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In This Article Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

  • Introduction
  • Autobiographies

Cinema and Media Studies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
by
Adrienne L. McLean

Introduction

Fred Astaire (1899–1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911–1995) would likely have become movie stars on their own, Astaire as an eccentric-looking musical performer who choreographed his own numbers and Rogers as a skillful and attractive actor. Yet despite any number of subsequent accomplishments—his many other musicals with partners of talent and ability, her well-regarded star vehicles and an Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940)—their partnership in the 1930s in nine black-and-white musicals for RKO came to define both of them for the rest of their lives and continues to do so today. It was instantiated by and participated in the surging popularity of the musical genre in 1933–1934; Rogers had already played significant roles in two Busby Berkeley musicals at Warner Bros., in addition to more than twenty other films, while Astaire had come from a successful career with his sister Adele in vaudeville and on Broadway, and appeared briefly as himself in a Joan Crawford musical at MGM in 1933. It has become the stuff of legend that the middle-aged Astaire’s screen test was met with the laconic statement “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” But for reasons that many have since labored to elucidate and understand, he and Rogers, with no particular affinity for one another in real life, were cast as a team. And when they bantered and sang and danced together on the screen—in Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1937), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)—they, and the world they inhabited onscreen, became extraordinary, magical, and dynamite at the box office. By 1935 the two were the third-ranked stars of a depression-ridden country according to Motion Picture Herald’s polling of exhibitors, and they remained in the top ten through 1937. There was a subsequent reteaming at MGM in the Technicolor The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949, with Rogers in a role intended for Judy Garland. But although both Astaire and Rogers remained active in show business—television as well as film, and occasional forays into theater for Rogers—in the post-studio era, and most of their films circulated on television from time to time in the 1950s and 1960s, what can properly be called the deification of Astaire and Rogers is arguably a product of the “nostalgia boom” of the angst-ridden 1970s (see the popularity of That’s Entertainment! [1974], a musical compilation film, and its sequels). In 1976 eight of the RKO Astaire-Rogers films were restored and released theatrically across the United States in new 35-mm prints by the American Film Institute (the rights to Roberta were then still owned by MGM, which had remade it in the 1950s), which helped generate new devotees, as did the availability of all ten of their films on VHS and DVD in subsequent decades. Thus, this bibliography attests not only to the significance of Astaire and Rogers and their films to the history of film, dance, and popular culture, whether on aesthetic, industrial, social, cultural, or ideological levels, but also to their ongoing ability to delight and intrigue new generations of writers and scholars year after year.

Autobiographies

Astaire 1959 is anecdotal and relatively self-effacing, but valuable as the only piece he ever produced on himself and his work. Rogers 1991 is sometimes cloying because she seems mainly to want to prove that her life was happy and fulfilling away from her work with Astaire, but it does serve to remind the reader of the long and productive career in show business that Rogers had on her own, with or without the help of her omnipresent mother, Lela.

  • Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time: An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959.

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    Fewer than a hundred pages are devoted to the years with Rogers, but these are necessary reading for anyone interested in the partnership. Many items that later biographies would mine for evidence of strange subcurrents in his personality—he loved to ride with the police and visit crime scenes, for example—are cheerfully described here, too.

  • Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

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    Rogers begins by vowing to “set the record straight” about her work with Astaire and reminding the reader that she made more than sixty films besides their ten. Chapters 15–24 cover the series at RKO. Basically a story of how she achieved success through hard work and faith in herself and God (she and her mother were followers of Christian Science).

LAST MODIFIED: 07/24/2012

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199791286-0164

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