I’m back at it again with another blogathon entry! This time I’ll be discussing one of my all-time favorite onscreen couples, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire! I’m sure that Fred and Ginger rank among the top actors for many classic film fans, and I also know that I’m not the first to put their films together in order of least to greatest in my eyes, nor will I be the last. Nevertheless, I’m extremely grateful to Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Michaela of Love Letters to Old Hollywood for hosting and allowing me to finally make this list that to me has been long overdue. I sincerely hope that you enjoy my opinions on Fred and Ginger’s worst to best films!
10. Follow the Fleet (1936)
I knew as soon as I started this list that Follow the Fleet (1936) would be at the bottom. Follow the Fleet (1936) depicts Astaire as “Bake” Baker, a seaman in the Navy who visits San Francisco on leave and finds his former dance partner Sherry Martin (Ginger Rogers) working in a dance hall to get by. He reunites with her but ends up costing Sherry her job in the process, all while Bake’s best buddy Brig (Randolph Scott) meets and falls for Sherry’s sister Connie (Harriet Nelson), though he runs for the hills when she brings up the subject of marriage. In order to make amends Bake attempts to get Sherry a job on Broadway, though he fails to do so, and his and Brig’s last-ditch effort to get on the Martin sisters’ good side is to stage a benefit show in order to raise enough money to repair their deceased father’s ship, even if it means Bake having to go AWOL to do so. I found Follow the Fleet (1936) to be one of the most boring of their ten films together, and I disliked it for a multitude of reasons. For one thing, the picture doesn’t seem to focus on Fred and Ginger nearly as much as some of their other films or do them any favors, instead focusing on co-stars Randolph Scott and Harriet Nelson, neither of which appealed to me at all in the film. The plot is flimsy, running with a series of misunderstandings that feel disheartening rather than entertaining as their other films do. It’s one thing to have silly confusion when it comes to love or an innocent case of mistaken identity, but Fred’s antics in this film cost Ginger multiple jobs, which is truly sad to think about when you consider the Depression era that the film takes place in. On top of that, Follow the Fleet (1936) teaches the lesson that the Navy and Randolph Scott just don’t belong in the Fred and Ginger franchise.
9. Roberta (1935)
Here we go again with the unnecessary stars in Fred and Ginger’s films! Randolph Scott is among our culprits once more, though this time we also have the addition of legendary actress Irene Dunne. Randolph Scott is really who the plot revolves around in this movie as he plays John Kent, a former Harvard football player who travels to Paris with friend Huck Haines (Fred Astaire) along with his band, the Wabash Indianans. The Indianans are meant to play an engagement in the city of lights but are rejected immediately after the club owner realizes that they’re not “Indians” as he’d hoped, which is just as cringe-worthy as it sounds. John goes to the only person who he thinks can help, his Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley), who owns the chic Roberta gown shop, because somehow those two things relate. It’s actually Huck’s former partner Lizzie Gatz (played by who else but Ginger Rogers) who finds the band a gig at the nightclub she’s featured in, as long as Huck doesn’t reveal her true identity to anyone. Meanwhile, Aunt Minnie unexpectedly passes away, leaving her gown shop to John, and he realizes that Stephanie (Irene Dunne) was the true visionary and designer for the store. He convinces her to keep on working there in order to design the store’s newest collection, all while falling in love with her. This story is as convoluted as you can imagine and more, and it’s this overcomplication as well as all of the irrelevant factors thrown in that leads to this film’s demise. Usually it’s ranked the lowest of the Fred and Ginger pairings by critics, but the only things that saved it from my lowest spot were my true dislike for Follow the Fleet (1936) and the breathtaking ending fashion show sequence that gives modern audiences a glimpse into 1930s fashion (my personal favorite) as well as a look at Lucille Ball in one of her earliest extra roles. Blink and you’ll miss it, though!
8. The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) is known for a few things: it was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ first film together in ten years and their only Technicolor picture, but most importantly, it was the pair’s final film together. In The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), we find successful husband-and-wife dancing duo Josh and Dinah Barkley (played by Astaire and Rogers, naturally). Josh is loving their current height of fame and intends to continue their partnership indefinitely. Dinah, however, begins to have other plans as playwright Jacques Pierre Barredout (Jacques François) approaches her with a chance to make it as a serious actress that she finds difficult to pass up. Josh doesn’t appreciate this possible career move one bit and attempts to nip it in the bud for the sake of their partnership, even though his interference ends up costing him not only their partnership but the couple’s personal relationship as well. Will Josh be able to put his own feelings and dreams aside for the sake of his wife, or will everything spiral out of control? Unlike most of Fred and Ginger’s other films that were pure flights of fantasy and fiction, many aspects of the plot in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) mirrored their real-life relationship. Many attributed the ending of Fred and Ginger’s onscreen partnership to Ginger Rogers’ desire to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress. Throughout the 1930s Rogers attempted to balance her earnest pictures with the musicals that she made with Astaire, starring in movies like Stage Door (1937) and Bachelor Mother (1939) while making many of the films in this list. The ten-year break gave Ginger the opportunity to really show her acting chops, and it only took one year after starring in her second-to-last film with Fred, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), for her to win the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her heart-wrenching performance in Kitty Foyle (1940). By comparison, I found nothing wrong with The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), but I didn’t see the need for it either, and to me, it doesn’t stand out at all among their ten pictures together.
7. Swing Time (1936)
For this next choice, we see the story of John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire), a dancer with a gambler’s streak. Everything is arranged for him to marry Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), but his friends intercede and make him late for his own wedding. They then bet Lucky that he won’t be able to marry Margaret at all, a bet which appears to be a sound one as Margaret’s father informs Lucky that unless he’s able to go out into the world and earn $25,000, he won’t have his daughter’s hand. He starts his journey even more financially unstable than he was in the first place after paying his friends for the bet, then he begins slumming it in New York with “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore) before running into lovely dance instructor Penny (Ginger Rogers). In a similar manner to Follow the Fleet (1936), Lucky costs Penny her job, this time after pretending that he has two left feet, to which Penny replies (within earshot of her boss) that he’d “never learn to dance in a million years”. Of course, Lucky is determined to make things right and get on the beautiful teacher’s good side, which eventually brings them together, but will he end up back with his fiancée or will he give this new love a try? While many critics place Swing Time (1936) at the top of their list, I’ve put it at number seven because it was so darn forgettable. I’ve seen this film at least three times and I still needed help remembering the basics of the plot. Even then I still had trouble because once the storyline faded back into memory, I remembered just how confusing it was too. It was definitely cute, and some of the numbers, like the classic “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Never Gonna Dance” (in which Ginger wears one of the most stunning gowns to ever grace the silver screen) make the film worth the 103 minutes, but on the other hand it’s difficult to forgive Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem”, in which he appears in blackface, despite the never-ending excuse that ‘the times were different then’. To me, it just adds another strike against a picture that I wouldn’t recommend in the first place, and even without the number, I would easily endorse most of Astaire and Rogers’ other works before I would endorse this.
6. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
The Gay Divorcee (1934) was the second picture that Astaire and Rogers made together, and the first to begin using the formula that I described above that we all know and love today. It tells the story of Guy Holden (Fred Astaire), a dancer who’s in England visiting his friend, lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton). During his stay, he falls in love with Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers), a woman who doesn’t return his affections and who with the help of her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) and Egbert, is attempting to get a divorce from her absent husband. Egbert suggests that they travel to a seaside resort and stage an adulterous affair, all while Guy, who is completely unaware of the situation, follows Mimi hoping that she’ll finally come around and learn to love him. Through his persistence as well as a serious misunderstanding, Mimi wrongfully believes that Guy is the man who Egbert hired to act as her lover when in fact it’s overdramatic Italian correspondent and opera singer Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes). Will the situation be resolved before Mimi’s husband and the detectives come knocking at her door? Will she ever return Guy’s love for her? Once again, I think that there’s nothing wrong with this movie. It’s Fred and Ginger at their finest, all of the supporting actors are marvelous, and it has a variety of endearing dance numbers like “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Betty Grable and “The Continental”, the follow-up dance to “The Carioca” as shown in their debut, Flying Down to Rio (1933). I feel like there’s some sort of magic or connection between Astaire and Rogers established in some of their other films that allow them to rank higher, though. Despite this, I must say that even Fred and Ginger’s worst pictures were better than many of the others released in Hollywood’s heyday.
5. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
As I mentioned before, it was rare for Astaire and Rogers films to imitate life, but The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) was a notable exception. Based on the lives of the real-life successful ballroom dancers of the early 20th century, the film chronicles Vernon Castle’s (Fred Astaire) life as a vaudeville comic and how he meets Irene Foot (Ginger Rogers), an untalented dancer who still shows promise when it comes to her perseverance. Irene takes notice of Vernon’s dancing abilities and soon realizes that the two would be much better off as a dancing pair than they would in their respective career paths, and after falling in love with her, he ends up finding her offer difficult to turn down. The two soon find themselves married, then eventually stranded in Paris without a job or a cent to their names. Their dancing caught the interest of acclaimed agent Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver), who gives them their big break as sophisticated ballroom dancers at the Café de Paris. Soon they appear on everything from records to lunchboxes, and Irene becomes a fashion icon as well as a respected dancer with her husband, but will the breakout of World War I derail their success and tear them apart? Unlike some of the earlier films on this list, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) has a number of things that set it apart from the rest of Fred and Ginger’s movies. Of course, it’s the only biographical film the duo starred in, and the real-life Irene Castle stepped in as a technical advisor, though she ended up clashing with the crew over a number of issues throughout the film’s production. I feel that the realistic and sweet relationship between Vernon and Irene also serves to make this depiction unique. Just by watching this film you can tell how devoted they were to each other, and for that reason, this to me was one of Fred and Ginger’s most successful pairings as a romantic couple. It’s also (spoiler alert!) the only film of theirs that has a tragic ending, with Fred’s character Vernon crashing his plane and perishing during a flight simulation. All of these things combined made The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) feel like a breath of fresh air to me, and I thoroughly enjoy it to this day.
4. Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Finally, we’ve come to the first of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ films together, Flying Down to Rio (1933). In it, composer and band leader Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) and his orchestra headline a posh hotel in Miami. His sidekick Fred Ayres (Fred Astaire) and singer Honey Hale (Ginger Rogers) provide the majority of the entertainment while also trying to keep Roger, a notorious playboy, from fraternizing with the clientele and costing the entire band their paychecks. Once Roger sees exotic beauty Belinha De Rezende (Dolores del Río), however, all bets are off. From this point fate steps in as Roger books his band at the Hotel Atlântico in Rio, which unbeknownst to him happens to be owned by Belinha’s father (Walter Walker), who has just called his daughter back to the same city. Will the two fall in love while flying down to Rio, or will a series of complications stand in their way before they make it past the equator? As is the case with a couple of the movies at the bottom of my list, Fred and Ginger take a backseat while another romantic duo grabs most of the screen time. You might think that because of this it would belong at the bottom as well but Flying Down to Rio (1933) completely sets itself apart in my eyes. While movies like Follow the Fleet (1936) and Roberta (1935) were produced well after Astaire and Rogers cemented themselves as a formidable onscreen couple and made the conscious decision to feature other stars more prominently, Flying Down to Rio (1933) made audiences crave their presence while still making the astute studio decision to cast other likable and more established stars like Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond in the leading roles. The picture also puts a spotlight on some incredible stunt work and special effects for the time, like the climactic number in the sky which I actually found to be quite believable considering how early in film’s history the performance was created, and the spellbinding “Carioca”, which is easily one of the catchiest tunes that Fred and Ginger ever danced to. After watching the pair expertly dance on top of several spinning pianos with their foreheads touching, it’s no wonder that this film catapulted them to stardom.
3. Top Hat (1935)
Here we have what is undoubtedly the most popular of the Astaire and Rogers vehicles: Top Hat (1935). If you took part in the TCM Presents: Mad About Musicals course like I did, you found that this picture was discussed at length, but if you’re still unaware of it, Top Hat (1935) follows the story of American dancer Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire), who has traveled to London to star in a show produced by his close friend Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). Jerry suffers from insomnia, and his only cure is to loudly tap dance in the middle of the night, which disturbs the woman living in the room below, Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). When she ventures upstairs to complain, Jerry becomes hopelessly smitten and begins ardently pursuing her. After more than a few run-ins during which he confesses his affections, Dale finally begins to fall for Jerry in return, but everything changes after a misunderstanding leads her to believe that Jerry is actually Horace, who is married to her close friend Madge (Helen Broderick). Jerry’s time to convince Dale of the truth becomes limited as she soon receives an offer of marriage to her friend, fashion designer Alberto Beddini (Erik Rhodes), which in her brokenhearted state she may very well accept. I touched previously on the fact that many critics place Swing Time (1936) at the top of their lists of the best Astaire and Rogers pictures, but it’s Top Hat (1935) that’s universally regarded not only as the best of their films but also among the best of the 1930s in cinema as a whole. I personally disagree, and this might be a very unpopular opinion, but I think it’s overrated. Granted, I do think it’s one of their best, with some wonderful tunes like “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)” and “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails”, but the only reason why it’s this high on my list is because it contains what I believe is the best song and dance number to ever appear in the Astaire and Rogers franchise: the iconic “Cheek to Cheek”. The intimacy shared between their two characters onscreen in both the song and the dance is delightful to watch, as is Ginger’s ostrich feathered dress as she spins, which if you look closely sends feathers flying all over the soundstage. Don’t misunderstand me: definitely watch this film if you haven’t seen it yet but watch my picks for numbers one and two first.
2. Carefree (1938)
Now we’re getting to the cream of the crop on my list. Carefree (1938) is all about Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers), a woman who seems to have some reservations about getting married to boyfriend Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Unsure of what to do about this predicament, Stephen enlists the help of his best friend, psychiatrist Dr. Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), and asks him to analyze her in hopes that they’ll get to the bottom of her apprehension and finally be wed. Complications ensue when Amanda begins to have romantic dreams about Tony instead of Stephen, and in order to fix the problem Tony makes the decision to hypnotize her into believing that Stephen is really the one she wants, leaving Amanda to become reckless in her hypnotized state and commit everything from destruction of property to even attempted murder! Will everyone be able to fix the mess, or will Amanda end up marrying someone she doesn’t love? There are so many reasons why I adore Carefree (1938). More than nearly any other film on this list, I root for Fred and Ginger’s characters to end up together at the end. Their relationship is adorable and better established than many of their other pairings. Rogers is finally given the ability to show off her acting prowess and impeccable comedic timing in this flick, and to me, even without any musical scenes this would be an expertly crafted romantic comedy for the ages, and it’s quite possibly the most underrated of the duo’s ten fantastic pictures together. With the addition of incredible performances like “I Used to Be Color Blind” and “The Yam”, a song with terrible lyrics that’s somehow made endearing with one of Ginger’s only solo singing parts and an impressive dance number to follow, we have an absolute hit that can’t be missed. My only regret about this film is that the beautifully written and danced dream sequence, “I Used to Be Color Blind”, wasn’t shot in Technicolor as originally planned. If it had been and was released a year before other legendary Technicolor pictures like The Women (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and The Wizard of Oz (1939), I think it would have held a much stronger and earned presence in history among the best musicals of all time.
1. Shall We Dance (1937)
What couldn’t I say about Shall We Dance (1937)? It was the first Astaire and Rogers film that I ever got the chance to watch when it aired on TCM during my high school years, and the magic that I felt while watching it has never faded since. It’s all about Peter P. Peters (Fred Astaire), a man who dances under the foreign name of Petrov in a Parisian ballet company owned by Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton). While Jeffrey is strict about Petrov dancing the classical ballet that he knows well, we soon find out that Petrov is actually tempted to incorporate some modern jazz numbers into his work. Upon seeing a photograph of dancing star Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers), Petrov decides that she would be the perfect partner to dance and combine styles with, but when he attempts to visit her to discuss the matter, he overhears her assumptions that he’s an uptight Russian and wants nothing to do with him. Petrov decides to play a practical joke and feign an accent and overdramatic airs upon introducing himself to her, but the prank doesn’t end up working out in his favor and Linda books passage on a ship to New York. Petrov, who has already begun to fall in love with her, decides to follow her and bend over backwards in his attempts to win her over. These displays of affection lead the rumor mill on the ship to assume that the two are married, and Linda and Peter in their inability to end the rumor decide to actually wed (then quickly divorce) for real. Will they follow through with their plan, or will they call the calling off off? To me, Shall We Dance (1937) has everything. Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton share their best comedy and camaraderie in this film, Fred and Ginger’s romance is unlike any other, and there’s an incredible array of songs and dances to enjoy, from “(I’ve Got) Beginner’s Luck” to “They All Laughed (at Christopher Columbus)” and “Shall We Dance/ Finale and Coda”, in which Fred longingly dances with a multitude of extras all wearing Ginger Rogers masks. We also see what was by far the most difficult of any of Astaire and Rogers’ dance sequences, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. Danced on roller skates, this impressively choreographed scene took about 150 takes to finally get right. The labor of love was worth it, though, as it remains to be one of the most treasured of the pair’s repertoire. As a whole, Shall We Dance (1937) has some of the tenderest scenes that will forever have a place in my heart, the most meaningful to me being the emotional “They Can’t Take That Away from Me”. You can actually see the tears well up in Ginger’s eyes as Fred sings, and it’s pure movie magic that gets me every time.