Even when I was still a small child, the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were already thirty years old. Their last film together, after ten years apart, was made some years before I was born, and their earliest collaboration was in 1935. Despite this, I always loved those films. The Art Deco sets, the snappy scripts, and of course, the wonderful music and dancing. Only ten films, nine in black and white, one in colour, yet they achieved an iconic status as an on-screen pairing, and nobody has ever matched their style since. Last week, I discovered that the BBC were showing two of their films, early on a Saturday, and I taped them. Although I have seen them all many times, and as recently as last year, the prospect of watching them always fills me with delight.
I agree that both Fred and Ginger were not the greatest singers ever known. However, the crooning tones were ideally suited to the material, and many of the classic songs just don’t sound right, performed by ‘serious’ singers. Here is Fred singing one of my favourite songs, and for once, they are not dancing!
Fred didn’t exactly have heart-throb looks either, even if Ginger could often be very pleasing to the eye. They sometimes played for laughs, and always with a knowing look. They invariably looked immaculate, and wore wonderful costumes too; and the ease with which they carried off the dance routines, was never less than breathtaking to behold. There must have been weeks of practice, and extensive choreography, but it never noticed. Not once. Just look at this wonderful sequence from ‘Follow the fleet’.
Some of the greatest songwriters of the century penned many of the songs used in the films. Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter are just some that come easily to mind. With so many classics to choose from, it is difficult. However, here is an early example, Cole porter’s ‘Night and day’, from the 1934 film, ‘The Gay Divorcee’ (Gay having a very different connotation then, of course.)
With most of their films made before 1939, they were working towards the end of The Great depression in America. With this as a backdrop, their escapist films, all fantasy and happy endings, must have been a chance for the poor of that era to forget their troubles for a couple of hours, for the cost of a cheap cinema ticket. The ensemble cast provided a full range of characters to flesh out the films. One well-known actor who appeared with Astaire in many of the films, was Edward Everett Horton. Here he is in a clip from the 1937 film ‘Shall We Dance?’ Fred is trying to make him feel seasick, with amusing results.
There was also the wonderful Eric Blore, who starred in many films with the duo, usually playing the part of a servant. English born, he retained his accent, and his air of exasperation, and had a great range of expressions. Here he is, playing a boring English waiter in ‘The Gay Divorcee’.
Over the years, I have always sought out these films to watch, though I have never bought them, on VHS, or DVD. Perhaps it is because they are shown so frequently on TV, that I feel they will always pop up again one of these days. For over four decades, I have avidly collected films, studied cinema, researched directors, and followed the changing trends, from New Wave, to World Cinema. I have rambled about the unparalleled directing ability of Akira Kurosawa, the misunderstood vision of Francis Ford Coppola’s later works, and enthused about the quality of German Cinema, perhaps the least applauded internationally. Until today, I haven’t written a word about Fred and Ginger, and I rebuke myself accordingly. If you think that they are old school, and not for you, please think again. If you liked them once, then forgot them, please try them again. And if you have never seen anything they did, prepare to be amazed.
There is no fantastic direction, no unusual camera tricks, and a complete absence of special effects. The scripts are predictable, and most plots simply involve ‘boy gets girl around a lot of dancing’. The comedy is old fashioned to our modern eyes, and there is no violence, sex, or swearing. It is entertainment, pure and simple. Two people who are masters of their art, at the top of their game. They are seamless, unbelievably talented, and make it look so easy, we believe we could do it. Of course, we couldn’t. No-one else ever did either. I will leave the last words and movements to Astaire and Rogers, performing what seems to be an effortless routine, to the Irvin Berlin song, ‘Cheek to Cheek’. Sublime.