Fred and Ginger. Their first names alone sweep our thoughts into images of slender silhouettes—usually a shimmering, ruffled gown, effortlessly whirling around a sharp top hat, white tie, and tails. In other instances they delighted audiences with the vigorous staccato of taps, pounding out a bouncing pick-me-up beat to an audience burdened by Depression-era woes. Whichever you favor, the most famous dance team in cinematic history is bound to entertain you—especially with one of their best films: Swing Time (1936).
Fred and Ginger are Deco. They are the pinnacle of a film era that portrayed the glitz and glamour of a future that never came. After the thriving 1920s, people expected a future of wealth and excess. They were instead greeted by financial disaster and the harsh reality of the Great Depression.
Yet, in the face of Depression came a need for optimism from the entertainment industry. While people were dealing with economic hardships each day, the film studios worked to make their films uplifting—both a diversion and pep talk of sorts—for the struggling citizens that made America tick. Films were not only to be an antidote for reality, but also a method of revitalization for overburdened moviegoers. The movie screen became a means of magic—transporting patrons to a fantastic world of music, love, extravagance, dance, witty quips, beautiful people, and an overwhelming sense of ease and confidence.
Coming from a successful stage career with his sister, Adele, Fred Astaire auditioned for RKO Radio Pictures. His screen test report read, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also, dances.” While the screen test was discouraging, film producer David O. Selznick contended that Astaire’s charm was worth a try, and Astaire joined RKO.
In his first RKO film, Flying Down to Rio (1933), Astaire proved to be genuinely likable, with a strong screen presence and potential that was complemented by his incredible dancing ability. Years of stage experience as a performer propelled him into the public eye as a gifted dancer, but with his sister happily retired from dancing, Astaire was pressed for finding a new dance partner.
Hesitant to be part of yet another dance team, Astaire was eventually swayed into the Astaire-Rogers team, as Rogers had appeared with him in Flying Down to Rio. After appearing as a snarky “Anytime Annie” in 42nd Street (1933) and a sardonic Pig Latin-speaking chorus girl in Gold Diggers of 1933, the newly-formed screen partnership moved on to their second film together: The Gay Divorcee (1934).
The repertoire of Astaire-Rogers films increased with Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). The pair would reunite ten years later for MGM’s The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). However, their early films proved to be the most profitable for RKO at the time, with each film boasting its own artistry and inventiveness.
Astaire himself is however responsible for two major advances in the musical. He asserted that dance routines were to be filmed in a single shot, ideally holding the dancers in complete view at all times. This insistence differentiated with the Busby Berkeley musical, which was filled with a variety of shots and angles of the many dancers.
Next, Astaire contended that all songs and dances should be woven into the actual plot of the film, so that the story could advance—rather than the Berkeley marvels, which were amazing to see, but did not contribute to the actual story. Astaire enjoyed complete autonomy over how his dances would be presented, and gained a percentage of film profits.
Soon enough, Rogers and Astaire became representations of class, complete with extravagant dress, happy-go-lucky attitudes, and graceful routines. Moreover, they made the art of dance more appealing to their audiences. Men wished to have the dancing skills of Astaire, while women wanted to be as poised as Rogers. With the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, and Swing rising in popularity, Astaire and Rogers brought attention to classical ballroom dancing. Furthermore, Rogers made dancing with Astaire look like the most thrilling experience. Their energy and association with each other brought dance into the limelight, and subsequently made them into household names.
George Stevens’ Swing Time, however, was Ginger Rogers’ favorite Astaire-Rogers film. Set in New York City, the film stars Astaire and Rogers, with a supporting cast composed of Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Betty Furness, Eric Blore, and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The Kern-Fields song, “The Way You Look Tonight” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song, sung to Rogers while washing her hair (with whipped cream, in reality, so it would not run down her face). Each dance routine is seen as a choreographic masterpiece, and is featured against an ornate Screen Deco set.
Swing Time continues to act as “chicken soup” for a Depression-weary audience, and is a cheerful, uplifting film. A perpetually-lucky and charismatic gambler, aptly-named “Lucky” (Astaire) moves to New York to earn money and marry his high society sweetheart (Furness). His best pal (Moore), who just so happens to be the opposite of luck, tags along on the trip. The two meet Penny (Rogers), who works as a dance instructor, her boss (Blore), and friend Mabel (Broderick). Love, laughter, and trouble ensue, framed by spectacular dance routines and outstanding songs.
The dance numbers in this film are some of the most memorable routines in cinema. “Pick Yourself Up” epitomizes Depression-era songs, with a hopeful message of strength and an assurance that success and happiness are always around the corner. The song encourages one to, “Pick yourself up/ Dust yourself off/ And start all over again.” This basic polka, highlighted by syncopated rhythms is the first Astaire-Rogers number in the film, and is performed on a circular dance floor, in an Art Deco office. One of the most famous stills of Astaire and Rogers to be photographed and reproduced for publicity is taken from this scene. It is no surprise that President Barack Obama referenced these optimistic lyrics in his 2009 inauguration acceptance speech, preparing to lead our nation through its fiscal dilemma.
Many other memorable numbers occur throughout this film, including “The Way You Look Tonight” and its tender foxtrot. The song itself wound up being an Oscar winner by composer Jerome Kern. Initially, the song is glowing with optimism as Penny washes her hair and Lucky sings at the piano. However, when it is reprised in another dance sequence, it evokes a more melancholy mood.
“Waltz in Swing Time” exudes romance in a syncopated waltz with tap overlays, with which Astaire would experiment in some of his later films. It was dubbed as the best piece of pure dancing music ever written for Astaire. Despite the complexity of the routine, Astaire and Rogers still find time to celebrate love and poke fun at ideas of extravagance through dance.
Kern’s third standard is “A Fine Romance,” which acts as a bittersweet quickstep, complete with sentimental lyrics and a comedic view of romance running dry. Both Rogers and a bowler-hatted Astaire alternate in singing the song. Ginger initially sings of her dissatisfaction, while Astaire lightly impersonates Stan Laurel. They later switch off with Astaire singing his portion, and Ginger halfheartedly listening to his position.
“Bojangles of Harlem” pays tribute to dancer Bill Robinson and his style of tap dancing. Kern was inspired to write this number when Astaire visited his home and sang while dancing on and over his furniture. Astaire performs the number in blackface, while also using trick photography to show a bowler-hatted Astaire dancing with three of his shadows. This two-minute solo with shadows took three days to film, and resulted in a Best Dance Direction Academy Award nomination for choreographer Hermes Pan.
“Never Gonna Dance” is considered to be the greatest achievement of collaborator and choreographer Hermes Pan’s career. The haunting ballad dramatically depicts the leads’ affair coming to a melancholy close. Dancers glide up various staircases in one of the most alluring Art Deco Sets developed by Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. The routine ends with a helpless Rogers drifting away from the scene and a crestfallen Astaire accepting their fate. Its climax took 47 takes in one day, and required many arduous spins on Rogers’ part, who consequently ended the day with bleeding feet.
While Astaire is praised as a talented and innovative dancer, Rogers excelled in her own right. In T. Satchel’s Astaire, The Biography, Astaire revealed: “Ginger had never danced with a partner before Flying Down to Rio. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn’t tap and she couldn’t do this and that […] but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.”
Rogers became a strong figure in the film industry and for several women. As the saying goes, she did indeed do everything that Fred Astaire did—albeit backwards and in high heels. Rogers herself also stated: “You know, there’s nothing damnable about being a strong woman. The world needs strong women. There are a lot of strong women you do not see who are guiding, helping, mothering strong men. They want to remain unseen. It’s kind of nice to be able to play a strong woman who is seen.”
Astaire and Rogers, however, had a great way of balancing each other out. Katherine Hepburn contended, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.” Comparing Rogers between her “Anytime Annie” character and a glamorous goddess dancing with Astaire—who many felt was born in a top hat and tails, as he quipped—shows a stark contrast.
Pan, who worked as Astaire’s choreographer for the majority of his career, added: “People have always asked me about Fred’s best partner, and I always say Ginger Rogers. Ginger had a quality that made Fred seem like the most romantic hero since Gable.”
“We had fun and it shows,” mused Rogers in a 1976 interview. “I adore the man. I always have adored him. It was the most fortunate thing that ever happened to me, being teamed with Fred: he was everything a little starry-eyed girl from a small town ever dreamed of.”
While both Astaire and Rogers had solid careers independently, their screen partnership continues to hold a particular nostalgia and glowing ambiance that few films possess. The musicals that they made together continue to entertain audiences around the world, and charm people of all ages. Moreover, their superb versatility and power to seamlessly convey emotion in a variety of dances has affirmed them as one of the most famous dance teams in motion picture history—forever at the top, and forever dancing.