For 85 years, the cinematic collaborations of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have been dazzling audiences with their goofy spirit, irresistible romance, and exquisite dancing. Separate, the actors were clever, attractive, and full of good humor. Together, they became magnetic and simply gorgeous to watch. Nothing compares to any one of their dances, whether it’s the embodiment of heartbreak “Never Gonna Dance,” the cheeky playfulness of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,” the outright silliness of “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” or the devastatingly beautiful “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”
Astaire and Rogers’s films are unique in the way that they’re all well-made films. Some movie partnerships have certifiable duds, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fred and Ginger. The plots may be flimsy from time to time, but you don’t care. The sets are always fabulous. The music is incredible, usually written just for the film and becoming standards in their own right. The supporting characters are riotously funny. The direction is never super fancy because the directors knew what the main attraction was. The verbal sparring between the two stars is always delightful, and, of course, the dancing is nothing short of superb.
While any day is a good day to watch one of their movies, I’ve come to associate the duo with Thanksgiving after TCM aired a marathon of their work on the holiday a few years ago. On a day when you’re giving thanks for all that you love, it just feels right to spend the day with Fred and Feathers, who have brought me more happiness and comfort than I could ever say. To further honor this tremendous screen team, I thought I’d share my personal ranking of their ten collaborations. I honestly appreciate all of them, but there are definitely some clear favorites…
10. Flying Down to Rio (1933)
The one that began it all. Flying Down to Rio was typical fare in the 1930s. It was a musical with pretty chorus girls, a love story, an exotic location, and outrageous ensemble dance numbers. But instead of fading in with the other musicals of its kind, Flying sticks out for one, or rather two, reasons: Fred and Ginger. The two had met before — Fred having helped with the choreography for Ginger’s Broadway hit Girl Crazy — and they had even dated a few times. But when they were onscreen together, something ignited. They absolutely steal the show from stars Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio, despite having only one number together. That number, “The Carioca,” set in motion a historic partnership, but it’s also just a really good musical moment. Throughout the film, the couple’s chemistry blows away any of del Rio and Raymond’s. Thankfully, audiences agreed and we got the pairing of Astaire and Rogers for nine more films.
9. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
Fred and Ginger play the Castles, a nonfictional dancing duo who took the world by storm in the early 20th century. The movie takes the audience through the whole relationship of the Castles, from when they first met, their successes, Vernon joining World War I, and (spoiler!) the death of Vernon after his plane crashes during a flying drill. Irene Castle was still living when the movie was made and since it was based on her stories My Husband and My Memories of Vernon Castle, Irene was made a consultant… and promptly drove everyone nuts. Understandably, she wanted things to be as authentic and true-to-life as possible, but Hollywood wasn’t interested in depicting the facts exactly how they happened. Ginger got the brunt of Irene’s rants, writing in her autobiography “I wasn’t an Irene Castle clone any more than Fred was a carbon copy of Vernon. We were just emulating them. I was doing my ‘imitation’ of Irene, and Fred was doing his conception of Vernon. Fred got off the hook because Irene focused all her attention on me!”
I have to admit that I’ve only seen this film twice. Maybe it’s because it’s based on real-life people, or maybe it’s because the ending is unbearably sad. Regardless, the film is still very good — Fred gets to play a more serious role, Ginger shines as a dramatic actress, and you never want to miss a dance by these two. Plus, this picture is the last one from their RKO series, so it’s worth watching just to see where it fits into their canon.
8. Roberta (1935)
Although they had proven they were successful as the leading man and lady in The Gay Divorcee, Astaire and Rogers were put back in supporting roles for their third film, Roberta. Again, they’re the best part of the movie, and RKO knew to give them more than one number like they did in Flying Down to Rio. I wasn’t too impressed when I first saw this, I’ll admit it. I’m not the biggest fan of Irene Dunne, so the plotline concerning her and Randolph Scott isn’t that important to me. I’ve since warmed up to the film, but I still wish it focused more on the misadventures of Fred’s wisecracking bandleader and Ginger’s fake Russian countess. Their banter here is just stellar, Fred matching Ginger’s sassy remarks with a cool wit. They also have two really great dances, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (Fred’s “I Won’t Dance” isn’t too bad, either), illustrating that even though they were cast as the second fiddles, they’ll be the ones you remember after the credits roll.
7. The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Ten years after playing Vernon and Irene Castle, Astaire and Rogers came together to portray another showbiz duo: the fictional Josh and Dinah Barkley. A fun, nostalgic send-off to one of cinema’s best teams, The Barkleys of Broadway has been somewhat maligned over the years, which I find unfair. As a film fan, it’s astounding to me that two people could make so much magic in nine films, take a break, make other fantastic films, and then come back together ten years later to make their tenth and final film, with all their chemistry and talent still intact. A lot happened in those ten years for them, but The Barkleys of Broadway almost makes it seem like nothing has changed.
As you can tell, I’m glad that this was Fred and Ginger’s last film. It’s still funny and witty (thanks to a script by Betty Comden and Adolph Green), but it’s totally different. Fred’s acting has matured more; it’s in Technicolor; and it was made at MGM instead of RKO, which gives it a bit of a different feel. Also, the two are already married when the movie starts, so it’s no longer about how Fred gets the girl, it’s about how he can keep her.
I can’t think of a better example of their chemistry than the scene when they’re fighting in their bedroom. Ginger hits Fred in the head with a brush, but when he tells her he’s bleeding, she rushes to him full of worry. He kisses her and tenderly sings “You’d Be Hard to Replace,” leading to a little dance in their pajamas and robes. The dance ends in Ginger suggestively crooking her finger for Fred to come closer, and the scene fades out on their embrace. Just marvelous.
Although the role of Dinah was originally intended for Judy Garland, the part fits Rogers like a glove and the film acts as a mirror of her and Astaire’s relationship as it explores Dinah’s wish to become more than just a musical comedy star and, more importantly, her insistence that she is not the Trilby to Josh’s Svengali. The movie has plenty of nods to their previous collaborations, but the most sweetly poignant one is their performance of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” a reprisal from their hit Shall We Dance. Every time I see this film, I love it more and more.
6. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Being the first true Astaire/Rogers flick, The Gay Divorcee sets up what would become the basic formula for the narratives, casts, and music to come. Whenever I think of this film, the first thing that pops into my head is “Night and Day,” the lovely Cole Porter tune that Astaire first introduced on Broadway before going to Hollywood and then reused to seduce Rogers’s character. The resulting dance is a divine piece of storytelling that sparkles no matter how many times you see it. The Gay Divorcee also has a song performed by a then-unknown Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton that’s adorable (“Let’s K-nock K-nees”), plus the ensemble number “The Continental,” which was actually the first tune to win the Best Original Song Oscar.
5. Swing Time (1936)
It’s said that this film has the best dancing that the pair ever did, and it’s hard to disagree. “Pick Yourself Up” seems like it was thought up on the spot, and “Waltz in Swing Time” is perfection in motion. My favorite number, though, is “Never Gonna Dance,” a deeply felt meditation on love won and lost. Fred has to say goodbye to Ginger, but before he can let her go, he has to tell her that he could never dance with anyone ever again. Then he entices her to do one final dance with him. The melancholy and the hurt is so palpable.
Swing Time also introduced my absolute favorite song, “The Way You Look Tonight.” There’s no dance to it, but just Fred playing piano and singing it to Ginger as she washes her hair is enough. Really, the only reason why this film isn’t closer to #1 is that the screenplay can get a little loopy at times and the ending seems like it was written quickly on the spot so they could wrap up production. Other than that, it’s a wonderful movie, with hysterical supporting turns from Victor Moore and Helen Broderick.
4. Carefree (1938)
Out of all ten films, Carefree is without a doubt the weirdest. And it’s magnificent. Some people complain that Fred and Ginger’s films are too fantastical, with their Art Deco-designed “European” locations and mistaken identity plots. These people should steer clear of Carefree, a movie where Astaire plays a psychiatrist, country clubs burst into dancing, and Rogers wreaks havoc while under hypnosis. Carefree is, well, carefree — it’s offbeat and nonsensical, a true oddity amongst many musicals. It’s begging you to check your common sense at the door, and if you can do that, you’ll be rewarded with one heck of a ride.
As a radio singer who falls for her fiancé’s (Ralph Bellamy) psychiatrist friend, Ginger is made the aggressor for the first and only time in their filmography and the changed dynamic is splendid to see. This is also the sole Astaire-Rogers film where the storyline is dominated by Ginger’s character. I love that she gets a chance to shine on her own, especially since she was a great comedienne. The scenes where she is hypnotized and wanders away to make trouble are hilarious, and watching her character fall in love with Fred’s is pretty wonderful.
And how about those musical numbers! Their dream dance sequence (“I Used to Be Color Blind”) feels like an ethereal fairy tale, while “The Yam” is pure joy. However, both of those pale in comparison to the sheer romance of Fred singing “Change Partners” longingly to Ginger before a dreamy dancing duet.
3. Shall We Dance (1937)
A bubbly musical comedy about show business, Shall We Dance is a sharp-witted, superbly crafted confection with a nice helping of froth on top. It boasts a phenomenal score by George and Ira Gershwin, including such classics as “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (performed on roller skates!), and the title song. Another reason to love SWD is the supporting cast, which has the always hilarious Edward Everett Horton, the perpetually put-upon Eric Blore, and a terrific turn from Jerome Cowan.
Fred plays a ballet dancer who discovers tap dancing and the beautiful Linda Keene, played by you-know-who. Ginger is charmingly feisty, of course, and Fred is as persistent as ever. But there are two scenes which really set this film apart for me. The first one is when Fred sings “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” to Ginger. They’re on a pier, with the fog enclosing them as Fred sings that no one could ever take away all his memories of her, and then you get this beautiful close-up of a teary-eyed Ginger.
The second memorable scene is just a few minutes later. Ginger is starting to reconsider her plans to marry someone else, and the audience is placed right outside the hotel so we can see into their hotel rooms simultaneously. They’re both looking at the locked door that conjoins their rooms, Fred anxious because Ginger has the key, and Ginger nervous because she’s not sure what to do. It’s such a nice, tender moment. A remarkable musical as well as a delicious romantic comedy, this film is simply a must-see.
2. Follow the Fleet (1936)
Effervescent, silly, and very easy on the eyes and ears, this film is one of my go-to’s whenever I’m having a bad day. This doesn’t mean that the film is faultless. Its second leads, Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard, have a somewhat insipid storyline and their characters aren’t the best. Hilliard, later Mrs. Ozzie Nelson, depends too much on Scott’s character, while he is, well, a jerk. One of the things I really like about Fleet, though, is that Fred gets to play someone slightly different than what’s expected of his persona: a gum-chewing gob with a smart mouth and no fancy clothes in sight (except for one number at the end). Another interesting aspect is the script, which takes advantage of the fact that this is Fred and Ginger’s fifth paired film, allowing their characters to have an off-screen past that gives their relationship a familiarity that is tons of fun to watch.
I especially love the number “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.” First you’re treated to Fred playing a fascinating version of the song on the piano, and then he and Ginger perform a loose routine that finds her being a total goofball while he tries to dance seriously. This is in sharp contrast to their final number, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” a dramatic dance that tells the story of two suicidal people who find love with one another. It’s achingly beautiful and slow, and the music is one of Irving Berlin’s most stunning compositions.
1. Top Hat (1935)
Two words: practically perfect. It’s witty and charming, and the Irving Berlin score is so lovely. Even the opening credits are great. And then there are the Art Deco sets! Just breathtaking. One thing I have always loved about this film is the number “Isn’t it a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?” Ginger is seduced not in a glittering gown but in her jodhpurs, as she dances alongside Fred and keeps up step for step, even adding in a few fancy ones of her own. If it wasn’t clear before, it is now: this is a pairing of equals. And I could never forget the absolute beauty of “Cheek to Cheek,” or Fred’s sophisticated yet irreverent solos “No Strings” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails.” Truly, this is heaven.
Michaela Owens is thrilled to be the editor of A Place for Film. An IU graduate with a BA in Communication and Culture, she is pursuing an MA in Cinema and Media Studies and has also been a volunteer usher at IU Cinema since 2016. She never stops thinking about classic Hollywood, thanks to her mother’s introduction to it, and she likes to believe she is an expert on Katharine Hepburn.