October 16, 2012

Two books published this year serve as bookends in the story of Fred Astaire. Neither, however, is strictly speaking, a biography of this famous hoofer. Instead, they tell the stories of his life and work with his two most important partners – two dancers who worked with him to perfect the art we remember.

You are probably thinking “OK – Ginger Rogers and who?” But neither of these partners was that lady.

If you already know a bit about Fred’s career, you can guess that the first book must be about his career with his sister, Adele. After all, it was as part of a brother–sister act that Fred first came to the attention of vaudeville audiences and then fans of revues and finally adherents of the book musical format, especially those set to the songs of Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, Schwartz  and Dietz, Cole Porter and most notably George and Ira Gershwin.

The second volume, however, is a biography not of one or more Astaires, but of the marvelously named (and, yes, it is his real name) Hermes Pan. Subtitled The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire the book covers all of Pan’s career including that which didn’t involve Fred, but it is his work with Astaire that makes this book a natural to sit next to the first volume on a theater shelf.

Kathleen Riley’s The Astaires – Fred and Adele gives them the billing they shared which listed Fred first not because he was the older sibling (he wasn’t) nor because he was the better dancer (he says he wasn’t) but because he was the male and that was the convention of the time.

Together Fred and Adele Astaire were featured or starred in The Passing Show of 1918, Kern’s The Bunch and Judy, Gershwin’s Lady, Be Good! and Funny Face, Schwartz and Dietz’ The Band Wagon, Porter’s Gay Divorce and others. Riley does a fine job of filling in a reader who might not know much about Adele and she carries the story in detail right up to the evening of March 5, 1932 when, at age 35, Adele retired from the stage to marry into British aristocracy, becoming Lady Cavendish, wife of the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire.

By that time, the Astaires had become not only the toast of the town in Manhattan where, frankly, there were other stars of their magnitude. They had become the hottest properties in London, certainly unrivaled by anyone else from the western side of the Atlantic. As Riley tells it, it was Adele’s charm and talent for comedy that combined with her dancing along with brother Fred’s inventive choreography and meticulous preparation that made them such a fabulous team. All of these factors, however, were only effective because the personalities of the two were complimentary, unique and very much in step with the tastes of the time.

The Astaires – Fred and Adele is a fairly slender book. Its text runs to just 198 pages followed by useful chronologies. The first 146 pages are devoted to the period of the siblings’ partnership. When it gets to Adele’s final performance while on the road in Chicago with Fred in The Band Wagon, the book begins to quickly skim over the remaining 48 years before Adele’s death in 1981 and then the few more until Fred’s death in 1987.

Riley reveals the interconnections of the relatively small world of show business in the first third of the twentieth century and fills her pages with interesting detail that makes the book constantly entertaining as well as informative. She does devote quite a bit of effort to refuting statements by others that her research contradicts – even if the reader might not have known about the statements she finds faulty.

She includes some really delightful quotes. Alexander Woollcott: “I do not know whether George Gershwin was born into this world to write rhythms for Fred Astaire’s feet or whether Fred Astaire was born into this world to show how the Gershwin music should really be danced.” Ashton Stevens: “Heaven doesn’t send every generation an Adele Astaire.” Robert Benchley: “I don’t think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest dancer in the world.” Fred Astaire on their flop show Smiles: “The kind of flop that even made the audience look bad.”

John Franceschina’s book Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced With Fred Astaire is a third again as lengthy and tends to discuss each number or at least each project in his career with specifics. You may find yourself skimming over some more detailed sections when you first read it, but you may return to it with gratitude for its comprehensive index where you can find out on which page a particular song or play or film is discussed.

While much of Pan’s career was devoted to film work in Hollywood, chapter seven concerns the Broadway show As The Girls Go which managed a run of over 400 performances on Broadway. This was despite Boston critic Elliott Norton’s review of its out-of-town tryout one week before the Presidential election of 1948 between Truman and Dewey. Norton said the show’s star had “as much chance of getting to Broadway with this turkey as … Harry Truman has of remaining in the White House.” Of course, both Truman and the show proved Norton wrong. The book also details his experiences in the ensemble of musicals on Broadway such as Top Speed, Happy and the inimitable Marx Brothers romp Animal Crackers.

Pan’s films included the musicals Can Can, My Fair Lady and Finian’s Rainbow as well as choreography for non-musicals like Cleopatra and The Pink Panther. But it was his work with Astaire that draws the author’s fascination, as witness the fact that the aforementioned comprehensive index tells us that Astaire is discussed on no fewer than 144 of the book’s 269 pages.

It was with Pan that Astaire worked out the steps of the dances for which he is so well remembered. Pan often danced the women’s part in run through after run through as he and Astaire polished and perfected the moves. Then it often fell to Pan to teach those steps to whichever dancing actress was co-starring with Astaire at the time. Often, that was Ginger Rogers, of course. But at other times it was Joan Fontaine, Rita Hayworth, Barrie Chase, Ann Miller, Audrey Hepburn, Vera-Ellen or Jane Powell. Once, for “A Damsel in Distress,” it was even George Burns and Gracie Allen.

The stories behind some of the dances are fascinating and the role of Pan in even some of the dances for which he wasn’t officially credited as choreographer are of interest. He  wasn’t credited on Royal Wedding but the famous dance with a coat rack was his.

Both volumes are interesting reading and, taken together, give an overview of Astaire’s career.

Hermes Pan: The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire
by John Franceschina 

Oxford University Press
306 pages including notes, bibliography and index
55 black and white photos
Hardback SBN 978-0-19-975429-8

List price $35

The Astaires: Fred & Adele
By Kathleen Riley
Oxford University Press
241 pages including chronologies, bibliography, notes and index
49 black and white illustrations
ISBN 978-0199738410
List price $27.95

The Astaires and Hermes Pan