Fred Astaire

Eleanor Powell, the magnificently talented movie-musical performer of the mid-twentieth century, was too good for Hollywood. I don’t mean too virtuous; I mean too virtuosic—too masterful at her specialty, tap dancing, for the powers of the studio system, including its powerful male stars, to tolerate. Powell, who died in 1982, would have turned 100 this past Wednesday. Today, she comes across in film clips as nothing extraordinary, an equal to the men with whom she performed, and that’s what extraordinary about her.

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Do American movies still aspire to greatness?

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Editor's Note: We'll be running the article recommendations of our friends at TNR Reader each afternoon on The Plank, just in time to print out or save for your commute home. Enjoy! Michael Bloomberg has a next act: He is going to be the mayor of the world.  NY Mag | 15 min (3, 804 words) The practice of medicine, writes Atul Gawande, is largely about failure. That's why nothing is more crucial than rescuing people after things go wrong.  The New Yorker | 9 min (2, 255 words) What is the best way to avoid a clash of civilizations with the Muslim world?

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The Collector

On a warm Saturday in early July, an employee at the Maryland Historical Society placed a call to the police. He had noticed two visitors behaving strangely—a young, tall, handsome man with high cheekbones and full lips and a much older, heavier man, with dark, lank hair and a patchy, graying beard. The older man had called in advance to give the librarians a list of boxes of documents he wanted to see, saying that he was researching a book. At some point during their visit, the employee saw the younger man slip a document into a folder.

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Apart from the music and dancing, the canonical movie musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are almost unwatchably cloying and ridiculous. Then again, saying that is like saying that, apart from the flavor and the coldness, an ice-cream cone is pointless and impractical. I didn’t learn to appreciate musicals until I was in college and took a course on the subject taught by the late film historian William K. Everson at NYU.

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Paul Krugman writes, "even high-minded intellectuals are a lot more likely to watch old Fred Astaire movies than to read old Walter Lippmann commentaries." Am I the only person who has read old Walter Lippmann commentaries but has never seen a Fred Astaire movie? Don't get me wrong, I've consumed plenty of pop culture candy. An old movie based on dancing just has no appeal to me, whereas an old Lippmann commentary does. By the way, Ron Steel's biography of Lippmann is very good.

Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films by W John Mueller (Knopf, 448 pp., $45) Sinatra: My Father By Nancy Sinatra (Doubleday, 340pp., $50) One mercy of living between 1930 and 1960, if you took notice, was the good fortune of having the show put on by Astaire and Frank Sinatra. Not that their worth erased in 1960, when they started to move toward saloon chairs, golf, and more humdrum ways of passing their tune.  You can still see The Gay Divorcee, “Puttin’ on the Ritz” from Blue Skies, or Silk Stockings; and you can listen to In the Wee Small Hours, Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, or Only the Lonely.

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