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RKO: Fred and Ginger
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are separated
by a Top Hat on the original sheet music cover for Irving Berlin's "Cheek to
In 1928, businessman Joseph P. Kennedy teamed up with RCA
Radio and the Keith-Orpheum vaudeville theatre circuit to form
Radio-Keith-Orpheum, usually referred to as RKO Pictures. Although
often strapped for cash, the studio managed an ambitious creative range, creating
the iconographic King Kong and the landmark drama Citizen Kane. It
is perhaps appropriate that the only major Hollywood studio formed after the invention
of sound should produce the first series of screen musicals to successfully
integrate song, story and dance -- all a full decade before Broadway saw a
similar revolution begin with Oklahoma.
RKO's earliest musicals had been forgettable efforts until a
lucky bit of support casting unexpectedly opened the way for change.
Broadway veteran Fred Astaire
made little headway in Hollywood until RKO cast him in the minor role of a band leader
in Flying Down To Rio (1933). When offered the choice of several
starlets as a dance partner, he chose Ginger Rogers,
who he had choreographed a routine for in the 1930 Broadway production of Girl
Crazy. Through most of Flying Down to Rio, top-billed stars Dolores
Del Rio and Gene Raymond slog through a tedious love plot while
Astaire and Rogers make occasional wisecracks. Then during "The Carioca,"
Fred and Ginger step on to the floor and touch foreheads while dancing.
Their wholesome charm had unmistakably sexual undertones, and turned an
otherwise minor number into the highlight of the film, setting off a tremendous
response among moviegoers.
Rio had a surprising impact on viewers. Decades later, director
Stanley Donen described his reaction this way --
I was nine, and I'd never seen anything like it in my life.
I'm not sure I have since. It was as if something had
exploded inside me. . . I was mesmerized. I could
not stop watching Fred Astaire dance. I went back to the theatre every day while
the picture was playing. I must've seen it at least twenty times. Fred Astaire was
so graceful. It was as if he were connected to the music. He led it and he interpreted
it, and he made it look so effortless. He performed as though he were absolutely
- as quoted by Stephen M. Silverman in Dancing on the Ceiling: Stanley
Donen and His Movies. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996), pp. 11-13.
Producer Pandro S. Berman persuaded the studio
to design a star vehicle for Astaire and Rogers. In
The Gay Divorcee (1934), they danced and romanced, inventing what became
their standard formula a devil-may-care playboy and a sweet girl with spunk get
into a tangle of mistaken identities, fall in love on the dance floor (to
something like Cole Porterís "Night and Day"), resolve their
misunderstandings in the nick of time, and foxtrot their way to a black and white
"happily ever after" ending. This film was based on the stage musical
Gay Divorce, but the Hays office demanded a change of title. Under
Hollywood's new Production Code, it was acceptable to suggest a divorced person
was "gay" (as in "happy"), but a film couldn't say that a divorce was
happy! Despite the glamorous surroundings and witty banter,
Astaire and Rogers are likeable Americans, "just like us" or
just like the folks most people wished they could be.
Top Hat (1935) embodies RKO's Astaire-Rogers formula at
its best, with a variation of the "mistaken identities" plot with stylish comic
support from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore and Helen Broderick, and a
solid-gold score by no less than Irving Berlin.
"Isnít This a Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain," "No Strings," the
title tune and the unforgettable "Cheek to Cheek" are deftly integrated into a story
of mistaken identities set in an eye-popping black and white art deco vision of Venice. The
dialogue is breezy and clever, and the atmosphere one of elegant delight. It is still hard
to resist this giddy cinematic cocktail.
A popular quote (usually attributed to actress Katherine
Hepburn) claims that "Fred gave Ginger class, while she gave him sex appeal."
While there may be some truth in this observation, the fact is that both Astaire and
Rogers already had each of those qualities. It was the indefinable connection between their
screen personas that made their class and sex appeal so powerful and so irresistible.
The Astaire-Rogers Formula
The original sheet music cover
for "Yesterdays," a hit song in Roberta (1935), depicts
Astaire & Rogers as well as co-star Irene Dunne.
Now remembered as a dramatic actress, Dunne had a fine soprano
voice and starred in numerous screen musicals.
During Hollywood's golden age, the goal for most studios was
to find stars, then to create films that showcased those stars. Once the
public embraced the Astaire and Rogers "mistaken identities"
formula, RKO used variations of that plot for Astaire and Rogers in five more
films, most directed Mark Sandrich. Choreographed
primarily by Astaire and his associate Hermes Pan,
these were the first musicals (on stage or screen) to make substantial use of
integrated dialogue, song and dance to develop character and tell a story. The scores
were provided by some of the greatest composers in the business.
Roberta (1935) included
Jerome Kern's "Iíll Be Hard To
Follow The Fleet (1936) had
Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the
Music and Dance"
Swing Time (1936) boasted Kern's
"The Way You Look Tonight"
Shall We Dance (1937) offered
Ira Gershwin's "Letís
Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Canít Take That Away
Carefree (1938) included Berlin's
Whenever the formulaic plots show signs of getting tired (and they
sometimes do), Astaire and Rogers start dancing and joy reigns again on screen.
Never more than cordial colleagues in real life, their dance numbers exude a playful yet
seductive passion. Astaire had any number of technically accomplished dance partners over
the years, but the effect he achieved with Rogers was unique -- for lack of another word,
it is usually described as "chemistry."
With both Astaire and Rogers anxious to move on with their
individual careers, the duo ended their RKO partnership with The Story of
Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), which dropped the formula
to pay a stylish and heartfelt tribute to a real-life
dance team from the pre-World War I era. To the studio's surprise, the public didn't give
a hoot about the formula -- they cared about two ingredients called Fred and Ginger.
In the years following the RKO series, Astaire concentrated on musicals at
various studios while Rogers
sought to prove herself as a dramatic actress. She even won an Academy Award as Best
Actress for Kitty Foyle (1940). (Author's note: Garland, Kelly and Astaire never
received acting Oscars, but Rogers got one? Talk about the importance of
timing.) Astaire and Rogers were re-united one final time, when Judy Garland
dropped out of MGM's The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). The old team's
"chemistry" remained delightful.
Astaire later screen musicals included Royal Wedding (1951),
The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and Finianís Rainbow
(1968), and he also starred in a series of acclaimed dance specials
for television. He was nominated for an Academy Award for a dramatic role in
The Towering Inferno (1974), and made his final musical screen appearance dancing
with Gene Kelly in That's Entertainment II (1976). Astaire
consistently spoke well of Rogers, complimenting her professionalism and dedication.
Rogers filmed forgettable dramas, limiting her musical efforts to
occasional stage projects. In interviews, she often downplayed the importance of
Astaire in her career. When Rogers died, every newspaper and television newscast in
the world carried pictures of her dancing with Astaire. But what else could anyone
have expected? The image of Astaire and Rogers dancing their hearts out is one of the
definitive cultural icons of the 20th Century, a reminder that a violent age also had
a sense of music, fun, and sheer style that nothing could snuff out.
In dance by (this) couple, we see our world and
what it is possible to make of its spaces in the light of such movements we can
find that our earthbound nature is made acceptable, even delicious.
- Edward Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers (New York: Columbia
University Press, 2000), p. 224.
Throughout the 1930s, outside the gates of RKO, musicals were percolating
at every major Hollywood studio . . .
Next: Film 1930s - Part IV