- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

Perhaps the most beloved musical comedy partnership in movie history, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers remain unrivaled more than half a century after they made their final movie together, “The Barkleys of Broadway,” a reunion project at MGM in 1949 that became feasible only when Judy Garland fell ill and Miss Rogers was willing to replace her.

The remaining nine Astaire-Rogers musicals were compressed into a six-year period, 1933-39, at RKO. This enduringly fascinating body of work will be revived at the American Film Institute Silver Theatre for two weeks, starting Friday with a showing of “Flying Down to Rio,” the first movie in the series. The restored art deco ambience of the Silver could enhance the fun of movies that date from the same period in which the original Silver was a new first-run house.

Even allowing for hindsight, the physical and temperamental rapport of these performers already looks inevitable in “Flying Down to Rio.” Moviegoers at its Radio City Music Hall premiere during the Christmas season of 1933 seemed to recognize it on sight. Although cast in subsidiary roles, Mr. Astaire and Miss Rogers emerged as the audience favorites, a fact not lost on the RKO management, which promptly signed them to extended contracts. (“Rio” is burdened with a “straight” romantic plot, a triangle involving Gene Raymond, Dolores Del Rio and Raul Roulien, that undercuts the movie’s chipper invention and squeezes the screen time of Mr. Astaire and Miss Rogers. This defect would recur in “Roberta” and “Follow the Fleet.”)

The new partners had known each other in New York. Mr. Astaire and his original partner, his sister Adele, 18 months older, became a vaudeville team as youngsters in 1905; they matured into the toast of Broadway and London with the musical comedies “Lady, Be Good!,” “Funny Face” and “The Band Wagon” during the 1920s. Miss Rogers started as a vaudeville dancer in Texas in her teens. She had cracked Broadway musical comedy by the late 1920s. A principal cast member of “Girl Crazy” in 1930, she was entrusted with the vocal of “But Not For Me.” Mr. Astaire, a friend of songwriters George and Ira Gershwin, agreed to help stage the number as a favor. Evidently, he and Miss Rogers dated on occasion, but the friendship was never inflamed by romance.

Miss Rogers had begun acting in movies at the Paramount studio in Astoria, Queens while appearing on Broadway. Adele and Fred did a guest bit in a Mary Pickford movie in 1915 and filmed a Vitagraph musical short in 1931. They were also screen tested by Walter Wanger, the same Paramount executive who recruited Miss Rogers, but nothing decisive resulted.

When Adele, engaged to a titled Englishman, decided to retire at the end of 1932, her brother faced a professional turning point. Though reconciled to a new direction, he didn’t necessarily want to take it with another steady partner. It also seemed imperative that he acquire a belated identity as a romantic leading man, a credential he could finesse as his sister’s co-star and the creative conscience of their act.

Ginger Rogers was an up-and-coming movie comedienne. She appeared in 19 movies before Fred Astaire made his film debut. Eight of them were released in 1933 before “Flying Down to Rio” opened. She remains a delightful scene-stealer in the two most famous of them, “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” Subordinating herself to a Broadway star, even one as prestigious and distinctive as Mr. Astaire, wasn’t her fondest career wish.

Nevertheless, they took the plunge, and the movie public loved the look and sound of them, even in fits and starts. In “Rio” they played colleagues, Mr. Astaire a band accordionist called Fred and Miss Rogers the band’s vocalist, Honey. Your appreciation for movie innuendo in this period is instantly enlarged when she sings “Music Makes Me (Do the Things I Never Should Do).” Fred and Honey aren’t necessarily sweethearts, but they’re already at ease with each other, and there’s something infectious and irresistible about their unspoken entente.

Dave Gould, the dance director of “Rio” and the next Astaire-Rogers film, “The Gay Divorcee” (derived from Mr. Astaire’s last Broadway and London show), was not a specialist in beguiling duets or solos. He was a big-game hunter a la Busby Berkeley, preoccupied with lavish, provocative and, alas, prolonged dance ensembles. “Rio” celebrates an exotic ballroom dance, the carioca. Mr. Astaire and Miss Rogers take the dance floor only briefly, between longer passages devoted to first a Latin ensemble and then a black ensemble (with Etta Moten in a stunning appearance as their singing auxiliary). However, a signature aspect of the dance — the partners touching foreheads — turns out to be a brilliant mind-meld conceit for the new team.

In subsequent musicals they became a matchless romantic force field, initially through humorous and flirtatious courtship scenes and ultimately by sharing emotionally grave and enchanting dance duets. These numbers reflected the choreographic sensibility of Fred Astaire and an alter-ego named Hermes Pan. Within a short period of time their standards also brought a welcome refinement and harmony to the presentation of musical numbers on film.

Granted complete responsibility in that sector, Mr. Astaire insisted, “Either the camera will dance or I will. A moving camera makes the dancer look as if he’s standing still…I have always tried to run a dance straight, keeping the full figure…in view and retaining the flow of the movements…There are certain advantages the screen has over the stage. You can concentrate your action on the dancer; the audience can follow intricate steps that were all but lost behind the footlights. Each person…sees the dance from the same perspective.”

The great duets begin auspiciously with “Night and Day” in “The Gay Divorcee.” Their erotic playfulness and sophistication were conspicuous from the start: The number concludes with Miss Rogers’ gown twirling around Mr. Astaire’s ankles, a moment before he glides her onto a divan and then offers her a cigarette. This breathtaker proved a foretaste. “Lovely To Look At” in “Roberta,” then “Cheek to Cheek” in “Top Hat,” then “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in “Follow the Fleet” and both “Waltz in Swing Time” and “Never Gonna Dance” in “Swing Time” enriched the pattern.

Inexplicably, there’s a lost opportunity in “Shall We Dance”: You assume that Mr. Astaire’s melancholy vocal on “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” is a preamble to another great dance duet with Miss Rogers, incorporating the moods of regret and estrangement that were integral to similar numbers in the past, but the consummation isn’t there. During the finale, choreographed to the Gershwin title song, Mr. Astaire’s character needs to unmask Miss Rogers from a chorus line of impostors. In retrospect, it seems to anticipate their RKO swan song, which occurred two years later in “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.”

Long before the breakup, Mr. Astaire’s romantic credentials had been verified. Katharine Hepburn summed up the partnership with an impertinent but accurate quip: “She gave him sex and he gave her class.”

While working attractively with a number of partners in later decades, Fred Astaire never found a comparable romantic match. For one thing, the age gap tended to lengthen. He was 12 years older than Miss Rogers. By the time he recruited the remarkable young Barrie Chase for a set of television specials in the late 1950s, he was 37 years older and seemed to be an Olympian mentor rather than a suitor.

Several years ago a lesbian feminist attempted to demystify the Astaire-Rogers partnership by quipping that Ginger Rogers had to do all the hard work, by dancing backward. The joke has credibility only if you’ve never observed an Astaire-Rogers duet closely. The typical patterns of movement find the partners side-by-side, mirroring each other’s steps in numerous ways and ultimately revolving in dizzying embraces. They seem to become one despite the twoness obviously involved.

How could anyone miss the point of these choreographic acts of love?

WHAT: “Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers,” revival of the nine musicals made by the team at RKO from 1933-1939

WHERE: American Film Institute Silver Theatre

WHEN: Friday through Aug. 7

TICKETS: $8.50 general admission; $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors (over 65).

PHONE: 202/785-4600 for pre-recorded program information.

WEB SITE: www.AFI.com/Silver

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