The musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are one of the miracles of world cinema, adored equally by every age on every continent in every language. Their music needs no translation since Fred and Ginger had the best songwriters living-Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin-to supply the backdrop to their choreographic bliss. No matter who wrote the song, Fred and Ginger always lived up to its romantic lyrics in their dances, which ranged anywhere from ballroom to tap to rollerskating.
Henry Mancini has covered a similar spectrum of film music in his distinguished Hollywood career, which includes 4 Oscars and 20 Grammys. From the musical froth of Victor, Victoria (1982) to the soulful strains of Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) to the rollicking comedy of The Pink Panther (1964), Mancini has been given a musical workout by his collaborator of 33 years, director Blake Edwards, that has made Mancini one of the best-known and most beloved composers working in film. His adaptation of this Astaire-Rogers collection is marked by the same loving touch he showed in such memorable scores as Charade (1963), Two for the Road (1967), The Days of Wine and Roses (1962) and the dynamite Peter Gunn TV theme (1958).
Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899. Ginger Rogers started life as Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, on July 16, 1911. They came together in Hollywood in 1933 when RKO Pictures announced that it was jumping on the musical bandwagon by producing Flying Down to Rio after the success of 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 at Warner Bros. Both of those films had featured 22-year-old Rogers, already a veteran of vaudeville, who captured attention in Gold Diggers by singing We're In the Money in pig Latin. RKO had just signed Broadway and London stage star Astaire, 34, to a contract that allowed him to choreograph his own numbers and he was assigned to dance in Flying Down to Rio in a supporting role opposite Dorothy Jordan. Miss Jordan decided to marry the head of the studio and go on her honeymoon instead, so another recent RKO contractee, Ginger Rogers, filled in.
Ginger and Fred only had fourth and fifth billing on the picture and only one number together, a popular tango step called The Carioca, but that was enough. The public wanted more of them. Buoyed by the couple's instant success, RKO took Astaire up on his suggestion to adapt one of his Broadway shows, The Gay Divorce. The Hays Office didn't like the idea of a happy marital dissolution so RKO changed the title to The Gay Divorcee (which sounds more risqué, if anything) but kept the show's most important element, Cole Porter's love anthem Night and Day. Astaire recreated his stage choreography with Rogers on screen and the result mesmerized audiences already familiar with the hit song. Trying to top The Carioca from their first film, The Gay Divorcee (1934) then adds The Continental, a 17 1/2-minute musical extravaganza that had the dance team doing everything from a Viennese waltz to jazz. It was the first tune to win the Oscar for Best Song.
When movie audiences clapped after their numbers, RKO made sure there was a pause for applause following all their dances in Roberto (1935), their third teaming. This adaptation of the Jerome Kern Broadway show includes I Won't Dance, which gives Fred a scintillating solo, and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, which allows the duo its first formal romantic adagio on screen.
Irving Berlin came up with both the title and the score of their fourth pairing, Top Hat (1935). Now firmly ensconced as the leading characters of their films, Astaire and Rogers do a challenge dance duet to Isn't This a Lovely Day? cued by lightning. The first clap of thunder begins the dance in a gazebo, the second speeds up the rhythm to double-time. Cheek to Cheek is a sublime foxtrot over a bridge in RKO's Art Deco Venice and The Piccolino is a take-off of an exotic dance number on a nightclub piazza.
Berlin stuck around for their next picture, Follow the Fleet (1936), a swing musical with Astaire as a sailor and Rogers as a dance-hall hostess in "modern day" San Francisco (where, according to RKO, U.S. Navy battleships come in spotless white). Let Yourself Go is Astaire's variation on the Lindy for Rogers and himself, escalating into a wild jazz movement. I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket is a gag-filled slapstick exercise for the pair that Astaire's co-choreographer Hermes Pan described as "every old vaudeville trick in the world stuck into one." In contrast, Let's Face the Music and Dance, set in a Monte Carlo casino, is a haunting dance drama about accepting one's fate in the face of adversity.
Jerome Kern came back into the picture to pen an original score for film number six, Swing Time (1936), with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The bouncy Pick Yourself Up, an ode to the "if at first you don't succeed" attitude, is a quickstep that Ginger, as a dancing school instructor, teaches to fast-learning Fred. The Oscar-winning The Way You Look Tonight is not a dance number but a serenade by Astaire at the piano to Rogers while she shampoos her hair. A Fine Romance is a duet danced in the snow, as Fred resists Ginger's advances. Waltz in Swing Time is the film's swirling climax, a 2 3/4 minute moonlit ballroom rhapsody.
RKO brought in George and Ira Gershwin for Shall We Dance (1937), Fred and Ginger's last consecutive film together and the seventh teaming since their initial sensation in Flying Down to Rio four years earlier. They All Laughed is a vigorous tap number staged on a Manhattan rooftop restaurant, complete with two white pianos for the duo to dance upon. Let's Call the Whole Thing Off is a novelty song performed by the pair on rollerskates in the Central Park Rotunda. Fred croons the ballad They Can't Take That Away From Me to Ginger as they ride the ferry from New Jersey. The finale is Shall We Dance, in which Astaire confronts an army of female chorus dancers in black evening gowns holding Ginger masks before their faces until he uncovers the real Rogers and they dance to a joyful conclusion.
After Shall We Dance, Astaire and Rogers took a 15-month break from each other, filming musicals and movies with other co-stars. They were reunited only two more times at RKO, in Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). They made their final movie together a decade later at MGM, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), and that was only because Astaire's scheduled co-star, Judy Garland, had to bow out at the last minute.
For this musical assortment, Henry Mancini has highlighted songs from the first seven musicals, including numbers that the pair do not perform together. From Vincent Youman's score to Flying Down to Rio there's Music Makes Me, sung first as a band solo by Rogers and then tapped to later in the film by Astaire; Flying Down to Rio, warbled by Astaire as overhead chorus girls cavort on the wings of a bi-plane; and Orchids in the Moonlight, a slow tango performed by the film's romantic leads, Dolores del Rio and Raul Roulien.
The top-billed star of Roberta, Irene Dunne, sings the lullaby Yesterdays, as well as Lovely to Look At during a fashion show in which one of the models is a young Lucille Ball. Top Hat, White Tie and Tails from Top Hat allows Astaire to resurrect a number from one of his Ziegfeld stage shows, the "shooting gallery" scene where he "rubs out" a line of formally dressed gentlemen with his walking stick. We Saw the Sea is a military march song performed by Astaire and his fellow sailors on board his ship at the start of Follow the Fleet. Another ship, in Shall We Dance, provides the setting for Astaire's virtuosity in Slap That Bass, where he plays rhythmic tricks with the chromium-plated machinery of the engine room.
As a special bonus, Henry Mancini has created Astaire!, an arrangement of unforgettable tunes saluting Fred's pairing with other leading ladies such as Cyd Charisse in The Bandwagon (1953) for Dancing in the Dark and Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs (1955) for the delightful Something's Gotta Give. Astaire's own composition, I'm Building Up to an Awful Letdown, was too good to miss, and with such Gershwin classics as A Foggy Day, Nice Work If You Can Get It, Who Cares? and How Long Has This Been Going On?, it is clear that Astaire dancing alone could be as inspiring to composers as Fred and Ginger together.
According to Astaire's biographer Tim Satchell, "one of the reasons for the excellence of the scores was the intense rivalry which existed between the composers." George Gershwin even complained publicly when he learned that Jerome Kern was hired to write the Swing Time score. With the desire to outdo each other, the leading composers came up with the most stylish standards ever to grace a film career. Of the seven movies fully represented here, all but Follow the Fleet won Oscar nominations for Best Song, a category created largely in response to the popularity of the Astaire-Rogers musicals. Under maestro Mancini's baton, these glorious tunes once again capture the fantasy and romance that are the essence of the timeless art of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
- MASON WILEY
and scanned by Stefan Huber. Thanks !
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