Writing In The Fred Astaire Style
Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire were both incredible dancers, yet with diametrically opposed styles.
Kelly always wanted to make sure you knew how hard he was working and that you appreciated how hard he was working.
Astaire, on the other hand, made it look natural.
Writing is like that.
Some writers want you to see how hard they’re working at their craft.
Others just want the story to flow naturally, smoothly, effortlessly even though the amount of craftsmanship is just as high -- in fact, perhaps even higher, since part of the skill lays in how well it’s hidden from view.
A prime example of Fred Astaire style storytelling is in one of my all time favorite movies and, depending on how I’m feeling at that particular moment, arguably my favorite or second favorite Western, Rio Bravo (written by Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett off of a short story by B. H. McCampbell, directed by Howard Hawks).
Rio Bravo frequently gets dismissed when people evaluate classic Westerns because it contains no obvious Big Important Themes such as those found in The Searchers or High Noon or The Ox Bow Incident.
All of which, in my way of thinking, are Gene Kelly style examples of storytelling.
The beauty and joy of Rio Bravo is how naturally, smoothly, effortlessly it unfolds, how deceptively simple it seems.
The moment you pop the lid on this baby you realize it’s as intricate as a Swiss watch.
Let’s analyze one of the most important scenes in the film, a relatively low key moment not nearly as entertaining or as exciting as the rest of the picture, but absolutely crucial in setting up much of what will come in the story.
And not just by the plot threads it introduces but how those plot threads will interact with other plot threads.
[I’m drastically streamlining the story here in order to get quickly to the key scene, which is the fourth scene in the final edited film. The movie follows the plot of the final draft screenplay very closely, though it’s clear they were fiddling with the dialog during production and eliminated several redundant scenes or lines in the final cut.]
Scene 1 / credits: A freight wagon train approaches the town of Rio Bravo
Scene 2: Sheriff Chance (John Wayne) and Dude (Dean Martin) arrest sadistic bully Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder.
Scene 3: Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond) and Colorado (Ricky Nelson) lead the freight wagons into Rio Bravo. They’re stopped at the edge of town by Dude, whom Wheeler only knows as the town drunk.
Scene 4: Wheeler, Colorado, and the wagon train are stopped again near the jail by Sheriff Chance.
Chance, what's going on here?
People stopping me. Everybody
telling me what I can and can't do.
Next thing, you'll be telling me what to do.
Pat, I will tell you.
Stop your wagons.
I give up.
[signals wagons to stop]
Now don't tell me what's going on.
Just leave me wandering around
in the fog. I like it. I'm getting used
to it. It makes me feel so good.
You better look out, Pat,
you'll blow up and bust.
Listen, Chance, remember me?
Your old friend Pat Wheeler.
Now, will you please--
Dude rides up.
Hey, Chance! What do you want
to do about this outfit? Do you
want to take their guns?
Got any new men with you, Pat?
No, nobody except Colorado here.
Where'd you take him on?
What does he do?
I speak English, Sheriff...if you want to ask me.
All right, buster, what do you do?
I'm riding guard.
Pretty young for that, aren't you?
Just how old do you have to be, Sheriff?
You remember Ryan from
Denver, don't you?
That's his boy. He tells me
the kid's faster than he was.
He better be, packing a pair of guns.
Now, Sheriff, if it's the two guns that
bother you, I could give you one of them.
I could let you have them both. They
wouldn't do me too much good. That
fellow in the door there has a shotgun on me.
Chance turns to see Stumpy (Walter Brennan) aiming a shotgun through the barred security window on the jail door.
Stumpy, didn't I tell--
I know. I'm going. I'm going.
You can keep your guns, Colorado.
Thanks, Sheriff. I don't want any trouble.
Well, then don't start any.
I won't, unless I tell you first.
That's good enough. Pat, you can put
your wagons in that corral.
I ought to do just that.
I'm just guessing, you understand.
It seems to me that you've already
got some trouble here.
You're guessing right.
It so happens that part of our load there
is fuel oil and dynamite. Would you like
to have that sitting next to you?
No, I wouldn't.
They could put them over there by the creek.
Near the Burdette warehouse. If it's going
to blow that's just as good a place as any.
Show them the way, Dude.
You can go along, Colorado.
Is that the way you want it, Mr. Wheeler?
Dude leads Colorado and the wagon train to the creek.
Let's get out of the middle of the street.
Now that you're satisfied and that the kid's
got his guns...would you mind telling me
what this is all about?
We've got Joe Burdette in here.
Joe Burdette in jail? Nathan's brother?
What are you holding him for?
They were about to bury the reason
when you were coming in.
No other word for it.
No wonder this town's in such a mess.
What does Nathan say about this?
Nothing. He's not talking. Just doing.
You saw part of it. He's got this town
so bottled up that I can't get Joe out
or any help in. There are men over there
watching us. They're his. I can't make
a move without him knowing it.
Who you got helping you?
You met half of them.
You mean that fellow with the badge
that stopped me, and who else?
Stumpy. You know him. He's
watching Joe and guarding the jail.
A game-legged old man and
a drunk. That's all you got?
That's what I got.
If I ever saw a man holding the bull
by the tail, you're it. It's a good idea
putting my wagons where they're safe.
Guess I better see they did it.
I'll see you later.
Let’s break down what this scene does:
- In a very naturalistic manner, it introduces a character who (a) logically doesn’t know what is going on and (b) logically needs to know what is going on so our protagonist can deliver a lot of necessary expository material without it sounding like a bald faced info dump.
- It tells us what the stakes are: A lone sheriff and two woefully deficient deputies up against a rich and powerful foe determined to thwart justice by rescuing his brother with the help of a gang of hired guns.
- It introduces three very important characters who will be absolutely necessary in the resolution of the story: Wheeler, who will get killed because of his friendship to the sheriff, and as a result provide both an opportunity for Dude to redeem himself as well as the impetus for Colorado to insert himself into the fray over the objections of Chance; Colorado, who is shown to be a cocky smart ass yet recognized and respected by Chance based on how coolly he reacted when he realized Stumpy had a gun on him; and Stumpy, whom we’ll soon learn has his own motives against the Burdette brothers that will prove vitally important at the climax when he shows up over Chance’s objections.
- Look also at Colorado’s line: “I won't [start any trouble], unless I tell you first.” That’s a set-up that pays off when a new character and sub-plot, Feathers the gambler (Angie Dickenson) blows into town. Chance has reason to suspect her of cheating at cards and confronts her on it, but Colorado interrupts them by revealing he’s spotted the actual card cheat and is letting the sheriff know before he accuses the tinhorn; this puts Chance in the position of having to apologize to Feathers for suspecting her without cause, and that leads to a burgeoning relationship that further leads to Feathers saving Chance’s life by providing a distraction that lets Colorado shoot two of Burdette’s men who have the drop on the sheriff (which in turn results in Colorado being deputized).
- Oh, and there’s one last crucial element this scene supplies…
There are few greater sins in writing than the deus ex machine -- the “god in a machine” -- who swoops down without preamble at the last second to save the protagonists.
The deus ex machine is the writer forcing themselves into the story, making it work the way they want it to work instead of letting it flow naturally, smoothly, effortlessly.
And at the climax of Rio Bravo -- when Chance and Dude and Colorado are pinned down by murderous fire from Burdette’s warehouse, hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned and about to be outflanked by Burdette’s men -- what flows more naturally, more smoothly, more effortlessly than for Stumpy to show up with a case of dynamite he took from Wheeler’s nearby freight wagons, determined to see both Burdettes pay for their crimes?
That’s a lot of dramatic weight in one simple little scene, and until the end credits roll you never know it’s there.
© Buzz Dixon