THE JOY OF STORY
John M. Daniel’s Blog
June 25, 2016
Greetings, writers and readers. Welcome to my blog, which is my way to cheer for and egg on writing and reading, especially of stories. But this week I’m going to take a departure from the written word to celebrate another way, a non-verbal way, of telling stories.
It came to my attention a few days ago that Ella Fitzgerald died twenty years ago this month. No, I’m not going to talk about jazz or singing in my weekly essay about storytelling, although there’s no doubt that Ella could sell a story beautifully in song.
But in the account I’m about to tell, Ella’s death led to a conversation about dancing. Dancing can be a storytelling art. Anyone who enjoys watching ballet would agree that a large part of the magic is in the narration of a tale.
But telling a story in the form of a dance isn’t limited to ballet.
Note: the following essay first appeared in Black Lamb magazine.
A TIP OF THE TOP HAT
Sometime shortly after Ella Fitzgerald died in 1996, while Susan and I were having dinner at the home of our friends Mort and Liz, I happened to assert what I thought was an incontrovertible fact: “Ella was the greatest female vocalist ever.”
“No she wasn’t,” Mort said.
“Oh? Who was, then? In your opinion?”
“Billie Holiday,” Mort answered. “That’s not an opinion. It’s fact.”
“Oh? Billie Holiday was good, I suppose—”
“Great, you mean. The best, no question.”
“Except in departments where Ella excelled, like vocal range, intonation, timing, enunciation, improvisation—”
“Now you’re just talking about technical skill. Billie bared her soul.”
I let it drop. Otherwise the dinner was delightful.
A few months later, Susan and I returned the gesture and invited Mort and Liz to our home for dinner, during which I made the mistake of saying what I thought was so true it was almost a cliché: “Fred Astaire was the greatest dancer of all time.”
“No he wasn’t.”
“Oh? Who was?”
“Gene Kelly, by far.”
Out of respect for Gene Kelly, I kept my mouth shut. I’ve been waiting for twenty years to reply (Mort, are you reading this?), “Now you’re just talking about athletic skill. Fred Astaire had elegance. And he was sexier, too.”
I first fell for Fred one Tuesday evening in the fall of 1969. That was a dark period for me. I was living in a rented room in Menlo Park, and feeling lower than whale shit, which doesn’t float. One thing that kept my will to live alive was a Tuesday evening film class at Stanford, which I audited. This wasn’t legal, because I wasn’t a student, but I showed up every week for a free movie and never got busted. The class always started with a short lecture by the teacher, Clive Miller, a film nut. Clive would tell us why we were going to like the movie we were about to see. Then he’d get out of the way, switch off the lights, and the screen would light up. On one such evening:
A steel tower sending out sparks and what sounds like Morse Code.
Radio Pictures Presents
Credits accompanied by an unseen orchestra playing “Dancing Cheek to Cheek,” interrupted by “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” when the songwriter’s name appears on screen: IRVING BERLIN.
Then the movie, a movie that made me a temporarily happy man, and has delighted me time after time ever since. Susan and I own the DVD and we never get tired of it.
Okay, I admit it: the plot stinks. Fred meets Ginger and Ginger takes an immediate disliking to Fred, whereas Fred falls immediately in love and tells his best friend, Edward Everett Horton, he’s going to marry the girl. Fred pursues Ginger, who becomes more and more annoyed by him, until they dance together, and that changes her mind, and she’s in love with him, too. Then things get weird. Ginger thinks Fred is somebody he’s not and that he’s done something he hasn’t, and Fred doesn’t know why he’s in the doghouse because Ginger won’t tell him.
This is the part that drives Susan bats. “Why don’t they just talk to each other?”
But that’s the way it is, in all the Fred and Ginger movies. We also own Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and The Gay Divorcee, and it’s the same in all of them: Ginger misunderstands Fred and must hate the man she loves until the facts are revealed.
This is not to say Top Hat doesn’t have an engaging plot about a delightful relationship, but that plot and that relationship concern the secondary characters, Horace Hardwick, an impresario played by Edward Everett Horton, and Eric Blore, who plays the part of Bates, his unctuous valet. These two have a hilarious love-hate relationship full of double-takes, wordplay, and sly gay innuendoes. More comedy is provided by Erik Rhodes, who plays Alberto Beddini, a foppish banty-rooster dress designer, who loves Ginger too, but loves himself more, and loves his dresses most of all.
But as funny as the secondary characters are, we don’t watch and rewatch Top Hat for the subplot. Nor do we refuse to watch Top Hat because it has a corny, frustrating main plot.
Ginger, wearing riding clothes, climbs into a horse-drawn carriage and tells the driver to take her to the stables. When she realizes the cab driver is Fred, she’s steamed, although there’s a quick flicker of amusement on her face. In the next scene she’s sitting in a gazebo out in the woods, sheltered from the rain. Fred shows up with his horse and carriage, offering her a ride, which she declines. He gets out of the cab and joins her in the gazebo, where he explains the weather conditions, what causes raindrops, lighting, and thunder. BOOM! Hearing thunder, Ginger rushes into Fred’s arms. Fred sings to her: “Isn’t it a lovely day to be caught in the rain?”
Granted, Fred’s no Frank. (By the way, Mort, don’t even try to tell me Frank Sinatra wasn’t the greatest.) But Fred has a pleasant and persuasive voice. And we don’t go to the movies just to hear Fred Astaire sing.
He starts to move.
Ginger’s face lights up: Hey, this guy can dance!
He does a few steps, she does a few steps.
He does a few more, she does a few more
He goes forward and she goes back, he steps back and she comes forward.
Side by side they shuffle-ball-change.
Then they’re in each other’s arms. Foreplay is done, for now.
They move together, apart, together, apart, together, together, together.
Again, with variations. They’re having fun!
This goes on a long time, and you should see the smiles on their faces…
Faster, now, and faster, and whirl and whirl.
The seduction is complete. The dancers sit side by side, and they shake hands. They’re in love. We’ve just watched one of the most erotic scenes in film history.
So there. Fred Astaire was the sexiest dancer alive. Gene Kelly, for all his splendid choreography, his testosterone, and his grinning good looks, was great, but only second best.
Which ain’t bad.
Calling all published authors—
I feature a guest author the third Saturday (and week following) of each month. If you’re interested in posting an essay on my blog—it’s also a chance to promote a published book—email me directly at email@example.com.
Call for submissions: Your 99-Word Stories
The deadline for July’s 99-word story submissions is July 1. The stories will appear on my blog post for July 9
note: this 99-word story feature is a game, not a contest. Obey the rules and I’ll include your story. I may edit the story to make it stronger, and it’s understood that you will submit to my editing willingly. That’s an unwritten rule.
Rules for the 99-word story feature are as follows:
1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot (something or somebody has to change), characters, and conflict.
4. The story must be inspired by the prompt I assign.
5. The deadline: the first of the month. Stories will appear on this blog the second Saturday of the month.
6. I will copy edit the story. The author of the story retains all rights.
7. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: firstname.lastname@example.org
THIS MONTH’S PROMPT FOR NEXT MONTH’S 99-WORD STORY: Write a story inspired by this sentiment: “Yes, I love you, but you’re going to have to choose between me and that animal.”
That’ll do it for this week. I hope you’ll return next week, by which time we’ll be celebrating July, summer, fireworks, and watermelon. Meanwhile, if you are a writer, may your fingers dance nimbly across your keyboard as your stories take flight on your screen.