Fred Astaire’s Silent Partner,
Hermes Pan: Part II
More From Hermes Pan On Fred Astaire Including Why Ginger Rogers Was Astaire’s Best On-Screen Partner, How The Two Worked To Get Routines Right
Image by danceonair1986 and used under a Creative Commons License.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Modern Times Magazine
June 22, 2015 — Fred Astaire once said that dancing for the screen was approximately 80 percent brainwork: That only 20 percent of the strain was on the feet. According to Hermes Pan (Astaire’s assistant on most of his musical films), that 20 percent part of the equation seemed to yield a disproportionate share of calluses, shin splints and bruises.
“We’d knock ourselves out,” Pan told us during an interview we had with him in 1988 two years before he died at the age of 80. “We would come in, usually at 10 a.m. and work until 1 p.m. After an hour’s break, we would come back and rehearse until we got too tired, around 5 to 6 p.m. It was almost constant dancing.”
The brain-trust of Astaire and Pan extended beyond just mentally mapping out the five or six necessary dance routines for each film. When it came time to actually do the dance, Fred always rehearsed the duet numbers with Pan before Ginger ever appeared on the sound stage.
“A lot of times Ginger would be working on another picture,” Pan said. “Also, we liked to work without her because in the initial stages we weren’t always sure what we were going to do. I would do Ginger’s part and then Ginger would come in and I’d teach her the steps.”
Pan also dubbed in the taps for Ginger’s routines, drudgery she was glad to avoid.
“We would shoot the numbers to pre-recorded music and then post-record the taps days or even weeks later,” he said.
That kind of perseverance paid off when Fred cited Pan as his “best dance partner” – a subject not open to critical debate since the Astaire-Rogers films were always shot on closed sets. Pan, on the other hand, felt that in Astaire’s career of over 35 musical films, Ginger Rogers holds the coveted position as his best partner.
“Ginger wasn’t the greatest dancer, but to my mind she was Fred’s best partner. There was a quality when Fred danced with Ginger that didn’t occur with any of his other partners. I worked with Cyd Charisse and Vera-Ellen when they teamed with Fred. They were better dancers than Ginger, but the same magic wasn’t there,” Pan said.
Astaire wrote in his 1959 autobiography Steps in Time that Pan had an uncanny knack for coming up with great trick dance ideas. The golf dance in Carefree and the title number from Top Hat solidified Astaire’s renown as a “solo” performer and Pan’s reputation as a surefire “idea man” in his own right. But it is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number from Swing Time that contains a perfect balance of screen gimmickry and fancy footwork. The number, an acknowledged screen classic, has Astaire dancing in and out of syncopation with three huge shadows of himself projected on a wall behind him.
“The idea for that dance came one morning when I was sitting with Hal Borne, our rehearsal pianist, waiting for Fred to arrive,” Pan said. “Hal started playing and I was dancing around the stage when someone flipped on some overhead lights up in the rafters. They shone down on the dark stage and I could see three shadows of myself. I commented to Hal on what a great effect it made and said I was going to tell Fred about it when he came in. Well, Fred arrived and I said: ‘I think I’ve got a great idea.’ He replied: ‘It better be good!’ Anyhow, I told him and then we went to the special effects department and they said it would be no problem.”
Pan was also capable of choreographing more intimate solo numbers for Astaire. One of his best came in an unheralded 1950 Paramount Studios film called “Let’s Dance.” It was during those years; when Astaire was “Gingerless,” that he would often rely on knockout solo numbers to maintain the momentum not only of the film, but also his career. The solo, called “The Piano Dance,” was considered a tour-de-force of versatility by no less an authority than ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev.
“Fred didn’t originally want to do that number,” Pan remembered. “I had laid it out so that at one point he would be hanging over the top of the baby grand with one leg dangling in the air. Fred was adamant that he just couldn’t do that. I showed him, he tried it, and then said: ‘My God, that was easy!’ At the end of the number he has to exit the club while dancing over some chairs. He was also skeptical about that. He said he might break a leg. I told him, ‘Look, hold my hand, step on the seat of the chair, put your foot on the top, balance, push with your right foot and push back with your left and you can go over as slowly as you want to.”
During the 40-year span of his movie career, Pan choreographed pictures that starred Rita Hayworth, Marge and Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Shirley MacLaine. He even worked in Sun Valley Serenade with the greatest flash-dance act the movies have ever known – The Nicholas Brothers. “Those guys had so many backflips, splits, riffs and steps, and they did them all at the speed of light,” Pan said. “I gave their numbers for that film some cohesion, but I can’t do a backflip into a split, so I mostly just let them go.”
In 1968, 35 years after Pan made his fateful visit to stage eight on the RKO lot to see if he could “help” Fred Astaire, both men were reunited to work on Finian’s Rainbow. The film proved to be their musical swansong.
The dances Astaire and Pan created will, as the lyric of an old Irving Berlin tune says, “linger on,” providing joy and inspiration for generations of movie-lovers to come.
And to us, that is the perfect finish step.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
MTM Exclusive: João Cerqueira When Jesus of Nazareth comes back to Earth — maybe for the third time, maybe not — he finds that not all of those known as his most dedicated followers see things from a similar point-of-view.
Four Festivals Fold In Favor Of Touring Mega-Spectacle Coachella, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, And Austin City Limits Will Be Closing Up Shop As Of 2017 And Changing The Format Of American Music Festivals Forever.