"Astaire and Rogers." By Edward Gallefent. Columbia Univ. 256 pp. $24.95.
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by Trey Graham, Washington Post, April 14, 2002
A peculiar addiction takes hold sometimes among the scholarly class, a kind of deconstructive jones that drives a certain breed of overly specialized academic to produce the clothbound equivalent of numbingly arcane cocktail-party chat. That, at least, is my conclusion after slogging through several narrowly focused pop-culture studies, in which various marvelously credentialed authors examine the very life out of such promising topics as Jewish-American comedians, French courtesans (and their American successors) and the silver screen's most brilliant terpsichorean twosome.
The last is the subject at hand in Edward Gallefent's "Astaire and Rogers," a thoroughly researched consideration of the famous film couple's various works, at which the author looks both individually and corporately. The book is full of judiciously considered arguments, intelligently constructed analyses, imaginative juxtapositions of this idea and that image -- all framed in the worst kind of turgid academic language. It is, in short, dull as dirt -- which, considering the glamour of its subjects, must be taken as something of an accomplishment.
Gallefent, a film-studies lecturer at the University of Warwick, is the kind of writer who dutifully tells you, right up front in the introduction, what he's going to examine and how he's going to go about it -- and then proceeds, for page after soporific page, to make good on the threat. He's the kind of author who quotes Henry James -- not that author's fiction but his private letters, from what I can tell -- to justify the approach he's going to take. Then he footnotes the quote.
It's not the pedantic structure or the overly scrupulous style, though, that makes "Astaire and Rogers" seem so thoroughly flat-footed. It's the closeness of Gallefent's "readings," to use one of his favorite terms; from the near-religiously obsessive way the author scrutinizes everything from storylines to hemlines, you'd think the celluloid collaborations of Hollywood's smoothest couple were dusty texts he'd dug out of an obscure Himalayan monastery. It seems a curiously joyless approach to a subject that's all lightness and air.
But then what Gallefent is trying to do here may be something of a stretch. His central argument, which will likely remain unconvincing to the layman despite the keenness of his observations about the individual films, is that "the brilliance of [Astaire and Rogers's] song and dance can dominate our way of thinking about them"; this, our hero contends, obscures a host of nonmusical cues crucial to a full appreciation of the duo's work. The author wants to "challenge the presumption that [the films'] plotting is so formulaic or simplistic that tact requires us not to scrutinize it too closely"; to "read" meaning into those breathtaking dance numbers by examining everything from the number of syllables in character names to the color of the famous ostrich-feather dress Rogers wore in "Top Hat"; to insist that every last element of every single film has a coded implication that makes the whole business deeply meaningful. (And here we were content to find it sublimely entertaining.)
Consider: "Democratic America in 'Stage Door' is represented by the... girls in the Footlights Club.... They are associated with the communal loyalties of the chorus line.... The values of aristocratic America in 'Stage Door' are associated with 'serious' theatre... 'art' rather than domestic ambitions... individual rather than group achievement."
Gallefent presents all of this in support of a recurring argument about class difference as a critical issue in all the films Astaire and Rogers made, whether together or on their own. Like too much else in his treatise, it's an interesting point uninterestingly made.
There are ways to do this kind of thing without inviting torpor, without squeezing all the fun out of a subject whose fascinations are what presumably attracted the reader in the first place. The trick, one suspects, is not to get so entranced by the details (and their deconstruction) that you forget to put some effort into their presentation. It's a lesson Gallefent could have learned from Astaire and Rogers, who above all never let the complexity of their footwork overwhelm the grace of their performance.