It may shock you to learn that I hadn’t seen any of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies until less than ten years ago. I had previously seen clips of their dancing, but apparently that had been an insufficient inducement to watch the movies. Many people familiar with my vaudeville book are shocked to learn that I’m not a “musicals person”. The truth is (despite the fact that my favorite movie The Wizard of Oz is a musical) I primarily became interested in vaudeville as an outgrowth of my love for classic comedy. But a few years ago I undertook a project to self-educate myself about musicals (to overcome my own prejudice, and to learn more about many of the folks I had written about in No Applause). I am fairly well versed in them at this point, and can now finesse my earlier position: it’s not that I hate musicals per se; it’s that I don’t indiscriminately love them as a genre. In sum, I am extremely finicky; I only hate most of them.
I actually watched the Fred and Ginger ones a bit earlier than that project though — when I was researching No Applause. And of course I love them. People go on so about their dancing, it’s seldom mentioned how funny they are. Fred and Ginger are terrific light comedians, charming singers (and these movies contain some of the greatest songs in the American popular canon), the scripts are sophisticated and witty, and I have truly grown to appreciate their dancing.
Unlike Astaire, Rogers had already been in over two dozen movies at the time they teamed, including the seminal 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Though Astaire had been a star of vaudeville and Broadway, he was the cinema newbie at the time.
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
The first pairing of Astaire and Rogers, although they do not star—they are about 5th and 6th in the billing. But their personalities shine far brighter than those of the leads (Dolores Del Rio, et al). A bandleader (slash songwriter slash amateur pilot) falls in love with a Brazilian heiress he met at a Miami hotel, and books his band down in Rio. It turns out she is set to marry a landowner, so various schemes ensue. But that’s not the important part. This is the movie with the famous set piece of several dozen chorus girls doing their dances on the wings of flying airplanes. It also has the song “Rio by the Sea-o”. Character actors include Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton as (what else?) hotel managers. Fred plays one of the musicians, Ginger the band’s singer. They dance together on one of the numbers. It was on the basis of this, and their chemistry in acting together, that they were made into a screen team.
The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Fred and Ginger’s first starring vehicle, adapted from the Broadway show The Gay Divorce Astaire had appeared in the previous year. Contains songs by various songwriters, including Cole Porter’s gorgeous “Night and Day”, and a dance craze song called “The Continental”. The plot is farcical and actually quite dumb—has a million holes in it and is completely illogical, but who cares? It starts in Paris. Fred is a musical comedy star and his friend Edward Everett Horton a lawyer. He meets Ginger on the ship to London and accidentally rips her dress. he wants to see her again but she totally brushes him off. He finally finds her again in London and gets the same treatment. It turns out she is married and seeking a divorce. The lawyer arranges for Ginger to be seen meeting with a gigolo so there will be grounds for the divorce. She mistakes Fred for the gigolo. The film remains hugely entertaining for all the usual reasons, the performances (including these plus the delightful Eric Blore), the songs, the art deco art direction etc., etc, etc. It (like most of the Fred and Ginger musicals) was directed by Mark Sandrich, a former silent film director who was also the father of TV director Jay Sandrich.
The original Broadway stage production (with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbachi) featured Bob Hope in his breakout role, the one that took him from vaudeville to stardom. It must have been galling to him not to have been cast in the film! In the film version Fred and Ginger share the limelight with Randolph Scott (who’s perfectly cast as a lumbering Midwestern football player) and Irene Dunn. It’s a perfect, magical 30s comedy. Fred is a bandleader stranded in France in want of a gig. Scott is just his friend, tagging along, but he suddenly remembers that his Aunt Minnie is the most sought-after dress-maker in Paris (under the name “Roberta”). They go and seek her patronage. She turns out to be a delightful character…having all these American virtues, appreciation for the down-to-earth, honesty, heartiness…but at the same time able to function in the glamorous world of Paris fashion. Irene Dunn plays her assistant and near-partner in the shop, definitely being groomed for succession. Rogers is masquerading as a French countess, but is really a singer and Astaire’s old flame. It’s obvious Scott and Dunn’s characters have chemistry but they’re slow in realizing it. Then Roberta dies, bringing Scott’s former fiancé, a gold-digger out of the woodwork, so now he’s confused. He and Dunn should be partners in the shop but now she’s mad at him. Then it turns out Dunn is a Russian princess! Somehow they all get together in the end. The awesome songs include “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (which is just kind of shoehorned in there) and “Lovely to Look At”.
Top Hat (1935)
The musicals of the 30s tend to transcend the usual disposableness that normally characterizes the genre, usually because of the beautiful art deco art direction, great ensemble casts of Broadway veterans, snappy (if light) scripts, and occasionally great songs. Top Hat is generally thought of as the best of the lot. Irving Berlin wrote a half dozen songs, two of which are complete classics, the brilliant “Cheek to Cheek” and the title song, which is really called “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails”. The script is good, well constructed farce and holds our attention, revolving around a mistaken identity. Rogers and Astaire fall in love (after she has complained about his tap dancing in the room over hers), but she mistakenly comes to believe he is the man who has married her friend (who is actually Edward Everertt Horton). The action is first laid in London, and then in a Venice that looks like one of the sets from The Wizard of Oz. The funniest part (surprise) is Eric Blore as the butler!
Follow the Fleet (1936)
Not as strong as most of the others. A weird idea…an innocent Hollywood movie about love affairs between sailors and the women who are infatuated with them. Sure, there are intimations of sex, but they are very sanitized, never sordid. It as though the whole thing were being touched with gloves on, viewed through goggles. Why choose a subject that you can’t REALLY do? Perhaps they thought they would titillate just as much as they could, which wasn’t very much. Astaire and Rogers are one couple (former dance partners, now he’s in the Navy and she works in a dance hall). The other couple is fellow sailor Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard (of Ozzie and Harriet) as Rogers’ sex starved sister, who actually gets to sing a couple of numbers. The film doesn’t have the strong farcical premise most of their good ones have, in fact it doesn’t seem to have much of a plot at all. Nor does it have the strong cast of character actors and comic relief, or the sparkling dialogue of their better ones. Ultimately the film even resorts to the Mickey and Judy plot device – putting on a show to save the family boat. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is the most famous song from the score. Fred plays some jazz piano in addition to great dance numbers. Ginger gets a solo dance number in a segment that reminds one of Ruby Keeler.
Swing Time (1936)
Directed by George Stevens! The dancing and songs are so great in these films the fact that they are great light comedies is often overlooked. This one has Victor Moore and Eric Blore. Astaire is a dancer and gambler. He is about to get married but his friends sabotage the wedding. He hops a freight train to New York in his tuxedo with his pal Pops (Moore). He meets Ginger when she tries to abscond with his quarter at a cigarette machine. She turns out to be a dance instructor. He of course takes the class, pretends he can’t dance, and then shows off when the moment is right. They fall in love, but the outstanding fiancé is an issue. In the end she is about to marry Fred’s rival, a bandleader, but Fred sabotages the wedding using the same tricks his friends used on him. The film has the terrific songs “Pick Yourself Up” and “The Way You Look Tonight” (possibly the most beautiful and romantic song ever). There is one blackface** number which is wonderfully staged but intrinsically heinous and tough to transcend.
Honorable mention: Swing Time (unthinkable as it is) didn’t do as well at the box office, so RKO put Astaire in a musical on his own without Rogers. The result, A Damsel in Distress (1937), is terrific, with all the charm and excellence of the Astaire-Rogers, thanks to a P.G. Wodehouse script, songs and music by the Gershwins, direction by George Stevens, and an ensembles that includes Burns and Allen, Reginald Gardener and Constance Collier. The weakest link is the lovely but so retiring Joan Fontaine who is kind of a hole in this script about a young English noblewoman and the American musical comedy star who wants to free her from her cloister. If it had been Rogers (it should have been Rogers) the movie would have been perfect.
Shall We Dance? (1937)
Fred and Ginger once again abetted by Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Lots of great music by the Gershwins, including the classics “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the sublime “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. Lots of great dances in this. The plot casts Astaire as a ballet dancer named “Petrov” (who is really a down to earth American named Pete Peters who secretly wants to tap dance and is in love with Rogers night club star). As in all the films, Rogers plays hard to get, and the gist of the farce is that the press thinks they are married, but they are not. The plot starts in Paris, then shipboard (where there is a number in the art deco engine room, based around the rhythm of the pistons, as assisted by a convenient crew of ignominiously anonymous darkies), then finally they hit New York (where Rogers and Astaire do a great dance routine in the park on roller skates). Astaire gets to have much fun mixing ballet and tap. He also has a fun bit where he dances to a Victrola that winds down on him.
The plots of Fred and Ginger’s better films feel akin to screwball comedies. In this one Astaire is a shrink, Rogers his patient, the fiancé of his best friend (Ralph Bellamy)…but she falls in love with the doctor. In most of their films, Astaire is in love with Rogers while she plays hard to get; here it is a bit reversed. Some funny bits with Rogers running amok, first under an anesthetic, then under hypnosis. And Astaire is completely believable as a shrink—a different sort of role for him. I love Astaire’s diction and accent—though he’s from the midwest, he sounds urbane, New York, upper class. I note there’s almost always one or more nances and/or dopes in the cast…I’m guessing to make the somewhat fey dandy Astaire seem relatively macho by comparison as the hero. Here it is Franklin Pangborn as the nance, Ralph Bellamy as the dope. Also in the cast is an uncredited Hattie McDaniel. The Irving Berlin songs are perfectly wonderful, though none of them in this film were hits. The most interesting dance number has Astaire playing harmonica while he taps, then dancing with golf clubs and balls.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
The last film of the original series. Lots of music but all period stuff from the teens. An interesting hybrid form (bio pic and romantic musical comedy) and a nice stretch for them, which they pull off just fine. Not just an Astaire-Rogers vehicle, but also a bio-pic about the century’s greatest dance team, whom the creators (very laudably) sought to remind the public about as their memory began to fade. The story has its share of drama and even tragedy, and the pair carry the heavier acting required very well. As all Hollywood bio-pics of the period do, the film plays havoc with the facts, but its still a wonderful picture. The art direction is lovely. The dancing is great but you also get a dance education: you get to see what the Castle Walk looked like, etc. Other treats include a young Walter Brennan and as their manservant, and Lew Fields playing himself in a larger role than might be expected. They even re-create the barber sketch that Castle had done at Fields’ theater early in the century.
At this stage, the team parted ways. Rogers, who had continued to appear in starring roles without Astaire throughout the partnership, wanted to pursue dramatic roles (she was to win the Best Actress Oscar in 1941 for Kitty Foyle). Astaire continued to make his mark in the musical genre as both a performer and choreographer in films like Holiday Inn and Easter Parade. Times were changing, their musicals together were not doing as well at the box office, and their studio RKO was beginning to hit the financial problems that world remain with them until they ceased production in the mid 1950s.
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Although not originally intended that way, this became the magical Fred and Ginger reunion film. Made by the Freed Unit at MGM, Fred’s original screen partner for The Barkleys of Broadway was to have been his co-star from Easter Parade, Judy Garland, who was “unwell” at the time. The accident was most fortuitous; the Comden-Green script feels very “meta”. It seems to cleverly play with our nostalgia for Astaire-Rodgers of the 30s, and with what we know about the pair in real life. In the 30s films the plots always ended with the two of them getting together (after she has played hard to get throughout the picture). Here instead they are a married theatrical couple…it is sort of as though we are catching up with their screen couple 10 or 15 years later. In the story, Ginger wants to get out from under his controlling thumb (in real life Astaire was the choreographer), and do dramatic acting instead (as Rogers had done throughout the forties). The cast features Oscar Levant. Hans Conreid has a funny little bit as a modern artist. Billie Burke plays a socialite. The songs by Ira Gershwin and Harry Warren are undistinguished; there are no new hits (although “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” from Shall We Dance is nostalgically trotted out). The film contains an amazing dance number where Fred dances with countless pairs of shoes. Most of the numbers in this one are grating and not germane to the story though. The 30s were certainly better that “the Boring Years”. On the plus side, this is the team’s only film in color.
This was a one time pairing. Rogers had many great moments ahead of her, like in Monkey Business (1952) and Harlow (1965), although as time wore on, her screen career fizzled and most of her work was on television. Astaire remained a big screen presence, with many more classic musicals ahead of him like The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and Silk Stockings (1957). He appeared in hit films as late as Towering Inferno (1974, for which he won an Oscar), and Ghost Story (1981).
For more on screen comedy don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc. To learn more about vaudeville veterans, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.