Ginger and Fred
I am a huge fan of the films made by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. And I choose which film to watch based upon not the dance sequence but the song. Tonight I plan to watch “The Way You Look Tonight.” The film happens to be “Swing Time.” And the irony of the setting for the song is beyond classic. It set new standards for comedy, acting, romance, music, and that feeling of swoon that comes with being in love.
Romantic, technically brilliant and innovative, funny, rather wholesome, inspiring, uncanny with their timelessness, and divine with drool-worthy fashions, the Astaire-Rogers films (or as I prefer to put it, Rogers-Astaire films) were RKO at its best. RKO was the runt studio, owned by Howard Hughes who knew a good-looking female and a good-looking film whenever he backed either one. Some of the best Golden Age Hollywood films were made with RKO loan-outs, something that Hughes profited from nicely. And RKO made some nice profits from the pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire.
For me, these films are organized by the composers of the songs for each film. The music drove the film and not the other way around. While my teen-aged peers were trying to procure forged IDs to get into R-rated movies, I was more than happy to stay home and watch vintage black-and-white films (sometimes on black-and-white television). Among the ones I most enjoyed were those of Ginger Rogers dancing with Fred Astaire, or perhaps it was the other way around. Bob Thaves, the cartoon artist of Frank and Ernest, famously quipped about this famous dancing duo, “Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards . . . and in heels.” Personally, I would love to own at least one pair of each of those pairs of heels.
One of my most beloved “At The Movies” television selections did not include Mr. Astaire. I first saw this film at the age of seventeen while babysitting on New Year’s Eve. I suppose at the time I was dreaming of the day (or night) when my dance card would be filled. Dancing, however, in “The Major and The Minor,” was an incidental skill for Ginger Rogers, or “Susan Applegate.” (She was even asked if she knew how to dance!) The gown that Ginger wears toward the end of the film (to ostensibly meet the Major, played by Ray Milland) is one that I still wear in my dreams! Even the makeup that this actress wore was incredibly simple but dramatic.
Fred Astaire was the guy whom the studios initially deemed too old and balding, and, besides, he was a dancer -- "What are we going to do with a dancer?!" Astaire nonetheless quickly became the gold standard in dancing and in acting with elegance, charm, and proof that anyone can sing a tune that is worth singing. He was also the definition of class, as in tasteful, not klass.
There were ten motion pictures featuring this dancing pair from 1933 to 1949. Nine were made by RKO; the last one, in 1939, was by M-G-M: "The Barkleys of Broadway" (which I find the least appealing of the bunch). “The Barkleys of Broadway” was in color, “Technicolor,” something that only enhanced the quality and specialness of the RKO black-and-white creations. Ginger correctly quipped about black-and-white films: “ . . . they have an incomparable mystique and mood.”
My favorites of the Rogers-Astaire films are the following three musical-comedies, each with a different composer, all with wonderfully opulent and striking sets of an Art Deco design:
“Swing Time” -- 1936. The composer was Jerome Kern. The film won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, “The Way You Look Tonight.” Dorothy Fields was the lyricist of this now-standard. She was quite visibly taken by the melody when Kern first played it for her. She stated, “The first time Jerry played that melody for me I went out and started to cry.” Eric Blore (who appeared in each of these three films) performs a modest role as the boss of the Ginger Rogers character. The dance sequences in “Swing Time” are, in my opinion, the best of the three films.
"Top Hat" -- 1935. Irving Berlin was the composer. Need I say more? This film is somewhat screwball in nature and was the most commercially successful picture of the dancing duo. Eric Blore portrays the valet, Bates, who is such a marvelous character that I wonder if the truest touch of politesse belonged to the servant class.
“Shall We Dance” -- 1937. Music by The Gershwins. George composed the symphonic underscore; brother Ira wrote the lyrics. The influence of ballet was treated with irony and whimsy, perhaps even satire. Eric Blore as an exasperated Cecil Flintridge presents a comedic mastery of English spelling and syllabification in one scene that is merrily memorable.
It should be noted that the American dancer and choreographer Hermes Pan collaborated with Fred Astaire on the dance sequences in these three films. In fact, Pan worked with Astaire in 17 of his 31 musical films, as well as in 3 of 4 television “specials.” The two men were physically similar which aided in their craft of creating, rehearsing, and perfecting any dance routine. In “Shall We Dance,” the performance of "Never Gonna Dance" is significant for its exquisite achievement in filmed dance.
Film was still in its infancy as was the filming of the dance sequence. Essentially, the Rogers-Astaire musical films not only fabulously blazed a trail for future films of this genre; they became the ultimate standards for any mastery of an elegant, complex, and magnificent dance form.
Ginger Rogers had that stunning, amazingly flexible back and innate rhythmic style, both of which were fantastically utilized by the angular, graceful Fred Astaire. He moved with such poise and finesse that people tended not to notice strength or muscles, only quick precision and the smooth energy of movement. Her naturally expressive sense of humor interfaced perfectly with his quiet, droll sensibility. At times, they traded places: Ginger offered the unspoken jest through her eyes; Fred provided the wisecrack laugh. The talents of one could not help but enhance the talents of the other. That symbiosis made for a spectacular pairing of talents, personalities, and timeless beauty: the essence of art.
Actress Katherine Hepburn opined, “He gives her class, and she gives him sex.” I don’t fully agree with that comment, but each complemented the other in ways that meshed seamlessly, gracefully, and gloriously. They dazzled in their dance sequences with the kind of magic that happens only once in a lifetime. That lifetime was the legend of their films.
Ginger Rogers expanded her talents to become an Academy-Award winning best actress for her performance in “Kitty Foyle.” She never lost that lovely, breathless charm and Fred never lost his elegance and gentlemanly grace. They were, in many ways, destined to dance together. They certainly had chemistry.
And that spontaneous chemistry was wonderful to watch as it sparkled delightfully with joy. Their effervescence thrilled the audience as Ginger and Fred created an art form that has yet to be equaled. These two professionals performed with an intuitive sense of acting and dancing as a combined expression of art. That art, separate as well as combined, soared because of the abilities and talents of each performer which had been trained, honed, disciplined, and, by and large, practiced until perfect.
Ginger and Fred thereby made intense, difficult work look almost like effortless fun. A seeming absence of effort in any art happens only because the artist has mastered the fundamental requirements, the crucial details, and the basic rigors of the craft. Astaire is reputed to have said that Ginger was brilliantly effective: “She made everything work for her . . . And she made things very fine for the both of us.” Fred very much attributed to Ginger most of the credit for their success.
Together, Ginger and Fred exuded a love of music, a love of dance, a love of life, and perhaps even a captivating love of each other.
Fred might have quietly agreed with these candid words of his finest and most natural dancing partner:
“When two people love each other, they don't look at each other: they look in the same direction.”
Ginger and Fred were always looking in the same direction in their films. Those splendid images looked a lot like love to their enraptured audiences, those down-on-their-luck folks who were greatly uplifted by those films of the Great Depression.