One night, in 1930, Ginger Rogers had a date.
At age 19, she was young and relatively new to the New York theater scene, but, by her own admission, she was not new to dating. They were fun escapes from the rigor of theater life. This date, however, came rather abruptly. She met the man recently at rehearsals for Girl Crazy, her current show on Broadway. The producers of the show tasked the man to help improve the choreography of the show’s dance numbers. Once the dancing began, there was no obvious flirting; rehearsals were strictly professional. “There was no reason to be particularly impressed,” Rogers remembered in her memoir Ginger: My Story, “I honestly didn’t think of him again”. Once rehearsals were over, the two said their professional good-byes and off life went as normal. Months later, Rogers received an unsuspecting phone call. At first Rogers thought the call was a prank from one of her friends, but, when the man introduced himself, she realized it was the choreographer from rehearsals. The man at the other end of the line was quite serious and got right to the point: “I’ve been wanting to call you to ask you for a bite of supper”. Rogers was caught off guard but happily agreed. They made plans for the following week for a meal at the Central Park Casino (more restaurant and dance hall than actual casino) after both their shows were over at midnight.
Born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri in 1911, Rogers ultimately came to New York City by the way of Texas. She had won numerous dance contests (a Texas state Charleston dance champion) and her mother worked as a writer in the early days of film-making then as a theater critic. Over time, as she starred in school plays and caught the eyes of many talent-seeking producers, Rogers gleefully approached becoming a full-time entertainer with an eagerness most young people have toward potential fame. She hoped one day to find success in the new, budding entertainment business of film. “I liked film people and talking shop with them made me feel as though I belonged,” Rogers recalled of her younger self. However, she was happy, at the moment, with the theater and minor film work. Girl Crazy was a rung in the show business ladder in which Rogers was determined to get to the top.
The night of the date came fast, and Rogers was caught in “the ageless question” of “What do I wear?”, she remembered. She decided to bring three outfits to that night’s show. She would choose what to wear on a whim. After the show, she put on all three outfits one after another and was still undecided. A showgirl from the show stopped by her dressing room and commented on how the third outfit — a “soft silk-chiffon navy blue blouse with a ruffled ‘V’ neck” and with a skirt that was loose “so [she] could move easily” — was her favorite. Rogers deemed the third outfit the winner. At precisely midnight, her date called for her at the theater; his name was Fred Astaire.
Astaire, by 1930, was very much a mega-star. Born Frederik Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899, Astaire and his family moved to New York City in 1905 to pursue a career in show business. Astaire, and his older sister Adele, attended dance schools and worked with singing coaches in hopes to solidify an act. As children, “Fred and Adele” were among the most sought out vaudeville stars. From there, their stardom grew, and they became regulars on Broadway. The siblings were theater royalty and helped usher in a new wave of popularity for dance in American culture. In 1932, the duo split after Adele retired from show business and started a family. But, that was two years away. When Ginger Rogers met Fred Astaire for their first date, he was still a mega-star with Adele.
For their night out, Astaire wore a “dark blue suit, starched white shirt and burgundy silk tie”. Rogers noted that Astaire was charming and “alive with smiles”. The two danced the night away at the Central Park Casino, which was alive with music and a spirit of people hoping to forget their daily troubles. They danced so much that they returned to their table with their dinner being cold. “We didn’t care,” Rogers remembers, “We were having such a good time”. Afterwards, the two were driven around Central Park so they could talk. When their car reached Rogers’ building, the chauffeur got out and waited for the signal to open her door. “The kiss that we shared in that five minutes would have never passed the Hays Office code!”, Rogers remembered.
Although the two enjoyed their time together, and went out a few more times, a romance never fully materialized. Their lives were dominated by their work. Soon after their date, Rogers received an offer to go to Hollywood. She enthusiastically accepted. Astaire planned to continue starring in Broadway, and the two agreed that a cross-country relationship could never happen. But, there was certainly an attraction between the two. Years later, Rogers reflected on life if Hollywood never gave her a chance, “If I had stayed in New York, I think Fred Astaire and I might have become more of a serious item”. With the film industry about to explode and dominate the entertainment landscape, along with her interest in film itself, a career in Hollywood was too good to pass up. When Rogers accepted the offer to go west, she made sure to properly say good-bye to Astaire and relay her praise for him. They ran into each other at an after-theater party one night and had a conversation about the future. Rogers hoped Astaire would teach dance one day, singing his praises as a dancer and hoping to be his student one day.
“Fred, they’d be standing in line to sign up. I know I would!”
“Well, someday I just might try teaching.”
“Do call me if you do, because I wish to be — ha! — on tap!”
Rogers never formally took dancing lessons from Astaire, but in a way she learned from him throughout her career. And vice versa. Both had bigger plans than a dancing school or a life on stage, and both needed each other to find success in an industry that would ultimately have them forever etched in history.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dominated movie theaters of the 1930s. From 1933 to 1939, the duo made nine musicals (a tenth one followed in 1949) and cemented their legacy as one of film’s great duos. Their musical films are filled with a technical brilliance and, at the time, a burst of freshness and ingenuity that astounded audiences, producers, critics and even themselves. They changed the language (and in some areas created a whole new language) of dance in film: how to film dance; showcasing various kinds of dances; and how dance can tell a story. Their films also came at a key point in the medium’s history, as “talkies” (or films with sound) grew in popularity. Sound became an integral part of film-making and singing, music and dancing were swirled together to create a new kind of movie-magic. With technology advancements helping propel them to stardom, Astaire and Rogers broke the wall down on what it meant to dance on film. As their films became popular, musicals began having a cultural footprint that was not tied down to live performances on a stage. Their dancing was enjoyed anywhere with a projector and screen. Known for the intricate, beautiful and stylish dance numbers, the Astaire-Rogers partnership helped the movie industry become successful and pushed musicals to this new popularity. Their genius was not tied down to their era. Unlike some films from Hollywood’s early and Golden years, Astaire and Rogers’ brilliant and innovative techniques translates without fail to modern audiences. “They do not give us emotion,” writes Arlene Croce in Dance in Film, “they give us dances, and the more beautifully they danced, the more powerful the spell that seems to bind them together”.
Among the spell-binding dancing and the electric chemistry, their films offer audiences a secret. Even today, every time Astaire and Rogers appear on-screen together, the audience is well aware of their history together. This familiarity is a secret language between us and them that helps ensure the magic of their films come alive with each viewing. Astaire and Rogers crafted a genre and cinematic language that left audiences craving more, while giving directors/entertainers a cinematic guide to follow even today. Behind the scenes, Astaire and Rogers brought a driven work-ethic for perfection that resulted in the best for one another. Yet, always in fear of growing stale, they ensured a freshness for every project. Astaire was the technical man, showcasing his mastery and knowledge of dance languages anywhere he could. Rogers was the perfect partner, matching Astaire in showmanship but always “[shedding] her own light”, Arlene Croce writes in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. She brought her own identity to their dances. Rogers was never just “Fred Astaire’s partner”; it was always Fred and Ginger. They “transformed” dance “into a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman,” Croce notes. The musicals that came later, of Gene Kelly to La La Land, all pay homage and owe a debt to the work and success of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
It took one scene, in a film meant for others, to electrify audiences and set their course for immortality.
Learning Perfection (1933–1935)
In 1933, the movie studio RKO wanted to make a big, flashy musical. With the country suffering in the midst of the Great Depression, producers looked for ways to make “escapist entertainment”. As the film industry began to soar and become lucrative, studios like RKO were in need of talent. They hoped to attract major Broadway talent and persuade them to move to Hollywood. A year removed from ending his partnership with Adele, Fred Astaire seemed ripe for the taking. David O. Selznick, Head of Production at RKO at the time, saw Fred Astaire on Broadway and knew he would be the perfect man for a musical. Astaire agreed to go west.
The plan was for Flying Down to Rio to be Astaire’s film debut, but scheduling conflicts delayed the filming. (Astaire was loaned to MGM for a small role in Dancing Lady, his film debut). When RKO eventually lined up everything to begin filming Rio, Dorothy Jordan, an actress billed to be in the film, dropped out to marry film producer Merian Cooper. A potential crisis turned into gold dust when 21-year-old Ginger Rogers was available to fill in. Rogers, who had been in Hollywood making films for the past year, had bounced around between studios such as Warners and Columbia. She noted RKO was not “the best” studio in Hollywood, but the studio allowed Rogers the freedom to choose diverse roles when they came her way. Musicals were never a major interest, as Rogers wanted to showcase her talents as a comedienne and dramatic actress. (Unlike Astaire, who was always about the song-and-dance). RKO needed someone quick, and the scheduling worked the best for Rogers. When she learned about her role in Flying Down to Rio and potentially dancing with Astaire, she approached the job with dutiful commitment and joy. “I was thrilled to see Fred again,” remembered Rogers, “He had sent me a lovely letter after seeing some of my films”. The two, though immensely fond of each other since New York, strayed to different paths and hardly kept in touch. Times were busy; careers were flourishing.
Before Rogers signed on to Flying Down to Rio, Astaire made his way to the set and “had no idea for two days” who his dancing partner would be or if he was dancing at all. “I didn’t look at a script or question anything,” remembered Astaire in his autobiography Steps in Time. He just wanted to be in films. Three days after Astaire arrived, he heard that Ginger Rogers was a possibility to be cast. Astaire was pleased at the news, but wondered what Rogers thought of him several years after initially meeting. Plus, he was concerned if she wanted to dance. “She had been in Hollywood for over a year doing mostly straight non-musical pictures,” Astaire remembered, “and I wasn’t sure if she cared to dance”. Astaire took the role incredibly seriously, whereas Rogers thought of the part as “It’s just another musical”, as she told Astaire once on set. A veteran of 20 films already, Rogers knew how the system worked and that jobs would be available down the line. For Astaire, the newcomer and the fifth-billed, Flying Down to Rio was “the musical” to show everyone his skill. His film career needed to start out positively.
When the two met on set in September of 1933, Rogers remembered Fred as “not as open” and “far more formal”. To her, Fred Astaire was a new man, which was not far from the truth. Since their initial fling, Astaire married Phyllis Potter, a Boston socialite. Despite an awkward initial meeting between Rogers and the newlyweds, Astaire’s changed demeanor had little effect on their friendship or working relationship. Introductions aside, when it came to working the two always “had a good laugh”. When Astaire asked her if Rogers liked the film, she was candid and expressed uncertainty. She thought she would stick to non-musicals and re-iterated that did not see herself in musicals at all. “But I guess it’ll turn out all right,” Rogers told Astaire, “Anyways, we’ll have some fun”. Flying Down to Rio stars Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio; “Fred and I had secondary roles, and provided the comic relief”, remembered Rogers. From the producers’ perspective, Rogers and Astaire (who were fourth and fifth-billed) were far from the main attraction of the movie — despite the film being a lure for Astaire to Hollywood. From the studio’s point-of-view, Astaire was an untested leading man; he had to prove his talents translated in front of a camera. Rogers had been in 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, but she remained a mid-tier star.
Once production started, the duo got confirmation they would dance together on-screen. Their number, “The Carioca”, comes near the middle of the film and was the spark to the next seven years. Hermes Pan, an assistant to the film’s dance director Dave Gould, helped bring to life the dance number. Their working relationship on-set translated off-screen and a life-long friendship between Pan, Rogers and Astaire formed. Pan was a critical member of their team, helping Astaire choreograph numbers and Rogers become more technically sound. On Rio, when the task came to figure out what to do for “The Carioca”, the trio kept it simple: the routine would follow the lyrics literally. In the song, the lyrics called for dancers to dance head-to-head, and that is exactly what Astaire and Rogers do in the number. The results were electric.
“The Carioca” showcased what made Astaire-Rogers work so well: their dedication to the dance steps and their effortless blending of different styles of dance. There is a bit of tango infused with tap and ballroom dancing. Astaire’s skill is evident and Rogers joins in not as a partner but as a “real co-participant”. Though the plot never calls for them to be romanced together, an eroticism is evident in the number. Sparks fly. However, the cut-away to the crowd and the repetition of steps marks this number as a bit of an outlier in the canon of their work. After comically butting heads, the scene, seemingly, cuts short and cuts away. The number quickly ends as it did start and is awkward as much as it is fiery. Despite its length, “The Carioca” is magic on-screen. The duo dances for “barely two minutes” and “that is enough to suggest their screen appeal”, notes John Mueller in Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. Astaire’s skill and “his infectious exuberance” is evident in the number, while Rogers is “playful and eager” while having the “instinctive intelligence to contribute to effect”. Reflecting on that number, Rogers expressed surprise that her and Astaire’s partnership stemmed from the number. “It is hard to believe,” Rogers remembered, “that our brief assay onto the dance floor [in Flying Down to Rio] led to a string of musical films”. Astaire thought similarly, “I thought Ginger and I looked all right together but I was under the impression that we weren’t doing anything particularly interesting”.
Despite their personal opinions, those two-or-so minutes became everything anyone remembered from the film. As soon as the music blares and the two start dancing together on-screen, “something magical happened”, notes Roy Pickard in his book Fred Astaire, “it was one of those indefinable things, like star quality, that even today defines explanation”. Ultimately, “The Carioca” announced Astaire and Rogers to Hollywood and the world. The dance became a staple on dance floors. “The Carioca,” writes John Mueller, “dance duets are probably better than any ever before seen in Hollywood”. While audiences readily celebrated this announcement, Astaire expressed doubts — a trait that followed him no matter the successes that came his way. He was unsure about the future of dancing in film. Musicals and dance numbers were all new to Hollywood, and Astaire questioned if they could sustain success. His doubts even ran up to RKO producers, telling the studio to cut his parts if they wanted. The studio ignored him. His anxieties of making of first impression left him unsure about his future. Astaire left for London not entirely positive he would be back in Hollywood. His doubts could not have been more wrong. There was a hungry appetite for musicals and, when marketed and done right, audiences turned out constantly for them. Though, Astaire and Rogers owe a little bit of their fortune to timing. By 1933, with the Great Depression in full swing, “there was now a free and almost mad spirit in the musicals that began to come forth from the studios,” Arlene Croce notes. On top of the desire to make entertaining and grand films came the technological advances on how film were filmed and made — most notably with sound. Timing, technology and them seemingly being a great on-screen fit for one another all worked in their favor. With all of this, studio publicists cashed in on their popularity and dubbed them “the King and Queen of the ‘Carioca’”.
Flying Down to Rio became a huge hit and RKO realized they had immense money-making potential with Astaire and Rogers. The studio quickly looked for a new project for the two budding stars. Pandro Berman, who took over Head of Production at RKO, saw Astaire star in The Gay Divorce on stage and bought the project for RKO to turn into a film. With a project in hand, the studio’s new stars, though, needed convincing this was the right next project. Rogers still wanted to make it as a dramatic actress, and Astaire preferred to work without being thought of as a member of a “team”. He did not want the heartbreak of a break-up up like he had gone through when his sister retired. Despite their personal feelings, the era in which they worked was against them. Studios ran the show. Stars were signed to contracts and were told by the studios what was next on their plate. Both Rogers and Astaire were under contract and ultimately agreed to star in The Gay Divorcee.
In June 1934, production began on The Gay Divorcee, a film directed by Mark Sandrich. Hermes Pan, again, worked with Astaire on the numbers in the film and Astaire began calling the creative shots when it came to the dancing. He asked the studio for sufficient time to rehearse — six weeks — and the studio agreed. “I wanted Ginger to have plenty of time on them with me,” Astaire remembered, “so that we could surely top whatever we had done before”. Rehearsals were critical in the Astaire-Rogers partnership; dances had to be perfect. The rehearsal aspect of their creative relationship was vital to their success. It was where they workshopped ideas and were most of the effort went in so that they could become effortless on screen. The notion that they should both rehearse and get it exactly right before a camera is even introduced became a behind-the-scenes them for their entire career of working together. With Astaire being the creative force behind the dance sequences and Rogers being his guide to becoming a bona-fide actor (and not just a song-and-dance man), the duo felt rewarded with these roles creatively. “He gives her class, she gives him sex,” Katherine Hepburn said of the duo.
Today, The Gay Divorcee feels more like a test run. Astaire, Rogers and the studio were all asking themselves and each other: was “The Carioca” a run-off fad or could that magic be replicated? The dance numbers such as “Night and Day” (which Arlene Croce calls an “incomparable dance of seduction”) and “The Continental” (the intended follow-up to “The Carioca”) pleased crowds and critics, yet the film is a mixed bag when stacking it against their other movies. Apart from the 17-minute “The Continental”’ that has a Astaire-Rogers dance sequence mixed in with others, Astaire dances solo or with Rogers for only 10 minutes of the entire movie. Though elegant and immense, internal notes were made about getting to the point quicker for the next movie. In “Night and Day”, the first truly romantic duet Astaire choreographed for the stage production, Astaire wanted “an entirely new dancing approach”. Rogers was used to more Charleston-like dances, not the sweeping romantic ballroom numbers. Doubt crept into producers about whether she could as seamless as Astaire. Her dedication to rehearsal convinced everyone — most importantly Astaire — that she was up for the task. The result is a romantic duet that tells a story through dance: Astaire pursues and convinces Rogers to fall in love with him. This all done with a sensual style of dance and without dialogue. Using dance to further the story and dig deeper into the film’s character was fresh and new in film; this style of dancing would become a staple in their films. “None surpasses ‘Night and Day’ in sheer choreographic richness and in the lavish invention of partnering partners,” notes John Muller.
The Gay Divorcee was nominated for five Academy Awards, and the “The Continental” won the first Academy Award for Best Song. Though, “it didn’t become a national dance craze like ‘The Carioca’”, remembered Rogers. Nonetheless, The Gay Divorcee “initiated the Astaire-Rogers phenomenon of the 1930s”, writes John Muller. At Warners, there were the Busby Berkeley numbers with “huge choruses of leggy girls”, while MGM and Paramount had singing duets. No one had the dancing pair. RKO had something new on their hands in Hollywood and intended to cash in. For audiences, the similarities of the plots and characters that came from the Astaire-Rogers movies did not seem to matter. They came to watch the duo dance, and they came in droves.
Bought at the same time as The Gay Divorce, Pandro Berman picked Roberta as the next project for Astaire and Rogers. Audiences craved more and Astaire went into Roberta full of confidence and enthusiasm: “It’s a help to know that your forthcoming effort will be looked forward to by the public,” Astaire recalled. The roles became more in-depth, too. In the movie, Rogers plays an American singer posing as a Polish noblewoman. “I relished doing accents”, remembered Rogers, “I had the time of my life playing this role”. On top of the characters themselves, their wardrobe became much more extravagant. Rogers fondly remembers the dresses she wore for Roberta, which were designed by Bernard Newman. One of the dresses — a black satin dress worn for “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”— is one Rogers remembers quite well: “I never met a man who didn’t like that dress”. Roberta was another test for the duo in finding what works on-screen and what works behind the scenes. Rehearsals became more vigorous and there was always the sense between the two to “top” what they had done in the previous movie. Ultimately, Roberta provided them the confidence that movies were a vehicle for them to find success.
The number “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” was the first number the duo did for the film and their laughter throughout the number was genuine laughter. An important aspect of their partnership and why it clicked with audiences is the immense joy the two are having while dancing. This is not just work; it is also fun! The fun, passionate enjoyment we see the two got out of dancing together on-screen can not be faked. On top of their personal enjoyment is the way they make the timing and strength of dancing so pedestrian — as if anyone could do the choreography. This number exemplifies how Astaire and Rogers changed the langue of dance in movies. In the number, Astaire follows his wise-cracks with taps. When Rogers moves to swat him, he catches her wrists and off they go. The dancing is imbedded in the conversations of their characters, while “their spontaneity could hardly be more convincing”, notes Brian Seibert in What The Eyes Hear: A History of Tap Dancing. There is a fluidity of their movements and how they interact with each other and the set around them that is unlike audiences would see at the time. Their “erotic charge” is created because of their ability to successfully showcase a wit from their steps. Astaire and Rogers exist to act, dance, fall in love and create comedy all at once. From Roberta on out, their dance sequences are flawlessly depicted as happening for the first time, when the truth is the furthest from that case. With “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”, the future success of their other movies and their placement as Hollywood icons was ensured. “This is the big event of the film,” Croce notes, “the number which ‘Fred and Ginger’ became fixed screen deities”.
Filming Roberta made Astaire become more interested in the production of film. Along with Hermes Pan, nine weeks were spent rehearsing numbers. Astaire wanted to experiment with crossover steps and ensure the numbers had a level of “buoyant spontaneity”. When it was time for Rogers to rehearse the new numbers, there was little issue. Rogers “loved rehearsals”. Both were keen on getting things exactly right and Rogers, in particular, found rehearsals far more inspiring than actual performing. “Inspiration comes during the preparation as you seek a better turn, step or jump,” she remembered, “In performance, you do it once and that’s it!” Because of Rogers’ hectic work schedule, Pan often stepped in for Rogers during rehearsals and would teach Rogers the routine when she arrived on set. Astaire also did the synchronization of the dancing once the scenes were filmed. Because the film equipment was loud and the technology was not quite ready to film sound live, Astaire would watch scenes over and tap along to provide the tapping sounds one hears when watching the movie. Depending on the scene and production, Astaire and Pan tried different woods to record the taps — “once laying the boards over a pool of water to dull the tone”. It was all to create the perfect experience for the audience.
Today, Roberta is largely forgotten, yet vitally important to the Astaire-Rogers partnership. The movie “fully established” the duo as a duo. Critics and audiences saw them as one and hoped for more projects together. They became better teammates with one another, challenging each other’s skill and desire on and off screen. “It is in Roberta”, notes John Mueller, “that Astaire and Rogers transcend partnership and become co-conspirators”.
During filming, Mark Sandrich informed Astaire that the studio was already thinking of their next vehicle and had assigned Irving Berlin to do the music. Berlin ventured to Hollywood and met with Rogers and Astaire on-set to pick their brains and garner inspiration for the new project. Having producers and creatives like Pandro Berman and Mark Sandrich oversee the projects Astaire and Rogers did ease the relationship between the duo. There was not much worry about what came next. Projects usually were already set-up, music and all. Astaire, however, always carried doubts about himself and his projects. The Gay Divorcee was a huge success, but he began wondering “how far it [his movies with Rogers] would go and how I could be sure not to get involved with a bad picture”. Despite the doubts, Astaire put his trust in those around him and always tried to raise everyone’s level on each project. While Astaire worried about outside opinion, it was the opinions inside the next production that threatened any future success.
Despite having all the momentum of success and popularity behind them, Top Hat began with a hitch. In her memoir, Rogers remembered that Astaire was not keen on the script. According to her, he wrote Berman a letter outlining his concerns, which included not liking the plot or seeing any real story to the script and pushing back on his character being slapped by Rogers’ character twice. (Astaire does not mention any of this in his memoir). Scripts during this period certainly were rushed. As one film shot, others were written and in various stages of pre-production. One would think with all this over-lap, audiences would smartly grow tired of some repetitiveness and call foul on bad plot points. Astaire and Rogers certainly believed so. But, in reality, all the pieces of their previous work coming together were exactly what audiences wanted.
Whatever grievances were had were short lived. Filming and rehearsals began soon after Roberta. Though Astaire and Pan held court on the creative decisions for dances, Rogers’ opinion mattered — though usually when other ideas ran dry. In Top Hat, with the number “Isn’t It a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?”, Pan and Astaire could not quite nail how the number should end. Rogers offered the suggestion of the duo going to the edge of the gazebo — in which the number took place — and hold out their hands to feel if it is raining. Afterwards they would sit down and shake hands. Simple. Pan and Astaire both liked the idea. Rogers also suggested she “mock” or “imitate” some of his moves to signify the flirtatious game being played with the number. Astaire liked the idea, and the final sequence is a highly evocative, yet fun dance number.
However, during Top Hat, the duo faced their biggest disagreement yet and one that would shake the faith they had in each other and the crew around them. For the number “Cheek to Cheek”, Rogers offered her opinion on what she should wear. “I want a blue dress,” she told designer Bernard Newman, “A pure blue with no green in it at all. Like the blue you find in the paintings of Monet”. She also wanted the dress to have ostrich feathers. Newman sketched out a dress to Rogers’ liking and would ultimately have $1,500 worth of feathers. When Astaire and Rogers rehearsed, they did so in normal, every-day clothes. When they rehearsed, they did so to get the steps right, for the director and crew to set up where the cameras would go and to test the costumes. In previous films, Astaire usually had a say in what would work best. He knew the dances better than anyone and knew what would work and not in terms of mobility and function. Astaire also knew it was important to rehearse with the actual costumes. He noted that sometimes there is an “awful awakening” that in “some instances it is not possible to do the steps as planned” with the particular wardrobe.
This ideology was no different for Top Hat. The day they were to shoot “Cheek to Cheek”, the blue dress was brought from the wardrobe for Rogers to put on and wear for the take. Astaire had seen a drawing of the dress and liked it. Astaire remembers asking Rogers to get the dress so they could rehearse with her wearing it. Unknown to him, the dress was not quite done. The feathers were not fully attached yet. In the previous weeks, they rehearsed normally without the feathers attached. The day of shooting was to be the first time the two danced with Ginger wearing the blue dress complete with feathers partially glued to the dress.
As the dress was shuffled past the crew to Ginger’s dressing room, someone called out, “What is it? A bird? A Plane?”
Someone else had a ready answer, “No, it’s Ginger’s dress!”
Astaire remembered everything going well, until the first movement of the dance when “feathers started to fly as if a chicken had been attacked by a coyote”. Despite multiple takes and re-gluing, feathers would constantly fly around. After every “Cut!”, sweepers would come and clear the floor of feathers. “The news went all over the lot that there was a blizzard on the Top Hat set,” remembered Astaire. The shooting stopped as cast and crew reconfigured on the next steps of action.
Almost immediately, Mark Sandrich appeared at Rogers’ dressing room. He wanted her to wear a different dress. Rogers was heartbroken as Sandrich told her he didn’t think the dress was right for the scene. It was then her suspicions emerged. “He was acting like a spokesperson for someone else,” she remembered, “I knew who it was who didn’t like the dress”. She suspected Astaire hated the dress and was hoping Sandrich could convince her to change the dress. She stood firm and called her mother, who hurriedly came to the studio. Soon, executives and Sandrich were trying to convince the Rogers women to change Ginger’s dress for the scene. Lela Rogers was having none of it: “Why don’t you just get another girl!”. Impossible, the studio believed and they backed down. Rogers silently got dressed and worriedly thought how she was going to dance after everything that had happened. Plus, she believed the real root of the problem: “Fred didn’t like the dress”. How would that affect the scene? When the two met for the number with the blue dress, his disdain for the dress “was written on his face”. The feathers fluttered and stuck to Astaire’s tailcoat. Rogers knew the dress annoyed Astaire, but she was “determined to wear this dress come hell or high water”. Astaire remembered being annoyed by the dress in his memoir, but never fully came out and said he had hated Rogers’ dress. He just wanted the shots to be perfect.
When Rogers came on set the next day, she was met with a “cold silence”. The cast and crew watched the previous day’s footage and no one said a word during or after the screening. Astaire remembered the footage being good. “Very few of the flying feathers picked up on the film and the glossy white floor showed none at all. What a relief,” Astaire remembered. Rogers was enthralled with how the dress moved on screen; she knew the dress would turn out to be a lovely idea. Leaving the studio, a crew-member came up beside her and in a low whisper while looking straight ahead told her, “I think it looks beautiful. So what’s a loose feather or two”.
The rest of the week went by coolly, but professionally. The coldness from Astaire did not last for long. A week went by and Rogers was surprised when a package came for her. It was a gold feather for her charm bracelet. Attached to the package was a note:
I love ya!
The ice in their “cold war” melted.
The final days of shooting consisted of filming the end number, “The Piccolino” — another example of Astaire blending dance traditions, this time the “common folk-dance partnering position to vary the face-to-face ballroom position,” notes Siebert. When the scene filmed, trouble popped up, again. In one part of the number, Astaire and Rogers come down a flight of stairs. During filming, Sandrich wanted the both of them to add a little flavor toward the end — to which both said no. “We always had to rehearse a dance no matter how brief,” Rogers remembers. Sandrich told them to just think of something on the spot. Begrudgingly, they went along with the request. When the scene was done again, Astaire’s hat fell off during the take. He stopped everything, went over to the wall of the set and kicked it multiple times. Rogers was stunned at the public outburst of anger by Astaire. (Perhaps the feathers memory still lingered in Astaire’s mind).
Everyone struggled during the production of Top Hat , but the film received four Academy Award nominations and ‘Cheek to Cheek’ became one of the duo’s most beloved dance numbers. Ultimately, Top Hat became RKO’s biggest hit of the 1930s. Astaire and Rogers were almost at the top of their game and continued on with the momentum. The two were professionals — and friends — and knew not to take certain filmmaking mishaps personally. Anyways, there was no time to stew in anger; their next film was right around the corner. Astaire ultimately believed Top Hat is a “kind of movie standard that has about it a timeless appeal and that it never seems to age”.
Where could they go from here?