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History of Musical Film
1930s Part III
by John Kenrick

(Copyright 1996 & 2003)


(The images below are thumbnails – click on them to see larger versions.)

RKO: Fred and Ginger
Original sheet music cover for Top HatFred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are separated by a Top Hat on the original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek."

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 without gravity.
- 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 was!)

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
Original sheet music cover for RobertaGinger 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 Handle"

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 George and Ira Gershwin's "Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can’t Take That Away From Me"

Carefree (1938) included Berlin's "Change Partners"

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.

Later Years
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