Ever since I started this blog, I’ve been anticipating writing this particular post, mostly because I have a little bit of an obsession Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. And not just an obsession with their dancing, but with the writing: the subtle blend of great screwball comedy antics with stunning, lovely musical numbers.
I remember seeing a picture of Astaire and Rogers before I ever saw one of their films. My first impression: “He’s the romantic lead? That guy? Really? But he’s so unattractive”. Guys, remember I was in my early teens so my perception of attractiveness was pretty much solely based on appearance. Conversely, by appearances, I misinterpreted Rogers as a vapid dumb blonde.
That was what really made them work. They both subverted expectations. Their romances were based on wit and serenading and fancy footwork. Astaire started in the business in vaudeville as a dance partner for his sister, Adele. He had said she was really the one who wanted it. However, when Adele got married, he stayed in the business while she retired to have a family.
In the early ’30’s, Astaire famously screen tested for David O’Selznick, the prolific producer of Gone with the Wind. David’s first impression:
“Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little”. – David O’Selznick, Producer
It’s funny looking back on that quote because it forever immortalizes how wrong producers can be, even great ones. Although Astaire didn’t make his film debut until 1933, it quickly became clear that he was talented.
Rogers made her film debut in 1929. Her famous persona was always there, even in her pre-code films such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Just look at her facial expressions in this number:
Now, to give a little background on the period. Rogers and Astaire rose to fame during the depression, when people were looking to be uplifted. They didn’t want to see themselves onscreen, starving and working hard to make ends meet. They wanted to see beautiful sets, gorgeous gowns and extravagance.
The Astaire/Rogers films delivered on all those fronts. They were glossy and unreal and meticulously choreographed. Moreover, they were fun! They also boasted amazing classic songs from George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.
What always seems to be forgotten when people discuss these films are the wonderful character actors who made up the supporting cast. People like Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes performed much of the screwball comedy antics to juxtapose the romance. Below is a great scene of Eric Blore in The Gay Divorcee:
Okay, so if you’ve never seen an Astaire/Rogers film, it’s probably best to start with Top Hat (1935). It’s the one where Astaire sings “Cheek to Cheek” and it’s really the epitome of what an Astaire/Rogers film is. The film also has one of my favorite musical numbers:
I dare you to not have a smile on your face after that clip. I know, I know. You’re in love with a man who’s unattainable. Well, join the club. 😉