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The Top 6 Nonmusical Astaire/Rogers Moments
I have been a fan of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers since 2001, when I first saw Top Hat on TCM. With childlike obsessiveness, I watched it over and over, and through the years I saw all ten of their films. My Astaire/Rogers obsession is like a volcano that is dormant for several years, then will unexpectedly erupt once again. Why do I love them? Pretty much the same reasons as everyone else: they dance gorgeously together, the music is timeless, and their movies are gloriously silly fun. Who cares if the majority of their films relied on Idiot Plot contrivances? What does it matter if they were basically fantasies? The Astaire/Rogers musicals had tons of style, but weren't completely devoid of substance, which is why they endure to this day. Besides, during the Depression, audiences wanted glossy escapism, and the Astaire/Rogers provided just that and more.
Yet we associate them so strongly with dancing, it is too easy to forget the key ingredient to why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are still the definitive classic screen couple: chemistry. No one knows for certain why some actors have chemistry with some rather than others (and, really, who wants to know?). I happily maintain that Rogers was Astaire’s greatest partner. Was she the best singer, dancer or actress? No, but Rogers could sing, dance and act just fine, thank you very much, and she had, far and away, the best chemistry with Astaire. Some partners came close, but they could never truly compare.
When you watch an Astaire/Rogers film, don’t just pay attention to the dancing (fabulous and spellbinding as it is), but the scenes in between. It’s usually the same formula: Fred pursues aloof Ginger, melts her cold, cold heart, they overcome foolish misunderstandings and obstacles, and dance off together by the time the credits roll. But sometimes it varied, or other times Astaire and Rogers were able to rise above formulaic moments, and that’s what inspired me to make a list of my favorite, nonmusical Astaire/Rogers moments. Remember, these are strictly my opinions. It's just a fun collection of what I feel to be their best "in between" moments, whether they're cute, charming, happy or sad.
#6: The Meet Cute, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
Everyone loves a good Meet Cute, and Hollywood screenwriters have always been especially fond of a Meet Cute where one or more of the party involved gets wet. Better still? If a cute little dog is somehow involved. Fred and Ginger get the best of both worlds in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. The film is significant in numerous ways: it was the only one of their films based on a true story (the Castles were famed WWI ballroom dancers), the first where they play a married couple, and their last for RKO (they'd reunite one last time, ten years later, for MGM's The Barkleys of Broadway).
It is 1911, and Vernon Castle (Astaire) is at the beach, dejected after having been stood up by his date. When he's bothered by a Cute Little Dog, he throws a stick to get rid of it, but only to see he has thrown the stick in the water, and now the Cute Little Dog is paddling helplessly to fetch it. Horrified, Vernon swims out to rescue the Cute Little Dog, but is unaware that spunky Irene Foote (Rogers) is also swimming out to save it, and she and Vernon bump heads! In the water! Trying to save a Cute Little Dog! Only Astaire and Rogers could play this cavalcade of cliches with their usual flair and style, and I can't help but appreciate how unabashedly adorable it is. It's not a stylized meeting in a grand hotel, or love at first sight, but a humorous situation that could happen to anyone. Fred doesn't immediately go to work wooing Ginger, and she isn't inclined to play hard to get. It's also refreshing for how imperfect they look on their initial meeting (Ginger in her turn-of-the century bathing suit, Fred in his candy-striped sports jacket). Best of all, they got a Cute Little Dog out of the deal.
#5: The hansom carriage switcheroo, Top Hat (1935)
After their initial Meet Cute, where Jerry (Astaire) awakens downstairs neighbor Dale (Rogers) with his tap dancing, she is still a bit frosty towards him, despite his best efforts to charm her. She takes a hansom carriage to go riding, and along the way, she haughtily asks the driver if he can go any faster. He gives a series of roundabout answers, in the most exaggerated Cockney accent this side of My Fair Lady. Suddenly, her eyes widen in horror as she hears some familiar tapping from the driver, opens the roof door, and Jerry’s face peeks down at her, where he teasingly says, “Peek-a-boo”. Jerry has somehow taken the driver's place, and Dale demands he stop the carriage, but Jerry confesses (not surprisingly) that he doesn’t know how. As the horse goes faster and faster, Dale asks what they should do, and Jerry flippantly answers, “In dealing with a girl or horse, one just lets nature take its course.” Dale angrily slams the roof door, pauses, then allows herself a private giggle at the situation. Though it is early on in the film, and we still have the Mistaken Identity plot to get through, it is the first step for Dale's inevitable attraction to Jerry.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: I have to hand it to Astaire, he got away with some pretty damn stalker-ish behavior in his films. Either I’m too forgiving, or he’s just so charming, he can pull it off, as opposed to other actors. Imagine, say, Robert Mitchum in the above mentioned scene. Doesn’t quite work, does it?
#4: The reunion, Follow the Fleet (1936)
Bake (Astaire), a sailor, is on temporary shore leave, and he drops by a dime-a-dance joint to visit his former dancing partner, Sherry (Rogers). They were in vaudeville together, but after she turned down his marriage proposal, they broke up the act and he joined the Navy. But he still carries the torch for her... and for their act, apparently, because the running gag is that when Bake hears a specific melody on the bugle, he instantly gets to tappin’. Sherry is of a like mind, because when Bake finally sneaks backstage to see her, he plays the same melody on his piccolo and Sherry reflexively does the same dance, turns and sees him, and immediately rushes to give him an exuberant hug. This is easily one of their most lovely and tender moments, since they are playing a couple with an established history, and they are happily reunited. Sherry is just beside herself with joy (I refuse to believe Ginger’s tears aren’t real), and can’t stop telling Bake how glad she is to see him. Of course, we get the usual contrivances along the way that threaten to break them up yet again, but not even the plodding story can ruin this heart-melting moment.
Yet Another Tiresome Rant: Follow the Fleet is the most frustrating Astaire/Rogers musicals, because Fred and Ginger are, for some psychotically stupid reason, reduced to supporting players, despite headlining the movie. After proving their box office mettle in 1934's The Gay Divorcee, their second film, they were inexplicably cast as the beta couple in the following year’s Roberta. Even after the massive success of Top Hat, they were made secondary characters again in Follow the Fleet. What were the powers that be smoking?!
It’s bad enough that Follow the Fleet has a crushingly dull main story, but our uncharismatic lead couple is played by Blandolph, er, Randolph Scott, and mousy Harriet Hilliard (the future Mrs. Ozzie Nelson). My advice? Skip Scott and Hilliard’s scenes and just enjoy Fred and Ginger, who perform some of their greatest dance routines in this one (including the legendary “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”).
#3: The departure, Swing Time (1936)
Lucky (Astaire), a dancer/gambler, has missed his wedding due to a prank involving his pants (don’t ask). He runs off to New York to earn $25,000 to prove he’s worthy of his fiancée, but he instead falls for Penny (Rogers), a fetching dance teacher. They become successful dance partners (natch), but Lucky is now torn between two women, and when his fiancée comes back to town and he has indeed earned the $25,000, a devastated Penny accepts the marriage proposal of an oily bandleader (George Metaxa). No, I don't know why young, healthy, talented, attractive Penny feels the need to marry someone she clearly doesn't love, either. My best answer is, it was the thirties, just go with it.
Meeting at the glistening Silver Sandal nightclub, a visibly anguished Lucky says good-bye to Penny, while apologizing and wishing her the best. Penny, fiddling with her engagement ring, puts on a brave front, but is just as crestfallen as Lucky, as evidenced by this wonderful exchange:
Penny: Does she dance very beautifully?
Penny: The girl you’re in love with.
Lucky: Yes, very.
Penny: The girl you’re engaged to? The girl you’re going to marry?
Lucky: Oh, I wouldn’t know. I’ve danced with you. I’m never going to dance again.
Corny? Maybe, but Fred and Ginger sell these lines perfectly, and that takes a special kind of talent. If you’re too sincere, it becomes maudlin, but if you wink at the lines, no one will able to tell if you’re serious or not. You really feel their sadness at their departure. Still, their (temporary) loss is our gain, for this is just the prelude to their most powerful, sublime pas de deux, "Never Gonna Dance".
#2: Walking the dogs, Shall We Dance (1937)
At first, Shall We Dance has the usual Astaire/Rogers formula, but it's high on my list because it tweaks it a little. Pete (Astaire) has fallen for Linda (Rogers) at first sight, has schemed to be on the same ship she’s on, and she’s of course resistant, but then something different happens: Linda, walking her little dog on deck, is joined by Pete, who has volunteered to walk someone’s lumbering Great Dane in order to be near her. Linda is at first unimpressed, but then in the next scene, while walking her little dog again, she is surprised by the sight of Pete casually walking a comical slew of dogs. Touched and amused, she finally gives him a chance, and we next see a mini-montage of them walking her dog together, laughing and talking.
What’s this? They actually take time to get to know one another? They don’t have to go into their dance right away? They’re actually communicating like adults? What fresh madness is this?!
Seriously, though, it’s a brief but incredibly memorable scene, and I enjoyed seeing them bond and just converse like normal people and, once again, a Cute Little Dog is involved. Plus, I've never been one to complain about some good old-fashioned character development in action.
(Tie) Ginger's confession and Fred's rejection, Carefree (1938)
All right, I’m cheating here, but I simply had to include them both because they are not only the most striking departures from the usual formula of the typical Astaire/Rogers musical, they are also both the most emotionally honest and and even heartbreaking moments, and in the same movie, no less.
Amanda (Rogers) is a radio singer whose fiancée, Steve (that perennial loser in love, Ralph Bellamy), sends her to psychiatrist Tony (Astaire) so they can figure out why she keeps breaking off their engagement (again, it’s the thirties, just go with it). After the inevitable rocky start, Amanda and Tony warm to each other and Tony prescribes some unappetizing food to induce a dream for Amanda (yes, it’s one of those movies where psychiatry is reduced to dream analysis and witchcraft). It works... Amanda dreams about Tony and realizes she’s in love with him. She’s too embarrassed to tell him at first, so she feeds him outrageous lies about what she dreamed about, and this leads to wacky hijinks involving Tony administering an anesthetic to her to release her inhibitions (Tony, it must be said, is one of cinema’s worst psychiatrists), and Amanda running amok, smashing windows, and making a terrific fool of herself on the radio.
Anyway, once all that lovable nonsense is settled (and after Fred and Ginger dance “The Yam”, one of their most dynamic numbers), things get serious when, while dancing together, Amanda finally confesses her feelings to Tony. If anyone had any doubt of Ginger’s abilities as an actress, please watch the enclosed clip. Ginger has never been more touching and real than in this scene. Deeply nervous and tentative, but bravely soldiering on, she girlishly stammers and struggles for the right words. You can almost feel the lump in her throat as she admits her love for Tony, and her genuine guilt about having to hurt Steve (the movie never addresses why one of them doesn’t just cut their losses and end the relationship). The bittersweet mood isn’t even hampered by the reminders that this is a comedy (Fred’s facial reactions are both lovely and hilarious).
Then comes the other great moment in Carefree, that’s even more unusual: Tony’s rejection of Amanda. That’s right, Fred is the one who tries to give Ginger the brush.
The morning after Amanda’s declaration of love, Tony invites her for an appointment, and sternly gets her to ‘fess up about her dream. He then goes on to tell her that what she's experiencing is merely transference, and that her feelings are all in her head. What makes this scene the most poignant in the series is the even-handed, solemn tone. Tony isn’t trying to be cold or unkind, merely professional and pragmatic, but he fails to see that Amanda’s feelings are very real, and that his dismissive and clinical attitude is hurting her. As he casually lectures her, there is a long close-up of Amanda’s face, which, bit by bit, reveals her humiliation and distress, as a single tear escapes her eye. It is exquisite acting by both, not just Ginger’s subtle heartache, but Fred’s grounded delivery of his lines. I own a paperback copy of Carefree’s screenplay, and it pointed out that Tony doesn't face Amanda for a good portion of the scene, which is a dead giveaway that maybe Tony isn't as emotionally in tune with others, or himself, as he thinks he is. It’s no spoiler that Tony eventually discovers that he loves Amanda, and that all will end well, but I believe these two scenes are the strongest display of Astaire and Rogers’ indomitable chemistry, and their ability to both warm and break our hearts.