According to Hollywood legend, Fred Astaire's first screen test led a grumpy studio executive to issue the famously shortsighted pronouncement: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." The tale may be apocryphal, but it contains an element of truth. Astaire went on to become arguably the greatest screen dancer of all time, but for much of his early career, his acting and vocal ranges were extremely limited. In the first four of five Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals recently released on DVD as Astaire & Rogers Collection: Volume 1, Astaire leans heavily on a handful of winning mannerisms and traits: the darting, rolling, twinkling eyes, the infectious grin, the light-footed body language, and an air of constant amusement, as if he's perpetually contemplating a private joke. When Astaire warbled a tune, he got by on his all-American charm and the strength of the song, not the power of his pipes. With his impossibly long limbs and sleek torso, he boasted the physique of a sentient skeleton, and his long, gaunt face resembled Buster Keaton more than Cary Grant.
Yet Astaire became a top romantic lead nonetheless, in part because RKO, the studio that made Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, and Follow The Fleet, excelled at playing up Astaire's strengths and working around his weaknesses. In film after film, RKO's producers stuck Ginger Rogers—a better actor and as sassy, tough, and sexy as a gangster's moll to boot—with the brunt of the plot, and introduced heavyweight character actors like Edward Everett Horton and Oscar Levant for comic relief. All that was left for Astaire to do was ooze boyish charm and dance.
RKO was equally adept at showcasing Astaire's great gifts with ambitious musical-comedy setpieces and regular dance solos, filmed largely in long, uninterrupted takes in which the gliding camera becomes a partner in the dance. A comfortably typecast Astaire engages in one of his most beloved routines early in 1935's Top Hat, when he accidentally awakens the fiery Rogers with his dancing and tries to tap her a lullaby by spreading sand on the floor and beating out a hypnotic rhythm with his feet. But plotting is the weak link in Top Hat, as well as in 1936's Swing Time and 1937's Shall We Dance. The dialogue is witty and piquant, and the supporting players droll, but the labored farce of madcap marital misunderstandings are as flatfooted as the dance numbers are memorably airy.
The story of a faux-Russian ballet star (Astaire) in love with a brassy musical-hall diva (Rogers), Shall We Dance is essentially the same film as Top Hat, with a strikingly similar cast, crew, sets, themes, and plot. Shall We Dance emerges as the better film, mainly because Ira and George Gershwin's indelible songs are rooted in the street-level rhythms of jazz rather than the Tin Pan Alley stylings of Irving Berlin's Top Hat music. For all their contrivances, Top Hat and Shall We Dance succeed smashingly as escapist fare, art deco fantasies of glamour and romance as lush and expansive as the giant sets Astaire and Rogers dance in, which seem large enough to house an entire Eastern-bloc country. Swing Time offers more of the same, with Astaire as a dancing gambler out to make his fortune so he can marry his fiancée, and Rogers as the plucky dance instructor who permanently alters his plans. It's not quite as charming as Top Hat or Shall We Dance, and the plotting drags heavily in spots, but whenever it gets free from the demands of farce, it's a dizzy delight.
The least classy and most fun of these five Astaire-Rogers musicals is 1936's Follow The Fleet, which finds Astaire trading in his top hat and tails for a sailor suit, bubblegum, and cigarettes, as a dancing sailor wooing Ginger Rogers while his pal Randolph Scott woos a recovering wallflower. Astaire has never been funnier, and his buoyancy has seldom been better used. Berlin's clever ditties seem ideally suited to the film's cheerful vulgarity, and the plotting seems lighter and more organic. Besides, a funny little monkey in a sailor suit plays a supporting role. What's not to like about that?
After a decadelong hiatus, Astaire and Rogers returned for 1949's The Barkleys Of Broadway, their only movie for MGM's fabled Freed Unit, and the transition couldn't be smoother, since the pair embodied many of the qualities already associated with MGM: class, dazzling star-power, lush production values, escapism, and quality. It's a little jarring seeing a middle-aged Astaire and Rogers in Technicolor playing a Broadway couple in the midst of relationship turmoil, but while the sets are smaller and the moves less athletic, the chemistry has only deepened, lending the film a bittersweet substance largely missing from the early farces. The lovingly packaged DVDs load up on special features like commentaries, cartoons, and documentaries. But even without them, the Astaire and Rogers movies seem tailor-made for the DVD age, when you can skip past all the boring stuff and get right to the transcendent standalone sequences that made their names synonymous with upscale escapism at its finest.