ASTAIRE and ROGERS: THE ULTIMATE COLLECTION (RKO/MGM, 1932 - 49) Warner Home Video
At the 1967 Academy Awards, Fred Astaire made the impromptu decision to depart from his scripted entry, calling for him to appear from stage left and take the hand of co-presenter, Ginger Rogers, entering from stage right, leading her to the podium. Instead, Astaire gave the audience and his long-time screen partner one last opportunity to experience the timeless appeal of their long-enduring partnership; locking a visibly startled, but equally as elated Rogers in an embrace, pirouette and brief pas deux to the tune ‘I Won’t Dance’. In good ole-fashion terms, Astaire’s impetuosity and the subsequent whirl of feet in perfect time that followed it literally stopped the show. Despite lingering rumors to the contrary, most begun by RKO’s publicity department to drum up curiosity with fans back in the late 1930’s, the affection between Astaire and Rogers had always been genuine; tempered, perhaps after Astaire married wealthy socialite, Phyllis Potter, whose jealousy for Rogers could not be contained. But by 1967, all this had been forgotten. Phyllis had died in 1954. Even before this, the screen’s most glorious dance team had separated to pursue independent ventures; Rogers – as a ‘serious’ actress, and Astaire, to trip the light fantastic with a myriad of accomplished dancers elsewhere, though arguably, never to as unique an effect.
Yet, never were they better than when they appeared as ‘a team’ – a tribute both Astaire and Rogers would have likely abhorred. Indeed, after Astaire’s sister, Adele (his first partner on the stage) elected for early retirement to start a family, the void left behind caused Astaire to question his own validity as a solo performer; an anxiety of self-doubt compounded after some misguided RKO talent scout famously documented Astaire’s early screen test thus: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little!” Adele and Fred had been the toast of Broadway and London throughout the 1920’s. Indeed, Fred was already a seasoned performer by the time of his first casual ‘cute meet’ with Rogers in New York; Rogers, then – a chorine on the cusp of breaking into the big time in Broadway’s Girl Crazy, thanks to the machinations of her stage mom, Lela. If Astaire and Rogers were seen about town briefly thereafter (and…they were), their casual flirtations did not lead them into any great romance. And it was not until Fred was free from Adele (who left the biz to marry an English lord), that he and Ginger would once more reconnect in far closer proximity in Hollywood. By then, Ginger was the more established talent, having appeared in a handful of undistinguished movies. Then, in 1932, Rogers began dating producer, Mervyn LeRoy. She also made her first notable splash as a saucy hoofer in 42nd Street (1932), her razor-backed line, “It must have been hard on your mother not to have any children” eliciting riotous laughter from the audience. She followed this up with an even flashier moment in Gold Diggers of 1933, warbling the ironic Depression-era anthem, ‘We’re in the Money’ forwards and backwards with fresh-faced sex appeal.
Astaire’s ascension to Hollywood royalty was neither as swift nor as assured. After signing a contract with RKO, he remained conspicuously out of the running; his first screen appearance opposite Joan Crawford, on loan out to MGM for a brief musical interlude in Dancing Lady (1933). Astaire was to rather ruthlessly judge this debut with skin-crawling disgust adding, “I just looked like a knife out there!” As fate would have it, Fred would not have much to squawk about from then on. Famously, it was written then that Rogers did everything Astaire did, only backwards and in heels. But Katharine Hepburn’s astute remark rings truer still, “Fred gives Ginger class and she gives him sex.” Whatever the truth, the passion and grace Astaire and Rogers exuded on screen undeniably revolutionized the movie musical at a time when America and the world at large were struggling for hope, meaning and escapism. Their movies remain a tonic to the weary today and reveal an impossibly diverting paradise a la art director, Van Nest Polglase’s gleamingly white art deco sets. And with Astaire’s perfectionism, an assist from choreographer, Hermes Pan and, of course, Rogers’ uncanny ability to pick up a step with almost instant finesse, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were destined to enter the history books as ‘one for the ages’. There was absolutely nothing they could not do together.
And all of this lovable nonsense began inauspiciously with Astaire and Rogers near cameo appearance in RKO’s big-budgeted super musical, Flying Down to Rio (1933); conceived under the guidance of Production Chief, Marion C. Cooper (who had neither the ambition for movie musicals nor dancing, but harbored a distinct yen for both South America and flying – hence, the setting and grand aerial maneuvers to conclude this show). The stars, however, were not Fred and Ginger, but contract players Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Raymond is Roger Bond: an aviator and band leader of The Yankee Clippers. So far, Bond’s penchant for the ladies has managed to get the band broomed from every hot spot they have ever played in America. So, Bond’s latest conquest is Brazilian flame, Belinha de Rezende (Del Rio) who is already engaged to another.
Things really begin to heat up at the Hotel Atlantico after Roger and Belinha rekindle their romance under the radar of her intended. Justly famous – and forever lampooned - for its flying circus finale featuring a troop of scantily clad ladies improbably tap dancing on the wings of an airborne biplane, Flying Down to Rio’s grace note is ‘The Carioca’; an elaborate dance routine performed not so much ‘cheek to cheek’ as forehead to forehead by Astaire and Rogers – rechristened as minor comic relief, Fred Ayres and Honey Hale. Astaire remained circumspect about his teaming with Rogers. Indeed, throughout the shoot, he was nothing if not professional, almost to the point of becoming slightly aloof; perhaps, to assuage his wife’s jealousies. It mattered not what was chaste behind closed doors as once Astaire and Rogers took to the dance floor sparks of their inimitable on-screen chemistry were clearly on display. As RKO was in dire straits just prior to the picture’s release, the whopping success of Flying Down to Rio did much to lighten the mood on the back lot; a spirit dampened when Marion Cooper suffered a near-fatal heart attack and was forced to step down as head of the studio. His replacement, Pandro S. Berman proved part cagey showman/part savvy businessman. But Astaire and Rogers’ popularity was not lost on Berman, who quickly elected to create a co-starring vehicle built around them.
The result, Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934); a project to incur displeasure from the Hollywood censors even before a single strip of celluloid had been exposed. Presumably, as marital discourse could hardly be considered ‘gay’, the original Broadway title ‘The Gay Divorce’ was altered to reflect that only the person getting the divorce was allowed to exercise such a privilege. Today, RKO’s marketing campaign for the picture – “The whole country’s gone gay” – has taken on an unintended picaresque quality. And indeed, in transposing the plot from stage to screen, Berman and Sandrich made the executive decision – either for better or worse – to jettison the entire Cole Porter/Broadway score, save one tune, in favor of an interpolated soundtrack from Herb Magidson, Con Conrad, Mack Gordon and Henry Revel. Sandwiched between the ebullient ‘Needle in a Haystack’ and gargantuan-staged ‘Continental’ was Porter’s ‘Night and Day’ – something of a signpost for subsequent Astaire/Rogers movies to emulate; a number where Astaire and Rogers’ alter egos are allowed to explore the home fires of a mutual passion through the art and expression of the dance.
In this comedy of errors, Mimi Glossop (Rogers) is the divorcee – or rather, would like to be. Her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) hires ‘a professional’ (code for ‘gigolo’) to seduce her, thereby giving Mimi’s husband grounds for a divorce. But the plot goes awry when American dancer, Guy Holden (Astaire) meets Mimi while visiting Brightbourne. She thinks he is playing the part of her paid seducer while he is actually falling in love with her. While nothing could match the elegant ‘Night and Day’ (sublimely danced by Astaire and Rogers inside an abandoned canopied ballroom by moonlight), the mind-boggling ‘Continental’ remains a close second for audiences: at twenty-two minutes, by far one of the most elaborate production numbers ever conceived for the screen, with sixty dancers forming Busby Berkeley-esque geometric patterns in the fancifully lit and towering courtyard of an impossibly grand hotel. The Continental set a new standard for the rest of the Astaire/Rogers movies yet to follow it – fleshing out paper thin plots with confounding and beautiful set pieces.
Neither Astaire nor Rogers had wanted to make The Gay Divorcee; each, fearing the move would indenture them to a lifetime of association. It did. To sweeten the deal, Pandro Berman promised Astaire 10% profit sharing from the grosses. For Ginger, Berman assured the enterprising actress opportunities to make pictures apart from Astaire; thereby allowing her to pursue dreams as a serious actress. In the meantime, no one could argue with the box office returns. The Gay Divorcee literally pulled RKO from the brink of bankruptcy. With the balance sheet back in the black, Berman quickly acquired another hit Broadway show – Jerome Kern’s Roberta (1935) for Astaire and Rogers to co-star. Actually, Roberta is a throwback of sorts; Fred and Ginger taking a backseat to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, cast in the leads. Nevertheless, under William A. Seiter’s direction Roberta proved an inspiration with enough examples of Astaire and Rogers doing what they did best to keep the paying public happy. The plot concerns beefy football player, John Kent (Scott) who tags along with band leader/pal, Huckleberry Haines (Astaire) and his Wabash Indianans. The troop arrives in Paris where John visits his Aunt Roberta (Helen Westley), the owner of a posh dress maker’s shop effectively run by her assistant, Stephanie (Dunne).
In Paris, the boys also run into former singer ‘Lizzie’ now masquerading as Comtesse Scharwenka (Rogers) who – no kidding - gets the Wabash Indianans a gig. Tragically, Aunt Roberta dies. John inherits the business and thereafter plans to liquidate it to keep up his playboy lifestyle. But love predictably intervenes and the business is saved. Despite offering Astaire and Rogers one grand moment to shine – their elegant pas deux to Kern’s haunting ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, in retrospect Roberta remains a sublime, yet slightly off kilter entertainment. Behind the scenes, Astaire began to question the influence Rogers mother, Lela was having on her daughter’s career. The relationship between mother and daughter had always been hermetically sealed; the pair perfecting a sort of fractured pig Latin baby talk to get around others listening in on their conversations. To dilute Lela’s authority, Berman agreed to a truce; hiring Lela to establish an on-sight ‘school’ where she might educate the studio’s roster of starlets in the subtle art of acting. Keeping Lela busy was only half the battle. As Berman prepared for 1935’s Top Hat, he was met with fresh concerns from Astaire that the formula behind their pictures was already getting stale.
In retrospect, Astaire showed remarkable foresight here. Beginning with The Gay Divorcee, the Astaire/Rogers’ pictures fell into a sort of predictable stock company with reoccurring faces in grand support. These included Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Alice Brady. At the time of Top Hat, these beloved old hams were very much ensconced as part of the Astaire/Rogers ‘stock company’, as was the slavish devotion to hand-crafting art deco interiors so fanciful and spectacular they could only exist as back lot facades to another realm of absolute make believe, far removed from the world at large. With Top Hat, the Astaire/Rogers chemistry reached its zenith. The film abounds with clichés that, for their time at least, were as fresh and inviting as its potpourri of Irving Berlin songs; each to become a standard on the hit parade, including the sublime and romantic, ‘Cheek to Cheek,’ the charming, ‘Isn’t It A Lovely Day’ and the grandiose ‘Picolino’ – a fiesta of tap set against the stunning backdrop of an art deco Venice, complete with glistening black water canals. The picture is also infamous for a near falling out between Rogers and Mark Sandrich after Astaire illustrated his displeasure over a gown Rogers had helped to design, made entirely of pale blue ostrich feathers for their penultimate pas deux to ‘Cheek to Cheek’. The gown shed atrociously all over Astaire’s tuxedo. But Rogers refused to budge on her decision to wear it. After several takes, the molting subsided to a degree where Astaire could complete the dance without too many feathers getting on his clothes.
In Top Hat, Astaire plays showman Jerry Travers, a hoofer touring in a revue from producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Through a case of mistaken identity, Jerry is presumed to be Horace – a married man – with whom Dale Tremont (Rogers) has already fallen in love. Emotionally scarred by this misdirection, as Horace is the husband of her best friend, Dale attempts to marry her dress maker, Roberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes) with comical results. Throughout, director Mark Sandrich never once fumbles any of these loose narrative threads, delivering an impeccably crafted musical extravaganza that is riotous, engaging and decidedly above par for the Astaire/Rogers’ collaborations that preceded it. The relationship between Sandrich and Rogers was never on solid ground. In fact, Sandrich often treated Rogers with considerable disdain, prompting Berman to draft a rather forthright and stern letter to his director, encouraging him to reconsider where his own bread and butter resided; in keeping both Rogers and Astaire happy and making more of the same at RKO. To this end, Berman assigned Sandrich directorial duties on Follow the Fleet (1936) a film that haplessly miscasts Astaire as able-bodied seaman, Bake Baker.
The move to de-glamorize Astaire’s trademarked ‘top hat, white tie and tails’ image was deliberate; perceived to make him over as more of a proletariat than a paragon. But Astaire just looks silly, and gaunt in sailor’s garb. Despite some wonderfully comedic moments, it remains more than a little challenging to accept Astaire as the GOB on a manly 48 hour leave in New York City; particularly, as the infinitely manlier, Randolph Scott is once more cast as his best friend. Baker is out to rekindle a romance with old flame and hat check girl cum dancer, Sherry Martin (Rogers). Baker’s ‘above board’ shipmate, Bilge Smith (Randolph Scott) is a rapscallion with the ladies and shows no signs of stopping when he takes up with Sherry's naïve sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard of future Ozzie and Harriet television fame). The wrinkle is Connie wants a home and family while Bilge just wants to have fun. Can love blossom under these circumstances? Of course, but not before Bake and Bilge are thrown into the brig for jumping ship and breaking curfew. Once again, the picture’s salvation is Irving Berlin’s magnificent score, introducing such standards as ‘Let Yourself Go’, ‘I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket’ and the haunting ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance.’
Immediately following the picture’s success, Berman elected to give Rogers a break from Sandrich – or vice versa; the next Astaire/Rogers’ collaboration, Swing Time (1936) directed by master storyteller, George Stevens. Rogers could not have been more pleased, particularly as a romance quickly blossomed between her and Stevens; short-lived, but great for their working relationship. By now, Rogers had proven her personal life could be as difficult to downright flawed. Her second marriage to actor, Lew Ayres was on the rocks, and Rogers – ever the perfectionist – invested herself body and soul in this, arguably, the very best of her on-screen partnerships with Astaire. Alas, the public perception at the time was not quite as assured. Although Swing Time features some of the most sublime imagery in any Astaire/Rogers musical, and songs as memorably written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, box office returns were less than impressive. For this outing, Astaire was put back in familiar garb – white tie and tails - as John ‘Lucky’ Garnett. Garnett is engaged – repeatedly – to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). But after being tricked out of their nuptials for the umpteenth time, Margaret calls it quits. Determined to win back her affections, Lucky decides to earn enough money to prove himself. Instead, he accidentally runs into – and nearly tramples - Penny Carroll (Rogers) a winsome dance instructor who mistakes Lucky for a flat foot. This kink is ironed out in the charming dance-off; ‘Pick Yourself Up.’ Afterward, Penny and Lucky develop a successful dance partnership; their burgeoning romance, blunted when Margaret returns to reclaim Lucky whom she now deems worthy of her affections.
Swing Time features three of Astaire/Rogers’ best choreographed routines; the aforementioned ‘Pick Yourself Up,’ the passionate and playful ‘Waltz in Swing Time,’ and the spellbindingly brilliant, ‘Never Gonna Dance’, effortlessly danced inside a two-tiered glittering nightclub after all the other patrons have gone home. Arguably, there was nowhere to go but down and Mark Sandrich’s Shall We Dance (1937) marks the beginning of this slow spiral – despite a brilliant score from George and Ira Gershwin. On this occasion, Astaire is miscast as ballet legend, Petrov Peters. Petrov orchestrates a not-so-chance meeting aboard an Atlantic luxury liner so he can pursue Broadway musical star, Linda Keene (Rogers). Unfortunately, reporters snap up the story and turn it into a nasty bit of gossip – touting a secret marriage both Petrov and Linda feel they must embrace to keep up appearances. The picture’s outstanding sequence is the delightful ‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ danced on roller skates presumably in Central Park – but actually on an RKO soundstage. The tragedy of the picture is George Gershwin did not live to see its completion – succumbing to a brain tumor. An immense loss to the artistic community, Gershwin’s passing sent the tail end of the shoot into a dour mood and tail spin even before its premiere. Although engaging enough, Shall We Dance is not vintage Astaire/Rogers, though frequently if gives a fairly good imitation of being as much.
The same is truer still of their next collaboration, Carefree (1938) – a politely amusing screwball comedy masquerading as a legitimate musical. At 88 minutes, Carefree is the slightest of the Astaire/Rogers’ pictures and very much more Rogers’ movie than Astaire’s. She is Amanda Cooper; the on again/off again fiancée of Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Steve desperately wants Amanda to commit to him. So, he sends her to his good friend, Dr. Tony Flagg (Astaire) to seek psychiatric counseling for her marriage phobia. One problem – Amanda falls in love with Tony and Tony starts to dig Amanda. She, in turn, is hypnotized by Tony to hate him and fall in love with Stephen. But the plan backfires when Tony refuses to entirely surrender his love for Amanda. Irving Berlin’s score is really a one hit wonder – ‘Change Partners’ sung poignantly and with great affection by Astaire and later, all too briefly danced by Astaire and Rogers – presumably in a trance-like dream sequence. Less successful is ‘The Yam’ – a colossally clumsy lyric that Berlin promoted as a valiant successor to ‘The Picolino’ and ‘The Continental’ but that Astaire absolutely refused to entertain. Throughout the 1930’s Fred Astaire actually introduced more hit standards in these pictures than Bing Crosby on the hit parade. To break this stalemate, Sandrich coaxed Rogers to sing the lyric to The Yam, thereafter awkwardly danced by Astaire and Rogers inside a posh country club. Carefree was not a hit for RKO. In fact, it became the first Astaire/Rogers picture to lose money.
Desperately, Berman gambled on a reprieve for his most enduring screen team. Alas, his decision to re-tell the story of famed 1920’s dancers Vernon and Irene Castle was a miscalculation from which the Astaire and Rogers’ partnership at RKO would not survive. By 1939, audiences had tired of the formula to their pictures. Ironically, this should have made The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle a big hit, as it is nothing like any of the Astaire/Rogers’ musicals that preceded it. For one, it is a biopic, staunchly dictated by the taste and temperament of the real Irene Castle, who vehemently disavowed Berman’s decision to cast Ginger in the lead. Irene would have preferred an international search for a virtual unknown. Due to a clause in her contract, Irene also had sway over the dances created by her late husband and how these were to be depicted on film. Hence, Astaire and Rogers were confined to emulating the Castles’ without embellishing their style. Finally, the picture presented a real problem for producers as Irene insisted it conclude with the death of her husband.
For all these restrictions, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is hardly the musical turkey it was perceived as in 1939; the year of so many stellar entertainments on Hollywood’s horizon. Astaire and Rogers portray this team who invented ‘the Castle-walk’ and changed the face of ballroom dancing forever with great fidelity and reverence. And, they manage, despite their conflicts of interest, to convey a genuine warmth throughout. The film begins in earnest with Vernon (Astaire) falling madly for stage-struck Irene Foote (Rogers). A few light-hearted misadventures later and the two are married. At Irene's insistence, the couple embarks upon a career devoted to their love of dance. But this nearly impoverishes them. Enter agent (and fairy godmother of sorts) Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) who rescues the team from oblivion and transforms their meager beginnings into a brilliant career. The chief perceived problem with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939 was it did not adhere to any of the conventions of the typical Astaire/Rogers’ musical. And yet, in hindsight, this seems an almost refreshing departure. Regrettably, Vernon’s draft into service and his being killed in action during WWI concludes the picture on a maudlin note. As something of a compromise, the picture ends on something of a fantasy memory; Irene and the ghostly apparition of her husband whirling about the grounds of a stately garden.
Nearly a decade passed before Astaire and Rogers reappeared on the screen together again. In that interim the Hollywood musical had greatly changed and so had Astaire and Rogers. As he had in 1930, Fred once again contemplated retirement; lured on as an independent into various projects throughout the decade at Paramount and RKO, including the perennial Christmas favorite, Holiday Inn (1942), the less than stellar, The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and, lavishly appointed Blue Skies (1946) in which Astaire famously danced with eleven carbon-copies of himself. But in 1948, Astaire was successfully encouraged to partake of a multi-picture contract at MGM. He had already done a picture for Metro, Broadway Melody of 1940; costarring their ‘tops in taps’ leading lady, Eleanor Powell – the pair’s tap routine to Cole Porter’s ‘Begin the Beguine’ a mesmerizing and unequalled display of spellbinding talent that ought to have led to more. Alas, Astaire refused to partner up with any ‘one’ dancer ever again; a sincere loss to audiences. Had it not been for Gene Kelly breaking his ankle just prior to the start of Easter Parade (1948), Astaire might have quit the screen for good after Blue Skies. Instead, he came on board at the last minute, and proved yet again he could dance with the likes of a temperamental Judy Garland. Astaire’s tenure at MGM would see him appear opposite various leading ladies, including Jane Powell (Royal Wedding 1951), Vera Ellen (The Belle of New York 1952), and the leggy Cyd Charisse – with whom he partnered twice (first, in The Band Wagon 1953, then again, for Silk Stockings 1957).
Amidst this regal assemblage, Astaire’s re-teaming with Ginger Rogers for The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) went practically unnoticed. Indeed, by the end of the 40’s, Rogers had established herself as an Oscar-winning actress; her gold statuette for Kitty Foyle (1940), launching a lucrative string of serious and comedy hits that included The Major and the Minor, Roxie Hart (both in 1942), the war-time weepy, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944) and the all-star remake of Grand Hotel, rechristened as Week-end at the Waldorf (1945). The reunion of Astaire and Rogers occurred almost by accident after Astaire adamantly refused to work with Judy Garland again. In fairness to Garland, she was greatly suffering from an addiction to studio-sanctioned pills; her emotional fragility compounding anxieties and stressors that had resulted in repeated delays throughout the shooting of Easter Parade. In a moment of pure inspiration, producer Arthur Freed turned to Rogers as Garland’s replacement. But even before this, Rogers had signaled her openness to do another picture with Astaire. Hence, Barkleys became a reality for them both. Regrettably, and despite its use of Technicolor, The Barkleys of Broadway is not so much a final installment in the Astaire/Rogers canon as a painful reminder of how time had altered the chemistry in their coupling. Barkleys features some very fine choreography, particularly ‘Bouncing the Blues’ – an electrifying ‘rehearsal’ tap routine.
The picture also rectifies a sin committed on Shall We Dance. In that movie, Astaire had warbled the melodic ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ – a song begging for an elegant pas deux to follow. It never happened. The musical highlight of The Barkleys of Broadway is thus, the delayed reprise of this moment; Astaire, once again serenading Rogers with the sublime George and Ira Gershwin ballad before taking her for one final spin around the ballroom floor. The chief hurdle of Barkleys is its otherwise gimmicky numbers; that, and the fact its feeble plot does everything to keep Astaire and Rogers apart, or, at the very least, feuding as old marrieds on the cusp of either a divorce or reconciliation. Astaire’s solo, ‘Shoes with Wings On’ relies much too heavily on special effects, while his partnering with Rogers for ‘My One and Only Highland Fling’ affords little opportunity to perform anything but perfunctory steps that never truly test – much less strain – their abilities. The pair are virtually obliterated during the ‘Swing Trot’, a bouncy tune featured under the main titles. This leaves us with the finale, ‘Manhattan Down Beat’ – a garish mishmash of styles; Astaire and Rogers flanked by a rotating platform of dancers strutting to a truly awkward and rather sour, Harry Warren/Ira Gershwin tune.
The plot concerns marrieds, Josh (Astaire) and Dinah (Rogers) Barkley. On the surface, the two have everything that is good and enviable; each other and a string of hit shows having made them the toast of Broadway. But behind the scenes they cannot seem to agree on anything. She wants to break free of musical comedy, and he, perceiving himself as her rather arrogant Svengali, thinks she will miserably fail without his constant guidance. Enter Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques François); producer of ‘serious’ theater, who encourages Dinah to spread her artistic wings for him. Barredout casts Dinah in his production of ‘Young Sarah’ – the story of Sarah Bernhardt. With all due respect to Rogers’ abilities as a dramatic actress, her penultimate, and supposedly impassioned recitation of La Marseillaise is laughable at best. Despite her overwhelming success in Barredout’s play, Dinah elects to return to her husband and open in another musical comedy; particularly after she discovers how utterly forlorn and lost he has become without her.
Although The Barkleys of Broadway made money for MGM, it was not a mega hit for the studio, quashing any future plans for another re-teaming of Astaire and Rogers. In hindsight, the picture’s luke warm response also seemed to suggest the era that had cemented the Astaire/Rogers’ iconography, still highly prized in theatrical re-issues of their old RKO movies throughout the 1940’s had since passed them by. Times had changed. Tastes too. It is one of those rarities in Hollywood that in the interim since, the names Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have only become more synonymous with each other; their careers apart – particularly Ginger’s – eclipsed by the enduring memory of these nine memorable outings at RKO. There has never been, nor will there likely ever be ‘another’ Astaire and Rogers in the movies. Despite the timeless appeal of their work together, the present era, alas, is hardly suited to elegance. And yet, the power of their screen presence continues to hold us spellbound in the dark. As ghost flowers from an entirely ‘other’ generation, steeped in tactful repose virtually unfathomable to today’s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers continue to exude an intangible brand of screen magic even more unique now, as it remains humbling to observe, even at a glance. And as the years continue to pass, the likelihood their ilk will ever entirely diminish in prestige seems very dim indeed. For real/reel taste, elegance and style never goes entirely ‘out’ of fashion. And Astaire and Rogers possessed these qualities in spades.
Were that someone at Warner Home Video or the Warner Archive would agree to as much. It is positively obscene to be extolling the virtues of Astaire and Rogers in 2018, in review of a DVD box set released by Warner Home Video back in 1999 with virtually none of their movies available on Blu-ray since. For decades, this absence on home video stemmed from a rights debacle between Warner – the present custodians of the RKO library – and Robyn Smith; the horse jockey whom Astaire wed in 1980; seven years before his death and whose demands for compensation were difficult, if not impossible to meet – thereby holding the entire Astaire/Rogers’ catalog hostage. Negotiations inevitably were resolved in 1999, enough for Warner to release two individual sets timed almost a year apart, and then, this compendium ‘complete’ box featuring all 10 movies, plus an hour-long documentary on the legendary teaming. Astaire and Rogers: The Ultimate Collection advertises all 10 films have been digitally restored and remastered. Alas, the results are something of a mixed bag. For the most part, nothing represented here will truly disappoint. And yet, there are misfires to be discussed.
The very best standard-def transfers in this collection are The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Here, the B&W image has been impeccably cleaned up with fine details realized throughout. Solid deep blacks and very clean whites greet the viewer and the overall image is, if not perfect, then without incident, save some light speckling and a few age-related artifacts. To a lesser extent Flying Down to Rio, Roberta and Carefree also deserve honorable mention for overall picture quality that is just a shade below the standard already discussed. Regrettably, Shall We Dance is a grainy, often softy focused, poorly contrasted and digitally harsh mess. Black levels wallow in a nondescript tonal gray and age-related artifacts are everywhere. Lastly, The Barkleys of Broadway – the only color film in the set – sports an unresolved transfer that belies its Technicolor origins and is far below expectations. Colors are quite muddy. The image is also rather softly focused. Flesh tones veer between garish orange and piggy pink. There is also an inexplicable milky haze afflicting this transfer that distills contrast levels to a mid-range of dullness. As example, Rogers’ shimmering green sequin gown melts into the black background of the taxi she shares with Astaire. Overall, fine details are not realized.
Four of the films in this set include audio commentaries and a featurette. For the rest, Warner has padded this set with short subjects and theatrical trailers. All are packaged in slim-line cases. Apart from some nicely put together swag (reproductions of poster art and stills) the only extra worth noting is the feature-length documentary: Astaire and Rogers: Partners in Rhythm. As a documentary, it only scratches the surface. There’s virtually little to no back story on either star’s private life, no intimate details excised from well-researched archival interviews, journals, etc. We do get snippets and sound bites taken from several vintage interviews and some commentary from the likes of Astaire’s daughter, Ava, and, composer, Michael Feinstein among others. But overall, the results are more truncated than comprehensive and that’s a shame. One yearns, as example, for the sort of immersive storytelling shown in documentaries like MGM: When the Lion Roars or Cleopatra: The Film that Changed Hollywood. But alas, Partners in Rhythm is more of a glowing ‘puff piece’ – good, but not great. Given the girth of both star’s careers, and all the literature available on them, this could have been much better. We also get a ten song CD sampler of some of the best loved musical moments in the Astaire/Rogers’ canon. Bottom line: by now all of these movies ought to have made the leap to hi-def. We’ll wait in the hope of better things to come.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Flying Down to Rio 3
The Gay Divorcee 4
Top Hat 5+
Swing Time 5+
Follow the Fleet 4.5
Shall We Dance 3.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2
Flying Down to Rio 4
The Gay Divorcee 4
Top Hat 4
Swing Time 3.5
Follow the Fleet 3.5
Shall We Dance 2.5
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle 3
The Barkley's of Broadway 2,5