Magazine article USA TODAY

Dancing to Screwball

Magazine article USA TODAY

Dancing to Screwball

Article excerpt

TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES once again will be offering a free online summer class for film aficionados. The subject this year will be classic musicals. As usual, my home university (Ball State) largely is orchestrating the project and, thankfully, I will be involved as one of the teacher scholars. My perspective on some of the pictures will be linking connections between comedy and music. This column keys on one such film, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' 'Top Hat" (1935). This was the fourth of 10 movies in which the duo appeared, nine for RKO (1933-39), and a 1949 MGM finale, "The Barkleys of Broadway."

'Top Hat" now is considered their premier picture. Indeed, though 1930s box office numbers often are open to debate, 'Top Hat" normally is credited with being second only to "Mutiny on the Bounty" as the industry's most-commercially successful 1935 movie. Astaire and Rogers were not a team in their first film, "Flying Down to Rio" (1933). However, RKO producer Pan-dro S. Berman saw a special musical and comic spark between the two and decided to team them. (All of the Astaire and Rogers RKO musicals were made during Berman's production regime).

Fortuitously for my perspective on the TCM series, I interviewed Berman when I was a young professor. I was in Hollywood doing research on a book about Berman's 1930s heyday, and he was gracious enough to invite me to a long, leisurely lunch at the Hillcrest Country Club--established early in Hollywood history when Jewish artists were banned from other similar organizations. (Berman shared that, back in the day, when one club offered to wave the rule if Groucho Marx did not use the pool, he cracked, "My daughter's only half Jewish; could she wade up to her waist?")

Regardless, Berman was quite expansive on Astaire and Rogers. He noted that the team's pictures were meant as screwball comedies set to song and dance. This was an especially acute comment, given that this paralleled the birth of the genre. Though we always have had farce, screwball comedy came about largely because of stricter film censorship, beginning with the establishment of 1934's Production Code Administration.

A later description of the genre, which applied equally to the Astaire and Rogers films, was that the movies needed to be "sex comedies without the sex." Given the Depression, moreover, escapist screwball comedy and the Astaire and Rogers pictures usually were set in ritzy, upscale locales in which money was not a concern. Fittingly, for both of these qualifiers, a popular description of Astaire and Rogers was that he gave her class while she gifted him with sex appeal. …

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