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I should begin by saying that Dooyoo have got this slightly wrong. This collection is Volumes 1 & 2.
Knowing that I'm a huge fan of Fred Astaire, especially his partnership with Ginger Rogers, a couple of Christmases ago my present from my daughter was Fred & Ginger: The Collection, a double box set made up of 8 out of the 10 movies they made together for RKO Pictures. It's one of my most treasured possessions and is something I love to watch on cold and rainy weekends whilst snuggled onto the sofa. As soon as the rather tinny 1930s sound begins, I'm immediately whisked back in time to that era of style, elegance and glamour between the two World Wars. OK, so these were the years of the Great Depression, too, but there's nothing of that in these films. These are about the best of that era not the worst and all the action takes place against a backdrop of glamorous night clubs, aerodromes and steamships sailing crossing the Atlantic, peopled by suave and debonair characters living in stylish Art Deco opulence.
Fred Astaire is surely one of the most influential male dancers of the last century, if not of all time, and he contributed every bit as much to dance history as Nijinksky (who was a dancer long before he was a horse!) or Nureyev. Although Fred Astaire was a product of American Vaudeville, there's no denying that he elevated contemporary dance from a stage act to an art form, blurring the lines between contemporary and classical dance in the process. During his career he had several dance partners but it's his partnership with Ginger Rogers which is forever engraved in people's memories and viewing these films, it easy to see why that should be. They are superb together.
By the time Fred Astaire made it to Hollywood, Ginger Rogers was already a seasoned performer with nineteen films under her belt. When they were first paired up in 1933 in Flying Down to Rio, it was only Fred's second movie appearance and so for the one and only time Ginger's name appeared above Fred's in the billing, though neither of them played the lead in this first movie.
Ginger Rogers had also travelled the vaudeville route to Hollywood via the Broadway stage and had already proved herself as an accomplished actress, singer and dancer. It's pure happenstance that this iconic partnership ever saw the light of day because, although Fred had been cast as the second male lead in Flying Down to Rio, he had originally been cast opposite another actress, Dorothy Jordan. However, following a torrid affair, Dorothy Jordan and the film's producer, Merian C Cooper, ran off together and Ginger was rather hurriedly brought in as her substitute. The rest, as they say, is history because in that film, Fred and Ginger absolutely stole the show.
Astaire and Rogers are renowned still for style, innovation and glamour and although Fred Astaire was responsible for choreographing all their dance routines, along with Hermes Pan, it has always been acknowledged that Ginger Rogers also had a great deal of input into the routines. More to the point, she was the perfect foil for Fred Astaire, who wasn't exactly the most gorgeous looking man on the planet and neither was he the best actor ever to grace the screen but Ginger could act and dance and was young and attractive to boot.
The two films missing from this collection are Roberta and The Barkleys of Broadway, made in 1935 and 1949 respectively. Roberta is excluded as it was regarded as a retrogressive step as Fred and Ginger played second fiddles here to Irene Dunn and Randolph Scott and although no reason is given for not including The Barkleys of Broadway, I can only assume that this is due to it being their final film, made some ten years after the others.
The extras come with Box 1 of the Collection and include introductions to each of the films by Fred's daughter, Ava; a photo gallery of rare film stills and written commentary by Ken Barnes, a noted film historian who worked closely with Fred on several occasions. There are several postcard sized photographs included here featuring artwork from the movie posters and some film stills. I especially enjoyed the introductions by Ava Astaire which include her personal memories of her father, snippets from letters he'd written at the time and recounts anecdotes about the films, including dispelling the persistent myth that Fred and Ginger didn't get on. Ava claims this is all down to one of the dance sequences in Top Hat. Ginger had designed a dress covered in ostrich feathers which wasn't completed until the day of filming. During the filming of the scene, feathers flew everywhere which Fred apparently described as being 'like a coyote had been let loose in a chicken coop'. They littered the studio floor and stuck to his dark suit and Fred just lost his temper, a very rare occurrence by all accounts. If you look very closely, it's possible to see the feathers floating in the air and swirling across the dance floor.
The films aren't always in chronological sequence, with their very first film being the penultimate one of this collection, but the reasoning behind this sequence is given by Ava Astaire in each introduction.
1. Top Hat
This is the most famous of all Fred and Ginger's films and firmly established them at the top of the Hollywood tree. The film broke all box office records at the time of its release in 1935. The film also changed the face of Hollywood musicals incorporating humour, hit songs (from Irving Berlin) and, of course, great dance routines including the iconic routine danced to Cheek to Cheek featuring that dress.
Like all these films, the storyline is very slight really but it doesn't matter because the resulting fluff is just brilliant to watch and even Fred's sometimes rather wooden acting doesn't detract from the stylish elegance of this movie.
Fred plays Jerry Travers, an American dancer visiting London to appear in a show being produced by Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton). During the visit, Jerry meets and falls for Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers) and the movie centres around Jerry's attempts to impress Dale and prise her away from her current boyfriend, Alberto Beddini, a designer. The entire cast are excellent in their respective roles, however, the standout performance comes from Eric Blore who plays Horace Hardwick's butler, Bates.
2. Follow the Fleet
This was Astaire and Rogers' fifth film together and features a knock-out score by Irving Berlin which includes Let's Face the Music and Dance, a song which has gone on to become a musical standard.
Fred Astaire loses his wealthy, man-about-town persona in this film to play a rather unconvincing naval rating, Bake Baker. Before he joined the navy, Bake had been one half of a dance partnership with, you guessed it, Ginger in the guise of Sherry Martin. The partnership broke up when Sherry turned down Bake's marriage proposal and now Sherry is singing in a night club. It isn't long before the dancing partnership is re-established and their romance is rekindled.
Watch out for a very young Lucille Ball playing one of Sherry's fellow performers at the Paradise Club, along with Betty Grable.
3. Shall We Dance
This is one of my favourite films, largely because of the very clever dance routine on roller skates to Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. There are some great songs from George and Ira Gershwin which always remind me how clever lyricists were with words back then. Not once do they resort to a 'yeah, yeah, yeah'.
Many of these films have the same cast members, making it something of a little repertory company, and Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore appear once again in this film. Fred plays Pete Peters, an American dancer on his way to Paris under the pretence of being The Great Petrov, a ballet dancer. Pete has fallen in love with a photograph of Linda Keene (Ginger), a musical comedy star who's decided to quit the stage and get married. It seems anyone will do, except The Great Petrov.
The plot to this film is slightly more convoluted than others but is very easy to follow nevertheless.
The best lines in the whole film are spoken during the marriage scene when Pete and Linda are entering into a marriage of convenience.
Ginger: 'What are grounds for divorce in this state?'
This film received a cooler reception from the critics and in her introduction Ava Astaire claims this is because it had less singing and dancing, despite having a score by Irving Berlin. The standout routine is Fred's golf routine where he hits about 8 golf balls one after the other. It's said that when the crew went to collect up the balls, they were all lying within about 7 feet of each other, which probably says more about Fred's golfing ability than his dancing! This film also produced the first ever slow motion dance sequence plus Fred and Ginger's first screen kiss.
5. The Gay Divorcee
This was the first film where Fred and Ginger took star billing and features song standards, 'Night and Day' and 'The Continental' as well as several knockout dance routines, including 'Let's K-nock K-nees' danced by Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton. Fred plays an American dancer (again!) who falls for Mimi Glossop (Ginger) when he extricates her from the predicament of having her dress caught in her locked trunk. Mimi later tells her startled aunt, 'I've just had a most disagreeable experience. A man tore my dress off.'
6. Swing Time
The score for Swing Time is by Jerome Kern and I absolutely love this film. It has some standout songs (Pick Yourself Up, The Way You Look Tonight, A Fine Romance) and equally impressive dance routines, blended with an engaging storyline. The comedy element is provided by the stalwart of several Fred and Ginger films, the wonderful Eric Blore who is all English unctuousness. One of the dance routines seems a little 'off' for this day and age, though, in which Fred blacks up for a minstrel-style routine. If you can ignore his make up and concentrate on his amazing footwork, however, it's another winning dance routine.
7. Flying Down to Rio
Fred and Ginger's first film together and one where neither of them play the lead, demonstrates why they became such a movie phenomenon. The lead actors, Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond are completely eclipsed by the style and panache with which Fred and Ginger play their parts and their dance routine 'The Carioca', a fabulous Latin American number, started a bit of a dance craze in the States following the film's release, setting them on their path to international stardom.
8. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
This film differs from all the other Fred and Ginger films in that it's a biopic about The Castles, famous ballroom dancers from the late Edwardian period, who produced many new and innovative dance moves in their day. Many of the dance routines hark back to that Ragtime era but unlike most of their other film offerings, this isn't musical comedy but a straight love story, albeit one with a rather sad ending. This film was made in 1939 and the Second World War more or less put Fred and Ginger's film careers on hold. They only made one other film together some ten years later.
Price and availability
My box set was a gift and I don't know what was paid for it but I'm pretty sure it wouldn't have been the £59.99 currently being asked for new copies on Amazon. You'll be relieved to hear it's also available for a much more reasonable £8.98 for used copies.
This is a wonderful collection of films starring a couple of hoofers who dominated the movie scene in the 1930s and is a must for every dance fan's collection. Each and every one of these movies demonstrates Astaire's and Rogers' dancing talents and, in Ginger's case, her comedic abilities, too. They can be enjoyed on so many levels, not just by dance aficionados but by everyone. They recall a period of history which has gone and will never return: a time when the only way to cross the Atlantic was by boat, when clothes were ultra glamorous and men and women conducted their courtships with stylish and panache. Design fans will also be impressed by the movie sets which show Art Deco style in all its glory. It's a testament to the abilities of those designers that the sets look at style and modern today as they did back in the 1930s.
As long as people watch and enjoy these movies, Fred and Ginger will never die.
Also posted on Ciao under the same user name.