Sometimes exactly the right book for the right moment waltzes through the gate in the arms of Jim the Postie, I open the jiffy bag and start reading and that's more or less what happened with Fred Astaire by Joseph Epstein and published by Yale University Press in the Icons of America series.
Fred Astaire about whom I knew very little when I sat and thought about him; sang and danced with Ginger Rogers, made a lot of films...um...um.
So the truth is that Fred Astaire was such a private man that there isn't a great deal more to know.
Working-class roots and an ambitious mother, who having christened him Frederick Austerlitz II then chose wisely with the stage name of Astaire for Fred and his sister Adele when she upped sticks, left husband Frederick Austerlitz I and headed to New York to get her son and daughter on the stage.
Having made his name and fortune Fred did the unusual thing, married happily, had children and led by all accounts a dirt and scandal-free life, thus far nothing but nothing seems to have emerged to stain our image of him as the happy dancing man of the films. The sublime and seemingly effortless dancing acquired through hour upon hour of diligent practice, he was a perfectionist and also a talented singer which is often largely ignored as we focus on his feet.
But we're not supposed to focus on Fred's feet and he discouraged cameramen from doing likewise so there are important facts for non-dancers like me to know.
Whilst Gene Kelly's dancing power derived from his legs and Rudolf Nureyev's from his buttocks (say not a single word...anyone, the spam will be bad enough) Fred's came from his entire body and there is apparently a difference. Fred was short in stature but long in leg and this created exactly the right dancing proportions, which combined with an innate sense of rhythm and a lot more besides made for the perfect package. He was very aware of his lack of height and leading ladies had to be carefully chosen, whilst Fred was always very careful to ensure that, for viewers to appreciate the full impact of his total-body dance technique, he always appeared in full length camera shots when dancing.
The only revelations concern Fred's occasional ambivalence about Ginger Rogers. The partnership was not all it seemed and was mixed with a keen, but oddly misplaced, self-effacing sense of his own talent as 'just a hoofer' which didn't quite come across as true modesty as I read. Fred was acutely aware of his image and maintained strict control over it (would never have been photographed in an ancient old jumper toupee for a start)
Interestingly Fred Astaire was also a man in the right place at the right time as 1930s Depression-hit America looked to the movies for its solace, 90 million out of a population of 150 million went every week. Audiences were in the mood to be transported far from the daily misery and this, coupled with a wealth of fabulous song-writers at their zenith, Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern all desperate to write for Fred, thus ensuring his success.
Perhaps a Dancing Fred for our age will emerge this Depression-time round ?
Perhaps he has, that's it, John Sergeant.
Joseph Epstein tackles his subject with a refreshing approach and the result is a book that reads like a series of intelligent and interesting essays as he examines all the many facets of Fred Astaire's success and along the way examines the social impact of this complex and slightly enigmatic man. Discovering then that Joseph Epstein IS an essayist would seem to explain this.
There is an excellent resume and critique of the film oeuvre and apart from the fact I really now want to watch them all again, Joseph Epstein makes a few sound ultra-appealing particularly Easter Parade, the only film made with Judy Garland. Had Judy been able to hold her life together Joseph Epstein suggests that Fred & Judy might have been an even greater partnership than Fred & Ginger.
Now proceed no further if you wish your Fred & Ginger dream to remain intact, we honestly won't hold it against you though it does mean you will miss startling new evidence researched and revealed here for the first time.
Everyone else fast forward 2 mins into this clip from Top Hat if you want to get to the Cheek to Cheek dreamy romantic dancing bit, but do bear in mind that Fred was absolutely livid with Ginger about those ostrich feathers. There had been the most almighty and terrible row, but Ginger had stuck to her plumage and refused to change the dress, Fred was not a happy bunny,
'Feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote. It was like a snow-storm. They were floating round like millions of moths. I had feathers in my eyes, my ears, my mouth, all over the front of my suit.'
Personally I think this is no more Mr Nice Guy.
At about 2 mins 51secs, Fred clearly has an idea about that plumage so don't whatever you do miss the moment at 4mins 32secs when I'd swear he holds Ginger just a fraction longer than necessary with half an ostrich up her nose.
At 4mins 46 secs I reckon Ginger has her revenge and whispers something pretty lethal in Fred's ear, and do they hold hands lovingly at the end ?
Well it's all so obvious now we know.