(The images below are thumbnails click on them
to see larger versions.)
RKO: Fred and Ginger
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are separated
by a Top Hat on the original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Cheek to
Broadway veterans Fred Astaire
and Ginger Rogers made little headway in
Hollywood until RKO Studios cast them as supporting players in
Flying Down To Rio (1933). When they touched foreheads and danced a
few steps in "The Carioca," their energy turned this so-so number into the
highlight of the film. Rio had a surprising impact on viewers. Future director
Stanley Donen described his reaction this way --
I was nine, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life.
I'm not sure I have
since. It was as if something had exploded inside me. . . I was mesmerized. I could
not stop watching Fred Astaire dance. I went back to the theatre every day while
the picture was playing. I must've seen it at least twenty times. Fred Astaire was
so graceful. It was as if he were connected to the music. He led it and he interpreted
it, and he made it look so effortless. He performed as though he were absolutely
- as quoted by Stephen M. Silverman in Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley
Donen and His Movies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), pp. 11-13.
Producer Pandro S. Berman persuaded the studio
to design a star vehicle for Astaire and Rogers. In
The Gay Divorcee (1934), they danced and romanced, inventing what became
a set formula a devil-may-care playboy and a sweet girl with spunk get into a
tangle of mistaken identities, fall in love on the dance floor (to
something like Cole Porter’s "Night and Day"), resolve their
misunderstandings in the nick of time, and foxtrot their way into a black and white
"happily ever after." Despite glamorous surroundings and witty banter,
Astaire and Rogers are likeable "just like us" folks or
just like the folks most people wished they could be.
(NOTE: The stage version had been called Gay
Divorce, but the Hays office demanded a change for the film. Under
Hollywood's new Production Code, it was acceptable to say a divorced person
was "gay" or happy -- but you couldn't say that divorce itself
Top Hat (1935) embodies RKO's Astaire-Rogers formula at
its best, with comic support from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and
Helen Broderick, and a solid-gold score by
Irving Berlin. "Isn’t This a Lovely Day To
Be Caught In The Rain," "No Strings," the
title tune and the unforgettable "Cheek to Cheek" are woven
into a story of mistaken identities set in an eye popping art deco vision
of Venice. The dialogue is witty and the atmosphere one of elegant delight. It is
still hard to resist this giddy cinematic cocktail.
A popular cliché suggests
that "Fred gave Ginger class, while she gave him sex appeal." While there
may be some truth in this, the fact is that both Astaire and Rogers already had
each of those qualities. It was the indefinable connection between their screen
personas that made their class and sex appeal so apparent and so irresistible.
The Astaire-Rogers Formula
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire share
the original sheet music cover
for the Roberta (1935) hit song "Yesterdays" with co-star Irene Dunne.
Now remembered as a dramatic actress, Dunne had a fine soprano
voice and starred in numerous screen musicals.
RKO used the same basic formula for Astaire and Rogers in five more
films, most directed by the innovative
Mark Sandrich. Choreographed
primarily by Astaire and his associate Hermes Pan,
these were the first musicals (on stage or screen) to make substantial use of dance
to develop plot and character. The scores were provided by
some of the greatest composers in the business.
Roberta (1935) included
Jerome Kern's "I’ll Be Hard To
Follow The Fleet (1936) had
Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the
Music and Dance"
Swing Time (1936) boasted Kern's
"The Way You Look Tonight"
Shall We Dance (1937) offered
Ira Gershwin's "Let’s
Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can’t Take That Away
Carefree (1938) included Berlin's
Whenever the formulaic plots get tired, Astaire and Rogers
start dancing and joy reigns on screen. Never more than cordial colleagues in real
life, their dance numbers exude a playful yet seductive passion. Astaire had more
technically accomplished dance partners over the years, but the effect he achieved
with Rogers was unique.
The dancing duo ended their RKO partnership with The Story of
Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), a film that dropped the formula and triumphed
all the same. To the studio's chagrin, the public didn't give a hoot about the formula
-- they only cared about two ingredients called Fred and Ginger. However,
Astaire and Rogers both wanted to pursue separate paths.
In the years following their RKO series, Astaire concentrated on musicals while Rogers
sought to prove herself as a dramatic actress. She even won an Academy Award as Best
Actress for Kitty Foyle (1940). (Author's note: Garland, Kelly and Astaire never
received acting Oscars, but Rogers got one? Talk about the importance of timing.)
Astaire and Rogers were re-united in MGM's
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), and their chemistry remained delightful.
Astaire later appeared in the hit screen musicals
Royal Wedding (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957)
and Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and starred in a series of acclaimed dance specials
for television. He was nominated for an Academy Award for a dramatic role in
The Towering Inferno (1974), and made his final musical screen appearance dancing
with Gene Kelly in That's Entertainment II (1976). To the end of his life,
Astaire was a class act.
Rogers filmed forgettable dramas, limiting her musical efforts to
occasional stage projects. In interviews, she often downplayed the importance of
Astaire in her career. When Rogers died, every newspaper and television newscast in
the world carried pictures of her dancing with Astaire. But what else could anyone
have expected? The image of Astaire and Rogers dancing their hearts out is one of the
definitive cultural icons of the 20th Century, a reminder that a violent age also had
a sense of music, fun, and sheer style that no calamity could snuff out.
In dance by the couple, we see our world and
what it is possible to make of its spaces in the light of such movements we can
find that our earthbound nature is made acceptable, even delicious.
- Edward Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000), p. 224.
Outside the gates of RKO, musicals were percolating at
almost every other major Hollywood studio . . .
Next: Film 1930s - Part IV