You may think you remember what a typical Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie is like. There's initial antagonism—they meet cute, but while he's instantly smitten, she is unimpressed. He pursues her; she rebuffs him, but eventually acquiesces to a dance. As they move in a sweeping, fluid duet to a gorgeously romantic song, now a standard, that was written for them—Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," say, or "Cheek to Cheek"—she finds herself falling in love with this odd-looking but beautifully graceful man. Their courtship dance is observed, aided and impeded by a cast of comic supporting actors which include Edward Everett Horton (a continually exasperated best friend), Eric Blore (a fey waiter or valet), and Eric Rhodes (a vain foreign competitor for Ginger). All the characters move in a world of elegant cafés, resort hotels, tuxedos and evening gowns—and this at the height of the Depression.
So it was a bit of a shock to discover, as we began to re-watch the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies for RKO Pictures (excluding the musical biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), that only two of their first five movies together actually conform to this model. And it's also surprising how contingent the beginning of their partnership seems. One of the greatest dance pairings of the 20th century came together as a matter of chance (which, as we will learn in their second film together, The Gay Divorcée (1934), "is just the fool's name for fate"). Fred was famously (if perhaps apocryphally) screen-tested and found wanting: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." Ginger was the better-known and more experienced movie actor, but she had mainly played supporting roles as a wisecracking chorus girl. In two of their first three films together Astaire and Rogers are not even the top-billed stars. But as Katherine Hepburn famously (if perhaps apocryphally) said of them, "He gave her class, and she gave him sex."
1. Flying Down to Rio (1933): But neither class nor sex is much apparent in their first film together, which barely qualifies as an Astaire-Rogers film. She's fourth-billed, he's fifth, and they have only one brief number together. But they provide the only sparks of interest in a plot that seems like it was thrown together over lunch on the first day of shooting. Dolores Del Rio is a sultry Latin bombshell who so bewitches blond bandleader Gene Raymond that he follows her with his entire orchestra down to Rio de Janiero. Raymond wins the girl and rescues her father's hotel (which has been denied an entertainment license) by—of course!—strapping dozens of dancing girls to the wings of airplanes and executing a Busby Berkeley-style aerial production number over the beach.
Ginger plays Honey Hale, the singer in Raymond's orchestra, and Fred is Fred Ayres, Raymond's accordion player/assistant conductor/sidekick. They don't take the floor together until midway through the film during the novelty dance number "The Carioca" (music by Vincent Youmans; lyrics by Edward Eliscu and Gus Kahn). As the lyrics have it, "it's not a foxtrot or a polka," but rather an odd dance in which the partners touch foreheads while executing a complicated tango step. Not even Fred and Ginger can make this look graceful, and at one point they make a joke of it by knocking their heads together and then staggering around the dance floor as if dazed. You'll feel a bit dazed, too, if you watch this movie, which is for Fred and Ginger completists only:
According to Arlene Croce's The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (Outerbridge & Lazard, 1972), Ginger wasn't even originally cast in Flying Down to Rio: "Rogers might not have been in the film at all if Dorothy Jordan, who had been cast, hadn't decided to marry Merian C. Cooper, the head of the studio, and go off on a honeymoon rather than dance with Fred Astaire" (p. 25). Fortunately for all of us, Ginger seized that chance, and it led to star billing in their next film together.
2. The Gay Divorcée (1934) was based on a Cole Porter stage musical, The Gay Divorce (1932), which was Fred Astaire's first (and final) Broadway hit without his partner and sister Adele; after its success, he went to Hollywood. In the transition from stage to film, many things were lost, including most of Porter's songs ("Night and Day" was the only survivor), but a few things were retained, including both Eric Rhodes (as a preening professional adulterer) and Eric Blore (doing his waiter routine). Edward Everett Horton is Fred's best friend, a dim lawyer who takes on the task of getting Ginger divorced from her elderly, indifferent husband. (Indifferent to Ginger? Of the many implausibilities in this film, that might be the hardest one to swallow.)
There's a good Astaire solo number near the beginning of the film, "A Needle In A Haystack" (music by Con Conrad, lyrics by Herb Magidson). Fred gets dressed in a natty suit while dancing around, over and on the furniture in his sitting room, all the while singing about his quest to find the girl he's suddenly smitten with (who is—who else?).
In the worst idea in the movie Horton, a non-dancer, is partnered with Betty Grable in a novelty number, "Let's K-nock K-neez"—thanks to Horton's inability to dance, Grable is left to carry the very weak comedy of this number on her own.
In fact, it's amazing how much screen time is taken up by characters other than Fred and Ginger; it looks as though the studio still had doubts about their ability to carry a film. They don't even get to dance that much together, just two numbers. The first is Porter's "Night and Day," the model for every falling-in-love ballad that followed. It's taken at a significantly faster tempo than, say, Ella Fitzgerald's later version, but even so it's fluid and beautiful. Ginger finds herself alone with Fred; she tries to leave, he prevents her, and they fall into a swooning dance until her half-hearted resistance is overcome. At the end of the dance Rogers gazes at Astaire in what seems to be unfeigned wonder:
One thing to be aware of in this clip and in the others to follow is how beautifully they're shot: the takes are long (sometimes an entire, minutes-long dance is a single take!) and medium shots are used to make sure both that the dancers' bodies are generally visible from head to toe, and that the viewer has a sense of the space that they're moving in. That was due to Astaire, who choreographed and directed his own dances.
The second Fred-Ginger number is "The Continental" (another Conrad/Magidson song), modelled explicitly on "The Carioca," and similarly involving armies of black and white clad dancers executing precision steps in front of a vast white edifice while we wonder what's happened to Fred and Ginger, who disappear five minutes into this 17-minute marathon. Fortunately they return to dance up and down the stairs at the very end.
So, many of the elements of the classic Astaire-Rogers films are present in this one, but the script isn't nearly as clever as it should be, and far too much time is taken up with tired vaudeville routines involving the other characters. Much better things were to follow...