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Obituary: Lucille Bremer

A red-headed beauty and distinguished dancer, Lucille Bremer partnered Fred Astaire in three of his finest routines, and for this reason will always be remembered fondly by lovers of the film musical, but her brief career in Hollywood is proof that stars are indeed born, not made. Bremer had the weight of the biggest studio in Hollywood behind her and was mistress to one of its most powerful producers but when she was not dancing her personality had a remote, aloof quality that did not endear her to audiences.

Born in Amsterdam, New York, she started dancing lessons when seven years old and at 12 danced with the Philadelphia Opera Company. She made her New York debut as a Rockette in the famed chorus line at Radio City Music Hall, then played in night-clubs and Broadway shows, including in the chorus of Panama Hattie (1940) and as replacement ingenue in Lady in the Dark (1941). She was appearing at the Versailles night-club when she was spotted by the producer Arthur Freed. "The moment I saw her," said Freed later, "I realised she had the elegance of Marilyn Miller. I took her to MGM and she did a scene from Dark Victory for her test. After seeing only a minute and a half of it, Louis B. Mayer, head of the studio, said, `She's going to be very, very big.' "

Bremer was first given extensive training by the studio's dramatic coach, Lillian Burns, then cast in the prime role of Judy Garland's older sister in Meet Me in St Louis (1944). As the prim, socially conscious Rose, whose hope for a long- distance proposal by telephone forms the basis of the film's first episode, Bremer was a perfect foil for Garland, admonishing her for being too forward with boys lest the bloom wear off, to which Garland drily replies, "Personally, I think I have too much bloom."

Bremer then partnered Astaire in Ziegfeld Follies (started in 1944 but released in 1946), performing with him two magnificent numbers which are today as moving and exhilarating as ever. Both are stories in dance, an extension of the form Astaire had pioneered with Ginger Rogers when they performed "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in Follow the Fleet. In the first, Astaire is a gentleman thief who crashes a society party only to fall in love with his victim. After singing to her on a starlit terrace, he takes her in his arms and they glide into a langorous pas de deux to the sweeping strains of the gorgeous "This Heart of Mine" (by Harry Warren and Arthur Freed), twirling effortlessly as the floor revolves beneath them.

The second number, built around Douglas Furber and Philip Braham's "Limehouse Blues", is a 13-minute tour de force, its centrepiece a Chinese fantasy dreamed by a young man as he lies dying, the innocent victim of a shooting in Limehouse, east London. In an exotic set of orange, red and yellow (conceived by Irene Sharaff), Astaire and Bremer perform an intricate dance involving syncopated leaps, twirls and precise manipulation of fans which open, close and criss-cross as the couple execute Robert Alton's stunning choreography. This dance - one of the film musical's crowning glories - demonstrated Bremer's skill, precision and athleticism.

MGM then decided to star her alongside Astaire in Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945), but its slight, whimsical story of a confidence trickster who pretends to be the guardian angel of an ingenuous heiress needed more charm and wit than either Bremer or the script were able to provide, and its score (by Warren and Freed) was weak. A Dali- influenced Surreal ballet was imaginative, though perceived by many as pretentious, but the one good song, "Coffee Time", a surging jazz riff, inspired the third of the great Astaire- Bremer duets.

Set in a South American plaza, its floor patterned in undulating black and white, the number starts with carnival crowds dancing gaily and clapping hands to the insistent rhythms, who gradually part to leave the way clear for the star pair, who clap, kick, twirl and embrace with escalating elan in variations of jive. It is a totally joyous sequence in the otherwise tepid film, which proved a box-office disaster.

Bremer was one of 13 stars top-billed in the Jerome Kern biography Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), playing the fictitious role of a spoilt girl (daughter of Kern's best friend) who expects a short cut to fame. Bremer's exuberant dance duet with Van Johnson, "I Won't Dance", was a highlight of the film, but she was unable to counteract her role's basic lack of sympathy. Both Freed and Mayer had now lost interest in her, and after a role in one of the studio's "Dr Gillespie" films, Dark Delusions (1947, as a young girl given to bouts of insanity), she was dropped.

Years later, Judy Garland was asked what happened to Bremer. "The studio let her go," she replied, then after a pause added, " . . . and no one cared." In fact Bremer made three more films, including Edgar G. Ulmer's Ruthless (1948), an impressive account of the rise and fall of a scoundrel (Zachary Scott) in which Bremer, wife of Sidney Greenstreet but lusting for Scott, made telling use of her resemblance to Bette Davis, indicating that she might have been able to carve a career as second-lead villainess. She preferred to retire completely from the screen, marrying the son of a former president of Mexico and eventually settling in California, where she raised five daughters and ran a shop selling children's clothes.

Tom Vallance

Lucille Bremer, actress, dancer: born Amsterdam, New York 21 February 1923; married (five daughters); died 16 April 1996.