Film Studies: In his top hat and tails he twirled his way into our hearts

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If you want to be cheered up, just wonder at what's stirring in the maternity hospitals this past month. If you need an example, realise how in the space of a few weeks 100 years ago - in St Petersburg, Washington DC and Omaha - three models of grace checked in: Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Ellington, and Frederick Austerlitz.

The Austerlitzes were from Vienna - the father worked in a brewery but loved music - and little Freddie had an older sister, Adele. Have you got it yet? Better still, can you invent a knockout story for how the family name became Astaire? Rhymes with "debonair"? The pen-stroke of some immigration official simplifying the foreign fuss? Or was it the fond papa who looked at Fred and Adele, saw their sibling harmony, the two of them always sublimely astride difficulty, and thought, "Astair"? Fred Astaire: is there a more rhythmic name? Does anyone prompt more affection or thoughts of rapture?

Not that dancing was everything. There was a time when people said Astaire had a light, high, at best serviceable, voice. That he wasn't the singer Sinatra or Mel Torme became. But those guys didn't dance; they took on Sinatra's yearning - that singing was a strain of acting, a part of attitude. That's true, and fine, but Astaire's aim was rarer: that while a man moved with such extended elegance, following the elaborate line of a whole dance, so he sang, too, when he ought to have been out of breath.

Of course, in musicals, the singing is done first, and then the dance is shot to its playback accompaniment. But you never feel that separation with Astaire, because the pacing of the dance hangs on the measure of the lyrics. And so he makes the impossible feel easy, the split married. More than that, he made singing and dancing in unison a fabulous model of manners, courtliness and gentlemanly style in which the voice was wistful and the body electric. For the double act was his wooing - not just of the woman in and out of his arms - but of space, time, and their necessary cinematic form, the travelling long shot. Fred Astaire didn't throw his weight around on the set, because weight was anathema to him. But he did insist that the film frame hold the full figure, and that the camera move with the dance. He was - just because of that insight - the director of his films.

So his voice was high, thin, airy, not loaded with Sinatra's experience. But that left Astaire free to convey the nervous, fragile romance of Thirties songs, the way their smart poetry could transcend all the bluesiness of hard times and gloom in the world. The RKO films with Ginger Rogers - those silly, lovely paradises - were done in the moment of Depression. Without offence or irrelevance. Astaire's voice was hope itself, as clear as a small, shy bell, and that's why songwriters (from Kern to Gershwin, from Harold Arlen to Cole Porter) longed to have his demure fidelity to their music and lyrics.

The lightness wasn't effete or hollow: it was Ariel's wing rising above mortal cares. That's why it's vital to recall Fred's debt to Adele. She was not just his first partner (for over 20 years on stage), she was the bigger star of the two, until she married the second son of the Duke of Devonshire, and retired. Fred's art was shaped by a partner he adored, but for whom he had no sexual or amorous feelings. That's what supplied the purity of friendship in the embrace called dance.

Note, Astaire was not gay. But he had learnt dance as the family math of 1 +1 = 1. What made Astaire so tough, or demanding, as a partner was the way any woman had to be his equal, his sister. People said that Ginger and even Rita Hayworth were invaluable because they sexed Fred up a little, and grounded him. I see it another way: Fred was teaching Ginger, and learnt delight over how a raw vulgarian could fit with him in space and time. But he didn't much like her - or feel the need to cheat an extra warmth on camera. He knew that different people had become one in dance. So he smiled, and rehearsed until their feet were bleeding inside their black patent shoes.

Fred could be erotic: it's there, I think, in Funny Face, when he felt the wide-eyed love of Audrey Hepburn in that darkroom sequence where he develops her picture. It's there in Silk Stockings, in "All of You", where he melts the commissar heart of the always-austere Cyd Charisse and frees her libertine legs.

But Fred's dancing was never about sex. His grail was unison and the trick of happiness, being graceful at the limits of ability, yet staying cool. That's reason enough to recall that blessed threesome - Nabokov, Ellington, Astaire. They weren't just chancy neighbours in the calendar. They were alike in their teasing perfectionism, their sense of a world - in art, finer than life - dandified, stylistic, and alert to the very erotic idea that nothing is as sexy as making believe. Fred's arms were open for a partner, a friend, the way a comic needs a straight man, or the squash player treasures the walls of the court that confine him.

At the end of "Begin the Beguine" - maybe the best thing he ever did, in Broadway Melody of 1940 - he and Eleanor Powell come to rest in front of the camera. Then there's a precious extra second in which her light white frock keeps dancing, as if inspired by the two of them. Thank you, Fred.

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