Irving Berlin, the Russian Jewish émigré who couldn’t write music, dreamed up a song for Fred Astaire, the skinny dancer who looked like Stan Laurel. Result: heaven. Most of the top songwriters of the period — Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen — loved working with Astaire for his debonair touch with a song and because their tunes inspired dance numbers, usually with Ginger Rogers, that are among the most powerful expressions of courtship, love and loss in screen history. But Berlin was the first among equals. All 13 songs that he composed for Astaire movies landed in the pop charts’ Top 15. Three went to No. 1, including this sublime ballad.
For the big dance duet from Top Hat, in which the tuxedoed Fred declares his love for Ginger in a feathery white gown, Berlin devised a dance-and-romance tune with an ambitious 64-bar structure. He also smartly pitched it to Astaire’s frail-but-convincing tenor; for example, in the line “And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,” the melody zigzags up to a note Astaire can hardly sing. The number’s daring swings of rhythm and emotion express three moods of a lover in pursuit — bliss (“Heaven, I’m in heaven”), jauntiness (“Oh, I love to climb a mountain”) and desperate ardor (“Dance with me!”) — which Astaire’s dance of seduction with Rogers sublimely dramatizes. It’s a miraculous piece of music, and Berlin wrote it all in a day.
Next ‘Where or When’