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Fred & Ginger & Emergence

by Ethan Tussey

An oft-cited quote, typically attributed to Katharine Hepburn, states that the famous pairing between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers succeeded at the box office on the power of two transactions—“he gave her class, and she gave him sex appeal.” The quote is so often repeated because of its seeming self-evidence, taken for granted as the obvious solution to the peculiar gravity the two generated in their ten films as a team.

To my mind, however, that simple assessment fails to capture the complete picture. Astaire danced on screen with Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, and Leslie Caron, among others, any of whom should have been capable of granting him ample sex appeal. And Fred could hardly have provided Rogers with more class than her Oscar win (for 1940’s Kitty Foyle). But despite their successful solo projects and personal victories, Fred and Ginger have been outlasted and eclipsed by “Fred & Ginger.”

Of course, another option is that their success isn’t just about gifting one another sex and class, but doing so at the same time and in the same film. In her well-known study of the team, Arlene Croce argues that it had to be Ginger to elevate Fred. “The sexiest of Astaire’s other partners… did very little for him. Sex unshaded by temperament isn’t very interesting and, in relation to Astaire, it’s useless…. It is a world of a sun without a moon” (Croce). But the fuzzy meaning of ‘temperament,’ here meant to refer to the combination of Rogers’s performance and natural charisma, leads us only back into the weeds, into the overused and under-defined territory of ‘chemistry.’ Saying that Fred and Ginger just had “chemistry” with one another is both obviously true and something of a cop-out, a terminal endpoint to the discussion that concedes ground to the metaphysical.

I have recently wondered if it could be possible to consider partnerships and media collaborations (and that elusive word, chemistry) as a kind of weakly emergent platform, in the sense that David J. Chalmers proposes: “A high-level phenomenon is weakly emergent with respect to a low-level domain when the high-level phenomenon arises from the low-level domain, but truths concerning that phenomenon are unexpected given the principles governing the low-level domain” (Chalmers). Thinking of “Fred & Ginger” as a weakly emergent phenomenon suggests that it is the surprising interplay between them that provides the spark for the audience, an interplay that continuously reveals new traces and flecks of insight, not centrally located in either performer but dispersed around them and into their surroundings—the platform would not account for only Fred and Ginger but also the set, the songs, the choreographed movements of the dances themselves, and a myriad of other industrial and creative factors. Like a diamond with many cuts, each shade of one element reveals something unexpected in the other, leaving audiences overcome with the total impression of the phenomenon, and pushed to chase a return to that initial excitement in future collaborations.

Perhaps this is why collaborations, even those as powerful as Fred and Ginger’s, finally fade. It’s not that Ginger stopped giving sex appeal to Fred or he stopped giving class to Ginger. It’s that after six or seven collaborations there was little surprise left in their pairing, no unexpected shades to be revealed by the stars’ relations to one another. In that case, the unexpected becomes the comfortable, and finally a fossilized known—an institution.

Top Hat - Cheek to Cheek

The central dance from the famous Cheek to Cheek scene in Top Hat (1935)

from Top Hat (1935)
Creator: Mark Sandrich
Posted by Ethan Tussey
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