Fred & Ginger Double Bill

Back in the 1920s, I used to run a popular dance class in Hollywood. One of my students was a promising young dancer by the name of Fred Astaire, who I paired up with another student called Ginger Rogers for certain lessons. Thanks to me, they would go on to become one of cinema's most famous screen pairings, as they tapped, glided and sashayed through a total of 10 films together, back in the days when movie stars could sing and dance, as well as act. Indeed, many believed they were an item off-screen (they never were), but it was an easy mistake to make, given the obvious chemistry between them, with their intricate dance routines cleverly choreographed to convey their various characters' relationships and emotions. I caught up with two of their best-known films recently, to remind myself of all the moves I taught them.

Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) was the most successful of the Fred & Ginger films, both commercially and critically, with the box-office returns and Oscar nominations to prove it. Essentially a screwball musical comedy, it re-hashes the slim plot of their previous collaboration, The Gay Divorcee, in a mistaken identity farce which generates most of its laughs from good comic turns by the supporting cast - Edward Everett Horton delivering some splendid double-takes and Helen Broderick delivering some splendid wisecracks. Truthfully, though, the fairly contrived plot is simply an excuse to fit in the superb Irving Berlin songs and accompanying musical sequences, such as Fred's celebrated solo tap efforts 'No Strings' and 'Top Hat, White Tie and Tails', as well as his pairings with Ginger in 'Isn't this a Lovely Day', 'The Piccolino' and, most famously of all, 'Cheek to Cheek'. This last scene is famous for the row about the dress Ginger wanted to wear, a beautiful ostrich feather affair, but decidedly impractical for dancing. When Fred vetoed it because when they danced it looked like a 'coyote attacking a hen', she told him where to stick his dancing, stormed off set and refused to do the scene. Eventually, the feathers were securely attached by the costume team and the scene went ahead - you can still see some rogue feathers escape if you look closely. And from that day on, Ginger's nickname was, rather meanly, 'Feathers'.

Much is made of how the dance moves in this sequence reflect the desires of the characters. See how Ginger's backbends become deeper and her skirt rises higher as she gradually succumbs to Fred's attentions? And you thought it was an innocent musical....

Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936) also has a fairly uninspired plot and not worth explaining here. Once again, it's a mere vehicle for the musical moments, such as Fred 's brilliant, albeit slightly racist, tap-dance-off against triplicate silhouettes of himself, the romantic strains of the Oscar-winning 'The Way You Look Tonight' and the inspired 'Never Gonna Dance'. The perfectionist Fred insisted on over 40 takes of this sequence before he declared himself satisfied. Alright for him, but the high-heel-wearing Ginger ended up with badly bleeding feet as a result. It was worth it, Ginger! You looked fabulous, dahling!

She broke her feet for this. The least you can do is watch it!

Lovely. Like their other films, you'll have to overlook a bit of mugging and some forced, old-fashioned jokes. A bit like the stuff in Strictly Come Dancing, come to think of it. But, unlike Strictly Come Dancing, Fred & Ginger are actually good. When they break into song and dance, trivial elements like flimsy plotting and weak jokes seem rather unimportant indeed, because it really is Heaven, I'm in Heaven....

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