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A couple of years after making the hugely successful The Poseidon Adventure, producer Irwin Allen made The Towering Inferno, another disaster movie with a top-notch cast (Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Fred Astaire – in an Oscar nominated turn – Robert Wagner, Robert Vaughn, Richard Chamberlain, Faye Dunaway, Jennifer Jones; it’s practically a who’s who of Hollywood at the time.) Newman and McQueen share top billing (at McQueen’s insistence) as architect Doug Roberts and firefighter Chief Mike O’Halloran.  William Holden as James Duncan, is the head of the company who built the tower, and it turns out that his son-in-law Roger Simmons (Richard Chamberlain) has cut corners and compromised safety in order to save money.  Astaire puts in a touching performance as con artist Harlee Claiborne, who falls for his intended con victim Lisolette (Jennifer Jones).

As the name of the film indicates, these characters and others besides all find themselves trapped at the top of a skyscraper designed by Roberts, when a fire breaks out and threatens to engulf them all.  The action scenes are genuinely edge-of-the-seat stuff, and there are some truly shocking moments, and lots of tension throughout.  Despite the impressive roll call of names on the cast list, the true star of the show, as Newman himself acknowledged, is the fire itself.

It isn’t a perfect film by any means – in fact some of the dialogue is downright hammy, and feels false.  I don’t feel that the cast are at fault for this (after all, you only have to look at their other films to know just how good most of these actors are), but it’s fair to say that there isn’t much character development.  For me, McQueen is the stand-out cast member, with the best performance of the lot (and I say this as a big fan of Newman, Holden and Astaire).  But despite its flaws, there is just SO much to enjoy about this film – it’s not often that a film with a running time of almost three hours, keeps me engaged from start to finish, but this one certainly did.  It might not be the best film of any of the cast members, but on a pure entertainment level, it’s a winner, and I would definitely recommend it.

(Incidentally, there is a lot of interesting trivia about this film.  McQueen was originally pegged for the role of Doug Roberts, but he lobbied to get the part of the heroic O’Halloran – not that Roberts isn’t also a hero.  He also insisted that he get equal billing with Newman, which is why in the opening titles, his name appears on the lower left hand side of the screen, while Newman’s appears on the top right.  That way, if you read from top to bottom, Newman comes first, and if you read from left to right, McQueen comes first.  He also insisted that he be given extra lines, in order that he and Newman – with whom he always had a professional rivalry – had the same amount of dialogue!  Nonetheless, he took Newman’s son Scott, who has a small role as a nervous firefighter, under his wing during the filming.)

Year of release: 1974

Director: John Guillerman

Producers: Irwin Allen, Sidney Marshall

Writers: Richard Martin Stern (novel ‘The Tower’), Thomas N. Scortia (novel ‘The Glass Inferno’), Frank M. Robinson (novel ‘The Glass Inferno’), Stirling Silliphant

Main cast: Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Fred Astaire, Faye Dunaway, Richard Chamberlain, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn

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This is a rather lovely musical, featuring Fred Astaire as Jervis Pendleton, a wealthy man who travels to France and sees 18 year old orphan Julie (Leslie Caron). He determines to help her, and secretly pays for her to move to America, where he funds her schooling and pays her living expenses. Julie has no idea who her mysterious benefactor – who she calls ‘Daddy Long Legs’ – is, and is as eager to find out, as Jervis is to keep his secret. But when the two of them meet up after a few years, there is an attraction between them…

I enjoyed this film a lot – Fred Astaire is as pleasing as ever, and does some lovely dancing. Leslie Caron is a perfect partner for him in this respect, as she was an amazing ballet dancer, and their grace and talent combined makes for some beautiful sequences.

There’s plenty of comedy to be had as well – Astaire had a comic flair which was great for light-hearted film such as this, and Leslie Caron mixes just about the right amount of feistiness with a touch of vulnerability, making her character very endearing.

Basically, this is a very sweet, light and enjoyable film. Perfect for watching when you want something that you don’t need to think too hard about, but that will put a smile on your face. Definitely recommended for all fans of musicals.

Year of release: 1955

Director: Jean Negulesco

Producer: Samuel G. Engel

Writers: Jean Webster (novel), Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Leslie Caron, Thelma Ritter, Fred Clark

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MGM made some of the most lavish musicals of the 40s and 50s, and this one is in keeping with that tradition. Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a washed up film star and dancer, who is asked to take part in a stage musical written by his friends. The great director, writer and actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) is hired to direct the production, but decides to present it as a modern day Faustian story, and changes it beyond all recognition. As if this wasn’t a big enough problem, Tony also finds it difficult to get along with his leading lady, the ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse).

This is a really a rather lovely film, with some genuinely funny moments, due to an excellent cast and supporting cast. (Buchanan is great, as are Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray, who play Tony’s friends, and the writers of the show.)

Astaire, of course, dances beautifully, as does Cyd Charisse. However, as a personal preference, I would rather have seen more tap dancing, whereas here the dancing is more balletic in style, perhaps to accentuate the incredible talents of Charisse. Nonetheless, the dancing is great; my favourite number being the one which Astaire did near the beginning with the shoe-shine man; it was full of energy and really made me smile.

Overall, I would certainly recommend this film, if you are a fan of musicals or comedy. Definitely one to put a smile on your face!

Year of release: 1953

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producers: Roger Edens, Arthur Freed, Bill Ryan

Writers: Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Alan Jay Lerner, Norman Corwin

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan

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Top Hat, made in 1935, was the fourth of ten films which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, and one of the most popular.  Astaire plays Jerry Travers, an American in London, who falls for Dale Tremont (Rogers).  However, due to a case of mistaken identity, Dale believes that Jerry is married – to Dale’s friend Madge, no less – and ends their relationship, while at the same time trying to warn Madge (Helen Broderick), that her husband is a philanderer.

The plot was never the focal point of any Astaire/Rogers movie (or indeed a lot of other musicals); it’s basically there to tie the musical numbers together – and that’s absolutely fine, because the plot here is wafer thin, with holes all over it.  However, the film itself is a total joy to watch, from start to finish.  There are a lot of comedic moments, due to the fantastical identity mix-ups, and also courtesy of the characters of Madge, Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Morton), who is in fact Madge’s actual husband, and Horace’s trusty valet Bates (Eric Blore).  Erik Rhodes, as Alberto Beddini, fashion designer and potential rival for Dale’s affections also provides many very funny moments, playing a similar character to the one he played in the early Astaire/Rogers pairing, A Gay Divorcee.

The dancing is, of course, sublime.  I am actually more of a Gene Kelly fan, but there is no doubt that to watch Astaire dance is a wonderful experience.  My favourite number was the one which caused him to first meet Dale, when his tap dancing in a hotel, in the room above hers, caused her to complain about the noise.  The Cheek To Cheek dance was also beautiful and elegant (and the feathered dress that Rogers wore, caused some problems when it shed its feathers during the dance).

I’m steadily working my way through the Astaire/Rogers film, and have now watched five.  This and the screwball comedy/musical Carefree are my two favourites.

Forget the plot holes, enjoy the laughs, and admire the beautiful, creative and elegant dancing – this is a gorgeous film, which remains as entertaining as ever, 77 years after it was initially released – a real treat!

Year of release: 1935

Director: Mark Sandrich

Writers: Dwight Taylor, Allan Scott, Sandor Farago, Aladar Laszlo, Ben Holmes, Karoly Noti, Ralph Spence

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick

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Click here for my review of Top Hat on stage in 2014.

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Of the ten films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred in together, Swing Time was the sixth, and certainly one of the most popular.  At this point, I’ve only seen four of their collaborations and I’m torn between Swing Time and Carefree as my favourite.  In this film, Astaire stars as Lucky Garnett, on stage dancer and off stage gambler, who is due to marry his fiancee Margaret.  Due to some shenanigans and dirty tricks by his fellow stage dancers (who don’t want Lucky to marry because it will ruin their careers), he turns up very late for the wedding.  Margaret’s father says that the couple can only get married once Lucky has proven himself and earned $25,000 dollars.  Lucky heads off to New York to make his fortune, and there meets dance instructor Penny Carroll (Rogers).  The two soon fall for each other, but their romance is hindered by Lucky’s prior commitment, and band leader Ricky Romero, who is in love with Penny.

Well, I loved this film.  It had some fabulous dancing (obviously), and lots (and lots and lots) of humour.  Fred Astaire is probably at his best here, and Ginger is just beautiful.  It’s no wonder that the film studio wanted to keep pairing these two up – their chemistry on screen is undeniable.  I particularly liked their first dance together (which is in the clip I’ve posted).

The two other main characters are played by Victor Moore, as Lucky’s dad – always ready to try and make an easy dollar, and is not above petty theft or deceit; and Helen Broderick as Mabel Anderson, Penny’s fellow dance teacher and best friend.  They prove to be an excellent addition to the story and between them provide a lot of laughs.

There was one scene which jarred slightly; the Astaire dance ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ where Astaire wears ‘blackface’ make-up.  The dance itself is visually stunning, and the use of shadows behind Astaire is imaginative and effective.  I just do not like to see white actors in blackface make-up, but I accept that when the film was made (1936), it was considered a perfectly legitimate form of entertainment.

Aside from that one scene, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this musical, and it will be one that I will certainly be watching again in the future.

Year of release: 1936

Director: George Stevens

Writers: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott, Erwin Gelsey, Ben Holmes, Rian James, Anthony Veiller, Dorothy Yost

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Georges Metaxa

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This 1937 film is the second adaptation of P G Wodehouse’s novel of the same name, and Wodehouse himself helped write the screenplay for this version.

The films stars Joan Fontaine in an early role, as Lady Alyce Marshmorton, of Tottney Castle, in England.  She must marry soon, and the staff at the castle have a sweepstake on who she will choose.  After the all the likely – and less likely candidates are chosen, young Albert chooses ‘Mr X’, knowing as he does that Lady Alyce is in love with an American man who none of the staff know.

When Alyce goes to London to meet up with her secret beau, she instead bumps into American entertainer Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire) who is in the city with his agent George (George Burns) and George’s ditzy secretary Gracie (Burns’ real life wife, Gracie Allen).  Jerry immediately falls for Alyce, and is incorrectly led to believe that she feels the same way.  He goes to Tottney Castle to try to meet her.  False impressions and mistaken identities lead to a fine comedy of errors…

This film came after several of Astaire’s pairings with Ginger Rogers, and the public’s enjoyment of Astaire and Rogers together may be why A Damsel In Distress actually flopped at the box office.  Joan Fontaine is no Ginger, and can not really hold her own when dancing with Astaire.  They have just one number together here, and it’s a very simple one.  In fact, while Fontaine looks beautiful, she fails to make much of an impression at all in this film; however, she was right at the start of her career, and she went on to show that she did indeed possess buckets of talent as an actress, in such films as Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941).

Astaire however, is as graceful and entertaining as ever, and of course his dancing is top-notch.  While he is an excellent leading man, the show is almost whipped out from under his feet by the excellent George Burns and Gracie Allen.  Gracie’s one-liners, her perfect delivery and her facial expressions are absolutely hilarious, and Burns is the perfect foil (it was an act which they successfully did together for several years).  Astaire, Burns and Allen together have amazing chemistry, and there are some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.

The superb Gershwin score also gives the three of them a couple of terrific dance numbers together.  The first – Put Me To The Test – is a very enjoyable number, but the second – Stiff Upper Lip – was absolutely mesmerising.  Set in a fun fair, this dance makes full use of the sliding floors, rotating surfaces, and distorting mirrors, to produce a fantastic, fun filled dance number, which almost demands repeated viewing.  It truly is a marvellous sequence and one which is surely guaranteed to make the audience smile.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this film – great dancing, lots of zingy one-liners, and a daft but funny plot make this an often overlooked, but worthwhile gem of a film.  Catch it if you can!

Year of release: 1937

Director: George Stevens

Writers: P.G. Wodehouse (book), Ernest Pagono, S.K. Lauren, Ian Hay

Main cast: Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine, Reginald Gardiner, Ray Noble, Montagu Love, Harry Watson

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Well it’s nearly Christmas, so it must be time for some festive films. Holiday Inn is a Yuletide classic, and no wonder – it’s got everything you want…romance, comedy, great singing and breathtaking dancing. Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire play Jim and Ted, a pair of entertainers. Jim wants to get out of the business and go away with his future wife, to run a farm. However when his fiancee Lila, who also dances with the men in their stage cat, runs away with Ted, Jim ends up buying a hotel that only opens on public holidays. When an aspiring singer and dancer named Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds) gets a job at the inn, Jim starts to fall for her. But then Ted visits and sees Linda, and thinks she would be perfect as his new dance partner…

This film is the one where Bing Crosby first sang White Christmas (in 1954, he made the film ‘White Christmas’ with Danny Kaye – Astaire was unavailable – and reprised the song). Bing gets to show off his wonderful voice with some great songs, and not to be outdone, Fred does some incredible dancing. The clip I have posted, where he dances with firecrackers, was my personal favourite. Marjorie Reynolds is great as Linda Mason, bringing humour and sweetness to her role, and the two main stars bounce off each other perfectly.

There was one scene which took me by surprise and made me wince – to entertain his guests at the Inn on Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, Jim and Linda dress up in what they call ‘blackface’ make-up, to sing about Lincoln ending slavery. This film is almost 70 years old and such scenes would be widely accepted when it was made, but it is jarring to see it on film nowadays (even in an old movie).

That scene aside however, this film is a classic for obvious reasons. It’s a feel-good film, one to make you feel festive and make you smile. The dancing is dazzling, and the soundtrack, courtesy of Irving Berlin, is great (Berlin always wrote fantastic music). Perfect holiday viewing!

Year of release: 1942

Director: Mark Sandrich

Writers: Irving Berlin, Elmer Rice, Claude Binyon, Ben Holmes, Bert Lawrence, Zion Myers, Francis Swann

Main cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Louise Beavers

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Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made 10 films together, and this one from 1938 is probably one of the least well known.  There’s less dancing in this one than in some of the others (only four numbers), but the film itself is still highly enjoyable, being something of a screwball comedy.

Astaire plays psychiatrist Tony Flagg.  His friend Stephen (Ralph Bellamy) is worried because Ralph’s finance, radio singer Amanda Cooper (Rogers) keeps calling off their wedding.  He asks Tony to treat Amanda, to overcome her reluctance to marry.  However, some of Tony’s methods have unexpected side-effects – and then Tony starts to fall for Amanda himself.

This is a very enjoyable and very funny film.  Ginger Rogers was best known for her amazing dancing, but she really had a flair for comedy too.  She shines in the role of Amanda Cooper, and also looks beautiful.  Astaire is also fine as Tony, but of course with Astaire the real magic is in watching him dance.  I’ve always been more of a Gene Kelly fan, but there’s no denying that Astaire could dance beautifully.  The golf tap dance – shown in the clip above – was a joy to watch, and when he and Rogers dance together, its just glorious.  Luella Gear is also brilliant as Amanda’s Aunt Cora.

The ending is entirely expected, but still nice to see.  This is just a nice, light-hearted film that doesn’t take itself too seriously, with a few lovely dance sequences.  Well worth a watch.

Year of release: 1938

Director: Mark Sandrich

Writers: Allan Scott, Ernest Pagano, Dudley Nichols, Hagar Wilde, Marian Ainslee, Guy Endore

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Luella Gear, Ralph Bellamy, Clarence Kolb

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Another great MGM musical, this one made in 1948.  MGM described it as “the happiest musical ever made.”  (This may have been a valid claim at the time, but then Singin’ In The Rain came along, and I don’t know a happier movie than Singin’.)

Fred Astaire plays Don Hewes (originally Gene Kelly was supposed to star as Don, but injured his ankle and personally requested that Astaire play the part).  Don is part of a song and dance couple, but when his partner Nadine Hale (Ann Miller) leaves him, he hires Hannah Brown (Judy Garland) as his new partner.  In a story vaguely reminiscent of Garland’s role in For Me and My Gal, in which she starred with Gene Kelly, Hannah falls in love with Don, but still feels threatened by his previous partnership with Nadine.

The storyline of course is really a way to string together some lovely songs and dances. Of particular note are Don’s ‘Drum Crazy’ dance, his ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ dance, and the ‘A Couple of Swells’ number performed by Astaire and Garland.

Hannah sings some lovely songs, and looks gorgeous as well.  Ann Miller plays a rather unlikeable character, but there’s no denying that her tap dance in the number ‘Shakin’ The Blues Away’ is anything less than terrific.

This certainly is a happy movie, and there’s plenty of numbers which will get your toes tapping.  The score by Irving Berlin is lovely, with some instantly recognisable numbers.  Well worth watching.

Year of release: 1948

Director: Charles Walters

Writers: Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Sidney Sheldon, Guy Bolton

Main cast: Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Peter Lawford

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This film stars Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson, and is a wonderfully cheerful musical made in 1957.  Astaire is Dick Avery, photographer for fashion magazine Quality.  When he meets Jo Stockton (Hepburn) working in a bookshop specialising in titles about philosophy, he decides that she would make a perfect model.  But Jo is not interested in the world of fashion, believing it to be shallow and unimportant.  However, she is desperate to go to Paris and meet her hero, philosopher Emil Flostre, and when she learns that the modelling assignment Dick wants her for is in Paris, she agrees to go.  Inevitably they start to fall for one another, but Jo and Dick are from different worlds, and sometimes those world clash…

Even though I don’t often choose to watch musicals, I found this film enchanting, and great fun.  Audrey Hepburn is as beautiful as ever, and it’s impossible not to love her.  She is great as the idealistic Jo, who finds herself drawn into an unfamiliar world.  Fred Astaire is also great as Dick Avery, and showcases his fabulous dancing.  (However, my favourite dance sequence from the film was that which Hepburn performed the first time she went to the philosophy hang out – with her hair scraped back and dressed in plain black top and trousers, she is still luminescent and stunning.)  Kay Thompson, as the editor of Quality was simply outstanding – she was hilarious, and her dancing and singing was great.

The film looks gorgeous – it’s set in New York, then Paris, and the latter city is shown off extremely well.  There are also some lovely outfits on show (it is a film about a model for a fashion magazine after all).  I really liked the songs and the dancing – as well as my aforementioned favourite dance sequence, I also especially liked the ‘Bonjour Paris’ song, where the three main characters all explore Paris on their own before meeting up at the Eiffel Tower.

Even if you’re not a fan of musicals, I’d recommend giving this film a watch – it’s feel-good, it looks good, and it’s a lot of fun.

Year of release: 1957

Director: Stanley Donen

Writer: Leonard Gershe

Main cast: Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Kay Thompson

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