Lost in the Movies: Astaire and Rogers

Astaire and Rogers

Many months in the making, this post is actually relatively simple: it chronicles every Astaire-Rogers dance in every Astaire-Rogers movie. If you had asked me as recently as this summer, "Whom do you prefer - Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire?" I would have positively responded, "Kelly." Though I still admire him, my new reaction to Astaire, whose appeal I didn't really "get" (connecting more with Kelly's athletic hoofing than Astaire's more genteel, seemingly effortless tapping), has shifted completely. Actually, it was Ginger Rogers who gave me my entry into the world of Astaire-Rogers, or Fred and Ginger, as we think of their characters. Taken with her in Stage Door, and then in Carefree, I was soon making my way through all ten of the duo's musicals, many of which were aired on TCM this fall, the others of which I caught up with on Netflix. So much has been written about them, and I have so little to offer in the technical department, that my own thoughts are kept to a minimum, a few observations followed by the videos. None of Fred's solos are included; often they are wonderful, even highlights of the films in question, but I decided just to focus on the pairings (with a few exceptions, all of which feature both of them acting if not dancing). The clips (a few of which contain multiple dances) appear after the jump. [update 5/1: originally this post featured You Tube clips, but they were deleted so quickly that, frustrated repeatedly, I gave up trying to be comprehensive...for the time being. Now I have replaced the original clips with selections ripped, cut, and posted by me. Enjoy.]

In their first appearance together, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were supposed to be second bananas. The leads, Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio, have the majority of musical numbers. But it's the secondary leads who show the most charm and comedic flair in their scenes together, and who, most importantly, smoke on the dance floor in their first number together: "The Carioca." Their dance is comic and sexy, as they press foreheads together and move at a faster pace and more energetic clip than they would in later films. Indeed, the couple looks like they can hardly wait to get on the dance floor, as if they've been waiting all their lives to burst on the scene. They pretend to be klutzy at times, knocking heads at one point, but it seems obvious they could dance flawlessly for hours if the film wanted them to (in reality, rehearsals were extensive, takes exhaustive). This was the moment when a fresh screen legend was born.

Following "The Carioca" is the film's bravura final number, in which dancers are strapped to airplanes to conduct an enthusiastic number in the skies. Fred and Ginger share a moment in the end of the film and we can almost here them say, ala Captain Renault to Rick: "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship." Or a fine romance...

With their first film as leads, their relationship takes a new tack. Flying Down to Rio showed them as old chums, with a sexual spark between them - but The Gay Divorcee introduces the template of he as the romantic, energetic pursuer, she as the hesitant, hard-to-convince (and often misled) pursued. The quality of their dancing takes on a more romantic tone, too - "Night and Day" is the ultimate wooing pursuit, with Ginger resisting only to get swept up: she pretends to be avoiding Fred's overtures, but her feet tell another story. Soon the couple are feeding off each other's pent-up energy which, instead of exploding as in "The Carioca," flows out gently to the tune of Cole Porter. Though Fred was the more accomplished dancer, choreographing every routine, they treat each other as equals onscreen, often dancing side-by-side or face-to-face and admiring their chemistry while simultaneously partaking in it. Watch Ginger's face in the last shot.

"The Continental" is a follow-up to "The Carioca," but a more elegant, sophisticated dance number, a harbinger of things to come.

And in the final moments of the movie, Fred literally sweeps Ginger off her feet, defying gravity as, without breaking stride, they dance across tables and chairs and out the door.

ROBERTA (1935)
Roberta returns to form in that the duo are once again chums rather than romantic pursuer and pursued. Also, they are secondary leads for the last time, with Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott as the central couple (though only Dunne gets higher billing than Astaire and Rogers). Notably, instead of the one dance that Rio provided, they get several. In the first number, "I'll Be Hard to Handle," Ginger sings on her own, then dances a bit with Fred, very much in chummy mode.

An instrumental of "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" sees Fred and Ginger returning to the elegant mode that is increasingly becoming their most comfortable milieu. But they are very jovial after, almost self-consciously deflating the sophisticated air of the dance floor.

"I Won't Dance" comes in two parts - a perverse "dance" in which Fred and Ginger don't dance (at least together; Fred eventually has a solo number), and then later an instrumental with a brief whirl on the dance floor between the two partners, who've finally given into the temptation and betrayed the title of the song. Both are combined here:

TOP HAT (1935)
This is, of course, the most famous of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, and the most archetypal (it even recycles elements of The Gay Divorcee, as critics of the time griped). It is extremely elegant, taking Fred and Ginger into the highest echelons of an expensively dressed, well-groomed, Art Deco hotel-inhabiting elite - no more Cariocas, at least for now. And it also has the ultimate meet-cute moment, during Fred's number "No Strings."

This clip of "Isn't It a Lovely Day" shows Fred and Ginger's first number in the film, as they're caught in the rain:

Possibly the most famous number in the film, "Cheek to Cheek" features Ginger's infamous ostrich dress. The clip was later adapted into psychedelic animation for Yellow Submarine; that was how I first came across Astaire and Rogers as a little kid, something which helps explain the slightly mythic way in which I see them, especially in this particular number.

For their big number, the duo dances "The Piccolino." There's also a quick reprise at the end of the movie.

This Navy-themed musical changes it up a little bit, and later Astaire-Rogers films will follow suit; if Top Hat represented the height of their debonair, upper-class pretensions, Follow the Fleet keeps it a little more real for Depression audiences. Early on, sailor-on-furlough Fred discovers old flame Ginger in a nightclub and they enter a little dance contest. I know, I know. No prizes for guessing who wins:

"All My Eggs in One Basket" has an impromptu feel, appropriate since it's ostensibly a rehearsal. The pair has "trouble" keeping in sync (highly choreographed "trouble" of course) with Ginger comically doing most of the falling behind.

"Let's Face the Music and Dance" finds a way to bring back the tuxedoed Fred Astaire and glamorous Ginger Rogers, but only as fictional creations, performances given by their characters in the movie. And this show within a show, despite the intimations of suicide, has a spry lightness which feels looser and more playful than much of what we've seen in Top Hat or The Gay Divorcee (Ginger shows amazing flexibility here).

Swing Time, director George Stevens' only outing with the duo, has the most down-to-earth feel of any of the musicals so far. Fred is a dancer/gambler trying to earn enough money to marry his sweetheart, while Ginger is a dance instructor who he falls in love with instead. Initially he pretends to be clumsy to win her attention, as seen in "Pick Yourself Up."

"Swing Time" is a bigger number, somewhat in the vein of past Fred and Ginger dances, although bouncier and faster-paced than their usual big duets.

Though it isn't a dance, "A Fine Romance" features a nice interplay between the couple. Part of the song, which proceeds in fits and starts, is featured here:

And this is their first kiss. Well, sort of:

Back to the dancing, we have the marvelous closing number, "Never Gonna Dance." As with "I Won't Dance" impulse eventually overcomes the singer's protestations. Like many of the numbers in Astaire-Rogers films, this is narratively very important - it represents the reconciliation of the two characters, bringing them together through the music. So many sequences in these movies are not superfluous asides, but essential character development - or rather, the substance of the stories exists in the dances rather than the dialogue and action surrounding them.

Here's a clever little bit, not a dance exactly, but movement synchronized with the music. George Gershwin's orchestral tune, "Walking the Dog" is fantastically catchy and that bounce in Fred's step eventually proves irresistible for Ginger. Even the spry little dog can't keep up with them.

After Ginger sings "They All Laughed," she is forced to dance with Fred, who has been posing as a Russian ballet performer. He begins with a stiff balletic form, "tries" to dance in a jazzy style, seems to fail, and then shows what he can really do.

"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" follows the innovative approach of much of Shall We Dance, inventing gimmicks, but pulling them off. I also like that Fred and Ginger show up in sunglasses at the beginning of the number - a sight too rarely seen in thirties films.

Then there's the title number, which is also the finale. It reconciles the couple after one of their many splits (not unusual for the pursuit-and-retreat approach which characterizes both the plots and dance numbers of Astaire-Rogers films). By the way, if you've seen the Michel Gondry music video for the Chemical Brothers song "Let Forever Be," you'll recognize the influence.

By now, the numbers have an almost nostalgic value, heightened by the use of slow motion in "I Used to Be Colorblind." The duo's output is winding down, and this clip even sees them...well, you'll see. I discussed the moment, and the rest of the film, in my September review of Carefree.

"The Yam" - Shades of The Conformist

"Change Partners" - The idea is that Fred's character, a psychologist, is able to hypnotize Ginger. Only his elegance saves the gesture from complete cheese.

This was the penultimate Astaire-Rogers film, and their last for a decade. It takes the form of a biopic, chronicling the lives of two early 20th century dance innovators. Because of this, the dances are often old-fashioned and lack the post-Jazz Age spark that ignited the duo's previous encounters. Still, the film has some charm, along with a tragic ending which serves as an appropriately somber close to their classic cycle of musicals (and an unfortunate precursor to years of war).

"Waiting for the Robert E. Lee"

"Too Much Mustard"

"Medley Montage" - A warning to the purists in my audience: this montage has been streamlined to highlight the dances, leaving out the narrative content which (sometimes amusingly) displays the Castles' increasing influence over pre-war pop culture. So no, this is not exactly what you would be seeing if you watched the whole movie - but then, that should only encourage you to go out and rent it, right?

"The Last Waltz" - Their last full dance number in black and white.

Here is the ending of the film. In its final moments, a ghostly dance off into the distance, the appropriately poignant farewell to an era.


More of a coda, a postscript, than a climax to the Astaire-Rogers films, The Barkleys of Broadway is best regarded as a tribute to the classic musicals, rather than one of them. It has a clever, ironic, yet compassionate screenplay by Comden & Green, the duo who wrote Singin' in the Rain. It's in color and introduces the couple as long-married, and performers. No more the romantic chums, or tentative couples, or even the newlyweds of The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle. The Barkleys of Broadway resurrects "They Can't Take That Away From Me," Fred's solo number from Shall We Dance, and turns it into a kind of goodbye dance from Fred and Ginger to all of us (even as the characters find themselves reunited in the midst of an artistic and personal separation).

"Swing Trot" - Here is the opening number as it appears in the film. If you want to see it unobstructed by credits, click here.

"You'd Be Hard to Replace"

"Bouncin' the Blues"

"My One and Only Highland Fling"

"They Can't Take That Away From Me"

The ending and "Manhattan Downbeat"

I hope you enjoyed these clips and that, more importantly, they encourage you to rent the full films (and believe me, there's much more where this came from: lots of solo numbers, great comedic rapport, and of course better-quality, larger images).

This is a Top Post. To see other highlights of The Dancing Image, visit the other Top Posts.


T.S. said...

This is a tremendous post. I'm very appreciative of the time and energy that must have gone into this, and it's a very, very fine overview and look into (who I believe to be) the most talented dancing pair to grace the screen. Kudos.

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you enjoyed it, T.S. I will have to take your word for it as after assembling the clips my browser was too slow to actually watch them on this page!

Looking forward to more Hitchcock in the New Year, by the way...

Alex Berger said...

Absolutely fantastic. Thank you for taking the time to put these up. Incredible clips of fantastic dance moves. I've passed the link on to all my dance friends.

cockerina said...

wonderful! thanks for all the wonderful work you've done, I put your link to my favorite, I'm fond of Ginger and Fred!
I love especially their last waltz in black and white, I can get permission to put the movie on my blog?? " I would be very grateful, thanks!
Caterina, from Italy


Joel Bocko said...

Hey, you don't need my permission! Go right ahead...

Joel Bocko said...

Incidentally, happy birthday to ol' Fred...

cockerina said...

Thanks a lot! You are a treasure!
and ... Happy Birthday Fred, the best dancer ever, of all times!

CantoErgoSum said...

Look at Fred stroke Ginger's face in "Bouncin' the Blues"! That is a whole lotta chemistry right there.

Thank you for all your hard work on this post!

Joel Bocko said...

Glad you enjoyed it, CES.

Kelli Marshall said...

Nicely done! But where are all of the sex references?! =)

See the end of TOP HAT's "Cheek to Cheek" in particular, with Astaire's character offering a cigarette to the rather post-coital-looking character of Rogers. Fun stuff. Also, Rogers's three backbends in "Night and Day" (each of which dips lower and lower) are nothing if not orgasmic reactions to the dancing/lovemaking. Fun stuff, fun stuff! (This is how I get my students interested in the musical genre.) =)

Re: Gene Kelly, if I had to pick, I'd always go with Kelly -- although I greatly admire Astaire as well as Rogers, Charisse, O'Connor, etc. But it's not necessarily because of his "athletic moves." Here's why, if you're interested:


Joel Bocko said...

Re: Ginger's post-coital expression, she specializes in those didn't she? (Cue the old Hepburn quote; with the "class" bit maybe she was getting in a dig at Rogers for upstaging her in Stage Door...)

I'll check out the Kelly piece promptly.

laredo said...

Great archive of great dance moments! Thanks!

Just wanted to add a link to the Nicholas Brothers, and this routine which Astaire said was the greatest tap routine ever filmed:


Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, larale - I will check out that link as soon as I get the chance...

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