It’s so spot on that there’s no getting around it, so let’s just go ahead and get that Katharine Hepburn quote out of the way right off the top: “He gives her class, she gives him sex.” She was speaking, of course, of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the most celebrated on-screen dance partnership not just of Hollywood’s golden age but of any age. Starting today, and on through the weekend, New Yorkers will be treated to a complete retrospective of the ten films they made together at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Before arriving in Hollywood, both Astaire and Rogers had risen up through vaudeville to Broadway. Rogers scored her first film roles in 1929 and a contract with Paramount the following year, and Astaire followed in 1933, appearing first as himself dancing alongside Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady. In his second film that year, Flying Down to Rio, he was billed fifth—just after Rogers—and it was their duet to the tune of “Carioca” that launched their partnership.
Writing for the New York Times in 2009, Alastair Macaulay argued that their appeal lay in the way they “expressed many of love’s moods: courtship and seduction, repartee and responsiveness, teasing and challenge, the surprise of newfound harmony, the happy recapture of bygone romance, the giddy exhilaration of high spirits and intense mutual accord, the sense of a perfect balance of power, the tragedy of parting and, not least, the sense of love as role playing.”
What also made their dance numbers so sensational, besides the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, was Astaire’s insistence that they be filmed in long, uninterrupted, head-to-toe shots with no distractions such as cutaways to close-ups or reaction shots. And as Michael Sragow points out in a piece for Film Comment, the pleasure of these films is derived from the way they “fashion their own ebullient subgenre by lampooning melodramas, weepies, drawing-room comedies, high-flown romances, and more conventional musicals. We’re in on the game as the filmmakers manipulate stock devices in novel ways from film to film.”
Film Comment has also just posted a terrific article from its September-October 1979 issue in which Robin Wood delves into the mythical underpinnings of the stories. “The tangles of the plots stand in (however trivially) for the trials, frustrations, vicissitudes of real life,” he wrote. “It is these that the dances transcend. It is in the dances, through the extraordinary skills of Astaire and Rogers, that the transformation happens: ordinary guy, ordinary gal become god and goddess before our very eyes.”
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