Up to now, the recognized authority on the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers partnership has been Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, published in 1972 in the USA, the work now out of print dissected in detail each of the couple's films.
Edward Gallafent's book Astaire and Rogers - edited by the Columbia University Press in the USA in 2002 - studies not only the common careers of the two dancers but also their separate ones. It analyzes Ginger Rogers' parts as an actress from 1938 to 1943, from Vivacious Lady on (with James Stewart) without forgetting Fifth Avenue Girl directed by Gregory La Cava or Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle. Edward Gallafent also devotes a part of his book to the films made by Astaire from Broadway Melody of 1940 to The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949.
Hannah Hyam has intentionally focused her study on the most glorious period of the Astaire/Rogers years at RKO, from The Gay Divorcee in 1934 to Carefree in 1938. The last film produced by the studio The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle doesn't enter into the same tradition as the former musicals made by the couple. The last one, The Barkleys of Broadway was produced ten years later by MGM studios.
Hannah Hyam's book Fred and Ginger - The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938 is a precious document for lovers of the films and novices. It offers an elaborate analysis of their acting as well as their way of singing and dancing together. Her exhaustive thematic approach - extremely well documented - is an intelligent and brilliant choice that perfectly brings out the exceptional collaboration of this atypical couple in the history of the American movies. Captivated, thanks to her mother, by the charm of the "Fred and Ginger" films, she has devoted twenty years of her life -intermittently- to the process of writing this work, and has become one of the most outstanding experts on Astaire and Rogers.
These seven films form a distinct series and, in my view, represent the most typical, memorable and important work that Astaire and Rogers did together. Their partnership proper begins in The Gay Divorcee - before that they just happened to appear together (in Flying Down to Rio), and the two films they made after Carefree (The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and The Barkleys of Broadway) are very different in kind from the series of seven. It's in those seven films that we see the quintessential "Fred and Ginger", and that Astaire and Rogers perform the greatest of their dance duets.
Not so many people know that they had already met before their teaming
in Hollywood? What about their first professional meeting?
That was in 1930, when Astaire was asked to choreograph a dance for Rogers and her partner in the Gershwin stage show Girl Crazy.
For their first film together, Flying down to Rio, Rogers had fourth billing
and Astaire fifth billing. Why was she billed above him?
Rogers only appeared in the film by chance, as a replacement for another actress who had dropped out to get married, and neither she nor Astaire was ever intended to have a starring role. She was familiar to movie audiences by this time, having already appeared in 19 films, whereas Astaire, a star of the stage, had only appeared in one film (which was released just a month before Rio), in a relatively minor role. So it's not surprising that Rogers was billed above him. From then on they had equal top billing in all their films except Roberta (where Irene Dunne was the top star), though Astaire's name always appeared first.
Their first dance on screen for this movie Carioca
was a real success. Why did they make the difference?
The Carioca is not an outstanding dance by Astaire and Rogers standards, but it was a breath of fresh air in 1933. Before then, no really distinguished dancers had appeared on screen, and dance routines were clumsily filmed and directed - until Busby Berkeley came along and began to create his spectacular formations, which were really more to do with visual effect than choreography. When Astaire and Rogers got up to dance The Carioca it was the first time movie audiences had seen anything like it - a man and a woman dancing together with style, elegance, humour, apparent spontaneity and obvious rapport. It's not surprising they were an instant hit.
"The Carioca" : Astaire et Rogers first meeting on screen
To analyse their partnership, you have divided your book into thematic chapters instead of adopting the usual film-by-film approach, and you concentrate mainly on their acting together (their complementarity), their singing, and their dance duets - their playful and romantic duets.
Their dancing together in these seven films represents only 50 minutes.
You said that "they were partners in romance". Hermes Pan declared
that "There's never been the same electricity that has happened as when
Fred and Ginger danced together". Can you develop this idea ?
First, let me stress that their complementarity - the rapport between Astaire and Rogers and the emotional richness of their on-screen relationship - is not limited to their acting together, it's a feature of their partnership as a whole, and especially their dance duets. Yes, it's rather amazing that their dances represent such a small proportion of the time they appear on screen - usually just three duets in each film, of about two or three minutes each.
Romance is the key to the relationship between Fred and Ginger, and it's this that distinguishes the series of seven films I focus on from the other three. Some of their best duets are dances of courtship, in which Fred wins over a reluctant Ginger - for example Night and Day from The Gay Divorcee, or Isn't This a Lovely Day from Top Hat - but most of them are romantic in essence, whether they're playful or more serious in mood.
Astaire of course danced with a great many women after his partnership with Rogers ended, and some of them were extremely fine dancers, but they all lack to some degree the qualities that made Rogers such a perfect partner for him, and especially such a perfect partner in romance. That electricity that Hermes Pan refers to stems partly from the wonderful rapport between Astaire and Rogers, but it's unique also because of all Astaire's partners Rogers was the most gifted dancing actress, able to convey quite brilliantly anything from mischievous humour to ecstatic joy to the deepest despair.
Among the romantic duets, some of them are amazing. In Roberta,
in Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, there is the famous gesture where Astaire
cradles Rogers' head, in Carefree,
in Change Partners, you describe the particular moment where Astaire
hypnotizes Rogers and you comment "they glide slowly across the floor,
lost in each other." Why were their romantic duets so special?
I think I've partly answered this in the previous question, but there is a lot more to be said about the romantic duets. They are supremely expressive, rich in emotional content and dramatic and romantic interest. As I've already suggested, their expressive range is very wide - from the warm serenity of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes to the ecstasy of the Waltz in Swing Time and the despair of Never Gonna Dance from Swing Time.
The romantic duets are also, of course, set to some of the finest songs in the Hollywood musical, and we shouldn't underestimate the importance of the music, and the orchestral arrangements, to their success. But a large part of their appeal is purely visual - Astaire and Rogers just look so beautiful dancing together in romantic mood, and you don't even need to hear the soundtrack to appreciate the superb visual spectacle.
When Astaire was able to take control of the filming of his dances, almost
all the dances were filmed in one continuous shot. Why was this so important
Previously, dances had been filmed with distracting cuts and clumsy devices such as inserted shots of dancers' feet. Astaire's choreography isn't just a matter of legs and feet - he uses the whole body, and so he insisted on showing the dancers in full figure, with a minimum of editing or shots from different angles to interrupt the continuity of the dance. The viewer is therefore able to concentrate on the dance and the dancers, with no distractions, and the visual and dramatic impact is immeasurably enhanced. Watch an early dance such as Night and Day and you will find the cuts and fancy angles imposed by the director extremely irritating.
Ginger Rogers sometimes felt that she was in Astaire's shadow. On the
contrary, her contribution, both on and off the screen, was very important;
and in fact Astaire accepted many of her suggestions; even Mark Sandrich,
who did not appreciate her, recognized this fact (p.136, Sandrich quoted in
your book): "You would be surprised how much [Rogers] adds to the number.
Fred arranges them, and then when they get to rehearsing, Ginger puts in her
own suggestions. And they're sensible ones. Fred discusses every one with
her at length, and a good many of them are used." Can you explain her
contributions in many routines ?
Well, she claims in her autobiography to have suggested several important ideas, including the hypnotism in Change Partners and the "shadowing" in Isn't This a Lovely Day. We can never know exactly what or how much she contributed to the creative side of the duets. But her most important contribution was as a dancing actress - perfectly complementing Astaire in every respect and able to convey brilliantly the emotional or dramatic point of every dance they performed together.
What is remarkable is her improvement as a dancer over the years, and
she deserves all the credits. Astaire said: "She got so that after a
while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong".
Indeed. She was not a trained dancer and not the most technically secure of his partners at the start of their collaboration, but she did improve spectacularly, by dint of tireless rehearsing, and became capable of increasingly demanding and complex choreography, making it all look just as easy as Astaire did. She was also the perfect height and build for him, unlike some of his later partners.
In her autobiography, Rogers said: "Then there's the old story that
Fred and I hated each other and suffered through movies, with him ranting
and me bursting into tears. What nonsense!" In 1986, Astaire also declared:
"All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn't do it, but of
course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger
never cried." How do you react ?
I'm not surprised! Ginger Rogers was a feisty woman, on and off the screen, and she wasn't afraid of hard work. She loved rehearsing, and could cope with anything and everything Astaire demanded of her. She was most unlikely to burst into tears in any situation!
The way she also uses her own body, her dresses and so on, in their duets.
Can you develop this idea ?
It's one of my favourite themes! Rogers' dresses are a vital part of the visual appeal and impact of their romantic duets, and she uses them with great skill and imagination. Look at the dress she wears for the Waltz in Swing Time, with its layer upon layer of frills, and watch the way she twirls it around as they dance. It's like a third partner, creating shapes that are as important to the impact of the dance as the choreography itself. Or watch how she transforms the gorgeous black gown she wears for Smoke Gets in Your Eyes : when she and Astaire bound onto the stage for I Won't Dance, the final dance in Roberta, she playfully flings the dress around, hoisting it up to her knees, whereas two minutes earlier she had just let it fall elegantly about her. She knew exactly how to make the most of her costumes for whichever dance they were performing.
You mentioned the songs earlier, and you devote
a whole chapter to them. Can you explain why you think they deserve so much
As I said, the songs in these films, by some of the top composers of the day - Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin - are among the finest in the Hollywood musical, and indeed among the finest songs ever written. Many of them have become classics, and most of them were introduced by Astaire. He was an outstandingly fine singer, so much so that Irving Berlin said he would rather have his songs introduced by Astaire than by any other singer, because 'he can put over a song like nobody else'. It wasn't that he had an outstanding voice, but he had a great musicality, and his delivery and diction were exemplary, perfectly suited to musical film where the songs are an integral part of the action and virtually an extension of speech. 'Cheek to Cheek' is just one fine example, and this song also demonstrates what a good listener Rogers was, her subtle facial expressions beautifully conveying her emotions. She was also a fine singing actress in her own right, able to deliver a song such as 'The Yam', from Carefree, with great style, and she was a perfect match for Astaire in the duets they sing together.
According to you, why did she accept another film with Astaire, The Barkleys
of Broadway, in 1949, so long after their last film together in the 1930s
? In 1945, she had been the highest-paid woman in the US, earning over
$250,000. After 10 years, it was risky for her, she had not danced for many
We have Rogers' own word on the subject - she says in her autobiography that she was delighted to be offered the opportunity to do another film with Astaire. She had always loved working with him, and while it wasn't the easiest thing for her to get back into her dancing shoes after 10 years she welcomed the challenge. As she says, "it felt good to be putting myself through these rigorous activities. I began to feel like I could jump to the moon." She was ready by the time rehearsals began, and her hard work certainly paid off - in Bouncin' the Blues, a fast and demanding tap routine, her dancing is as relaxed as ever, and the years seem to have fallen away.
Moreover, Stephen Harvey, in his book on Astaire, comments: "Despite
the intervening ten years, Astaire and Rogers have an innate understanding
of each other's verbal rhythms and mannerisms
.The self-conscious drive
with which Astaire often attacked his lines disappears here, as Fred and Ginger
blend with and interrupt each other with a seamless intimacy that is heartwarming
to witness." Astaire, here, has never been better as an actor. Do you
I agree about the innate understanding and seamless intimacy, but I don't know what Harvey means by Astaire's "self-conscious drive" in earlier films. His acting is entirely natural and unaffected in his films with Rogers in the 1930s - Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle are particularly fine examples.
You must have spent months and years analysing all their films? What is
your favourite number ?
Impossible to choose just one favourite number - I love too many of them. But I would single out the three duets in Swing Time as the most stunningly brilliant that Astaire and Rogers ever performed together, and I could not live without any of them.
Pick Yourself Up
Pick Yourself Up is the playful Fred and Ginger at their spectacular best.
Waltz in Swing Time
Waltz in Swing Time is a supremely beautiful expression of romantic ecstasy.
Never Gonna Dance
Never Gonna Dance a powerful, absolutely heartrending piece of drama. That they should all three feature in one film is nothing short of a miracle.
Copyright : Patricia Guinot
Fred and Ginger , Pen Press Publishers Ltd, (www.penpress.co.uk).