Great Cinematographers, Part 14: David Abel

If you haven’t heard the name David Abel (1883-1973) but you are a fan of classic Hollywood musicals, you’ve certainly heard of the five Astaire and Rogers films he photographed: The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time and Shall We Dance. Abel only worked as a cinematographer until the 1940s, but those five titles are certainly make up a notable portion of the canon of great 30s musicals.

Top Hat (1935, dir. Mark Sandrich) – The always debonair Fred Astaire sings the title song, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” on a fabulous set with similarly dressed dancers. When the lighting changes during Fred’s solo dance and he’s covered in shadow, it doesn’t really obscure him one bit since the movement is so electrifying.

Follow the Fleet (1936, dir. Mark Sandrich) – The “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number is one of the iconic moments of Astaire and Rogers’ career, beautifully lit on a “nighttime” stage in the show-within-the-show. In a great tribute, the scene was redone by Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters in this memorable scene from the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven (albeit without the lyric subtitles that the YouTube video provides), photographed by Gordon Willis.

Swing Time (1936, dir. George Stevens) – This dance medley of “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Never Gonna Dance” is perhaps my favorite dance sequence from any Astaire and Rogers collaboration. Working on a large set and without many cuts in the scene, the camerawork is impressive. The film’s “Bojangles of Harlem” is another intriguing example, employing lots of high angles and special effects with the shadows behind Astaire.


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