Sunday, October 31, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Prologue for the Epilogue

So now you know about all the films Fred and Ginger starred in together. I do not count Flying Down to Rio because it's so abysmal and they're barely in it. Really, if you're curious, or you're a rabid enough fan of Astaire and Rogers to want to watch everything they've been in, just watch this video of the Carioca, the dance they had as bit players in that film that rocketed them to stardom. I would not want you to suffer through the rest of the movie.

As a final farewell to this series, I thought I might provide a little biographical background on Fred and Ginger. Let's start with the great Fred Astaire, shall we? Fred's screen immortality very nearly didn't happen. The son of Austrian immigrants, Fred had a successful vaudeville act with his very pretty older sister Adel as a child, and in the wake of Vernon and Irene Castle, they became the dancing couple of the 1920s, dancing on Broadway and in the West End to scores by Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. Unfortunately for Fred, the partnership with Adel came to an end when she married an English peer in the early '30s and retired from the stage forever.

Before that point, nobody really payed attention to Fred, the skinny, balding, unattractive younger brother, considered a mere suit, on stage purely to twirl his lovely sister. Little did the public know that behind his sisters twirling skirts stood the greatest male dancer of the 20th Century, and with his sister retired, it was Fred's turn to shine. After making a hit of The Gay Divorce on Broadway, Fred went to Hollywood, and was systematically rejected by every studio except the tiny RKO. Somebody had the bright idea to team him with Ginger Rogers for a dance in an otherwise forgettable Dolores Del Rio vehicle, and the rest is history.

In 1939 the cash-strapped RKO jettisoned Astaire's costly contract, which set him up for a brilliant solo career that would last the next 18 years. He made Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell, which marked the only time that he would be paired with a dancer as talented as he was, and co-stared with Bing Crosby in the Christmas classic Holiday Inn in 1942. In addition he made two movies with Rita Hayworth that were enjoyable and quite successful: You Were Never Lovelier and You'll Never Get Rich. Once the war really got started in the '40s, however, Astaire's career flagged, and he had actually retired after 1946,'s Blue Skies with Bing Crosby. Fortunately for the world, though, Gene Kelley--Fred's heir apparent--injured himself while filming Easter Parade, and Fred was called in to replace him opposite Judy Garland and Ann Miller. After that he made Royal Wedding with the famous bit in which he dances up the walls and ceiling, and three years later appeared in what was perhaps the greatest film of his late career in The Band Wagon. Astaire's last movie as a romantic lead was 1957's Silk Stockings with Cyd Charisse.

In his personal life, Astaire was fairly stable. He was married twice, but that was only because his first wife died tragically of lung caner in 1955, and he had two children: Fred Jr. and Eva. Interestingly enough he wrote a clause into his will that stated he could never be portrayed by another actor on film, which I greatly appreciate because there can only be one Fred Astaire. Both he and Ginger--being mid-westerners--were committed Republicans all their lives.

Ginger's life was much more complicated. She came from a broken family, made it to Hollywood at 19, and was propelled to stardom by dancing with Fred Astaire at the ripe old age of 22. As I mentioned in my other reviews, she enjoyed a career as a dramatic actress, winning the Oscar for Best Actress in 1942, and did a lot of work both in Hollywood and on Broadway after that. Some notable appearances include getting the title role in Roxie Hart, based on the same story as Chicago, and she co-starred with Cary Grant in the classic screwball comedy Monkey Business. On stage she portrayed the title character in Mame and Hello, Dolly! and nabbed the role of the queen in the film version of Rogers and Hammerstein's Cinderella.

Sadly, Ginger's personal life was not nearly as happy as Fred's. She was divorced five times, never had any children, and died alone at the age of 83. But, at least we have her films to remember. And she's not by far the only great talent to have a miserable personal life.

In the end, though, these little details are not the things we remember Astaire and Rogers for. We remember them for incredible dancing and genuinely convincing on-screen chemistry. We remember the Art Deco elegance and classic songs by famous composers. Every time we watch their films, they live again and live as they should be remembered. For when when someone dies, when a partnership ends, we recall them at their best, and when we do that, we will always be looking to these movies. The beauty, grace, and humor they embodied will remain as long as the film medium continues to live.

So Fred and Ginger, to steal a catchphrase from one of your contemporaries, "Thanks for the memories!" In less than ten years, you treated us to some of the finest dancing ever to be recorded by the motion picture industry. You entertained the nation through one of its darkest times. And you indelibly won our hearts.

Buy it on DVD:

Roxie Hart,Chicago (Widescreen Edition),Broadway Melody of 1940Holiday Inn (Special Edition),You Were Never Lovelier,You'll Never Get Rich,Birth Of The Blues/Blue Skies - Double Feature,Easter Parade (Two Disc Special Edition)The Band Wagon (Two-Disc Special Edition)Royal WeddingSilk Stockings

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