Elegance meets feistiness in the Astaire-Rogers musicals

Elegance meets feistiness in the Astaire-Rogers musicals

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Geek obsession: The Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films

Why they’re daunting:

“There was a certain magic between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers… there’s never been the same electricity that has happened as when Fred and Ginger danced together­.”—Choreographer Hermes Pan

When elegant dancer Fred Astaire was first matched with fiery redhead Ginger Rogers in 1933’s Flying Down To Rio (his second film, her 20th), the two instantly sparked on the screen. RKO proceeded to pair the prolific duo in eight more musicals before the end of the decade. The partnership resulted in off-the-charts cinematic chemistry—a line attributed to Katharine Hepburn sums it up well: “He gives her class, she gives him sex appeal.” But this only hints at the magic of a series of films often considered to be the greatest movie musicals of all time.

Still, they were first released around 80 years ago, and the stylized Art Nouveau black-and-white settings may be an acquired taste for a generation raised on The Matrix. The plots can be paper-thin (Ginger mistakenly thinks Fred is married! Ginger mistakenly thinks Fred is a divorce correspondent!), but they’re really just a way to string marvelous musical set pieces together. Even the cocktail dialogue holds up as surprisingly witty, especially with a solid supporting cast often led by Edward Everett Horton (later known as the narrator behind the “Fractured Fairy Tales” cartoon series) and English comic actor Eric Blore.

Before Astaire and Rogers, musical numbers in movies were based on stage shows, which first resulted in gigantic, splashy, Busby Berkeley-style dances. The possibility of close-up cinematography meant that these dances could be more intimate, and Astaire and Rogers were among the first performers to take advantage, highlighting the undeniable chemistry between the two. They were already friends by the time they were cast in Rio; Astaire had helped choreograph one of Rogers’ stage dance numbers around 1930. In Rio, Rogers, hot off an appearance in Gold Diggers Of 1933, had fourth billing, and Astaire fifth. The dancing duo only had one number together of consequence in the film, but it was enough: The “Carioca” was so popular (though it improbably involved dancing with foreheads touching), it rocketed them into their next eight pictures together. From the first moment they dance together onscreen it’s clear why their partnership worked so well: He’s a little stiff; she loosens him up.

That alchemy continued to propel them through several more movies for RKO. Astaire had been in a dancing team since childhood with his sister Adele (who had recently retired); Rogers was an untrained dancer, but that probably worked in the duo’s favor, as he molded her into his perfect partner. Physically, she was the perfect size for the lithe Astaire, and her beautiful doe eyes and snappy, street-smart persona warmed up his aristocratic perfection and made even his evening clothes seem hot. Rogers was already a good-enough actress to add the needed dramatic depth to their dance numbers, so the real magic in the dances can be found in how emotionally close the two appear. As their entire relationship is made visible on the dance floor, only a solid partnership made of absolute trust between the two performers could create such mystical romance. For example, in their Rio follow-up and first joint-starring vehicle, The Gay Divorcee, Astaire wins Rogers over in just a single dance to Cole Porter’s “Night And Day.” She tries to flee, but his graceful dancing draws her in and she eventually succumbs in a number so romantically epic, Fred dusts his hands off afterward and asks Ginger if she wants a cigarette.

Porter was just one in a string of amazing songwriters that were creating at this time—along with Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, and the Gershwin brothers—who all had songs featured in these musicals. Many tunes from the Astaire-Rogers films remain standards today, and Fred Astaire’s voice, although considered thin by some, still had enough charm to introduce now-classics like “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and the Academy Award-winning “The Way You Look Tonight.” Berlin, who became Astaire’s lifelong friend after the two teamed up for Top Hat, said he would rather have his songs introduced by Astaire than by any other singer, because “he can put over a song like nobody else.”

At the time of their release, the shimmering films—with their unequaled songs and unprecedented intimate dancing—also offered a fantastic escape for Depression-era audiences. They starred people with no connection to 1930s reality—or any reality, really—who lived in glamorous hotel suites and on luxury liners, relaxing in peignoirs and smoking jackets between over-the-top stage appearances dressed in tails and evening gowns. Fred Astaire appears to have been born in a tuxedo, but is still disarming as a constantly love-struck, slightly self-deprecating romantic lead, and Ginger Rogers is so bright and breathtaking, who could possibly blame him?

Possible gateway: Top Hat 
Why? The duo’s second starring vehicle, Top Hat, is a perfect example of the sizzling Astaire-Rogers chemistry. (The film made more money than any other released in 1935, ensuring a string of Astaire-Rogers musicals would follow.) In many of the films, Astaire’s amazing technique is displayed first; here in his solo number “No Strings,” he joyously attacks the floor of his hotel suite with his tap shoes at a machine-gun-level fervor. Then when he dances with Ginger for the first time (in a sweet rain-soaked gazebo dance to “Isn’t This A Lovely Day”), the audience is amazed to find that there’s actually someone out there who can keep up with Fred Astaire (backwards and in high heels, as is so often said).

The film’s other classic Irving Berlin songs include Astaire’s signature “Top Hat, White Tie, And Tails,” as well as one of their most memorable dances ever, the famous “Cheek To Cheek” pas de deux. Rogers fought Astaire for the chance to wear her feather-filled dress (he said dancing with her in it was “as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote”), but it adds to the scene’s breathtaking dramatic effect. The long shots of the two leaping in perfect harmony, the sly introduction of a few tap steps around the three-minute mark, his lifts of her toward the end as the feathers fly, and her eventual surrender in his arms: This dance is a masterpiece.

Another gateway (with a caveat): Swing TimeGinger Rogers’ own favorite of the musicals, depicts a slightly more blue-collar version of the standard cute Fred-and-Ginger couple: He plays Lucky, a gambler, and she’s Penny, a dance instructor. The many now-legendary Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields songs include Fred pretending to be a clumsy dance student in “Pick Yourself Up,” the haunting “The Way You Look Tonight” (sung to Ginger while she’s in the next room shampooing her hair), the tragic ballet “Never Gonna Dance” (as most of these numbers were filmed in one continuous shot, the 40 takes required for Rogers’ climactic series of pirouettes resulted in bleeding feet that turned her white shoes pink), and the hilarious “A Fine Romance.” Many point to Swing Time as the best of the partnership, as each song the duo performs improbably exceeds the previous one. They even kiss, finally! (Albeit behind a door.)

But as Andrea Battleground points out in her thoughtful examination of “The Way You Look Tonight,” Swing Time contains a rather large, impossible-to-dismiss flaw: a scene in which Fred performs “Bojangles Of Harlem” in blackface, his only solo number in the film, with innovative cinematography that results in Fred dancing in front of three giant silhouettes of himself. Although Astaire intended this number to pay homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, who many consider the greatest tap dancer of all time, the blackface costuming unfortunately overshadows it.

Next steps: Even though the film Astaire and Rogers made between Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, 1935’s Roberta, sees them in supporting status again, it’s still well worth checking out. The two play long-lost friends from Indiana who reunite in Paris, one of the few instances where the entire movie doesn’t involve Fred chasing Ginger all over creation. Instead they have a more relaxed chemistry here, as evidenced in their banter before dancing to “I’ll Be Hot To Handle.” They back-handedly kick into a tap number, having so much fun they’re actually laughing.

The pair followed the upper crust Top Hat with Follow The Fleet in 1936, a decidedly lower class outing, with Fred in the Navy, Ginger as a dance-hall hostess, and not much of a plot. Irving Berlin’s soundtrack raises the overall effort, with “Let Yourself Go” and the climactic “Let’s Face The Music And Dance,” but the most enjoyable number shows Fred trying to teach Ginger a new routine to “I’m Putting All My Eggs In One Basket,” which reveals how perfectly choreographed all those dances they made look so easy had to be.

The Astaire-Rogers pairing had hit its stride by the time Shall We Dance came around in 1937. The Gershwin brothers (scoring only their second movie) offer a treasure-filled soundtrack, including another now classic so spectacular, it’s introduced without a dance: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Fred’s a frustrated ballet dancer who wants to combine the “technique of ballet with the warmth and talent” of tap (a fair description of many of his dances), and Ginger is the showgirl he falls in love with. The melding of ballet and jazz comes together nicely in “They All Laughed,” and Fred expertly mimics the engine sounds of a steam ship in “Slap That Bass.” But nothing tops the pair on roller skates in the park in “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.”

Carefree, a later effort from 1938, shows some wear and tear in the plot progression (Fred is improbably a psychoanalyst, so that he can lead Ginger through a mesmerizing dance under hypnosis in “Change Partners”), but at least Rogers gets to lead a dance for once (“The Yam”).

Where not to start: Astaire and Rogers closed out their black-and-white partnership, and the decade, with 1939’s The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle, who were a pair of famous WWI-era ballroom dancers. Their only biography, it’s kind of a realistic downer, especially compared to the fun, fizzy frivolity of their previous efforts.

Anomalies: The final Astaire-Rogers pairing in 1949’s The Barkleys Of Broadway was their sole color picture together, their only one for MGM, and their final onscreen partnership. Ginger Rogers was a last-minute replacement for the suffering Judy Garland, and the film can be written off as a late view at a duo best remembered for its 1930s glory days.

Another look at Barkleys, however, offers a refreshing new side to the couple that was last witnessed waltzing off into black-and-white romantic fulfillment a decade before. What would have happened to Fred and Ginger after 10 years of marriage? The plot reflects factors that actually helped lead to the duo’s original breakup, as Rogers plays a song-and-dance star with dreams of becoming a serious actress. (In fact, she won an Oscar for the 1940 drama Kitty Foyle.) It’s enlightening to see the two finally share a home, for example, and there are moments when their reunion is absolutely joyous, like when they’re rehearsing a tap number for their big show.

As the ’30s drew to a close, the Astaire-Rogers movies had become less profitable as audiences began to tire of their annual Fred-and-Ginger fix. By the time 1940 rolled around, both stars were finally released from performing together. While gossip columnists futilely tried to play up some sort of rivalry between them, the duo spoke warmly of the partnership for the rest of their lives. Astaire noted in 1966: “Ginger had never danced with a partner before [Rio]. In the beginning she faked it an awful lot… but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.”

It’s worth noting that the vast majority of the films Rogers made post-Astaire were non-musicals, and Astaire never danced with anyone else for more than two movies. His illustrious partners included beautiful dancers like Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth as well as charming co-stars like Judy Garland and Audrey Hepburn; besides dramas like Kitty Foyle, Rogers also made romantic comedies with the biggest stars of the day, including Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. But none of these other combinations ever again created the magical movie chemistry that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did, as they danced their way into a permanent place in cinematic history.

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