Gene Kelly, not too shabby a performer himself, once said “the history of dance on film begins with Astaire.”
Choreographer George Balanchine likened him to Bach, a true genius of his art. Mikhail Baryshnikov famously said: “He gives us a complex because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity.”
It’s hard to argue with that. Below you can see Fred Astaire in a couple of clips from 1946’s Blue Skies, performing “Puttin’ On The Ritz” — a song associated with him like no other — and find out more about the film itself.
Below, you can also read what Irving Berlin had to say about Blue Skies — insight from the man behind the music about the classic movie with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby.
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“Blue Skies” – Spectacular musical comedy teams Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire
No greater tribute could have been paid to America’s foremost composer of popular music, Irving Berlin, than the Paramount technicolor production of the maestro’s “Blue Skies.”
The film opened yesterday at the Princess theater with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Joan Caulfield, Billy De Wolfe and Qiga San Juan singing, dancing and clowning for all their worth to make this cavalcade of Berlin hits one of the most spectacular musicals ever filmed.
To paraphrase a line from the title song, this reviewer has never seen the stars shining so bright. The tireless Crosby sings song after song, vocalizing no less than sixteen of the thirty-two Berlin tunes in the film.
Besides such outstanding hits as “White Christmas” and “Blue Skies,” Bing introduces two new Berlin tunes written expressly for him.
They are a haunting ballad, “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song,” and a little nursery number entitled “Getting Nowhere,” which he sings to his little screen daughter.
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The tap-happy Fred Astaire whirls through a half dozen sizzling routines, dancing with his co-stars Crosby and Joan Caulfield in several numbers.
In a torrid production to the music of Berlin’s “Heat Wave,” done on a lavish set representing a West Indian waterfront, Fred’s partner is Olga San Juan, Brooklyn-born bombshell of Puerto Rican ancestry.
But the greatest bit of hoofing in Astaire’s entire career is seen in his big solo number, a fast tap routine in the typical Astaire style to the tune of Berlin’s “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
He does the number in the lithe, light-footed, light-hearted manner that first brought him fame, and he does it, to in the Astaire trademark outfit, top hat, cutaway, striped trousers and white spats; and the inevitable twirling cane.
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The beauteous Joan Caulfield, who was born for the color camera, reveals heretofore hidden talents. Her voice is delightful, and her dancing light and gay.
She is charming as the girl Bing and Fred vie for, who leaves Crosby when he proves too irresponsible, but returns to him after many years apart.
The tale moves through the years with the Berlin music, which provides the background for the tender love story.
Irving Berlin on his best songs in Blue Skies
Irving Berlin says: “‘Blue Skies’ has some of my best songs. Certainly none in my catalogue can top ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,’ ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Heat Wave’ Or ‘How Deep Is The Ocean’!”
Right, Mr. Berlin! In fact, there are 32 of your wonderful songs — 7 of them in big-scale production numbers. And 3 of them brand new — including the current Hit Parade favorite, “You Keep Coming Back Like A Song”!
10 copies of Fred Astaire: About the special effects in ‘Blue Skies’
Ten Astaires to be seen by split-screen process
Just to prove that the movie camera is quicker than the eye, Paramount introduces a new wrinkle in trick photography in Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” the Technicolor musical which will follow “Monsieur Beaucaire,” at the Paramount. The picture, featuring 35 Berlin tunes, stars Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Joan Caufield.
In the film, Astaire does a super-fast tap dance to the tune of Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
[Editor’s note: These videos are short/cut because this is apparently the only way the studio will allow it to stay on YouTube — see more here.]
Gay in top hat, cutaway, striped trousers and white spats, he whirls through the first half of the dance all in one piece. Then he seemingly splits into 10 Astaires, each tapping like mad and twirling tiny editions of that famous Astaire cane.
“And,” says Stuart Heisler, director, “we didn’t do it with mirrors. It was done by means of a variation of the split-screen process — but just how is going to remain Paramount’s secret.”
GORDON JENNINGS, Paramount’s special effects expert, explains that he “split the screen” nine times to accomplish the feat of showing the star dancing in front of a chorus of nine identical dancing selves.
Ordinarily, the multiple illusion effect is achieved through the use of a series of mirrors, and the simple split-screen technique is employed in showing an actor playing a twin role.
“If you’ll watch several of the ‘Astaires’ very closely,” Heisler said, “you will notice slight differences in the action which proves that mirrors weren’t used. As a matter of fact, the type of set used and the effect desired made it impossible to use the mirror method.”
This new secret split-screen technique wasn’t the only innovation in movie-making used by the Paramount experts working on “Blue Skies.”
[Editor’s note: See the Young Frankenstein version of this song & dance at the end of the page!]
Hal Pereira, art director, devised a new system of making the set models of lucite instead of the usual wood and papier-mache.
Because the lucite is transparent, Pereira, Heisler and the photography directors, Charles Lang Jr. and William Snyder, were able to study every camera angle and lighting problem with ease, thus saving days of production time.
“The costs run to about $4,000 an hour when a picture like ‘Blue Skies’ is in full production,” Sol C. Siegel, producer, said, “so it can easily be figured out just how much money was saved.”
SO SUCCESSFUL were these lucite model sets that they will be standard from now on for every important picture at Paramount.
Working with Hans Dreier, the studio’s art director, Pereira designed 10 full night club sets for “Blue Skies.” This near-record of set constructions of a single type included sets that ranged from a Tom Thumb production measuring 16 by 30 feet to a super item 100 by 185 feet.
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In addition to the regulation full-size sets, Pereira supervised construction of five conventional small models. These were photographed for a montage sequence in the film.
Berlin wrote four new songs for “Blue Skies,” in addition to writing new lyrics for Astaire’s song and dance number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
The new songs are “You Keep Coming Back Like a Song” and “Getting Nowhere,” both Bing Crosby solo numbers; “A Couple of Song and Dance Men,” a novelty piece for Crosby and Astaire, and “Serenade to an Old-Fashioned Girl,” a ballad sung by blonde Joan Caulfield and a chorus of showgirls.
Well-remembered Berlin tunes heard in the picture include “White Christmas,” “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” “Blue Skies,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” “Russian Lullaby,” “Any Bonds Today,” “Always” and “This Is the Army.”
Supporting Crosby, Astaire and Miss Caulfield in the cast are Billy De Wolfe and Olga San Juan. The latter has a torrid song and dance number with Astaire to the tune of Berlin’s “Heat Wave.” She also sings a duet with Crosby, “I’ll See You In Cuba.”
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Parody clip from “Young Frankenstein”
Here, Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle (as the monster/creature) perform “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in the Astaire style!
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