Love Affair with Fred and Ginger
I fell for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers one
cold January afternoon when I was twelve years old. It was love
at first sight.
If my parents had been home, I wouldn't have been watching television
on a Saturday afternoon. I would have been outside, no matter
what the temperature, because my mother believed in fresh air
I was opposed to both, so I spent as much time as possible indoors,
reading and, since both my parents worked, taking care of my
brother. He was five years younger and could have set the house
on fire or run away from home while in my care for all the attention
I paid him. Fortunately he was used to being on his own, and
occupied his time building scale model forts out of matches.
(Now that I look back on it, it is surprising that he didn't
set us all on fire trying to get the requisite number of burned
matches for the next guard tower.)
That particular Saturday, I must have read all the Nancy
Drew and Cherry Ames, Student Nurse books that I'd
gotten for Christmas. I was bored. It was only January, and
I was already tired of winter. So I turned on the TV. There
weren't that many channels to choose from in those days, and
afternoon programming was particularly bleak. There was wrestling,
of course, but I wasn't desperate enough to watch that.
So I flipped the dial again and there they
were: Fred and Ginger in "Swing
Time." She was gorgeous. He was elegant. I loved the
songs and I loved the dancing and I fell hard for the tuxedos,
the evening gowns, the apartments with a view of the city, the
fur coats and perky hats.
But I fell hardest for Fred and Ginger. They were the perfect
couple. I knew from the moment they laid eyes on each other that
they were destined to fall in love. Sure, he's engaged to someone
else. In fact, Astaire is in New York simply to make enough money
to pay off his gambling debts and return to his fiancée.
But one look at Ginger, and he falls madly in love. He follows
her. She rebuffs him. He finds out she's a dance instructor and
arranges a lesson with her. Ginger is not amused when Fred turns
out to be a marvelous dancer. But Fred continues his pursuit,
and they waltz off together at the end of the movie.
That day, I became a Fred and Ginger fanatic. I spent the rest
of my teen years obsessing over the TV listings so I wouldn't
miss one of their movies.
Years later, I happened upon a late night showing of "The
Band Wagon" with Astaire and Cyd Charisse. She was stunning
with a wonderful long-limbed body. They danced beautifully. I
was never so bored in my life. I couldn't for one minute believe
these two had any interest in each other.
What is it, then, that holds our interest and makes us true believers
in the couples we see on the screen? It doesn't seem to have much
to do with their offscreen relationships. After all, Spencer Tracy
and Katharine Hepburn were real life lovers for many, many years.
Their movies are all funny movies, fine movies, in fact, but the
two stars seem as distant as if they had been introduced a moment
before the director yelled "Action."
of the Year," for example, Tracy is a sports reporter
and Hepburn a political journalist. They don't seem to have anything
in common, but they marry suddenly in a ceremony scheduled between
her appointments and interviews. Shortly after their wedding,
without Tracy's agreement, Hepburn adopts a war orphan, for whom
it's apparent she has little real feeling. In fact, Hepburn expects
the child to stay by himself one evening while she and Tracy go
to a banquet where she is to receive the Woman of the Year award.
Tracy, upset by Hepburn's behavior toward the boy, opts out of
the banquet and, while Hepburn is gone, returns the boy to the
agency and moves back to his own apartment. The next day, Hepburn
decides to repair the damage to their marriage by showing up at
Tracy's apartment to cook his breakfast in an attempt to show
her domestic side. Since she can't cook, the breakfast is a debacle,
but this charms Tracy into a reconciliation. In the final scene,
Hepburn, the capable Woman of the Year political journalist, gets
all giggly and perches on Tracy's knee in a kitchen dripping with
exploded pancake batter. And Tracy solemnly assures her that she
can "just be herself" and he'll love her. What on earth
do these two have in common except a cold-hearted streak that
lets them adopt, then return, a child--like a sweater that didn't
fit? I don't get a warm, happily-ever-after feeling as this movie
fades out. Rather I find Hepburn and Tracy to be unlikable, even
a little distasteful.
Woman of the Year
Set," Hepburn is in charge of a TV-network research department.
The network hires Tracy, an efficiency expert, to modernize her
department by installing a giant computer. Hepburn is wary of
Tracy since she and her co-workers believe they'll be fired once
the computer is up and running. Hepburn has had a crush for years
on a network executive, Gig Young, who strings her along but isn't
really interested. Suddenly, Young is jealous of Tracy and invites
Hepburn to a network function with him. Hepburn is thrilled and
canoodles around the office exclaiming "He asked me...He
finally asked me." A co-worker stops Hepburn in mid-pirouette:
"Geez, I thought he finally asked you to marry him, not just
go to dinner." Once the computer is installed, Hepburn finds
that Tracy never intended her to be fired. The network needs her
to manage the computer, which she is able to do by inserting her
hairpin in the thing when it threatens to malfunction. She not
only gets to keep her job, she gets Tracy.
Do I honestly believe that Katharine Hepburn would twirl around
an office because someone wants to date her? That Katharine Hepburn
needs hairpins to keep her bun in place? That Tracy would be interested
in someone who thinks Gig Young is a catch? Did I mention the
giant plant that has tendrils in every corner of Hepburn's office
that she's nurtured for years? Is Tracy likely to move that specimen
into his apartment along with Hepburn? I don't think so.
The plots of the Hepburn/Tracy movies seem based on the opposites
attract cliché. And opposites they certainly are. But to
make the cliché work, at some point the couple has to fall
for each other in a way that makes us believe it. With Hepburn
and Tracy, there are no meaningful glances or lingering touches,
no passionate clinches. They don't even appear to notice each
other's differences, let alone overcome them or be attracted because
Compare the Hepburn and Tracy films to Hepburn
and Cary Grant in movies like "Holiday,"
Up Baby," and "The
Philadelphia Story." The plots are similar to the Hepburn/Tracy
movies: a man and a woman not much interested in each other at
first end up together by the end of the movie. But there is an
electricity in the Grant/Hepburn movies that is missing in the
Tracy/Hepburn ones. In "Holiday,"
Grant is engaged to Hepburn's sister. When they first meet, Hepburn
takes Grant to the playroom on the top floor of the family mansion.
Grant is entranced by the drum set, the piano, the trapeze. Hepburn
explains "Mother thought there should be one room where people
could have fun." While joyfully riding a tricycle around
the room, Grant explains his philosophy to Hepburn. "I've
been working since I was ten and I need a holiday. I'm going to
knock off and see the world: retire young and work old."
When Grant sees her sister in the hall, she says "Do you
realize that life walked into the house today? He's a breath of
fresh air he's your chance." But the sister has other
ideas. She tells Grant "There's no such thrill as making
money." He recoils and later, at a New Year's Eve party where
his engagement is to be announced, Grant finds Hepburn in the
playroom. She asks if he would care to waltz with her as the old
year dies. As they dance, her face glows with love for Grant.
He tries to kiss her, but she rebuffs him and sends him downstairs
to her sister. But Grant calls off the engagement and announces
plans to sail for Europe. Hepburn tries to talk her sister into
joining Grant. The sister is clearly not interested. Finally Hepburn
asks "Don't you love him?" and the sister replies "No...I'm
so relieved he's gone I could sing." Hepburn's face lights
up and she races out into the night, headed for Grant's ship and
her life with him.
Bringing Up Baby
Up Baby," Hepburn is a daffy society girl who gets mixed
up with an absent-minded zoologist, Grant. Add a yappy dog, a
pet leopard named Baby, a lost dinosaur bone, and Grant's jealous
fiancée, and you have the definitive screwball comedy.
It's also definitive in the way the movie uses the opposites-attract
plot. From their first meeting on a golf course where Hepburn
blithely insists on hitting Grant's golf ball to their efforts
to move Baby from her Manhattan apartment to her aunt's country
home, their positions on just about everything are poles apart.
About the ruined golf game, she says "It's only a game, isn't
it"? After wrestling Baby out of a pond, Grant says "You
look at everything upside down." They no sooner get Baby
safely locked in her aunt's barn than he escapes and Hepburn and
Grant, armed with a croquet mallet and a butterfly net, go off
together to find him.Their search involves sliding down hills,
crawling through thorny bushes, and wading across streams. Grant
believes he could search faster without Hepburn and asks that
she go home while he continues. She is astounded and asks plaintively
"After all the fun we've had?" and breaks into sobs.
Now it's Grant's turn to be astounded. He replies "Your face
is dirty, Susan. Please stop crying." He leans in for a kiss,
but changes his mind at the last minute. They do eventually recapture
Baby and recover the lost bone. But they aren't yet a couple.
Instead, Grant's fiancée has dumped him and he's alone
in his museum workspace fitting the lost bone into place. Hepburn
comes calling and climbs a very long ladder to Grant's perch.
Her face aglow, she explains her actions throughout their adventures:
"I was trying to keep you near me." His face is a study
in contrasts: part exasperation and part tenderness. Suddenly
his face clears and he says "I just discovered that that
was the best day I ever had in my life." Hepburn is thrilled
and begins to sway dangerously on the ladder. As she starts to
fall, Grant grabs her and manages to haul her to safety, but the
dinosaur exhibit collapses completely. Grant is speechless as
he sees years of work gone in an instant, but Hepburn keeps right
on talking "Oh, oh, you do love me."
Philadelphia Story," we have Hepburn and Grant as an
older and (maybe) wiser couple. They were married and are now
divorced, and she's engaged to be married again. Grant has arranged
for a writer (Stewart) to attend Hepburn's wedding and chronicle
it for Spy magazine, a sleazy tabloid. Stewart believes Grant's
action is a way to get even with Hepburn for divorcing him, but
Grant has actually made the arrangements to protect Hepburn's
family from a proposed Spy article about Hepburn's father who
has recently left her mother for a chorus girl. Within minutes
of Grant and Hepburn's appearance, sparks fly. Hepburn doesn't
want Grant anywhere near her as she prepares for her wedding,
and she doesn't want her father there either. She's been bitterly
disappointed by both of them and wants nothing to do with either
one. But Grant and the father refuse to go away. In fact, in short
order they each confront Hepburn with some rather harsh views
of her behavior towards them. Grant, a recovering alcoholic, tells
her that during their brief marriage, she was less a helpmate
than a scold about his drinking. "Strength is your religion,"
says Grant. "You could be the finest woman on the earth but
for your prejudice against weakness...You need to have some regard
for human frailty." Before Hepburn can recover from that
assessment, her father weighs in. He's reconciled with her mother,
against Hepburn's wishes as she believe her mother should sue
for divorce immediately. Now he's trying to explain his affair
to Hepburn which he says had nothing to do with her mother and
everything to do with his reluctance to grow old. Hepburn recoils
as her father says "You lack an understanding heart...You
might just as well be made of bronze." The final blow comes
from her fiancé, who attempts to bolster her confidence
by confiding "You're like some marvelous distant queen
a beautiful purity like a statue." Hepburn is completely
undone that all three men describe her much the same way. Although
Hepburn doesn't drink and disapproves of those who do, she begins
to down champagne at an alarming rate and continues throughout
her pre-wedding dinner. She and Stewart sneak out of the party
at dawn and head for the pool for a swim. On the way Stewart confesses
his attraction for her and says "There's a magnificence in
you you're lit from within. You've got fires within you,
full of life and warmth and delight." Hepburn glows: finally
a man who doesn't think she's a cold-hearted goddess. They kiss
passionately and head for the pool. Grant and the fiancé
show up just in time to see Stewart carrying a very groggy Hepburn
across the lawn. Stewart explains that "We went swimming
and when she hit the water, the wine hit her." Stewart puts
Hepburn to bed while the fiancé fumes and Grant chortles
with glee. The next morning all gather before the wedding. The
fiancé demands an explanation from a very hung-over Hepburn.
She doesn't remember much from the previous evening but what she
does remember clearly distresses her. She admits to Grant that
she must have "breached common decency." Grant does
nothing to disabuse her of the idea. But Hepburn rallies when
the fiancé keeps pressing her for an apology. She wheels
on him and says "Somehow I hoped you'd think better of me
than that." She breaks her engagement just as the orchestra
begins to play "The Wedding March." Her father and mother
appear and are clearly delighted that the fiancé has been
sent packing. Her father offers to make an announcement to the
guests who are gathered inside. But Hepburn says "I won't
be gotten out of anything anymore. I'll make my own announcement."
The announcement she makes, with some help from Grant, is that
everyone is gathered for a wedding and a wedding there will be...she's
going to remarry Grant. As she prepares to walk down the aisle,
her father remarks that she looks like a goddess, and she replies,
"I feel like a human being."
If I were rating screen couples on a scale from 1 (unbelievable)
to 10 (fantastic chemistry), I'd give Hepburn and Grant a 12.
They bicker, they fight, they confuse and confound each other.
They care for each other and it shows in every glance and movement.
Then there's the offscreen movie couple who
are absolutely believable in their films together, though they
seem a very unlikely duo. Who would have picked Humphrey Bogart
out of a lineup of potential romantic leads to pair with Lauren
Bacall? She's young very young tall, good looking.
He's none of these. But in their films together, whether in "The
Big Sleep," "Dark
Passage," or "Key
Largo," they light up the screen. Bogie, the tough guy
who's seen it all, meets his match in Bacall. True to his screen
character, he doesn't melt at the sight of Bacall. He's not the
melting kind. And Bacall is no flirtatious maiden. She isn't swept
off her feet. Of course, this is film noir not drawing-room comedy,
so there's nothing light-hearted or funny about the couples they
play. But that's what makes them believable. In each movie, Bogie
and Bacall play tough characters who forge an alliance under dangerous
circumstances. Their attraction grows as the danger increases
and they learn that they can depend on each other's strength.
The Big Sleep
And what about the couples who make only one or two appearances
together? They don't have a history in film or real life, but
they make you believe they do. I'm thinking about Clark Gable
and Vivien Leigh in "Gone
With the Wind," Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn
in " The
African Queen," Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in
Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland in "The
Adventures of Robin Hood," Robert Redford and Paul Newman
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."
What do they have in common? A sense of humor, a lightness, an
ease that makes you think there's a shared history. There's a
passion, a respect for the other person, a friendship. So maybe
what we're looking for in screen couples is what we're looking
for in our own lives: someone who loves us for what we are or
could become, who respects us, who can share a laugh. Someone
true to him- or herself. And, if we're very lucky, someone who
can dance like Fred or Ginger.
Time," George Stevens, director. Starring Fred Astaire,
Ginger Rogers, Betty Furness, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick. Run
time: 105 minutes. RKO Home Video, l985 (theatrical release l936).
Band Wagon," Vincente Minnelli, director. Starring Fred
Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Jack Buchanan, Nanette Fabray. Run time:
112 minutes. MGM/UA Home Video, l991 (theatrical release l953).
of the Year," George Stevens, director. Starring Spencer
Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Fay Bainter, Reginald Owens. Run time:
112 minutes. MGM/UA Home Video, 1997 (theatrical release l942).
Set," Walter Lang, director. Starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine
Hepburn, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Gig Young. Run time: 103 minutes.
Twentieth Century Fox, 1992 (theatrical release l957).
George Cukor, director. Starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant,
Lew Ayres, Edward Everett Horton, Binnie Barnes. Run time: 93 minutes.
Columbia Tristar Studios, 1993 (theatrical release l938).
Up Baby," Howard Hawks, director. Starring Katharine Hepburn,
Cary Grant, Charlie Ruggles, May Robson. Run time: 102 minutes.
Turner Home Entertainment, l989 (theatrical release l938).
Philadelphia Story," George Cukor, director. Starring Katharine
Hepburn, Cary Grant, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey. Run time: 112 minutes.
MGM/UA Home Video, l992 (theatrical release l940).
Big Sleep," Howard Hawks, director. Starring Humphrey Bogart,
Lauren Bacall, Martha Vickers, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook, Jr., Dorothy
Malone. Run time: 114 minutes. MGM/UA Home Video, l991 (theatrical
Passage," Delmer Daves, director. Starring Humphrey Bogart,
Lauren Bacall, Bruce Bennett, Agnes Moorehead. Run time: 106 minutes.
Warner Studios, 2000 (theatrical release l947).
Largo," John Huston, director. Starring Humphrey Bogart,
Lauren Bacall, Edward G. Robinson, Claire Trevor, Lionel Barrymore.
Run time: 101 minutes. Warner Studios, 2000 (theatrical release
With the Wind," Victor Fleming, director. Starring Clark
Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas
Mitchell, Hattie McDaniel. Run time: 222 minutes. Warner Studios,
2000 (theatrical release l939).
African Queen," John Huston, director. Starring Humphrey
Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Theodore Bikel. Run time:
106 minutes. CBS/Fox Video, l997 (theatrical release l951)
Michael Curtiz, director. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman,
Claude Rains, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet. Run
time: 102 minutes. MGM/UA Home Video, l988 (theatrical release l942).
Adventures of Robin Hood," Michael Curtiz, director. Starring
Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains,
Alan Hale, Sr. Run time: 106 minutes. Warner Studios, 2000 (theatrical
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," George Roy Hill, director.
Starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Katharine Ross. Run time:
112 minutes. CBS/Fox Home Video, 2000 (theatrical release l969).
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