essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
In one of Groucho Marx’s books, Groucho and Me, he tells of meeting a couple, fans, in the street. The wife says: “You’re him, aren’t you. You’re Groucho!”. The husband says: “Don’t die, don’t ever die!”. That’s my prayer to Fred and Ginger. And someone’s listening.
They’re one of the great iconic couples in movie history. They danced away the 30s and enchanted millions. They’re Fred and Ginger. I’ve just had another look at their movies which I’ve loved for years, and found some things I didn’t expect. People who are interested in cinema, dance, or the history of American popular music will be familiar with the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, which is important and influential in all these fields: for me it’s a new and exciting discovery.
The best I can describe the interaction of these two is rather vague. Movie magic. I don’t think it was mere dance skill, though that is there. Fred could do marvellous things with his feet (NOW, you’ll believe a man can really fly!). Ginger I think a great actress, who could act most brilliantly while she was dancing (watch her face, not his feet) and I think it was this ability which had most to do with the magical interaction the couple had onscreen, not Fred’s dancing skills. Fred’s fame and prestige have perhaps robbed Ginger of that acknowledgement. The primal drama was about an ordinary guy, a skinny little fellow with a comically ugly face who somehow wins over a smart and rather beautiful girl, despite the odds. That it takes place in what looks like heaven, where god has insisted for some reason on formal dress, makes it irresistible. It’s an interaction that takes place in everyone’s subconscious.
It so happened a few geniuses collaborated on Fred’s and Ginger’s films. Art director Van Nest Polglase, composers Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Oscar Hammerstein II, dancer Fred Astaire, at age 34 a veteran and star of the dance circuit and Broadway, and a 22 year old actress called Ginger (short for Virginia) Rogers who had already made 20 forgotten films when she started working with the RKO team. But of course these people were not geniuses back in 1933. They became ones partly by working on these films, and when we watch them we have the rare pleasure of watching it happen before our eyes.
Fred went on to transform the screen musical, dancing with many skilled partners, like Cyd Charisse and stars like Rita Hayworth and Judy Garland. He was highly esteemed, by the composers who wrote for him, the film makers he worked with, and the public. Ginger got the dramatic roles she wanted, and an Oscar, and is fondly remembered for her starring roles in many great comedies, two of my favourites being Stage Door and Roxie Hart. She remained beautiful, cynical, witty and sophisticated until the end.
Van Nest Polglase worked with RKO till the early 40s, and was nominated for six Academy Awards for set design and art direction, though a drinking problem eventually got the better of him for a while. Irving Berlin had been famous since the period prior to World War I, when he had written songs for Vernon and Irene Castle. He was to become the most prolific and popular song writer in American musical history. George Gershwin famously bridged the gap between American popular music and classical with compositions like Rhapsody in Blue. He had several hit Broadway shows in the 20s, but died suddenly of a brain tumor in 1937. Cole Porter’s career started to take off in the 30s, but in 1937 his legs were crushed in a horse riding accident. Porter rallied, and went on to become one of the most successful song writers in American popular music, second only to Irving Berlin. Jerome Kern was successful on Broadway throughout the 20s, with hits like Show Boat of 1927. He was to revolutionise the musical show, and authored many successful Hollywood musicals. Oscar Hammerstein II began writing in the 20s with Jerome Kern, and went on to form a successful partnership with Richard Rodgers from the start of the 40s. These five composers are probably the greatest and most influential song writers in the history of popular music. It is interesting to note all five thought highly of Fred Astaire as a singer, and Gershwin and Berlin at least wrote many of their most famous songs with him in mind.
The movies together began with 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, which starred Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. The script was written by Cyril Hume and H W Hanemann, with songs by Edward Eliscu and Vincent Youmans. Costumes by Walter Plunkett and Irene. The plot isn’t worth repeating, the acting’s terrible, and the film is watchable for only two reasons: the sets (and Ginger’s dresses); and the fact that Fred and Ginger dance together for the first time. The number is called the “Carioca”, and lasts four minutes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WnjK8B-eiHA, but those four minutes are movie magic. Those four minutes made the movie a hit with the public and established both Fred’s and Ginger’s careers. What does it consist of, this elusive, magical thing you only see in the movies, product of sets and lighting perhaps? Here, as at RKO all through the 30s, the sets were dreams come true. The dancing in this scene was expert, but the magic is more in the shape of the bodies and the way they interact. They were essentially a very dramatic couple, Fred the gawky wouldbe lover, Ginger the offhand and at first dismissive object of his affections whom slowly he wins around. They succeeded brilliantly in dancing that interaction. Those four minutes repay attention, for they express the achievement that was in all their movies together.
Next year they did The Gay Divorcee together, a play Fred was performing in in London at the time. The film was directed by Mark Sandrich, who directed five of the ten Fred and Ginger films. This time the throwaway plot was written by George Marion Jnr, Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman. Once this was my favourite Fred and Ginger film, but it doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings. The couple are given space to expand on their antipathy/attraction relationship, Ginger quips some of the wisecracks she was so good at delivering, Fred hams it up as the enamoured lover: and there is a song the couple dance to by Cole Porter, called “Night and Day” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YV5e7mWcQJE. That’s the only real reason to see this second outing. Another highlight, a dance called the “Continental”, is repeated over and over for almost 20 minutes, almost a fifth of the film’s running time, a sign that the plot was almost non-existent. Here I noticed that Fred and Ginger had a real intimacy on screen. They weren’t offscreen lovers, but good friends who worked well together, and that gave support to the drama of their dance together. In this film I first noticed that Fred wore dance shoes, but Ginger wore ordinary high heel shoes in the dance sequences, where she had to run up stairs, jump off furniture, and perform a kind of ballet with Fred. She was always supremely graceful in all her movements. Not perhaps as good a dancer as Fred (few were), but a perfect partner.
1935’s Roberta, directed by William A Seiter with music and lyrics by Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II and Dorothy Fields, and costumes by Bernard Newman, has as it’s unlikely premise a love affair between Randolph Scott and Irene Dunne. Randolph Scott! Irene sings “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, and despite her exaggerated delivery and artificial British enunciation, you know what a wonderful song it is, then Fred and Ginger dance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMOBdQykKQY. There are three beautiful scenes of absolutely gorgeous girls modelling dresses far too sublime to be worn by any person on the street. But, once more, the only reason to watch the film is that Fred and Ginger have a dance number together. “I’ll be Hard to Handle” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UnUfY-URXzA, and Irene sings “Lovely to Look At” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r_2ePVL8gNE. Who cares about the plot. Who cares about probability, or even about Van Nest Polglase’s sets or Hermes Pan’s choreography. This is perfection. This is as exciting and perfect a moment as the cinema has ever achieved. Not bad for an immigrant’s son from Nebraska and a child of a broken home from Missouri. Rudolph Nureyev and Bing Crosby agreed. The film received an enormous response from the public. Did those people have uncommon good taste, or did the film fulfill their dreams? In this film I first noticed a minor theme of many of Fred’s and Ginger’s movies: a gang of mid western musicians and their resourceful leader use American get up and go to outwit the superficially sophisticated Brazilians, French and Italian snobs they come across.
I have mixed feelings about Top Hat, made also in 1935. One of the contenders for best of Fred’s and Ginger’s films, it has, for the first time, a good script, by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott: yet one which twists itself gradually into a farrago of improbabilities and runs out of steam well before finishing time. Perhaps you could say, half a good script. It has lyrics and music by the great Irving Berlin, which include two great song and dance routines, “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QN3eyYiuuNw, and “Cheek to Cheek” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A4-C-MK-Po, in which Fred begins to show his skill as a singer as well as a dancer: which yet show traces of over rehearsal. Beautiful movements, yet a certain lack of spontaneity and fun which had marked most of the numbers in the earlier films. Fred was a perfectionist, couldn’t stop rehearsing, thought Ginger was “faking it” because she didn’t put in the hours he did. The ending, including the number “The Piccolino”, is over produced, and has no regard for the story which has driven the plot up to then. A pity, for there is some fine acting from Ginger throughout the film. It seems a little odd that everyone is dressed in evening wear all of the time, even for breakfast, but that is a quibble. The sets by Van Nest Polglase, and Ginger’s dresses, are a delight, and there is skilled support from comedians Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. The tension between the characters Fred and Ginger played was fully developed, with Ginger able to expertly and convincingly convey the moment when a girl falls in love. Yet the creative tension between the actors was also beginning to be apparent, between Fred the dancer and Ginger the actress.
Follow the Fleet (1936) is my personal unfavourite of the 10 movies. A truly awful script by Dwight Taylor and Allan Scott, and a disappointing score by Irving Berlin don’t help this dire tale of a sailor’s unfunny escapades, with a romance between Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard all but sinking the ship. Randolph Scott! But there are compensations. Ginger does a lively rendition of “Let Yourself Go”, and the duo do an even livelier dance to the tune early in the movie http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y1FjlVsZ-mk. And the film ends with one of the greatest dances the two ever did, with story, lyrics, music and dancing fusing sublimely in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”.
The other contender for Fred’s and Ginger’s finest film is the George Stevens directed Swing Time of 1936. It has the usual incoherent and irritating plot, written by Howard Lindsey and Allan Scott, and music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Stevens makes the most of what’s there, and there is a fine moment earlier in the film when Ginger teaches Fred how to dance (he seems an apt pupil), but lots of downright silly scenes about trouser cuffs. Two fine songs are sung by Fred, “Pick Yourself Up” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6MtmkqPbps and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkk_DA-Phtg&NR=1, and “The Way You Look Tonight” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXio_8Rl1hI. And then there is a bit of magic in a snowstorm, when the couple sing to each other “A Fine Romance” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pGmpuZ5rHig. It’s one of the finest moments in their ongoing screen romance, beautifully filmed, beautifully acted, beautifully sung. It’s just perfect Fred and Ginger. The dance numbers in this film took 350 hours of rehearsal. This is the one where the cleaner had to wash the floor to remove the blood, from blisters which had burst on Ginger’s feet.
If there is any Fred and Ginger film to avoid it’s Shall We Dance of 1937, directed by Mark Sandrich, from an idiotic script by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano. Incompetent acting, embarrassing humour, implausible love affair, this film has it all. It even has a weak score by the Gershwins. Why ever did we think these people were talented? Can’t the studio see the whole series is going down the tube, and audiences staying away? But wait, there’s a silly scene on roller skates, to a song called “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. And, while we were dozing off, Fred sings one of Gershwin’s greatest songs, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMqXXdBlvZE. In the midst of a film that makes the Three Stooges look like an Ingmar Bergman film, without warning, there it is, perfection.
Carefree (1938) was once one of my favourite Fred and Ginger films, an almost straight romantic comedy written by Marion Ainslee, Guy Endore, Ernest Pagano and Allan Scott, which casts Fred as a psychiatrist whose patient (Ginger, of course) falls in love with him. The cast includes Ralph Bellamy, the perfect substitute for Randolph Scott. This time around the film had a lot against it, not least a forgettable Irving Berlin score. Fred does a little better than usual as an actor, and has an incredible novelty dance featuring precision golfing, to the tune “Since They Turned Loch Lomond Into Swing” (don’t ask what Loch Lomond has to do with the plot). The star of the film this time is Ginger, who shows what a great comedienne she was, and was about to become. A woman scorned may be a dangerous thing, but a woman under hypnosis is worse than Dirty Harry in a bad mood. A short film, and short on songs, it was an attempt to vary the formula. The film ends with a surprise, as so often in Fred’s and Ginger’s films, an exquisite dance with the hypnotised Ginger http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nuTlRV13NeI. She was never as lovely nor as graceful as in this scene. This was the first of Fred’s and Ginger’s films to lose money. Times were changing, and at least one track sounds like the Andrews Sisters and big band swing, the era to come.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle of 1939 told the story of the couple who were even bigger and more influential than Fred and Ginger were, in the period just prior to the First World War. The script was based on Irene Castle’s memoirs, and written by Richard Sherman. Direction was by H C Potter, with costumes by Edward Stevenson. By far the best of Fred’s and Ginger’s movies together, the only thing that prevents it from being dismissed as a tear jerker is that every scene is a true depiction of real events: a story of ambition, skill, and the destruction and devastation caused by the First World War. It’s chock full of pre war melodies, such as “Waiting for the Robert E Lee”, “By the Light of the Silvery Moon”, “Oh, You Beautiful Doll”, “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”, “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “The Darktown Strutters’ Ball”. It’s sad because not only does it mourn the end of a previous, innocent, era, and the loss caused by the “war to end war”, but also the transitory fame of performers, two of whom were Ginger and Fred themselves. The film lost money, and sounded the death knell of Fred’s and Ginger’s partnership.This was their last (but for one brief reunion) film together. The magic was over.
All told, the films of Fred and Ginger don’t stand up to repeated scrutiny. Perhaps I was overexposed to them, as I watched nine within the one week. But there’s no denying I think, that the films all have weak scripts, poor acting and nondescript direction. The humour has dated badly. But the songs certainly haven’t: for a pop song to still be effective 75 years after it was first written is not a common thing, and shows what the word ‘classic’ really means. The visual part of the experience which is still compelling is down to Van Nest Polglase, and Fred and Ginger themselves. Great character comedians in supporting roles notwithstanding, it’s the sets you remember, and Fred, who learned to act while he was singing, and Ginger, who was able to act while she was dancing. And the act was all about romance, something we are all vulnerable to, no matter how hard boiled we are. Somehow, despite their faults, I found all the films watchable: dated, ridiculous, and with moments of greatness as Fred and Ginger sang and danced to some of America’s best popular music. Here are some of the most thrilling moments in the history of the cinema.
When considering the impact these films had in their day you have to remember that America was pulling itself out of the great depression, and films tended to be both morale builders and much needed escapism. Realism was a bit too grim to be considered for entertainment. At the time dancing was still the main medium for social interaction, and many people met their future marriage partner at a dance. Although the films are now classics, at the time nobody of course had that perspective. They were light entertainment money spinners which no-one thought would be remembered in a few years time, the case with most Hollywood films, where people rarely try to make a ‘great’ film.
There’s been many guesses as to just what happened when Fred and Ginger were onscreen together. Mine is that she loosened up the obsessive professionalism Fred brought to every scene he was in, and made it look fun, while he brought out a level of professionalism in her dance movements that eventually were able to match his own. Another theory is that Plato was right, and there exists a world of perfection where everything is right, of which the world we experience is a mere imperfect reflection: and that Fred and Ginger were sometimes able to enter this world and let us know what it is like. Whatever it was, they were never to recapture it alone or with others. There’s only one way to describe it. Fred and Ginger. Or Ginger and Fred.
The details of Fred’s and Ginger’s films are here: http://www.reelclassics.com/Teams/Fred&Ginger/fred&ginger.htm. Something on Ginger: http://www.squidoo.com/gingerrogers. And on Fred: http://www.squidoo.com/fred-astaire-fan-page.
• 1. “Night and Day” Cole Porter (THe Gay Divorcee 1934)
• 2. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II (Roberta 1935)
• 3. “I’ll be Hard to Handle” Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II (Roberta 1935)
• 4. “Lovely to Look At” Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II (Roberta 1935)
• 5. “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” Irving Berlin (Top Hat 1935)
• 6. “Cheek to Cheek” Irving Berlin (Top Hat 1935)
• 7. “Let Yourself Go” Irving Berlin (Follow the Fleet 1936)
8. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” Irving Berlin (Follow the Fleet 1936)
• 9. “Pick Yourself Up” Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern (Swing Time 1936)
• 10. “The Way You Look Tonight” Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern (Swing Time 1936)
• 11. “A Fine Romance” Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern (Swing Time 1936)
12. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” Ira and George Gershwin (Shall We Dance 1937)
• 13. “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” Ira and George Gershwin (Shall We Dance 1937)
14. “Change Partners” Irving Berlin (Carefree 1938)
©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.