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.
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.
From 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.
The 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…’)
Other 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.
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.
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.