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When Blue Skies opened in the fall of 1946, moviegoers flocked to see it en masse - not just because of the presence of Fred Astaire, Bing Crosby and the music of Irving Berlin, but because everyone knew this was to be Astaire's last picture. As Astaire later wrote in his autobiography Steps in Time: "I made up my mind during the shooting of this film that I wanted to retire on it. Skies measured up to the requirements I considered essential: It looked like a hit... I had made my entrance with Joan Crawford and Clark Gable [in Dancing Lady (1933)] - now coming up was the exit, with Bing Crosby."
The reason for the retirement, he wrote simply, was "I felt I had gone about as far as I could, and did not want to run out of gas." Not surprisingly, MGM wasn't thrilled with Astaire's decision. After all, he was still under contract, and Blue Skies, his splashy farewell, wasn't even an MGM film. (The studio had loaned him to Paramount to make it.) But eventually MGM gave Astaire its blessing with the provision that if he ever made a comeback, it would be at MGM. "That was entirely satisfactory," wrote Astaire. "I liked MGM and had no desire to go elsewhere in the unlikely event of my returning."
"Unlikely?" Perhaps at the time it seemed so, but in reality, "retirement" lasted less than two years. After Blue Skies, Astaire did enjoy spending time with his family, his stable of racehorses and his plan to open a chain of dance schools, but after a year or so, he started to miss the movies. He was considering calling MGM to get back to work when the studio called him. Gene Kelly had broken his ankle, they said, and would Astaire step in to replace him on Easter Parade (1948)? The answer was yes, and his retirement was over.
Blue Skies was based on an idea by Irving Berlin, who wanted a story spanning thirty years set to his songs written over that same time frame in a loose chronological order with a few new songs tossed in. The result was a movie with too little plot (basically a love triangle between Astaire, Crosby and Joan Caulfield) and perhaps too many songs (just under half the running time is comprised of numbers). With Astaire and Crosby singing Berlin tunes in Technicolor, however, the movie could do no wrong and became one of the biggest hits of the era.
Thirty-two Irving Berlin songs pop up in one form or another (down from the originally planned 42!), including "Heat Wave," "A Couple of Song and Dance Men," "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," "Puttin' on the Ritz," "White Christmas" and "You Keep Coming Back Like a Song," a new tune which was nominated for an Academy Award. It lost to "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe," from The Harvey Girls. Robert Emmett Dolan's score was also nominated but lost to The Jolson Story.
Blue Skies may offer an overload of riches for its slender plotline, but there are some fine moments here. In "A Couple of Song and Dance Men," the two stars pull a switch, with Bing dancing and Fred singing. Astaire joked to Time Magazine, "Bing is a wonderful performer. But if I said he was a good dancer, it would be the same as Bing calling me a good singer."
By far the best scene in Blue Skies is Astaire's electrifying "Puttin' on the Ritz" number. In fact, it's one of the finest dance routines Astaire ever put on film. Berlin originally wrote the song in 1930 for Harry Richman, a vaudeville artist who used it in a movie entitled Puttin' on the Ritz (1930). Astaire admired Richman and heard him perform the song in a nightclub that same year. Soon thereafter, Astaire recorded it himself. In Blue Skies, Astaire dances while backed up by nine miniature Astaires, accomplished by process shots and split screen photography. Also used was a trick device that makes Astaire's cane seem to leap from the floor to his hand on command. For one portion of the song, he dances in mimed slow motion, and even makes his cane appear to move in slow motion. It's a fascinating "live" effect and more impressive than the camera-induced slow motion he had tried in Carefree (1938) and would try again in Easter Parade. The number was shot after the rest of the film was in the can - and after five weeks of back-breaking rehearsal - making it (supposedly) Astaire's "last" dance.
Astaire wrote of this number: "I was...fortunate in coming up with one of my most useful trick solos, for 'Puttin' on the Ritz.' This was done with a series of split screens to produce the effect of me dancing in front of a chorus of eight images of myself... very complicated stuff, but it worked... [It] was widely publicized as my 'last dance' in a worldwide display. I did a special series of 'last dance' still photographs for various magazines. It was all serious. I meant it and never had any idea that I'd be back to do any more films."
Director Mark Sandrich, whose credits included Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Holiday Inn (1942) and So Proudly We Hail! (1943), died of a heart attack close to the start of production on Blue Skies and was replaced by Stuart Heisler.
Producer: Sol C. Siegel
Director: Stuart Heisler
Screenplay: Irving Berlin, Allan Scott, Arthur Sheekman
Cinematography: Charles Lang, William E. Snyder
Film Editing: LeRoy Stone
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Hal Pereira
Music: Robert Emmett Dolan
Cast: Bing Crosby (Johnny Adams), Fred Astaire (Jed Potter), Joan Caulfield (Mary O'Hara), Billy De Wolfe (Tony), Olga San Juan (Nita Nova), Mikhail Rasumny (Francois).
by Jeremy Arnold