Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hollywood Musicals and the Reversal of Deconstructionism

Could Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse be the key towards saving Western Civilization?

Charisse and Astaire, in The Bandwagon

That's meant sort of tongue-in-cheek, but never let it be said that I'm one of those bloggers who believes he has more to teach than to learn, or that I learn more by writing than I do by reading other people. In fact, I can be swayed or educated on a lot of things. Like Socrates, all I know is that I know nothing. For example, for over a year now the young blogosphere radtrads have been writing with breathless anticipation like kids before Christmas about the supposedly impending Motu Proprio on the Tridentine Rite. I had problems with this for various reasons, but now I increasingly find myself thinking, hey, why the heck not? Why not take a shot at bringing back some transcendence, beauty, and formality if we can? What have we got to lose? We've tried everything else, haven't we?

I love Don Henley's song The Heart of the Matter. There's a stanza in it where he sings:
These times are so uncertain
Theres a yearning undefined
And people filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive in such a graceless age?
That's a searing way to describe our times, "such a graceless age". Here's another story from our recent time on the road... While we were in our hotel room in Sandusky last week, I was flipping around the channels and I happened to come across an old film starring Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse, The Bandwagon, which was made in 1953. I was mesmerized by its beauty, feeling an incredibly intense nostalgia for things I never even really knew. It didn't look like a graceless age to me.. Anne and the kids could barely pull me away to drag me down to breakfast.

This wasn't considered highbrow entertainment in 1953. It was popular entertainment.

In a lively discussion we had once on this blog, Mike McG once asked William about what sorts of things can be used today to ward off hopelessness. William cited his wife, friends and family, and interestingly, artists from a bygone era like Fred Astaire and Lester Young.

I think I know what William means. Well, maybe not exactly, but maybe it means something similar for me that it does for him. Now, I'm not one of these people who normally sees the world as irredeemably evil and going to hell in a handbasket. At least not on a good day. I can be a pessimist in the short run, but I'm generally an optimist for the long haul. In God's great plan, I trust that all will turn out well in the end. Even I have to admit, however, that our culture has undergone a sort of radical and rapid deconstruction over the last few decades which should give anyone a sense of pause. Look at the state of our popular culture and its coarseness. How did we get from Fred Astaire to Eminem? From Duke Ellington to Sir Mix-A-Lot? From Ingrid Bergman to Paris Hilton? From West Side Story to Boyz 'n the Hood? From Sugar Ray Robinson to the Ultimate Fighting Championship? Striving for simplicity can be a wonderful thing, but it doesn't necessarily have to lead to primitivism, does it? Has Occam's Razor cut us too deep? I think most everyone is familiar with the Scott Adams cartoon Casual Day Has Gone Too Far and can relate to it somewhat.

This video shows Astaire and Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" in the film The Bandwagon, a musical about making a musical. The number opens up with a scene of nicely dressed couples dancing in Central Park in NYC. I know it's a musical and all, but it's not ridiculous. My parents grew up doing this sort of thing. Not everyone of course, was in this "class", but it's what most everyone admired and aspired to. Maybe you could only afford one nice suit, but man, you sure took care of and treasured that one suit.

Just an aside for a moment regarding the movie itself... My wife Anne told me that she'd heard that Astaire hated working with Charisse - that she was just as much a difficult ballet prima donna in real life as the part she played in the film. I don't know if that's true or not. Most people prefer Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers together, but in my untrained opinion, Rogers moved like a ton of bricks compared to Charisse. When you watch Astaire & Rogers, you've really got your eyes on Astaire, she's almost like a prop, but when you watch Astaire & Charisse you can't help but watch them both. Then again, I'm partial to brunettes over blondes anyway (which apparently means I'm no gentleman), and quite frankly, Charisse was a real babe... A quote I saw about her once summed it up perfectly, "She has legs that start all the way down there, and then they go, well, they go all the way up there." I suppose it's good to make note of the fact, then, that even though this might seem pretty tame by today's standards, pairing Astaire with Charisse back then might have been considered quite sexually provocative.

Anyway, what have we lost and what have we gained since that era? Do we sorely miss the formality, elegance, courtesy, glamour, graciousness, tenderness, restraint, intellectualism and dignity of those times? Or, by the same token, is there an element of honesty about our more casual approach towards life today that is preferable? For all of those things we may feel nostalgic for, aren't we also glad to be rid of a sometimes superficial emphasis on outward appearances over substance, certain intolerances and bigotries, cocktail society, ubiquitous cigarettes, blandness, repression, intense pressure to conform, and sexual hypocrisy?


Garpu the Fork said...

I'm really of two minds and conflicted about the motu proprio. On the one hand, I pray the Divine Office in Latin, I hate most of the hymns written after 1960, and I abhor machine-made felt banners. On the other hand, I've been to Tridentine Masses before, and I couldn't help but feel alienated from them as a woman. I was expected to sit there in my little chapel veil and look pious. Plus, it does nothing to clean up some of the problems with the current Mass. Music directors refuse to use other hymns beyond something published by OCP? not the fault of the liturgy. People improvising liturgy that isn't a n honest mistake? That needs to be addressed.

I think my biggest objection to a universal indult is that it gives schismatic groups tacit approval to reject Church councils. (See also the angelqueen forums, among others.) I'm under no canonical obligation to pray the Divine Office, but if I were, I'd gladly do the ICEL version out of obedience. I despise the music at the Mass I'm an altar server at, but it's where I'm needed. The Mass isn't a place for my's my job as a parishoner to make sure that the liturgy is the best I can make it, given the norms. And if that means singing cheesy music the best I can, so be it.

Meh. Don't want to start drama on your blog or anything, because I don't disagree with you. I'm just not sure a universal indult is the right way to go about it. But I think we can take a clue from the Benedictines and first look for the transcendent and holy in ordinary things first.

Charles of New Haven said...

If there were such a thing, I would nominate the title of this post for one of my favorites ever.

Of course the radtrads are reacting against the same gracelessness that you feel. But the hard question--and I feel this very acutely as a religious--is how to move forward in a way that *recovers* instead of just *restoring.*

Jeff said...

Hi Garpu,

Angelqueen... Yeah. That's quite a place. I used to tangle with some of those guys over at Envoy. I had to get away from it all and finally have my own space.

I guess I've felt about the pending MP very much the same as you do. I love chant, and On Eagle's Wings is sheer torture for me, but I know what you mean. I posted a bit about it here (and I know what "Ad orientam" means, I won't need a lecture from anyone over that), and I went back and forth on it a little bit with Fr. Komanchak on dotCommonweal (please forgive my awful formatting and spelling). As far as I understand it, Paul VI made a decision based upon the recommendations expressed in a council and not in regard to his own preferences, wheras B16 is following up on his own personal preferences and what he openly described (while still only a cardinal himself) as a "mistake" by Paul VI. I tended to see this as a sop to the most extreme elements, and those who believed the least in liturgical diversity in particular, but you know what? John Allen puts it well in the column. Maybe those who want to continue to argue about it should argue about it in Latin. I'm willing to be charitable. It's almost June and the weather is nice. I'd rather talk about Cyd Charisse for a little while. :-)

Hey Friar Charles,

Good to see you. Sorry I haven't been by in a while, I have a lot of catching up to do. I agree with you about the necessity of moving forward. Even "ressourcement" should really move forward. One thing I need to keep in mind about the young turks... Their immediate memory is very much restricted to the results of deconstruction. Their youth has been characterized by Eminem, Sir Mix-A-Lot, Paris Hilton, Boyz In the Hood, Ultimate Fighting Championship and Dan Schutte without the counterweights of Fred Astaire, Duke Ellington, Ingrid Bergman, West Side Story, and Sugar Ray Robinson, and Palestrina.

Garpu the Fork said...

I think we're definitely in agreement...and I couldn't agree more about the hateful/racist attitudes some of those groups have.

crystal said...

I don't have strong feelings one way or another about the Mass changes. Maybe I should read more about it.

I really do like movies of that era, though. I think they remind me of my grandfather and make me feel sort of safe and happy ... Vertigo, Rebecca, Notorious, Holiday Inn, Rear Window, etc.

There are good and bad things about the past, just like there are in the present. Maybe the challenge is to pay attention to the good, then and now.

Jeff said...


I love most of those movies you listed. I don't think I've seen Holiday Inn.

Another great noir film is Gaslight.

Did you ever see the PBS version of Rebecca with Charles Dance, Emilia Fox, and Diana Rigg? Tremendous.

crystal said...

No, I haven't seen that - only the old Hitchcock one. That is one of my favorite books too.

Liam said...

I'm waiting to see what William says about your criticism of Ginger Rogers. You might want to look into getting a bodyguard.

I like Ginger Rogers, but Cyd Charisse is really quite something. She does that great long dance with Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain, too.

Jeff said...


I'm bracing myself. The "moved like a ton of bricks" comment may have been a bit too much. This might be worse than one of those Pats-Jets things...

Dare I even say that I thought Rita Hayworth was better than Ginger too?

Steve said...

Memory is a funny thing. I think we tend to filter out what we don't like and focus on what we do like. The good old days aren't always as good as the memories.

In the 50's society still had segregation, women didn't have equal rights and opportunities, smoking was seen as healthy, and who had air conditioning? Regarding church, weren't people just expected to pay, pray & obey? Who had Bible study groups back then? What about social justice concerns?

Personally, I'd rather look to the future than long for the past. I'd rather redeem the present than try to impose an old social order. I'm not saying we can't/shouldn't learn from the past, or that we should throw out past practices and so on. For me it's a matter of focus - on today, and living in the present.

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

You're right of course. There are times when I just miss the loss of civility, manners and beauty in all of this clamor. Don't you?

There is much to be said for the way we've advanced past the bigotries, stifling conformity, and certain hypocrisies of that time, but still I lament that today we too often celebate ugliness over sublimity and high-art, coarseness over graciousness, force over gentility, and "dumbing-down" over the intellect.

Great post, by the way on the liturgy and obedience.

cowboyangel said...

Wow, the Tridentine Mass and Fred Astaire all in one post. Along with Deconstructionism, nostalgia, and Don Henley. Nice. There's so much to comment on here!

First, just to clear up the important things, I love both Cyd and Ginger. And Rita. And Vera-Ellen. Not to mention Leslie Caron and Eleanor Powell. All of whom were Fred's dancing partners. They all brought something different to the films they made with him. Yes, Cyd was born in Texas, and she was a brunette, and she had those amazing legs. I love both of her films with Astaire, the other being the incredibly underrated and wonderful Silk Stockings, which was basically Ninotchka turned into a musical, with a terrific Cole Porter score, some deliciously witty Cold War comedy writing (a song about getting sent to "Siberia"), and Peter Lorre!!! singing and dancing.

I've never heard that Fred didn't like working with Cyd. In fact, in his own autobiography (perhaps the first autobiogrpahy actually written by a Hollywood actor), Steps in Time Fred only has good things to say about her. And it's hard to imagine he said anything nasty to anyone else, because he was one of the most gracious and positive people who ever passed through Hollywood. David Niven, in his fun and interesting book, Bring on the Empty Horses, says at one point that Astaire and Tyrone Power were both pretty much loved by everyone. And I've read that in other places as well. Fred's personality on the screen was pretty much the way he was in person from everyting I've gathered. Which is why I mentioned him as someone who keeps me sane. He's like Joy and Fun and Creativty personified. With hard work, and he was an incredibly hard worker, and a joyful spirit, people can do amazing things.

No, I don't think Ginger "moved like a ton of bricks." But, hey, everyone's entitled to their opinion. :-) Even if it's wrong! As the saying goes, Ginger did everything Fred did, but backwards and in high heels. I don't think she was the best dancer of his partners, but they may have danced the best together. It's a more elegant, lyrical dancing, whereas the other women tend to be more athletic. Which I know you like. Again, I like all of the styles. I wish he and Vera-Ellen had done better movies together, because I think their partnership could've been quite special.

I do think Ginger was Fred's best partner when NOT dancing. She was an excellent comic actress, with great timing. Just like Fred. In fact, the Astaire-Rogers films aren't just great and important musicals in cinema history, they're also excellent screwball comedies from the 1930s. They had great comic writing, casts, and directing, in addition to all that fantastic music. Fred and Ginger's verbal sparring and on-screen chemistry was more natural and relaxed than that of his other leading ladies. Perhaps because they worked together for so long, and because they had worked together back in NEw York on Broadway when they were younger. (They also dated briefly back then.) As much as I love Cyd, and as graceful as she was when dancing, she can be a bit stiff as a comic actress. Personally, I'd rather go out with Cyd, but I do think Ginger was the better actress. (She won an Oscar for Best Actress in the early 1940s.)

But, the point is, I love being able to watch both of them.

Which makes me wonder about the whole Mass thing. There are different rites in different churches - Mariachi Masses, the Mozarabic Mass in Toledo, Spain. I don't see why we can't have a good High Mass more often. Why does the debate seem so black and white? I love incense and Latin. Do I want to do that all the time? No. I grew up singing "Let It Be" at Mass. That was cool, too. Unlike some elitists (cough, Liam, cough), I don't hate guitars in Mass. It depends on how they're used, of course. Life is BIG. There are all kinds of people and ways of worship. I think mixing things up a bit would be good for the Church.

One problem, I think, is that there aren't enough priests to do various kinds of Mass at the same church.

As far as "the good old days" versus now, it's kind of mix, like everything else. As Steve said, memory filters out a lot of the bad stuff. On the other hand, I think there's also a tendency to believe that the present is superior to the past, and that we create myths about other time periods that aren't always accurate. For example, don't we always hear how boring the 1950s were? But there was some amazing jazz, poetry, film and art going on in the 1950s. Not to mention radical thinking and social action. There's always been coarseness in our society, but I think it's mixed now with wealth and a misunderstanding of freedom. Perhaps that makes it different.

As Crystal said, we should pay attention to the good in the past as well as the present. I believe in honoring those who have come before us. Whehter that's being thankful for one of Lester Young's solos with Count Basie in 1937, reading Shakespeare, or watching Fred Astaire. It's remembering the good of my grandparents who are gone now. Time really shouldn't be that important to us. If we live in eternity, then it's all connected and ever-present. If we don't care of the beauty from our past, how can we tend to the beauty in the present?

Steve said...

Jeff - Sure, I value civility, tranquility, graciousness, and so on. Do I miss it? Well, I can't say that it's ever gone from my marriage and/or my family. But it's probably because I live a sheltered life - I don't watch TV news programs, save for AC 360 and Larry King now & then. I don't listen to talk radio, unless it's playing at the place I get my oil changed. I don't read contentious blogs or allow that sort of commenting on my own.

Much of why the world's gone crazy is because we - collectively we, society - have let it. That's my opinion, anyway. I'd love to blame it on the boomers, but I don't think it's *that* simple ;)

Jeff said...

Hi William,

Now there's a post on Astaire from someone in the know. He's the expert, folks.

Peter Lorre, dancing?! That's a terrifying thought. I sure enjoyed Lorre in Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Had to see "M" for a college film class. Did you ever see it?

I will concede the point to you readily that Rogers was a much better comic actress than Charisse. Now with Hayworth, I think you've got a real good balance somewhere in between... What a beauty.

Funny that you should mention Let It Be. I know that Lennon gave McCartney some flack about the song being religious, and McCartney denied up and down that it was about the Virgin Mary, He said it was about his own mother, but you know, I do think the boy doth protest too much...

William, Crystal, Steve.

Good points all about the past relative to the present, and we should all be cognizant of recognizing the beauty as well as the weaknesses to be found in each era.