Term Paper: Physical Comedy on Film Sophisticated

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[. . .] Bedini becomes a comic Italian, clicking his heels and threatening people with a sword. There is a good bit in which Travers and Bedini are trying to decide who has the bigger key to Tremont's room in yet another mix-up.

There are two slaps that we see; Tremont flattens her hand on Travers' jaw. There is one we don't see; Madge gives Horace a black eye. This would, of course, be a punch and much more violent than a slap, which leaves only a temporary sting. So we are shown that it did happen, but not shown the act itself. In fact, this bit of business is so subtle that the laugh is dependent on its not happening.

The aftermath, though, is also comical. Horace asks his manservant, played by Blore, to order him a steak. They are in different rooms discussing this, so Blore doesn't know why Horace wants the steak. Blore orders steak, mashed potatoes, green beans. When it comes, he calls out, "Where do you want the steak, sir?" The predictable answer and accompanying action is pretty broad comedy for this movie.

But the other best bit of broad physical comedy is also Blore's. He has been sent to shadow Tremont and does so by masquerading as a gondolier. He gets distracted, pushes his gondola pole into the bed of the canal too far where it sticks. He hangs onto it, the gondola goes on, the pole breaks and Blore plunks into the water.

Feathers and Fred

The moment on which the progress to completely straightening out the romantic messes depends is the "Dancing Cheek to Cheek" number. It is a beautiful, typical Astaire-Rogers duet, with lovely, floor-covering, swirling dance steps and enough 'swing' in it to keep it from ever being boring, or too balletic. But it also has Ginger Rogers in an amazing dress that appears to be mainly feathers. It is mainly feathers, and the fact that the dress was late arriving from the designer and that it shed feathers all over Astaire's black pants and the black bakelite dance floor made it more hazardous than humorous, and it caused a rift during the production between Rogers, who had actually conceived it, and the rest of the cast and crew.

At one point, according to a report on reelclassics.com, Fred Astaire said, "Everything went well through the song, but when we did the first movement of the dance, feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote."

Ginger said there were some flying feathers, but it wasn't that bad. Still, Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan used the whole incident to create a mocking send up (also reported on reelclassics.com, of "Cheek to Cheek:"

Feathers -- I hate feathers

And I hate them so that I can hardly speak,

And I never find the happiness I seek

With those chicken feathers dancing cheek to cheek."

The behind-the-scenes horseplay that apparently accompanied this production would seem to be inevitable. The characters were very akin to the real Astaire and Rogers; it was organic growth, not enhanced by artificial sweeteners. What went on in front of the cameras -- a hint of animus at times, some mix-ups, and some distress but in the end a gentle meeting of like minds -- went on behind them.

As it turned out, Astaire apologized to Rogers for his making light of her stunningly effective costume by giving her a gold feather charm for her bracelet and affectionately calling her 'Feathers' for years to come.

It is, in these movies and also in the lives of their stars as the Columbia definition says it is: "Whereas the silent performer was a physical being,... The sound performer was both physical and intellectual at once." short compendium of more Fred and Ginger physical comedy

Naturally, all of the Fred and Ginger movies contained physical comedy. Here's a small catalog of some of the best bits from some of their nine other efforts:

Flying Down to Rio (1933)

Rogers and Astaire were not the stars of this one, but the second love triangle. Rogers was billed higher than Astaire. It was her 20th film, his third. But they stole the show with the Carioca number. Some call it the most erotic dance number in a movie of the era, and perhaps it was. But it was also mildly amusing because of the physical elements. Says Reelclassic.com about the posture of the dance, commented on in the movie by the dancers, the characters Honey and Fred:

Honey (Rogers): "What's this business with the forehead?"

Fred (Astaire): "Mental telepathy."

Honey (Rogers): "I can tell what they're thinking about from here."

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Another mistaken identity plot. Ginger is running from Fred and gets her skirt caught in a steamer trunk and ripped off. There are some cute dog-walking bits on the ocean liner's 'doggie deck.' Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton lend their mobile faces to this one, too.

Follow the Fleet (1936)

This has a comical dance number, Let Yourself Go, with Fred and Ginger competing with other pairs who were literally amateurs recruited from an L.A. nightspot, in a dance contest. No contest.

Swing Time (1936)

After Top Hat, this one probably has the best physical comedy. It is, naturally, a love story, this time between Penny (Rogers) and Lucky (Astaire).

Again, the setting is everything in the physical comedy in this film. In once scene, Lucky takes a dance lesson from Penny, although he is only pretending to be a klutz. She doesn't know that, and says, "Listen. No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money." Eric Blore, playing her boss, overhears and fires her. At that point, Lucky reveals his skill and the pair dance out of the building arm in arm, much to Blore's confusion.

Shall We Dance? (1937)

This one sees the dancing pair getting secretly married to each other, only they aren't really, and then they are. Really. It has the greatest number of comic song/dance numbers of any of the films. They are:

Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," a dance on rollers skates, with Fred and Ginger falling in a heap at the end.

They All Laughed," a number that produced a bunch of lasting tag lines, although not so many as the tomayto/tomahto stuff from "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off."

I've Got Beginner's Luck," is also a rather comic number for one of these films.

The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

In this one, the sidekick who moves the physical comedy is Oscar Levant, the same pianist/singer who sidekicks for dancer Gene Kelly in An American in Paris. And he plays pretty much the same role: the wiseacre city guy who ends up a long way from home, New York. In this case, it's not Paris but the Gold Coast of Connecticut at a stately home. He can't take the fresh air and peacefulness. Along with Fred and Ginger (the Barkleys), whose marriage is being tested, he sings the wry "Weekend in the Country."

Works Cited

Bright Lights Film Journal. 2003. http://www.brightlightsfilm.com/32/followthefleet.html.1 June 2003.

Columbia World of Quotations. 2001. Bartleby.com. http://www.bartleby.com.3 June 2003.

Elizabeth." May 30, 2003. http://www.reelclassics.com/Teams/Fred&Ginger/fred&ginger10.htm.3 June 2003.

Fred and Ginger: America's Greatest Swing Dancers." 2003. http://www.usaswingnet.com/fred&ginger.htm.2 June 2003.

Ginger Rogers Official Web Site. 2003. http://www.gingerrogers.com/about/bio2.html.4 June 2003.

Kathie Fry. "Physical Comedy on Film: Shall We Dance?" 2003. http://inlineskating.about.com/library/weekly/aa001228.htm.3 June 2003.

Mast, Gerald. The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies, Chapter 3. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Solid! An online encyclopedia of lounge, big band, classic jazz and space age sounds. 2003. http://www.parabrisas.com/d_astairef.html.1 June 2003.

TheatreCrafts.com Glossary. 2003. http://theatrecrafts.com/glossary.4 June 2003.

Hat, RKO, 1935. [END OF PREVIEW]

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