Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

This is my contribution to the Dynamic Duos in Classic Film Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen and Classic Movie Hub. Do check out the other postings, which cover a wide range of artists.

Facing the music

Facing the music and dancing

If there is any one dance number which sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps it’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as it serves up glamour, romance and laughter in the face of despair. At the start of the number, Astaire plays an elegant gambler on board a ship. He loses all he has left at the tables and is about to shoot himself – but that’s when Rogers appears at the side of the deck, trying to throw herself off. Somehow she indicates with her eyes alone that the reason is a broken love affair.  They save each other, as he pulls her back from the brink and she snatches his gun, which he then throws into the sea, followed by his empty wallet. Next Fred starts to sing Irving Berlin’s song, with those opening lines which are almost like an Astaire-Rogers movie in miniature: “There may be trouble ahead/ But while there’s moonlight and music/ And love and romance/ Let’s face the music and dance.”

And they do dance, of course, fitting into each other’s movements with an apparently effortless perfection that  takes your breath away, however many times you’ve seen it. Fred is in his famous tails (after wearing a sailor’s uniform for much of the movie in question, Follow the Fleet) and Ginger wears an evening dress with a fur stole draped around her shoulders. The cruise ship and casino are a world away from most people’s reality and yet the whole number is informed by the experience of the Great Depression which the audience was still living through in 1936. Dance now, pay later.

Fred and Ginger 1From their very first film onwards, the spectacular Flying Down to Rio, Astaire and Rogers captured the attention with their amazing dancing and the way they seemed to move as one person, carrying out feats which just didn’t seem possible. Katharine Hepburn supposedly said of the couple: “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” I’d have to say that to me Astaire is sexy on screen as soon as you see the way he moves and hear his voice with its gently self-mocking intonation – he might be thin and balding, but it just doesn’t matter. And Rogers might not have been from an upper-crust background (nor was Astaire, come to that), but who cares… her acting, warm personality and sheer star quality give her plenty of class in all her films. However, clearly Hepburn hit on something in that famous saying, expressing the way that the couple complete one another’s screen personalities so perfectly, and seem even sexier and classier together than either does alone. They had briefly dated and were close friends, and their chemistry is at the heart of every film they did.

Barkleys of BroadwayThe very fact that Fred and Ginger made 10 movies together – 9 during the 1930s and their reunion a decade later in The Barkleys of Broadway – shows how much public demand there was to see the partnership continue. Yet it almost began by chance, when the two had a few scenes dancing together in Flying Down to Rio and completely stole the film from the supposed leads, Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio. Astaire had danced with his sister, Adele, for many years on stage, from their early childhood onwards, and was reluctant to go into another partnership, while Rogers really wanted to concentrate on acting rather than going into musicals. But the public enthusiasm was such that the stars and the studio couldn’t resist, and their legendary series of RKO musicals was born.

The films have complicated comic plots, and a fine cast of support actors including Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, but the real reason for watching is the stunning song-and-dance numbers, which tell their own story within the story. Probably everyone has their own favourite number – I keep changing my mind which I love most, depending on which film I’ve seen most recently, but the magnificent Cheek to Cheek dance in Top Hat, where the feathers on Ginger’s gown famously went everywhere, must be one of the greatest. (Astaire tells in his autobiography, Steps in Time, how he later sang a parody beginning ‘Feathers, I hate feathers…’)

Fred and Ginger 2Other classic duets include A Fine Romance, They Can’t Take That Away from Me, Night and Day and so many more. Great songwriters like the Gershwins and Berlin loved to write for Astaire, who delighted them with his sensitive interpretations of their work. In each case the song leads perfectly on to the dance number – so that you even remember the dance when you hear an audio recording of the song with the sound of the tapping feet at the end. (Astaire did actually tap dance on the radio on occasion, with listeners’ memories providing the pictures!)

Another attraction in some of the films was the huge-scale production numbers to rival Busby Berkeley, such as The Carioca and The Piccolino. These films are full of glamour, with Astaire’s white tie and tails and Rogers’ succession of beautiful gowns, and gave precious escapism to people living in the hard times of the 1930s. However, money worries do sometimes encroach on the world of the films, for instance in Swing Time, where Astaire plays a gambler, and the line “Pick yourself up and start all over again,” had particular resonance during the Depression.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

It’s easy to understand why Ginger Rogers might have become frustrated with the RKO musicals towards the end, since she didn’t get as much screen time as Astaire, who always had solo numbers and songs. She had more chance to show her range as an actress in straight films like Stage Door and Kitty Foyle. But Ginger was given slightly more space and scope  in the last two films they did together in the 1930s, Carefree, where for once she is the one pursuing Astaire, and the biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, the couple’s tribute to a great dancing partnership from an earlier era. All in all, Fred and Ginger were sheer magic together, and it’s easy to see why their movies are still a TV staple after all these years – while Top Hat has been revived as a stage show in London’s West End.

Follow the Fleet

Follow the Fleet

Please do take part in the sidebar poll to pick your favourite Astaire and Rogers film. I’d love to hear which people like best – my choice has to be Top Hat, but I’m also very fond of The Barkleys of Broadway, which was actually the first film of theirs I ever saw, beginning at the end!  The performance of They Can’t Take That Away From Me in that film is still poignant now, and must have been even more so then, when cinema-goers didn’t have TV or videos and hadn’t seen the couple dancing together for 10 years.

For further reading, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce has wonderfully detailed analysis of the pair’s dances together and loads of information about each film. I also enjoyed Astaire’s autobiography, Steps In Time. R.D. Finch did a great review of Top Hat at his blog, The Movie Projector, and Classicfilmboy’s Movie Paradise has detailed reviews of all ten movies.

32 thoughts on “Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  1. Pingback: Day Two: DYNAMIC DUOS in Classic Film blogathon | Once upon a screen...

  2. NeveR

    Fred & Ginge! Love “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” Poor old Ginger always was a bit taken for granted wasn’t she. Doing “the same as Astaire but backwards and in high heels” was pretty awesome, but we just tend to see her as the one in the dress, who’s not as cool as Freddie. My Dynamic Duo is about Flynn and Rathbone, who also sort of danced together. I actually make the comparison. :)

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Neve, this is another comment which for some reason ended up in my spam filter and WordPress didn’t alert me anything was in there – so sorry! Thanks very much for commenting – I do agree that Ginger’s dancing is amazing too and that her role in the partnership should not be overlooked – and that famous quote about the high heels does hit on something, as it must have been very difficult to dance in them. I do also agree that Flynn and Rathbone work together like dancers.

  3. Sam Juliano

    Passionate, authoritative and beautifully-written feature on one of the cinema’s most iconic and endlessly-fascinating pairings, one that has captivated film and dance lovers for decades! This is a particular specialty for you Judy, and the blogothon is lucky to have your essential input. Yes you are quite right to denote the physical and emotional chemistry between the two (as one!) and much appreciate the wonderful references. I know Rogers was eventually overshadowed by Astaire, and after their series the partnership dissipated. For me it’s either TOP HAT or SWING TIME, and I will cast my vote after thinking it over today.

    Great post!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you so much for that, Sam, your support is much appreciated. I don’t have the technical knowledge to write about their dancing in the way that some other bloggers and reviewers do, and I love to read those articles, but just thought I’d try to write a piece about what they mean to me.

  4. Pingback: Flynn & Rathbone – the perfect duelists | The Baz

  5. Charles C.

    I bought the Astaire/Rogers complete films box set right before July 4 and just finished watching all of them today. IMO, Let’s the fAce the Music and Dance is my favorite number–what a story it tells that left me in tears. Their dancing scenes eovked a whole range of emotion from comedy to tragedy. Love Fred and Ginger.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      That sounds like a perfect 10 days of viewing, Charles – ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ might just be my favourite too, though as I said I keep changing my mind on that – and totally agree that their dancing scenes have the whole range of emotions. Thanks for the great comment!

  6. Le

    Wonderful! Another huge-scale number that is very dear to me is The Continental, the first winner of Best Song Oscar. I agree with many points, including that my mind always keeps changing about what is my favorite number!
    Kisses!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Le, I agree that ‘The Continental’ is great – hadn’t realised it was the first winner of the best song Oscar. Thank you!

  7. silverscreenings

    Judy, you are right — Rogers and Astaire do move as though they were one person.

    I really enjoyed your post. Your love for this Dynamic Duo is evident, and it’s put me in the mood to see one of their movies right away! :)

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks, Ruth – I’m also in the mood to watch one of their movies now! Hope you enjoy whichever one you choose!

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  9. Vienna

    Great article about a very dynamic duo. I’m glad you wrote in detail about “Let’s Face the Music” – the Berlin music for this song is hypnotising. Who would have thought it – a dance number begun by two people who are suicidal!
    I love your quote, ‘Dance now, pay later.’
    I also love “Change Partners” ,”I’m putting all my eggs in one basket” and Fred’s solo,”I’d rather lead a band.”
    John Mueller’s “Astaire Dancing” is a great book, analysing his dances.
    I often wonder if Fred could have done like Ginger and made more movies away from musicals.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Vienna, I love all the songs you mention too – “I’d rather lead a band” is one of my favourite Fred solos. Thanks for the tip on the John Mueller book, I’ll see if I can get hold of it as it sounds like a great read. ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’ is really almost like a mini-film in its own right, isn’t it, and ‘hypnotising’ is the perfect description for Berlin’s music for this one. Thanks very much!

  10. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    Grand article. It’s tough to choose a favourite from among Fred and Ginger’s movies together. Sometimes it’s a musical number from one or the characters from another. Watching any of their films is like being invited to the best party in town.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I agree with you that it is hard to choose and all the films have their great sequences. ‘Swing Time’ is in the lead in the poll at the moment, but I see that the support is being spread between a lot of different movies, which suggests just how hard it is. Thank you, Patricia.

  11. Vintage Cameo

    Lovely post! Fred and Ginger really are the tops. I, too, really love Barkleys of Broadway–maybe just because that happened to be the most recent one I watched, but there’s also just such a great weight and drama to their performances in that one that makes it so appealing. Plus, “Shoes with Wings On,” of course!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much! Nice to hear from another fan of Barkleys – I do agree that the element of drama in that film makes it appealing, and I love the sharp dialogue. And ‘Shoes with Wings On’ is a lot of fun.

  12. Aurora

    Wonderful stuff, Judy! I was like coming home when I entered here and saw the first picture of Fred and Ginger. Imagine, they were one of the last duos to be chosen so THANK YOU! And you do them great justice. They warm my heart as they do so many others. Sheesh – I’m actually all verklempt!

    Marvelous choice for the blogathon! THANK YOU for taking part.

    Aurora

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank YOU for commenting and for organising it, Aurora! And thanks also to Classic Movie Hub – unfortunately I can never comment at that site as Captcha is convinced I’m a robot, but I have tweeted CMH a couple of times to express my appreciation. I really wanted to write about Fred and Ginger from the start but held off in case someone who could write about dance snapped them up, so I was very happy to get the chance to write about them. :)

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  14. John Greco

    One of classic Hollywood’s best teams. Of the songs they did together so many have become standards. SWING TIME is probably my favorite of their flicks. I love your opening sentence…

    “If there is any one dance number which sums up the appeal of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, perhaps it’s Let’s Face the Music and Dance, as it serves up glamour,”

    So true. great write up!!!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks, John, I enjoyed writing this, glad to hear that you are also a fan of Astaire and Rogers. ‘Swing Time’ was the top choice in the poll I ran on the site.

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  16. Pat

    Wonderful piece, Judy, on one of my very favorite screen duos. I’m not seeing the sidebar poll for some reason, but were I to vote, I’d choose TOP HAT as my favorite, with SWING TIME a very close second.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you so much, Pat, I knew you loved them too! Afraid I’ve just closed the poll which is why you can’t see it – I did write a mini-posting to say that Swing Time won, but Top Hat, which is my favourite too, was runner up.

  17. V.E.G.

    People would said, “Who is the dance partner of Fred Astaire?” They would have said, “The Old General’s cousin, Ginger Rogers be the dance partner!” Explanation: The Old General is George Washington!

    Reply

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