When Musicals Did As We Dreamed, Part 2

A History of the Movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Alex Bauer
23 min readJul 7, 2023
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in ‘Shall We Dance’ (1937)

This is Part 2 of a two-part story. Read Part 1 here.

As they do in Hollywood, rumors began to swirl.

At the height of their success, fans and gossip columnists began wondering whether Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were actually romancing one-another. Many asked: was their depiction of their relationship on-screen pulling from real life? The truth was off-screen Astaire and Rogers were always platonic. Both were married and highly professional toward one another. Despite their dates from their pre-Hollywood days, their careers now were all about working together and creating a magic on-screen for audiences. “We were different people with different interests,” Rogers remembered, “We were only a couple on-screen”. Rumors, also, swirled about Astaire being a dictator on set, to which Rogers always had a ready response to: “What nonsense!” Though he called for perfection and creative control on the dances — specifically his dances — Astaire did not rule with an iron fist. The partnership worked well because Rogers was OK with Astaire being the “ideas man”; she had a blast dancing the numbers Astaire (and Pan) created. When an idea popped into her head and she expressed it, they all thought it through and, if it worked, there was no issues about including the idea. Everyone was in this world together: to make the best films. “We worked together beautifully,” Rogers remembered, “all you have to do to verify my statement is watch us; we had fun, and it shows”.

The back half of their time working together saw Astaire and Rogers take chances creatively by challenging themselves, the medium and the studio system. More films meant fresh dance numbers and an added pressure to innovate. Also, they both called for bigger contracts from their studio, RKO, and more professional freedom. Though the studio loved pairing them up for films, the duo realized long before RKO that that hanging around too long might become detrimental to their careers. Astaire and Rogers were already thinking of the end-game.

Astaire and Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

The Height of Stardom

In October of 1935, Astaire and Rogers began working on Follow the Fleet, featuring another score by Irving Berlin. Again, production started with external momentum, as the positive reviews and notes from audiences for Top Hat fueled everyone on Follow the Fleet.

The studio called on Mark Sandrich to direct, and Rogers hoped he would see her “in a more favorable light” after Rogers stood up to him during the “feathers incident” on Top Hat. Her hopes quickly diminished once production started. Sandrich remained cool toward her, “To him I was merely a clothes hanger,” Rogers reflected, “who could dance sometimes, sing upon occasion, and perhaps make the leading man smile at me”. This began a professional and personal coolness toward each other (sometimes reaching a level of detesting from Rogers toward Sandrich) that lasted for the rest of their lives. Sandrich began favoring Astaire, Rogers believed, with shots favoring Astaire or solely on him. After shooting scenes for Follow the Fleet, Rogers remembers Sandrich coming over to Astaire and informed him how terrific he had been and “wouldn’t bat an eye at me”. Despite Sandrich’s attitude toward her, Rogers enjoyed production. The numbers, costumes and dances were all enjoyable and fun. The number “I’m Putting My Eggs in One Basket” featured another idea from Rogers, who thought it would be funny if her character was caught up in one step while Astaire moved onto the next one. Astaire liked the idea and added it to the choreography. When time came to film the scene, Sandrich again had the camera set-up to prominently feature Astaire. The camera specifically follows Astaire as he flails around, and Sandrich sets up the camera on Astaire’s side of the stage. “Mark’s lack of interest in me really was disturbing,” Rogers remembered. But, not one for confrontation, she never asked Sandrich on his change of attitude. Personal quibbles were put aside for the success of the film.

“I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” from ‘Follow the Fleet’ (1936)

Astaire entered Follow the Fleet with enthusiasm, but also carried over his worries of how long Rogers and himself could be successful as a team. “We didn’t want to run it into the ground,” Astaire remembered, who expressed his concerns with Rogers. Nonetheless, with Berlin (a favorite of the duo) signed on to write the music, Astaire agreed with Rogers that they pull all their efforts in this and worry about the future later. During filming, there was another dress mishap; though, the “cold war” that occurred in Top Hat was not an issue in filming Follow the Fleet. The duo learned from that experience to alter dance steps and/or the costumes to ensure the dance number succeeded. For the number “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”, Rogers’ dress was heavier than usual. When she swung her arms, her dress followed and, a couple times, socked Astaire in the face. Within the first fifteen seconds of filming, her sleeve caught Astaire on the jaw and on his eye. They kept dancing. When the scene was over, everyone asked each other what they thought. Astaire replied, somewhat teasingly, that he could not remember anything about the take, as “I had been knocked groggy in the first round”. The footage was reviewed the following day and the camera somehow missed Astaire getting hit in the face. With everyone pleased, filming continued.

Follow the Fleet showcases the growth of the duo as a team, most notably Rogers as a dancer. The two were now completely in-sync in terms of their ability to blend styles and communicate story through song. The film features a Rogers tap dance solo, and the number is a perfect example of what she meant to Astaire and their films together. Where Astaire has the technical side mastered, Rogers “knew how to let the play of toughness and vulnerability in her acting permeate a dance,” Siebert writes. By the time of Follow the Fleet, she mastered her movements of her hips, eyes and shoulders that were the exclamation points for Astaire taps and movements. Her movements conveyed her characters’ depth and doing so bedazzled audiences and critics. “[Rogers] had developed extraordinary range,” writes Arlene Croce, and the numbers in Follow the Fleet “are designed to show it off”. Astaire and Rogers, also, were pairing their dances with the style of the day. The art-deco sets and the costumes they wore reflected the styles of dance featured in their films. Their movements and coordination together — or their “lines”— were examples of the “clean, dynamic” lines of the sets and styles of the 1920s and 1930s. The dances of Astaire-Rogers fit in this new, modern world.

Yet, their differences as dancers also is evident in the film. In the number “Let Yourself Go”, Astaire and Rogers compete in a tap/dance off where they try to upstage their competition. Once caught up in the music and steps, the duo move together in sync. However, Astaire adds a bit more to his steps: he stretches out his hands, swings his arms and moves his torso/legs around a bit more fluidly. This is Astaire pulling from the different jazz movements and steps he adored, and bringing them into the world of tap and Hollywood. This number is a prime example African-American styles stemming from the jazz era that influenced Astaire in many of his numbers. That style calls for the whole body to act as “rhythm instruments”, such as clapping hands and tapping feet. Every part of your body need to showcase the energy of the music. Bring that background along with his training of dance that was more stoic and European, Astaire brought a new flavor to American dance. “His movements,” writes Beth Genné in Dance Me A Song: Astaire, Balanchine, Kelly and the American Film Musical, “employed a vocabulary very much of its time and place, full of dance slang that captured and poeticized the way Americans not only spoke but stood and moved”.

“Let Yourself Go” from ‘Follow the Fleet’ (1936)

Follow the Fleet made money, but lukewarm reviews by critics began seeping their way through to RKO. The next production needed to be much greater and fresher. Perhaps to appease the worries of Astaire and Rogers that their films began growing stale, RKO decided to move on from Sandrich as director. A fresh person behind the camera meant a fresh vision, and that was certainly welcomed by the duo. The lukewarm reviews may have caused a bit of pause, but, most importantly, crowds still called for more Astaire and Rogers movies. “It was difficult for any of us to make a decision about breaking up the format,” remembered Astaire. In the 1935 Motion Picture Herald, Rogers and Astaire were fourth in the top ten moneymakers for that year — just behind Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Clark Gable. The studio was happy to continue, and they still held the decision-making power. Besides, these productions were happening so quickly that there was little time to sit around and think about any future moves.

For their next film, Swing Time, RKO chose George Stevens to direct. The film would become their most beloved. “Swing Time is a movie about a myth,” notes Arlene Croce, “the myth of Fred and Ginger and the imaginary world of romance they live in”. The previous films (all excellent in certain regards) feel like build up for Swing Time. The skill and magic of their dance numbers are at their peak and so are Astaire and Rogers. The duo spent 350 hours rehearsing the numbers for Swing Time; they wanted this one to be the grandest. To do so, Astaire and Pan arranged waltzes to incorporate “elements of rhythm tap and other forms,” notes Genné. The team had become experts on innovating new routines and pulling from any and all forms of dance. This made it possible to stay fresh, where one film could focus on ballet while another features tap and another relies heavily on waltzes. They could pepper in any style whenever they felt necessary. Practicing so much made it seem like every American could so, but what they lacked is Astaire, Pan and Roger’s skill at blending all these variations and styles of dance. “It was entirely artful,” says Genné.

Rogers’ role in Swing Time offered more acting challenges than in previous roles, which excited Rogers. She no longer played a “wide-eyed ingenue”; her character in Swing Time had more depth and nuance than before. That nuance shines through in the dance numbers. Rogers’ “dance-acting” is among the movie’s endearing legacies. In the number “Pick Yourself Up”, her body transforms from rigid and uptight to loose and joyful. Astaire, even as a gambler in the movie was never more dapper and smooth than in Swing Time. “There seems to be a special glow to the Astaire-Rogers relationship,” writes John Mueller, “more than in any other film, we care about them, worry about their inevitable troubles, and rejoice in the sweetness of their equally inevitable reconciliations”. The lessons of their previous films came together for Swing Time to create fine-tuned dance numbers and the perfect acting performances to match the energy of said numbers.

“Pick Yourself Up” from ‘Swing Time’ (1936)

There were still some hardships to overcome. The final number, “Never Gonna Dance”, took forty-eight takes to film, according to Rogers, and everything that could go wrong did go wrong: equipment failed, dancers missed dance steps and some were injured. During a break during filming, Rogers took off her shoes and found her feet bloodied with blisters. Hermes Pan, again working with the duo choreographed scenes, saw and told her they could stop filming until the following day. Rogers wanted to persist and “get the thing done”. The thing got done. Swing Time was a success and still is viewed by many as the high point of the Astaire-Rogers partnership. The numbers became the go-to reference for dance in film and both of their careers. They did not just dance to dance anymore; they had something to say about the culture around them. “These dances gave the public an idealized reflection of themselves,” notes Genné, “and of the emotional relationship of lover and beloved that could be expressed in movement”. They were breaking new ground in the world of film and dance.

Despite Swing Time being the sixth Rogers-Astaire musical, many felt a freshness to the film. Rogers attributes that to a new director: “I was unafraid to express these acting variations with [George] Stevens at the helm,” she remembers, “and the results are evident”. Critics sense have been highlighting these results as some of the finest in film history. The numbers were executed to their highest degree, while seemingly blending styles (ballroom, tap, jazz, etc.) that enriched the characters they played. Mueller notes that Ginger Rogers in Swing Time is her finest hour in the partnership, blending her “richly textured” acting ability with a “fluidity” in her dance unlike any before. To Astaire’s credit, “no dance musical is finer,” Brian Siebert writes, as “tap and ballroom are most thoroughly blended”. Throughout the years after working with Astaire, Ginger Rogers would always say she loved all the film they did together like a parent loves their kids. Though, she sometimes added: “I, too, have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time”. Astaire, too, keenly remembered the movie. He believed Swing Time has “ample value”, because he stuck to his rule of keeping the dances “new and fresh”.

At the end of 1936, Astaire and Rogers began work on Shall We Dance. To Roger’s annoyance, Mark Sandrich was back at the helm directing. “I’d been spoiled by working with George Stevens and was loath to go back to second-class status with Mark,” Rogers remembered. Her professionalism pushed her through the production. RKO wanted to cash in and brought in George and Ira Gershwin to write the music. The focus of the production went to the music, sets and costuming, which made the dancing suffer. “Their usual spontaneity is severely dampened,” writes John Mueller.

New problems emerged. One of the sequences in Shall We Dance called for a Ginger Rogers mask to be worn by the other dancers. Early in production, Rogers herself sat in a make-up chair with straws placed in her nose while a plaster mask was made of her face. For Rogers, it was not her favorite number of hers. “I turn away because I just can’t bear to look at the horrible mask and its dozen copies,” Rogers remembered. Despite a professionalism that mostly never wavered, the film was off to a rocky start. Shall We Dance features the duo incorporating ballet into their films. There is a scene which calls for Astaire’s character to dance with a ballerina, which producers brought in Harriet Hoctor from New York (for a touch of authenticity). Rogers did not think the ballet worked with the film, but did not say anything to producers — “because people might have accused me of sour grapes”. The number showcases Astaire poking fun at the structure of ballet, switching out the “rigid body movement and placement” for a more “relaxed and natural position”, notes Genné. Arlene Croce agrees with Rogers, calling Hoctor dancing with Astaire in a Astaire-Rogers film “a catastrophic error”. Audiences wanted Astaire and Rogers together, not the duo watching the other dance with someone else. Years later, when Rogers went on a talk show to talk about her movies with Astaire, the host played the clip from Shall We Dance where Astaire dances with Hoctor. “We didn’t know you could do that,” the host cheerily said to her. Rogers remembered the episode in horror.

“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” from ‘Shall We Dance’ (1937)

Despite some less than fond memories of Shall We Dance, Astaire, who always praised Rogers, specifically pointed to Shall We Dance as a high point for the duo. On set, he showed a visitor a flip-book of Rogers dancing in Shall We Dance, “Now that’s rhythm!,” he exclaimed, while also saying she was the “epitome of the new and modern dancer”. While shooting Shall We Dance, Astaire received a letter from his sister in Ireland. It was a review of Swing Time that asked readers “One begins to wonder how many more of that type of film the public is prepared to enjoy”. That review, though his wife immediately threw it away, fed into Astaire’s worry of how much longer they could continue. On top of that specific review, the reviews and sales for Shall We Dance were good, but not great. “The tide was really ebbing,” noted Astaire, “I continued to wonder how long this Ginger-Fred bonanza could go on”. By June 1937, both Astaire and Rogers “bombarded” RKO to do separate projects. “There wasn’t any antagonism on either his part or mine,” Rogers remembered, “we just wanted to grow in different directions and not be stereotyped”. Both negotiated better paying contracts and both were able to star in their own projects (Rogers was in Stage Door and Astaire did A Damsel in Distress). The intermission, however, was brief. After a year away, Astaire and Rogers were back dancing again.

With the onset of Carefree, their taste of projects away from each other proved sweet-tasting. Rogers and Astaire knew that “splitting up of the team was imminent and necessary”. Still, the studio held much of the power and wanting breaking away was not as easy as doing so. Much like past productions, once filming began on Carefree their worries were pushed to the side. They were professionals and enjoyed working together. They approached the project with no complaints. Carefree loosened the weight of the musical numbers to make them shorter and more impactful. Because of this. “Carefree doesn’t really ‘feel’ much like a musical,” notes John Mueller. Arlene Croce agrees, calling it more of a “screwball comedy than musical”. By now, however, Astaire and Rogers understood the power of their dancing meant to the story of their films. They did not need a complex script to make a successful film. All that needed to be said could be done with their movements, especially in the genre they worked in. “In musicals, we don’t care about the simple narrative,” writes Genné, but moreso the “devices that draw us in the story”. In musicals, those devices are song and dance.

Ginger Rogers was joyous about Carefree and called her role as Amanda “better than anything I had seen before in the RKO musical scripts”. Her roles seemed to improve with every film. Carefree became a Ginger Rogers vehicle. The emphasis was not on the four dance numbers, but on the comedy and the plot of the movie. Her acting prowess came into the spotlight. The dynamic shifted slightly and felt like something fresh. Astaire and Rogers reached a “new understanding of each other,” notes Croce, “a new intimacy and confidence in their dancing and in their [acting] scenes together”. By now, they were old pros together — rehearsing and getting their cues dead on never felt easier. The dance numbers remained Astaire’s domain, and he cheerily remembered “The Yam”. “I think we had as much fun with ‘The Yam’ as any number we ever did together,” Astaire reflected years later.

“The Yam” from ‘Carefree’ (1938)

By the time of Carefree, audiences were on Astaire and Roger’s case about being romantic leads. “If I ever have to sit through another Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire picture in which they’re so in love with one another that they can’t indulge in a little love-making with a small kiss or two thrown in, I’ll scream,” wrote a reviewer to Photoplay in 1937. Throughout all their films, the duo tried endlessly to find new “gimmicks” to work into their numbers. It was time to pucker up. As Astaire understood it, he was not allowed to kiss another leading lady because his wife did not approve. (In Swing Time, Astaire was to appear with lipstick from a kiss on his face. The lips imprint was painted on; only giving fuel to rumors). “This was ridiculous and untrue,” Astaire set the record clear in his memoir. He stayed clear of “mushy” romance scenes because he did not like doing them and thought it was “somewhat novel” to stay away from cliché. Astaire wanted to put the rumors to bed. During filming of Carefree, he asked Rogers if he could give her the “kiss of the century” to end “this international crisis”. She agreed. Rogers remembers Astaire being rather uncomfortable when it came to filming the kiss. “He hated every minute of those last four bars,” Rogers remembered.

At the end of “I Used to Be Color Blind”, Astaire kissed Rogers in slow-motion “to make up for all the kisses I had not given Ginger for all those years”. When Astaire told his wife of the scene, she replied, teasingly, she could not wait to watch. When she saw the fifteen second, slow-mo footage the next day, Phyllis replied with laughter, “Did you say you were going to make up for all those kisses you missed? Well you certainly did!” When the two left the screening-room, Astaire explained to his wife that the kiss only lasted four to five seconds, not the full fifteen. “Oh yes — I know,” Phyllis replied, “and I also know that this is the first time you ever really made an effort to win an Academy Award”. Carefree was the last Rogers-Astaire project directed by Mark Sandrich. In the years since, Rogers remained clear about her thoughts on Sandrich, “I didn’t miss him”. When production wrapped, Rogers and Astaire were scheduled for one more film together. They decided that would be the end; it was time to move on.

Rogers and Astaire in ‘Carefree’ (1938)

The End(s)

During Carefree, Astaire and Rogers were contracted to do a period musical about the lives of Vernon and Irene Castle, a real-life husband and wife dancing team that are credited with “reviving” the popularity of modern dancing. Rogers approached The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle with excitement, as she always did, due to the prospect of the period costumes and learning dance numbers that were “less sensational” than the ones she and Astaire normally performed. Astaire approached the move with a sense of duty. Irene Castle proved to be sort of drama queen, in Rogers eyes, and became problematic early on. Castle had asked RKO to do a nation-wide search for an actress to play her, but RKO had bought the rights as a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire vehicle. “She not only wanted me to dye my hair but to chop it off to the short bob,” Rogers remembers, “which she claimed to have originated”. Castle annoyed Rogers, but she did not worry much. RKO was on her side.

Castle stuck around for rehearsals. While rehearsing “The Missouri Waltz”, she argued with director Hank Potter about the ribbons on Rogers’ shoes. The color was not the same as the ones she had worn. When Potter asked Rogers to change the ribbons, Rogers explained that she and Astaire were doing “imitations” of Irene and Vernon, “I wasn’t an Irene Castle clone any more than Fred was a carbon copy of Vernon”. Potter backed-off and the ribbons stayed. Ultimately, Irene Castle soon got distracted with other issues beside the filming of the movie and disappeared from the set. “I was glad I didn’t have Ginger’s job,” Astaire remembered, “of living up to such an important matter as Irene’s fashion reputation”.

“The Tango” from ‘The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle’ (1939)

In hindsight, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was a weird film to promote the ending of their partnership. The dance numbers were pulled from the numbers that the Castles had populated years before. The idea to do this story as a musical did not make a ton of sense, although this was the first time Astaire and Rogers portrayed historical figures. “All the dances are performed as exhibitions,” notes John Mueller, “and are all based on the steps and styles of another time”. The style of dance, though new to the duo, constricted their creativity. Whenever possible, Astaire and Rogers (along with Hermes Pan, as always) tried their best to add their personal flavors to the numbers. For only the second time in their movies, Rogers did a solo number called “The Yama Yama Man”. The major change for this movie was that Astaire and Rogers were played a married couple, not lovers. “They danced without passion and without mystery,” notes Arlene Croce. Despite losing their creative freedom, the duo brought their trusted professionalism to set. The film ends with Astaire’s death — a first for the duo in their films and a symbolic way to end their run. “The Last Waltz” was the last number filmed and Rogers remembers people coming from other studios — Paramount and Columbia — to visit the set and watch Astaire and Roger’s last dance. “I sort of teared up as we were dancing our last waltz,” remember Rogers. The final dance concludes with Irene Castle (Rogers) looking upon a ghostly duet of herself and Vernon (Astaire) dancing as they fade away. “We did have such a wonderful time,” Vernon wrote to his wife from the war zone of World War II, “Didn’t we, darling?”

Astaire received death threats from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle being the last Astaire-Rogers film. He notes one in his autobiography of a particular note, “We will kill your baby if you split up with Ginger”. No violence ever materialized. Looking back, Astaire remembered thinking that this was not their final on-screen collaboration. The audiences and themselves just needed a break, but “we expected to do another picture or so when the right time came along”. The reviews were positive. Astaire and Rogers were happy with the final product, though he wished it had been filmed in color. Nonetheless, “we had accomplished what we hoped for — a high level climax to the series”. Throughout the 1940s, Fred Astaire kept on making musicals: You’ll Never Get Rich, Holiday Inn, Easter Parade. He danced with numerous talented woman, but never really cared to be apart of another “team”. Ginger Rogers shifted to dramatic rolls. In 1941, she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her roll in Kitty Foyle. (She beat out, among other, Joan Fontaine in Rebecca and Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story). Both enjoyed success away from each. However, the dance numbers in an Astaire-Rogers move often had reprises, where another there was another short taste of a previous dance number just before the end of the movie. Before saying adieu forever to one another on-screen, a reprise was in order.

Fresh off a huge success with Judy Garland in Easter Parade, the studio MGM wanted Astaire and Garland together again. The studio tapped Astaire and Garland for The Barkleys of Broadway, but Garland got ill. “We decided to wait as long as possible,” Astaire remembered, but was disappointed when the studio gave the go ahead to replace her. To the excitement of fans and the studio alike, Ginger Rogers was available to film and signed on for Garland’s role. Astaire, too, followed in excitement, “Gin and I had often discussed the possibility of getting together for a rematch and here it was out of a clear sky”. Rogers was in Oregon when she got a call from MGM asking if she would object to being in another film with Fred Astaire. She thought their phrasing of the question odd, “How ungracious to assume I wouldn’t want to work with Fred?” Since their “final” film together, their relationship had been cordial yet distant, but they had always remained friends. Despite being taken aback on how she was asked, Rogers readily agreed to do the project. Rogers began “exercising, limbering up, stretching and getting my breathing even”. It had been ten years since her last musical.

When Rogers came down to the set for the first time to see Astaire, he was already rehearsing the dances. When he saw Rogers, “he stopped dead” and the two “embraced and wept”. Rehearsals brought forth a new “set of gags and jokes” and the duo had a hard time believing that ten years had passed since their last film. One gag left Astaire confused: when shooting their first dance number, Astaire asked long-time dance partner Hermes Pan if Rogers was taller than he remembered. “I know — something is different,” Pan replied. Astaire went straight to Rogers: “Have you grown or have I shrunk?” She laughed and showcased the high heels she had snuck by him.

“Bouncin’ the Blues” from ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ (1949)

The Barkleys of Broadway perhaps lacks some of their spontaneity of their earlier movies, but, when taken account their history and the context of reuniting, the film sends audiences on a nostalgia trip that goes down smoothly. “The Barkleys was just another musical,” wrties Croce, “However, it had Them”. The dances are less majestic and more practical, but the beauty and grace Astaire and Rogers commit to each number remains sensational. The film is nothing more of a grasp for nostalgia.

It certainly helps that the movie begins with a bang: Astaire and Rogers, finally, dancing in color. “No musical ever got off to a better start,” Croce notes. The film features numbers such as “Bouncin’ the Blues” which “proved that the pair had lost none of its magic,” notes Roy Pickard. The number is a lively tap that offers a last chance to see the duo re-live the Jazz Age. The rhythms and coordination they had together flowed right from the start. Once rehearsals and shooting started with Astaire, “the ten years fell away,” Rogers remembered, “it seemed a matter of mere weeks since we’d been on the dance floor”. The duo reused a track — “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” — from Shall We Dance, a song only sung in that movie in which now got a full-on dance sequence. Again, Astaire and Rogers utilize a technique of telling the story through dance — as Astaire tries to win Rogers’ love back. The number “rights the wrong commmitted by Shall We Dance?”, Croce writes, by having a full-on dance number to the song. “Manhattan Downbeat”, a short, splashy finale, closed The Barkley’s of Broadway and the on-screen partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The critic Bosley Crowther wrote of the film, “Age cannot wither the enchantment of Ginger and Fred”.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in ‘The Barkleys of Broadway’ (1949)


Fred Astaire’s entire career consisted of dance. All throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Astaire danced with (among others) Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn. These projects enjoyed various degrees of success, though nothing ever really topped his dances with Ginger Rogers. In his later years, he appeared on television and in some non-musical roles. In 1975, Astaire was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for his role in The Towering Inferno (he lost to Robert De Niro in The Godfather: Part II).

Ginger Rogers, also, enjoyed success in film during the 1940s and 1950s. Her focus shifted more toward what she had dreamed about when she first came to Hollywood in the early 1930s: being a comedienne and dramatic actress. Throughout her career, she worked with directors such as Sam Wood, William Wellman, Billy Wilder (who she campaigned for the project The Major and the Minor), Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage and Edward Dmytryk. Rogers wanted challenging roles that pushed her to new depths as an actors. In the 1960s, she transitioned back to the theater where she had started her career.

On June 22, 1987, Fred Astaire died of pneumonia. He was 88. Ginger Rogers died of a heart attack on April 25th, 1995. She was 83. They are both buried at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California — a short walk from one another.

“The abiding memory of Fred and Ginger in the 1930s is of Fred dressed in white tie and tails, and Ginger in satin,” writes Roy Pickard, “One number merges into another. Sometimes one can’t quite remember which number belongs to which film. But that matters little. The important thing is that they did dance and that they did it so brilliantly for so long”. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers defined an era in film-making and in stardom. They created a dance language on screen that many took and expanded on. More importantly, their films entertained millions upon their release — enchanting audiences with their quick feet, clapping hands and loving expressions. Today, we often look back at the 1930s with Astaire and Rogers in mind, waltzing or tap dancing away as effortlessly as they made it seem. They are the defining image of 1930s Hollywood. Their incredible dedication to dance and to entertainment, as well as their fervent professionalism and friendship toward one-another, is a Hollywood story that remains immortal. “The mood they projected in their great romantic duets,” writes Arlene Croce, “has become part of the mythology of the 1930s. The whole decade seems romantic in retrospect”.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in ‘The Gay Divorcee’ (1934)

Astaire and Rogers did not see themselves that way. They were actors and were just doing a job they loved. They had no interest in thinking of themselves as grander than anyone else doing the same job during that time period. Rogers was much more than just Fred Astaire’s dancing partner and Astaire was much more than a “song-and-dance” man. Both challenged each other and themselves in the projects they did together to entertain and have fun. In his later career, Astaire was often asked how he changed the philosophy of dance in film. “I have disappointingly little to say,” Astaire would answer those questions, “I just dance”.

Astaire’s summation of his career is the furthest notion of the truth. His “outlaw style” of blending styles and immense attention to the dance was filmed ushered in an of musicals that still owe gratitude to him today. “If any single performer-choreographer can be said to be the father of the film-musical dance tradition,” Genné writes, “it is Fred Astaire”. And one only achieves that by having the right people around them. Ginger Rogers was the perfect partner. “Ginger made a successful romantic lead out of Astaire,” noted Lincoln Barnett in 1941. Her personality — “an alert, friendly, distinctly American charm” — complimented Astaire’s nervous self-doubt. Equally important, Rogers brought the same level of technical dedication and competitiveness needed to ascend to new film-making heights for the world of musicals. The story of American film cannot be written without Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers.

In 1950, fresh off their final movie together, Fred Astaire was awarded an Honorary Academy Award “for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures”. The award was presented to him by Ginger Rogers.



Alex Bauer

Just a guy who likes telling great stories, however and whenever I can. Click the Twitter icon to follow or e-mail me at ambauer93@gmail.com