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  • Sex and the Storyworld:Narrativizing Desirability in the Early Films of Fred Astaire
  • Nora Gilbert

From the moment Fred Astaire arrived in Los Angeles in 1933, studio executives and Hollywood columnists wondered, both privately and publicly, whether a 'homely,' 'skinny,' 'sophisticated' dancer would be able to function as a leading man. The fact that the answer proved to be a resounding yes has been largely credited to the woman who danced by Astaire's side in nine of his first eleven film outings.1 According to John Mueller, for instance, "the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable" (8-9), while according to Katharine Hepburn, more famously and more cuttingly, the basis of Astaire and Rogers' unprecedented collaborative success is that "He gives her class; she gives him sex" (qtd. in Levinson 75). Egalitarian as Hepburn's quid pro quo parsing of the partnership may be, the Astaire-Rogers films do much to undermine the neatness of such a dichotomy. As Margaret T. McFadden has noted, the characters played by Astaire are often required to shake off their "effete, highbrow" ways and embrace Rogers' earthier, more working-class aesthetic by the films' endings (693); if anything, according to this reading and others like it, Rogers "gives" Astaire the right kind of "class" to please Depression-era viewers.2 What interests me in this article, though, is the giving of sex rather than of class. While I agree with Katharine Hepburn that it was Astaire who stood as the primary [End Page 29] sexual beneficiary throughout the course of his collaboration with Rogers, I want to take seriously the question of how sex was given to him—a question that cannot be answered as one-dimensionally as Mueller's or Hepburn's assessments imply.

The story of a young Hollywood hopeful being molded into a bankable sex symbol is, of course, hardly unique. From Rita Hayworth's hairline alteration and Lauren Bacall's voice-lowering lessons to Hitchcock's intensive grooming of Grace Kelly, Tippi Hedren, et al., the Pygmalion myth reverberates strongly throughout classic Hollywood lore. Astaire's experience differs from the typical iteration of this myth most obviously in terms of gender, since, as in Ovid's original rendering, the vast majority of film stars who have undergone this type of sexualizing metamorphosis have been female. But it also differs in terms of the overtness and physicality of the transformation process. Beyond the hairpiece that Astaire was required to don throughout his film career (which, to his mind, "merely came under the heading of make-up and of being a nuisance" [Astaire 187]), Hollywood did not ask him to change the way he looked, dressed, spoke, or sounded. There is clearly a gendered double standard inhering to such a distinction; if a woman is to become 'sexy,' she must alter herself to conform to the norms of femininity, whereas a man can become 'sexy' by staying relatively true to who and what he is. This does not mean, however, that the studio system was uninterested in making its male stars attractive to as wide an audience as possible. What it does mean is that Astaire's attainment of desirability was rooted more in the narrative insinuations of the films that introduced him to the movie-going public than in any kind of visual or stylistic personal makeover. Taken together, then, the films that Astaire made with Rogers for RKO Radio Pictures between 1933 and 1939 serve as a particularly salient case study in the narratological art of manufacturing sexual allure.

By focusing on the ways in which the internal, narrative elements of Astaire's early films help to construct and establish his external, sexual persona, I position this essay at the somewhat underexplored intersection of star studies and narrative theory. In pursuing this focus, I do not mean to suggest that the kinds of extra-textual evidence more commonly mined in star studies scholarship (profiles and interviews in fan magazines and gossip columns, promotional appearances, publicity stills, etc.) did not play their own, sizable role in the...


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