beloved musicals of all time. Just that titular dance scene is enough to lift anyone’s spirits any time. And when I learned that he directed that sequence as well as other dance sequences in his other movies, I was really impressed. My other Kelly favorite is Summer Stock with Judy Garland, where he famously dances using just a newspaper as a prop in one scene.
Over the years, I was more open to discovering other Astaire movies, such as Royal Wedding, Three Little Words (which is much beloved at my house that it deserves a separate post), Easter Parade and The Barkleys of Broadway. The latter is special for two reasons: it features the song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”; and because it was my first Fred and Ginger film. And boy, was it an education. I finally understood why they are both such legends. I was struck by how joyful Ginger Rogers looked while dancing, as if you could see how happy her very soul was in the movement. I think I appreciated Fred Astaire more because of his partner. Like they say in tennis, you’re only as good as your opponent, and Ginger sure brought out the best in Fred.
After that, I saw another MGM short featuring how Astaire practiced his choreography without any music, so you could just hear him counting out the steps. And that’s when it struck me: I underestimated Astaire’s ability because when he dances, it looks like he isn’t making an effort at all. It’s as if he were just walking, and I guess I subconsciously thought, what’s so special about that? But that’s just it: Astaire was so graceful that he made his every move look unrehearsed. As if that’s how he normally moves. My dad also told me a story about Cyd Charisse, who did a number of films with both men. At the end of a day of shooting, her husband would always know who she danced with: when she had a ton of bruises, she had spent the day with Gene Kelly. When she was bruise-free, she had worked with Fred Astaire.
And I think that’s where he differs from Gene Kelly. Kelly is more the blue-collar dancer: a bit rougher around the edges and more acrobatic, and you can see how rehearsed his every step is because that’s how it’s supposed to be. Astaire is more frothy, and his steps are the kind that work best with tails instead of khakis. Besides, my sister forever changed the way I watch Gene now. We were talking about why he’s so different from Fred, and she pointed out that he does this affectation of rolling his eyes while he’s dancing to convey his happiness in the dance. It tends to take away from the choreography because it is a bit of overacting on his part. Astaire, on the other hand, can convey all the emotions through his feet. When I first saw Holiday Inn, with my strong emotions against Astaire, I never thought I would grow to appreciate his awesome talent.
In the end it all boils down to preference, really. The clip below is a gem, and even if you staunchly prefer one over the other, you can’t deny that they complemented each other perfectly, and that the movies were richer because of them both.