During his spell as a film critic, the novelist Graham Greene called Fred Astaire a human Mickey Mouse. Yet, despite being a stage superstar, Astaire was not considered movie material. Indeed, the notes scrawled after his camera test at RKO in 1933 famously read: 'Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little.' However, Astaire assumed the air of a suave romantic lead when he was paired with Ginger Rogers, an ex-vaudevillian who could hold a tune and steal a scene with her feisty wisecracking. Katharine Hepburn drolly summed up the secret of Fred and Ginger's screen partnership when she declared, 'she gave him sex, and he gave her class'. But there was much more to it than that.
A Couple of Swells
Born Frederick Emanuel Austerlitz on 10 May 1899, Fred Astaire was the son of an Austrian brewer, whose wife hoped that her talented children could help her escape a humdrum existence in Omaha, Nebraska. Although Fred initially resisted going to dance lessons with his older sister, Adele, he quickly took to instruction and was soon learning to play the piano, accordion and clarinet. On moving to New York, the siblings attended the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts and changed their surname to Astaire when they first trod the boards in Keyport, New Jersey in 1905 as 'Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty'.
This debut routine saw the young Fred don a top hat and tails for the first time and, unlike the lobster costume he wore for the second spot in the show, this dapper outfit would become synonymous with the Astaire style. The duo bolstered their reputation on the Orpheum Circuit before a sudden growth spurt on Adele's part prompted their parents to enforce a two-year break to allow Fred to catch up. During the hiatus, however, the Astaires worked at their dancing skills and copied the ballroom stylings of Vernon and Irene Castle under the tutelage of Aurelio Coccia, who also taught them the tango. Fred also polished his tap technique after being impressed by the African-American dancers, Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and John 'Bubbles' Sublett.
Moreover, the teenage Fred started to choreograph the couple's routines and forged a firm friendship with a young songwriter named George Gershwin, who began producing tunes that would fire Astaire's dance imagination. But Fred was quite content to let Adele take the plaudits and shaped numbers to her advantage in such early Broadway outings as Over the Top (1917) and The Passing Show of 1918. Indeed, they became the talk of the town in shows like Lady, Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927) and The Band Wagon (1931), whose books were written by Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira. Another composer who recognised Fred's talent was Jerome Kern, who penned The Bunch and Judy (1922) for the Astaires and later declared, 'Fred Astaire can't do anything bad.'
Although London loved the duo as much as New York, Hollywood decided to pass on the Astaires after a 1928 screen test at Paramount during the early days of the talkie boom. But, when Adele retired in 1932 after marrying Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, Fred found himself with a decision to make. Suddenly finding the spotlight turned upon himself, he tried teaming with Claire Luce and Dorothy Stone in The Gay Divorce (1932). Rather than plugging away on stage, however, Astaire decided to give Hollywood another try.
Independence By Name
There's no doubt that Virginia Katherine McMath heeded the name of her hometown after being born in Independence, Missouri on 16 July 1911. Not that she lived there long, however, as she spent much of her formative years in Kansas City after her father, William, had twice tried to kidnap her following the collapse of his marriage to the formidable Lela Owens, a newspaper reporter who had ambitions to become a screenwriter and film producer. Indeed, she got to live the dream after being hired by Fox Studios to pen pictures like the Baby Marie Osborne vehicle, The Little Patriot (1917). Lela only tarried in Hollywood, however, as she relocated to Fort Worth, Texas after marrying John Rogers and became the theatre critic on the local paper.
Watching acts from the wings, Virginia (who had been nicknamed 'Ginger' by a cousin who couldn't pronounce her name) got the acting bug and Lela had no qualms about using her position to boost her daughter's chances of being discovered. Indeed, when vaudeville star Eddie Foy (who was played by Bob Hope in Melville Shavelson's biopic, The Seven Little Foys, 1955) needed a last-minute stand-in, Lela made sure Ginger got the gig. Her big break came, however, when she received a six-month touring contract after winning a Charleston dance contest in 1926.
Bouncing back from a disastrous teenage marriage to Jack Culpepper (with whom she had briefly performed as 'Ginger and Pepper'), the newly minted Ginger Rogers went to New York with her mother, who helped her land a succession of radio singing jobs that led to her Broadway debut in Top Speed (1929). Shortly afterwards, the Gershwins cast the 19 year-old in a featured role in Girl Crazy (1929), which led to Rogers being introduced to Fred Astaire, who was helping teach the chorus girls their routines. But Lela had big plans for Ginger and, following her experience of filming the 1929 shorts, Night in the Dormitory, A Day of a Man of Affairs and Campus Sweethearts, Lela landed her daughter a seven-year deal with Paramount to make movies at its Astoria Studios in Queens.
Unhappy with the quality of the pictures, Lela persuaded Ginger to break her contract and swept her off to Los Angeles. Following a short-term deal with Pathé Exchange, Rogers began jobbing around the studios and was chosen as of the 15 Baby Stars of 1932 by the Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers (WAMPAS). Cinema Paradiso offers users the chance to see the young Ginger being lured to an old dark house in Albert Ray's The Thirteenth Guest (1932), which was adapted from a novel by Armitage Trail.
Also available to rent is Lloyd Bacon's 42nd Street (1933), in which Rogers excels as sassy showgirl 'Anytime' Annie Lowell, who takes naive newcomer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) under her wing when she comes to New York to become a star. Choreographed by Busby Berkeley, this Warner Bros musical was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and earned Rogers the role of Fay Fortune in Mervyn Le Roy's Depression satire, Gold Diggers of 1933, another showcase for singing sweethearts Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler that saw Rogers steal the show with her Pig Latin rendition of the showstopper, 'We're in the Money'.
All told, Rogers had racked up 26 credits in four years and was happy to go wherever the work took her. Indeed, she had no reason to believe that Thornton Freeland's Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond vehicle was going to be anything more than another item on her lengthening CV. But Flying Down to Rio (1933) was to reunite Rogers with a passing acquaintance from her Broadway days.
A Match Made in RKO Heaven
While Rogers had been making a name for herself, Astaire had been checking out the lie of the Hollywood land. His screen test at RKO had not gone well, but production chief David O. Selznick noted in one of his infamous memos, 'I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.' Keen to see how Astaire fared at another studio, Selznick loaned him to MGM to cameo as himself helping struggling theatre producer Clark Gable whip Joan Crawford and her fellow starlets into shape in Robert Z. Leonard's Dancing Lady (1933). The experiment proved a success, as the reviews singled out Astaire's dancing. So, he was summoned back to RKO to take fifth billing, behind Rogers, in Flying Down to Rio.
The story turned around the romance between Yankee Clippers band leader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) and Brazilian bombshell, Belinha de Rezende (Dolores Del Rio) and the highlight seemed set to be a production number staged on the wings of some bi-planes flying in formation. But it was trumped by the 'Carioca' routine, in which Raymond's deputy, Fred Ayres (Astaire), and vocalist Honey Hales (Rogers) entertain the guests at the Hotel Atlantico with a new dance. The song earned an Oscar nomination for composer Vincent Youmans and lyricists Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn. But it was the steps choreographed by Dave Gould and Hermes Pan in the manner of sibling stage duo Fanchon and Marco Wolff that wowed audiences and launched a dance craze in ballrooms across America.
Having just emerged from Adele's shadow, Fred was in no hurry to become part of another team. With six more assignments lined up, Ginger was also happy with the progress she was making and there was a certain reluctance when the pair agreed to reunite for Mark Sandrich's The Gay Divorcee (1934), which reworked the Broadway show in which Astaire had first gone solo. This time, Fred and Ginger were the principals in a screwball storyline that saw Mimi Glossop (Rogers) mistake dancer Guy Holden (Astaire) for a professional co-respondent when she comes to Brighton to make arrangements for her divorce. The plot details were largely an irrelevance, however, as the audience simply wanted to see the twosome trip the light fantastic again. But RKO recognised the need to delay the moment of truth and dotted the action with deft character turns from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, who became part of Fred and Ginger's stock company and proved as vital to their success as producer Pandro S. Berman, screenwriter Allan Scott, choreographer Hermes Pan, rehearsal pianist Hal Borne, cinematographer David Abel and designers Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark, who created the Art Deco sets that gave the Astaire-Rogers pictures added escapist glamour in the darkest days of the Great Depression.
Indeed, RKO hit upon a formula to frame the dance routines within a scenario in which love runs anything but smoothly. Fred's characters tended to be creative types who have been too busy with their careers to consider romance. But they instinctively detect a vulnerability behind Ginger's caustic self-confidence and promptly fall in love with her at first sight. As she barely notices Astaire at first, Rogers has to become aware of him through a series of unfortunate events. In The Gay Divorcee, he rips her dress before crashing into her car. He threatens to show her up as a girl next door rather than a society sophisticate in William A. Seiter's Roberta, while he wakes her up in the middle of the night by dancing in the hotel room above hers in Sandrich's Top Hat (both 1935).
Further contretemps see Fred come close to getting Ginger sacked from her job in a dance studio in George Stevens's Swing Time (1936), while her Hotcha dancer mistakes him for a boorish Russian dancer in Sandrich's Shall We Dance (1937) and takes exception to his pompous psychiatrist branding her 'a dizzy dame' in the same director's Carefree (1938). The latter is much more of a comedy with songs than a genuine musical, but it follows the rubric of having the bickering couple brought back together by a coincidence that results in Ginger becoming intrigued by Fred after they dance for the first time. Naturally, another misunderstanding drives the sweethearts apart again, with Rogers invariably declaring that she never wants to see Astaire again. But a neatly contrived reconciliation leaves them alone on a dance floor for the duet that convinces Ginger that, for all his faults, Fred really is the man of her dreams.
What set the Astaire-Rogers pictures apart was that the leads always danced in character, so that the routines were as pivotal to the narrative as the dialogue. The lyrics of the songs also had their significance, particularly in the so-called 'challenge' dances that sprang from the initial animosity between the characters. Written by tunesmiths of the calibre of the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, songs like 'I'll Be Hard to Handle' (Roberta), 'Isn't It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)' (Top Hat), 'Let Yourself Go' and 'I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket' (Sandrich's Follow the Fleet, 1936), and 'They All Laughed' and 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off' (Shall We Dance) were sparky affairs, in which confrontation mattered more than canoodling, as Ginger lets it be known that she is not a girl to be trifled with, while Fred tries to take her down a peg or two.
Often called 'the woo to win' number, the second dance showed Astaire's sensitive side, as he strives to prove that he's not such a bad chap after all. Moreover, Rogers is more receptive because he has gotten under her skin and she realises what she stands to lose him if they can't reconcile their differences. As there's so much at stake, the songs inspiring these dances had to be either intense or soulful and 'Night and Day' (The Gay Divorce), 'Cheek to Cheek' (Top Hat), 'Let's Face the Music and Dance' (Follow the Fleet), 'Waltz in Springtime' (Swing Time), and 'I Used to Be Colour Blind' (Carefree) are among the glories of the couple's canon.
While Ginger is busy making up her mind, Fred occupied himself with a couple of solo slots to show off the diversity and dynamism of his dancing range. Among the most memorable are 'Needle in a Haystack' (The Gay Divorcee), 'I Won't Dance' (Roberta), 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails' (Top Hat), 'I'd Rather Lead a Band' (Follow the Fleet) and 'I've Got Beginner's Luck' (Shall We Dance). But the most controversial is undoubtedly 'Bojangles of Harlem' (Swing Time), which Astaire performs in blackface. By contrast, Ginger had to make do with 'A Fine Romance' in Swing Time, and the 'Yama Yama Man' showcase in HC Potter's The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939).
Nevertheless, her time off-screen enabled her character to work through her emotions and throw herself into the climactic production number that sealed the romantic deal. In several instances, the routine introduced a new dance sensation like 'The Continental' (The Gay Divorcee), 'The Piccolino' (Top Hat) and 'The Yam' (Carefree). But 'Never Gonna Dance' saw Swing Time end with a rare moment of intimacy, although Fred and Ginger didn't actually kiss until Carefree. They embraced again in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and in The Barkleys of Broadway, which saw Rogers do a favour for an old friend by agreeing to co-star after Judy Garland had been forced to withdraw through ill health.
Backwards and In Heels
Ever since he had choreographed her 'Embraceable You' number in Girl Crazy, Fred Astaire had been telling Ginger Rogers what to do. According to some sources, they had dated briefly during this Broadway interlude. But they worked on a strictly business basis in Hollywood, with Astaire often leaving Hermes Pan to teach Rogers her routines before they rehearsed together. He admired the fact that she simply got on with the job and eschewed the temperamental outbursts to which many of his other partners resorted when the going got tough. According to The Rough Guide to Film Musicals, Rogers was an underestimated dancer: 'She might have lacked Eleanor Powell's technique, Cyd Charisse's elegance, Rita Hayworth's beauty and Ann Miller's energy, but she was unquestionably Astaire's best partner. They were physically, stylistically and intellectually mismatched, yet they exuded empathy and elegance in idiosyncratic romantic comedies that were illuminated by their incomparable dance duets.'
Cartoonist Bob Thaves had it right, when he came up with the caption for a 1982 'Frank and Ernest' strip: 'Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did...backwards and in high heels.' Proving that you could take the girl out of Independence, but couldn't take the independence out of the girl, Rogers eventually baulked at the fact she was being paid less than some of the supporting regulars, let alone Astaire (who received extra for his choreography and often took a percentage of the profits). In 1937, following accusations in the press that Shall We Dance was archly pretentious, Ginger demanded a break to pursue other projects and threw herself into solo ventures like Gregory La Cava's Stage Door (1937) and 5th Avenue Girl (1939), George Stevens's Vivacious Lady (1938), and Garson Kanin's Bachelor Mother (1939) and Tom, Dick and Harry (1941).
Harking back to her early ensemble outings, Stage Door enabled her to test her mettle against RKO's leading dramatic actress, Katharine Hepburn, while the various romcoms gave her the chance to smooch with James Stewart and David Niven. Moreover, she lobbied for the lead in Sam Wood's adaptation of Christopher Morley's bestseller, Kitty Foyle (1940), and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as a New York shopgirl who thinks back on her Philadelphian past when confronted with having to choose between an affluent charmer and steady doctor.
Astaire was delighted for her, as her success meant it was unlikely that she would want to resume a partnership he had also outgrown after 33 dances together. In 1937, he had teamed with Joan Fontaine in A Damsel in Distress (1937), which had provided him with such enduring Gershwin tunes as 'A Foggy Day in London Town', 'Nice Work If You Can Get It' and 'I Can't Be Bothered Now'. When he resumed his solo career, he opted for another actress in Paulette Goddard for HC Potter's Second Chorus (1940). But he decided to test himself in Norman Taurog's Broadway Melody of 1940 by co-starring with Eleanor Powell, who was easily the best female dancer in Hollywood, if not exactly the best dancer-actress. Her routine to 'I Am the Captain' is on a par with Astaire's 'I've Got My Eyes on You', but their duet to Cole Porter's 'Begin the Beguine' is simply out on its own.
Before becoming a movie star, Rita Hayworth had been part of the family vaudeville act, The Dancing Cansinos, and she proved a vibrant partner in Sidney Lanfield's You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and William A. Seiter's You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Joan Leslie also held her own in Edward H. Griffith's The Sky's the Limit (1943), which contains Astaire's audacious drunken bar-top tap routine to 'One For My Baby', which took two days to shoot after a week of meticulous rehearsal. One senses, however, that he had more fun opposite Bing Crosby in Mark Sandrich's Holiday Inn (1942) and Stuart Heisler's Blue Skies (1946) and alongside Gene Kelly in 'The Babbitt and the Bromide', one of the highlights of the 1946 MGM revue, Ziegfeld Follies.
But, when the critics failed to respond to his whimsical artistry in the company of Lucille Bremer in Vincente Minnelli's Yolanda and the Thief (1945), Astaire decided that he had outlived his era and announced his retirement from the screen. By contrast, buoyed by her Oscar success, Rogers was on something of a roll and she was further acclaimed for her performance in William A. Wellman's Roxie Hart (1942) which provided the inspiration for the John Kander and Fred Ebb musical, Chicago (2002), which became the first musical since Carol Reed's Oliver! (1968) to win the Oscar for Best Picture.
Rogers demonstrated her versatility by playing a woman pretending to be a 12 year-old girl in Billy Wilder's directorial debut, The Major and the Minor (1942); a prisoner who falls for a GI during a family furlough in William Dieterle and George Cukor's I'll Be Seeing You (1944); First Lady Dolly Madison in Frank Borzage's biopic, Magnificent Doll (1946); a French pickpocket in Sam Wood's Heartbeat (1946); and a sculptor who has left three grooms at the altar in Dan Hartman and Rudolph Maté's It Had to Be You (1947). She also returned to musicals by playing a magazine editor who undergoes psychoanalysis in Mitchell Leisen's Lady in the Dark (1944), which is strangely unavailable on disc anywhere in the world.
Few were surprised when Astaire emerged from retirement to replace an indisposed Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in Charles Walters's Easter Parade (1948). But eyebrows were raised when Ginger stepped in for the ailing Garland on the same director's The Barkleys of Broadway. Their sole colour outing and their only picture at MGM offered little scope for classic character dances, as the majority of the numbers were presented on stage. They joined forces with Oscar Levant for 'A Weekend in the Country' before dancing in the old-fashioned way for the last time to 'You'd Be Hard to Replace'. The following year, Ginger presented Fred with his Honorary Oscar and they delighted their peers with an impromptu spin while presenting an award seven years later. But they never performed together in public again.
Dancing in the Stars
Hollywood has never had much time for ageing stars, with even the most popular actresses frequently being marginalised once the next generation of starlets starts to emerge. Despite having proved herself in weighty dramas like Stuart Heisler's Ku Klux Klan noir, Storm Warning (1951), Rogers was still considered a musical comedy performer and she reprised her naughty teenager shtick in Howard Hawks's Monkey Business (1952), after drinking an elixir of youth concocted by her scientist husband, Cary Grant. She also featured in the lighter vignettes in such anthologies as Julien Duvivier's Tales of Manhattan (1942) and Edmund Goulding's We're Not Married (1952). In the former, she realises she prefers best man Henry Fonda to groom-to-be Cesar Romero, while the latter sees her question her motives for playing one half of a seemingly devoted radio couple with a despised spouse, Fred Allen.
She was more interestingly cast as celebrated actresses who get caught up in deadly situations in Nunnally Johnson's Black Widow and David Miller's Beautiful Stranger (both 1954), while in Phil Karlson's Tight Spot (1955), she plays a wrongly jailed model who is offered a chance of freedom by lawyer Edward G. Robinson if she testifies against ruthless mobster, Lorne Greene. But the fact that so few of Ginger's later pictures are available on disc testifies to their patchy quality and she had to settle for occasional small-screen roles, like that of the queen in Charles S. Dubin's adaptation of the oft-overlooked Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Cinderella (1965). However, she did become the highest-paid performer in West End history in 1969, when she spent 14 months at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in the hit musical, Mame. Ironically, she lost the lead in Gene Saks's 1974 movie version to Lucille Ball, who had come through the charm school that Lela Rogers had run at RKO in the 1930s.
Although he could be a deft comedian, Astaire was essentially a song-and-dance man and he continued to craft eye-catching routines for himself throughout the 1950s. He danced on the ceiling in Stanley Donen's Royal Wedding (1951) before finding another responsive partner in Cyd Charisse in Vincente Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953) and Rouben Mamoulian's Silk Stockings (1957). But time was catching up with him and the age gaps between himself and Lesley Caron in Jean Negulesco's Daddy Long Legs (1955) and Audrey Hepburn in Donen's Funny Face (1957) persuaded Fred to hang up his dancing pumps. He dusted them down again for his final screen musical, Francis Ford Coppola's Finian's Rainbow (1968), and for his last soft-shoe shuffle alongside director Gene Kelly in the MGM greatest hits package, That's Entertainment, Part II (1976).
Needing to reinvent himself to stay busy between his acclaimed TV specials with Barrie Chase (which really should have been released on disc by now), Astaire played an Australian scientist in Stanley Kramer's adaptation of Nevil Shute's sobering nuclear fallout drama, On the Beach (1959). He teamed with Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak to play a diplomat at the US Embassy in London in Richard Quine's The Notorious Landlady (1962) and took over Pat O'Brien's role as The Baltimore Kid in George McCowan's Western sequel, The Over the Hill Gang Rides Again (1970). More significantly, he landed his sole Oscar nomination (for Best Supporting Actor) for his performance as con man Harlee Claiborne in John Guillermin's blockbusting disaster movie, The Towering Inferno (1974), in which Astaire dances briefly with Jennifer Jones in what proved to be her final film.
Although he lost out to Robert De Niro in Coppola's The Godfather, Part II (1974), Astaire did win the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. Moreover, he inspired Donald P. Bellisario to create a specially written guest role as another con artist in 'The Man With Nine Lives', an episode in Glen A. Larsson's cult sci-fi series, Battlestar Galactica (1978-79). The same year, he took nine roles in Corey Allen's The Man in the Santa Claus Suit, before bowing out two years later, alongside fellow old-timers Melvin Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman in John Irvin's Ghost Story (1981).
Fred Astaire passed away at the age of 88 on 22 June 1987, with 83 year-old Ginger Rogers following his lead on 25 April 1995. They can be seen together in the clip from The Gay Divorcee that Ron Howard used in Cocoon (1985), while snippets of 'Cheek to Cheek' from Top Hat resurface in both Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Frank Darabont's The Green Mile (1999). They may now be dancing in the stars, but Fred and Ginger will forever be synonymous with the grace and mystique of Hollywood's Golden Age.