by John F. Karr
It's a pity that John Franceschina's Hermes Pan – The Man Who Danced with Fred Astaire is boring (Oxford University Press; cloth, $35). Hermes Pan (1909-90) was the dancer/choreographer who collaborated with Fred Astaire – stood in for him, body-doubled him, and coaxed the self-doubting dancer into some of his most memorable performances. Pan also worked with almost every star, at almost every studio – RKO, Fox, MGM, Paramount – on 89 films during a career that compromises the history of the Hollywood musical, from the first Astaire/Rogers feature in 1933, through Liz Taylor's Cleopatra arrival in Rome, to Lost Horizon in 1973. And he was gay.
There hasn't been a biographic study of this major figure, whose own memoirs remained unfinished. Early reviews of the book promised it would include information about his sexuality. This it does disappointingly, on less than a page of the Introduction, where the author tells us that Pan's sexuality was no secret within the film community, and only became a problem when his large coterie of male friends made his mother uncomfortable. Pan's mother love, along with his devotion to the Roman Catholic church, made him obsessively secretive. So much so that even William J. Mann, in Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood 1910-1969, cited Pan as a heterosexual dance director.
It's obvious, then, that Hermes Pan is a necessary corrective. Yet there just isn't much documentation that Franceschina can offer; source material is severely limited, and the author doesn't examine attendant artistic or political gay issues. Gossip and scandal weren't expected; a fuller discussion was hoped for. The Introduction also includes what would be called an amusing anecdote if it weren't colored with such sadness. Cardinal Spellman, the Archbishop of New York whose affair with a chorus boy was no secret in Broadway circles, invited Pan to an all-male party, where Pan's astonishment at what he deemed the clique's seemingly flagrant public display served to increase his personal reticence. Several decades later, and more than three-quarters of the way through the 270-page book, we find Pan finally allowing himself a lover. The dancer Gino Malerba was Pan's companion for five years, but nonetheless maintained a separate apartment, and yielded opening nights and society affairs to a beard. The last bit of news we hear on the subject finds Franceschina quoting society writer David Patrick Columbia. "Pan's sexuality was a burden for him." It is made clear, however, that Pan was a secretive but not tragic figure.
As for Pan's movies, Franceschina covers each and every musical number in each and every film Pan worked on, but can only list changes in tempo – a Schottische is followed by a waltz – as he apparently lacks the skill to illuminate movement or enliven his descriptions. It's not long before his dutiful song-by-song summary becomes a slog. This is quite a contrast to the simultaneously published The Astaires, about Fred and sister Adele's vaudeville and Broadway career, in which author Kathleen Riley unfolds her story with warmth and a lively talent at bringing readers to visualize performances. In Hermes Pan, Franceschina lists the facts in proper order. As the only book on the subject, Hermes Pan is worth a musical film fan's acquaintance. Just don't expect to be entertained.