Fred Astaire's film career would turn out to be unprecedented. He arrived in the movies as a star, full-formed, with critics already in awe of him and his talents. He was introduced in a featured spot in his first film and by his third, he had total creative control over the musical sequences, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film and the musical genre.
When Flying Down to Rio experienced a delay in production, Selznick took Astaire with him to M-G-M when he joined that studio and Astaire would make his actual film debut in M-G-M's Dancing Lady.
Fred and Joan Crawford
Dancing Lady was a vehicle for Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, a backstage story about a poor girl's rise to fame. Astaire played himself, singing and dancing with Crawford in two numbers, "Heigh Ho, The Gang's All Here" and "Let's Go Bavarian." Fred and Phyllis took a six-month lease on a house on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills. Being a novice to moviemaking, Astaire watched carefully and tried to absorbing everything that he saw around him at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Flying Down to Rio was then ready to began filming, so Astaire joined the cast. In the primarily comic second male lead, he was paired with Ginger Rogers, his old friend from Broadway. Because Dolores Del Rio, the strikingly beautiful female lead, had no musical talents, Astaire and Rogers were given the big song-and-dance number, "The Carioca," to perform.
Another fateful pairing took place when Hermes Pan was assigned to be assistant to dance director Dave Gould on the big-budget musical. Although Pan (who bore a strong physical resemblance to Astaire) had never seen Astaire on stage, he was well aware of his sterling reputation: "He was already famous for doing Broken Rhythm dancing on the beat, off the beat, back and forth". On his first day at work. Pan was sent by Gould to watch Astaire rehearse and found him having difficulty with a section of the choreography. When asked for suggestions. Pan demonstrated a tap "break" he thought might fit and a life-long partnership began.
After Filming was completed, Astaire honoured his contract to perform Gay Divorce in London. Taking Phyllis and step-son Peter with him, he sailed for Europe. The show ran for 108 performances and the London critics were far more accepting of the new, solo Astaire: Punch, "He himself is at the top of his form. There is an inspired puckishness about his dancing which pleases one very much, and behind it lies a technique of almost mechanical perfection. Such smooth acceleration, such sweet leaking have rarely been matched."
Fred and Ginger in
Flying Down To Rio
Dancing Lady and Flying Down to Rio were both released in 1933. In regard to Dancing Lady, the critics basically noted Astaire's appearance in the film (Variety, Abel: 'Miss Crawford works with Fred Astaire...both doing their terp stuff with commendable expertness...Art Jarrett and Nelson Eddy, from radio and the varieties, figure, like Astaire, in lending authenticity to some of the musical stuff.') For Flying Down to Rio, however, the critics raved: Los Angeles Times, Jerry Hoffman: 'Astaire amazes. ..The first new personality of 1934. Not in many years has the screen been given a light comedian with the talents and presence of Fred Astaire and his fans will be howling for him after this. Fred proves that he doesn't have to use his feet to make people like him."
Fred's option on his RKO contract was picked up and RKO producer Pandro S. Berman flew to London to see Gay Divorce with the thought of filming it with Ginger, since their screen debut as a team had been so successful.
In rather tough negotiations, Astaire asked for more money and Berman offered the historic benefits of "a percentage of the film's profits, something extremely rare in actors' contracts at that time; and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented". The deal was made and when Gay Divorce closed in London on April 17, 1933, Fred and family sailed back to America to begin work on the new film on June 15, taking temporary residence at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
With full creative control of the musical numbers on The Gay Divorcee, Astaire asked for (and got) five-to-six weeks of rehearsal before filming began. He and Hermes Pan began creating dance numbers which came out of the plot and were conceived with the camera in mind. Rather than using tricks or complicated edits, Astaire insisted that the camera catch him and Rogers in full figure in extended shots, allowing the audience to see the entire dance sequence.
Before Rogers arrived to learn the routines for The Gay Divorcee, Pan took her part in the choreography and would also later pre-record Ginger's taps. Uneasy with his own physical appearance, Astaire began to send Pan to view the daily rushes. When Pan returned, Astaire would question, him carefully. Although Pan would try to reassure him with, "They were great," the perfectionist Astaire would counter with, "There's something about the way you said 'Great. What's wrong?".
'As charming as the script," musical score and performances of The Gay Divorcee were, it was the dance numbers which would thrill the audiences. Andre Sennwald wrote in the New York Times. "Both as romantic comedian and as a lyric dancer, Mr. Astaire is an urbane delight and Miss Rogers keeps pace with him even in his rhythmic flights over the furniture. The audience meets Mr. Astaire...when he is adjusting his cravat to an elaborate dance routine or saying the delicious things with his flashing feet that a librettist would have difficulty putting into words."
Fred, Phyllis and Peter moved to a leased house on North Alpine Drive in Beverly Hills and he waited to begin the next Astaire-Rogers film, Roberta. The new production starred Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, with Fred and Ginger playing the secondary, comic leads as they had in Flying Down to Rio.
For the cinematic version of the stage success Roberta, "I Won't Dance" was added to the score for the dancing duo and they created a memorable dance number for the show's big hit, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes." The Astaire-Rogers films continued to receive critical and box office success with Time Magazine writing about Roberta, "The picture establishes Fred Astaire more firmly as the No. 1 hoofer of the cinema and proves what The Gay Divorcee suggested; that Ginger Rogers is a wholly acceptable partner. "
Fred and Ginger
in Top Hat
lrving Berlin was contracted to write the songs for their next film, Top Hat. For the first time, the script was specifically tailored to Fred and Ginger's talents and the musical score was filled with all "Top 10" songs.
Astaire accepted an offer to host the Your Hit Parade radio program for Lucky Strike Cigarettes on NBC. Although he had done periodic radio work, this would be his first commitment to a series of programs and he felt that the exposure would strengthen and diversify his career. Before the program started, Fred and Phyllis visited Delly and Charles in Ireland at Lismore Castle, where Delly informed them that she was expecting twins. When they stopped in London, Phyllis announced that she too was pregnant.
The radio program was first broadcast from New York but moved to California after two weeks, where Fred was to begin his next film with Ginger, Follow the Fleet ( 1936). With another lrving Berlin score and a satisfactory script, production commenced with high hopes.
On October 27, 1935, Delly sadly lost her twin boys but on the morning of January 21, 1936, Phyllis went into labor and they rushed to the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, where only thirty minutes later, Fred Astaire, Jr. was born.
Follow the Fleet was another smash hit. Fred had his misgivings about how long the team's success could last and had discussed it with Ginger. But with this latest acclaim, there was no need to break up the fortuitous pair. Swing Time was their next motion picture, with Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields creating the musical score. Vowing never to repeat himself in dance, Astaire and Hermes Pan continued to explore inventive choreography and musical number concepts, this time using trick photography for Fred's solo number, "Bojangles of Harlem." This newest success moved Astaire and Rogers up to the number 3 position in the Motion Picture Herald Box Office Favorites list as well as their being named number 1 in several national movie box office polls.
A new radio offer arrived for 39 episodes of hour long variety show on CBS for the Packard Motor Car company. Starting his next film, Shall We Dance, at the same time proved to be difficult, for the rehearsal and filming period was so intense. He missed the September 8, 1936 premiere and struggled to do the radio show for as long as he could, but eventually asked for, and got, a release from his contract. For Shall We Dance, his efforts to expand filmed dance were rewarded by critics like Joseph Arnold Kaye in Dance magazine: "Astair (sic) and Rogers are the picture; everything else seems to have been put in to fill the time between swings. Dance routines are fresh and interesting, dancing is superb. When Hollywood will learn to make a dance picture as good as the dancing, we cannot even guess."
Sadly, Shall We Dance disappointed at the box office. RKO, Pandro Berman, Astaire and the rest of the unit had discussions about their next step. Although they were already committed to film Carefree in 1938, Ginger's new contract for two films each year with Astaire and two without him committed her to Stage Door, returning her to a straight acting career. Fred's contract stipulated a film without Rogers, so he began A Damsel in Distress. The search for a new leading lady took many directions: from actresses Katherine Hepburn, Carole Lombard and Ida Lupino; to dancers Alice Faye, Ruby Keeler and British musical star Jessie Matthews. It was finally resolved with the casting of Joan Fontaine, a non- dancing RKO contractee, who all felt could easily portray the refined young British lady the scnpt called for. They miscalculated the public's expectations of an Astaire partner. George and Ira Gershwin supplied a terrific score which was charming, but failed to match their usual "hit-packed" offerings. When Fred noticed that George Gershwin did not come to the studio often he phoned the composer. Gershwin explained that he was busy painting when, in actuality, he was terminally ill. First experiencing headaches during the filming of Shall We Dance, Gershwin continued to weaken and died of a brain tumor at the age of thirty-nine on July 11, 1937.
Joan Fontaine and Fred
In A Damsel in Distress, George Burns and Gracie Alien supported Fred, adding comedy and dancing with him in the film's best musical number, the Funhouse dance to "Stiff Upper Lip," which would garner Hermes Pan an Oscar for "Best Dance Direction." The Variety review even gave Pan some credit: "Some may miss Ginger Rogers opposite Fred Astaire but to others it will be a novelty, and to both the producer and public a change was inevitable and probably a good idea. Astaire and his vet terp aide, Hermes Pan, have devised four corking dance routines...Astaire is Astaire all the way." The film, however, opened to poor box office receipts and, for the first time, Fred Astaire discussed "retiring" with Phyllis. She suggested a round of golf.
Fred, Ginger, director Mark Sandrich and composer Irving Berlin began work on Carefree with determination. Fred created a sensational solo golf routine and in a dream sequence, utilized slow motion. To stop the nagging questions about why Fred would not kiss Ginger, the dream sequence ended with a long kiss, filmed in slow motion to extend it even further. Despite everyone's best efforts and good reviews. Carefree fared poorly in its initial release.
With poor box office receipts for their last two films and the changing tastes of movie audiences, the final Astaire-Rogers production was announced to be The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, a musical biography of another famed dancing pair. Irene Castle was contractually on hand during filming as "Technical Advisor," with her fervent quest for authenticity causing problems with Ginger. Although plans had been discussed to use color in the dream sequence of Carefree, Fred hoped that this last teaming might be filmed in color, since the couple had never appeared in the new technique. Even though RKO had helped to pioneer three-strip Technicolor, the studio's always-economical approach did not allow for it.
An historic era in the history of motion pictures was officially over. The Astaire-Rogers series of dance movies had saved RKO, taken audiences out of the dreary world of Depression-stricken America and had moved dance on film to new heights.
On to Post Ginger...