I am flipping around the channels trying to avoid anything involving news or, even worse, political commentary when I land on Turner Classic Movies, broadcasting Top Hat (1935), starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and prominently featuring Edward Everett Horton.
I could talk about what strikes me every time I encounter Top Hat, which is its consummate professionalism. Everything in the movie is First Class, most prominently – besides the incomparable talent of Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers – the set design, something I habitually ignore. It’s a wall. It’s a window. Who cares?
Built on adjoining soundstages, there’s this giant “outdoor” locale, including three bridges over an actual canal. Well not an actual canal – it does not join two previously unconnected bodies of water – but it had actual water in it and could easily pass for a canal should an actual canal take a vacation and they need a fabricated canal to temporarily fill in.
This time, however, my mind’s eye takes note not of the exceptional production values, but of a unique issue in musicals that makes me wonder how difficult it is to pull off.
I have not retained the exact specifics because – blanket disclaimer – I did not know I’d be writing this. It would be nice to have a retroactive “Photographic Memory” but I don’t. Does anyone? Or do they only pretend they have one?
THEATER REVIEWER: “The character then delivered a rambling soliloquy that went…”
A soliloquy? And they recalled a substantial chunk on it? More likely they gave them the script afterwards so they could transcribe the dialogue into the review. Otherwise, it’s like Butch Cassidy, “I can’t do that; can you do that? How can they do that?” Which I may, in fact, have quoted incorrectly.
Here’s the situation, that when I saw it, immediately made me ponder the underlying difficulty of its successful execution.
Scene Synopsis: Edward Everett Horton advises Fred Astaire to get married and Astaire insists he’d rather not.
And then this thing happens that happens in musicals because they’re musicals. Seemingly in mid-sentence, Fred Astaire begins to sing.
But that’s not what caught my attention.
Fred Astaire’s in Edward Everett Horton’s hotel suite living room, warbling Irving Berlin’s – talk about consummate professionalism – “No Strings” and Edward Everett Horton’s sitting on the couch…
… doing what?
That’s what I started wondering about. What do you, as an actor, do when another actor’s singing at you?
From Edward Everett Horton’s reaction, the man did not seem to know.
His face was entirely blank.
FRED ASTAIRE: ‘”What the deuce!”
DIRECTOR: “It’s not you, Freddie. You were impeccable.”
FRED ASTAIRE: “I’ll say.”
EDWARD EVERETT HORTON: “Oh dear. Was it me?”
DIRECTOR: “A minor adjustment and we’re moving right along.”
EDWARD EVERETT HORTON: “Fire away. I am nothing if not the consummate collaborator. What do you want me to do?”
D: “I want you to react.”
E.E.H: “With all due respect, my dear boy, I was reacting.”
D: “Eddie… may I call you Eddie?”
E.E.H.: “Actually, I would prefer Edward if you don’t mind.”
D: “Fine. Edward…”
E.E.H.: “Mr. Horton would also be acceptable. No, let’s leave it at Edward. No need for formalities. I was born in Brooklyn, after all. I am entirely comfortable with ‘Hey, you!’”
E.E.H.: (IN A TERRIBLE BROOKLYN ACCENT) “That’s my name. Don’t weah it out.”
THEY SHARE A CHUCKLE.
FRED ASTAIRE: “Can we move this along?”
DIRECTOR: “Of course, Freddie. (TURNING TO HORTON) Eddie… I mean, Edward…”
EDWARD EVERETT HORTON: “An understandable confusion. One ‘Freddie’. One ‘Edward.’”
D: “Right. Edward… I was watching you during that last ‘take’. And your face was totally, how can I put this… ‘expressionless’. I need you to react.”
E.E.H.: “My dear boy, I was reacting. A man was singing at me. And my reaction was not, as you described it, ‘expressionless’ – though I can see the similarity – but ‘dumbfounded’.”
E.E.H.: “Because a man was singing at me.”
FRED ASTAIRE: “You do understand it’s a musical.”
E.E.H.: “Mr. Astaire, with all due respect to you as the consummate artiste, there is no need to be patronizing. (TO DIRECTOR) The two of us are having this discussion about the advisability of his getting married and out of the blue, the man suddenly bursts into song. How else can I react but ‘dumbfounded’?”
D: “Can you think of, maybe, a different reaction?”
E.E.H.: “Not a different appropriate reaction. There we are, sitting in my living room. Not in a theater. Not in a nightclub. Not in a saloon. Where, if I were hearing such beguiling singing as Mr. Astaire’s, my reaction would unquestionably be ‘pleasure’, ‘enjoyment’ and ‘infinite delight’. But two men alone in a living room and one them starts singing… I am entirely ‘dumbfounded’? Can you think of a more appropriate reaction?”
THE DIRECTOR LOOKS DEFEATED.
D: (ALMOST TEARFUL) “Nobody ever brought this up.”
FRED ASTAIRE STEPS IN.
F.A.: (TO DIRECTOR) “May I?”
D: (GESTURING “GO AHEAD”) “I’m really more of a ‘cameras’ person.”
F.A. (TO HORTON) “Edward, the whole thing is perfectly sensible. I don’t want to get married. I want, instead, to be fancy free. Buoyant. Spontaneous. Unpredictable. I can’t think of anything more natural in such a situation – particularly in a musical – than to burst exuberantly into song.”
E.E.H.: “I can.”
F.A. “There is still time to re-cast, you know.”
E.E.H.: “All right, fine. How would you suggest I react when you erupt inexplicably into song? I mean, what do you do when someone’s singing to you?”
F.A.: “I count in my head until it’s time to join in. But I am certainly not ‘dumbfounded.’”
D: “What about ‘bemused’?”
E.E.H.: “I suppose I could muster ‘bemused.’”
F.A.: “Hold the phone, Charlie. I’m selling this throwaway number like nobody’s business and all I get for my efforts is ‘bemused’?”
E.E.H.: “I could rise from this couch and give you a standing ovation.”
F.A.: “Now who’s being patronizing!”
D: “Calm down, you two. I’m sure we can find a suitable reaction.”
E.E.H.: “I must admit, this is very challenging for an actor.”
F.A.: “‘Challenging’? (TO DIRECTOR) It’s a musical. I sing. He listens.”
E.E.H.: “I have a plethora of reactions. I can look curious. I can look terrified. I am extremely good at looking cold. Then, of course, there’s my patented ‘double-take’ when I am taken completely by surprise. Say, how about this? Mr. Astaire begins singing and I give you one of these. (HE EXECUTES AN INCOMPARABLE “DOUBLE TAKE”, REACTING TO HIS COMPANION’S “TALK” TURNING UNEXPECTEDLY INTO “SONG.”)
F.A.: Oh, for heavens sake. No!
E.E.H: “Forgive me. It’s just that I have just never dealt with a challenge of this nature before. I once faced a firing squad in a movie. That was a cinch compared to this. Should there be a similar opportunity, I shall imagine a man singing at me and my reaction will be just right.”
F.A.: (TURNING TO DIRECTOR) “I can’t imagine how he’ll react when I start tap dancing.”
E.E.H.: “Nor can I, dear boy. Nor can I.”
It’s a musical. The audience is conditioned to what to expect. But if you are embedded in the actual scene when they do it…
I’m not sure “dumbfounded” is that far off the mark.
I mean, you’re in a room with someone. Suddenly, they’re singing and clickety-clacketing over the parquet…
Actors out there, tell me.
What is the appropriate response?