Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sang and danced to Irving Berlin’s music in Top Hat, one of a series of Astaire-Rogers films that helped to popularize and define the screen musical.

Summary of Event

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers both made their screen debuts in the 1930’s. Astaire played a small role supporting Clark Gable and Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933) Dancing Lady (film) and Rogers was a wisecracking supporting player in Young Men of Manhattan (1930). They began to define their more familiar screen characters when paired by producer (soon to be studio head) Pandro Samuel Berman at RKO. Astaire and Rogers first appeared together in Flying Down to Rio (1933), Flying Down to Rio (film) although Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond played the leads. The first true Astaire-Rogers musical was their next vehicle, The Gay Divorcee (1934), Gay Divorcee, The (film) which had been adapted from a Cole Porter show in which Astaire had recently starred on Broadway. Although only one Porter song (“Night and Day”) was kept in the film, the concluding set piece “The Continental” (by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson) won the first Academy Award ever presented for best song, and along with the Astaire and Rogers’s chemistry, it helped make the film profitable. [kw]Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team (Sept. 6, 1935) [kw]Astaire-Rogers Dance Team, Top Hat Establishes the (Sept. 6, 1935)[Astaire Rogers Dance Team, Top Hat Establishes the (Sept. 6, 1935)] [kw]Rogers Dance Team, Top Hat Establishes the Astaire- (Sept. 6, 1935) [kw]Dance Team, Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers (Sept. 6, 1935) Motion pictures;Top Hat Top Hat (film) Dance;motion pictures Choreography;musical motion pictures Musical motion pictures;Top Hat [g]United States;Sept. 6, 1935: Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team[08990] [c]Motion pictures;Sept. 6, 1935: Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team[08990] [c]Dance;Sept. 6, 1935: Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team[08990] [c]Entertainment;Sept. 6, 1935: Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team[08990] Astaire, Fred Rogers, Ginger Berman, Pandro Samuel Berlin, Irving Sandrich, Mark Pan, Hermes

Astaire and Rogers worked for the RKO motion-picture studio, whose initials stood for Radio-Keith-Orpheum, Radio-Keith-Orpheum[Radio Keith Orpheum] the names of the theater circuits (some of them former vaudeville houses) through which the studio’s films were distributed. In 1933, RKO was bankrupt and under the receivership of a New York bank, and Berman, the young studio head, eagerly pursued any film property that looked financially promising. Berman also overrode Astaire’s objections to being part of a film couple. Astaire had previously been teamed on Broadway with his sister Adele, who had received the greater acclaim. Now he wanted to be a solo performer, but the studio’s financial straits allowed Berman to offer Astaire a rare incentive: profit points. Astaire relented, and the success of his early films with Rogers—Roberta (1935) followed The Gay Divorcee—pulled RKO out of debt. With their fourth teaming, Top Hat (1935), in preparation, Astaire’s contract called for him to receive 10 percent of the profits above his regular salary.

Berman assigned Mark Sandrich to direct Top Hat, and Sandrich would go on to direct four other Astaire-Rogers films. Sandrich had an engineering background, and he took a systematic approach to filming dance musicals. He reduced a film’s sequences (dialogue, action, music, dance) to a color-coded diagram that showed the order and duration of each activity in the shooting script. Sandrich understood the structural purpose of every scene, and he wanted songs that advanced the plot. For the music, Berman hired Irving Berlin. Somewhat disappointed by his previous experiences with film productions—Puttin’ on the Ritz (1930) and The Cocoanuts (1929)—Berlin, a perfectionist, found a kindred spirit in the meticulous Astaire. Berlin’s respect for Astaire would continue, and Berlin would later join the film Holiday Inn (1942) only because Astaire was part of the project. Berlin even claimed that he would rather have Astaire introduce his songs than any other performer (quite a statement, considering that Bing Crosby had performed Berlin’s enormously popular “White Christmas”). The composer stayed for six weeks at a Los Angeles hotel, sometimes working for twelve hours at a stretch. “Cheek to Cheek,” Berlin’s longest-ever popular tune (at sixty-four bars), was written in one day; on the other hand, “The Piccolino,” the big production number to conclude the film, was a throwback to the type of music Berlin had composed for Broadway revues in the 1920’s and required as much work as the rest of the score.

The remainder of the creative team also worked on many of the Astaire-Rogers films. Dwight Taylor Taylor, Dwight wrote the script for Top Hat, which emphasized romantic comedy and mistaken identity and was a virtual rewrite of The Gay Divorcee. Allan Scott Scott, Allan reworked the screenplay and went on to contribute to the scripts for the next four Astaire-Rogers films: Follow the Fleet (1936), Follow the Fleet (film) Swing Time (1936), Swing Time (film) Shall We Dance (1937), Shall We Dance (film) and Carefree (1938). Carefree (film) Hermes Pan is listed in the screen credits of Top Hat for staging the ensembles, but he was really assigned by RKO to be Fred Astaire’s assistant. Pan had heard of Astaire’s broken-rhythm dancing, and both he and Astaire had relocated from Broadway to Hollywood. Physically, he closely resembled Astaire, and the two would rehearse routines together and collaborate on designing choreography before Pan taught Rogers the completed steps. Astaire and Pan would collaborate throughout their long careers. As the head of the art department, Van Nest Polglase is listed in the credits for nearly all RKO motion pictures of the time, but his assistant Carroll Clark may have been more responsible for giving the musicals their sleek visual shine. Viewers of the films remember their distinctive Art Deco style nearly as much as the dance numbers.

The stars were assisted by an able group of supporting players who formed what could be called the Astaire-Rogers repertory company. The British comic actor Eric Blore, Blore, Eric who embodied the prototypical gentleman’s gentleman, played the butler Bates, Edward Everett Horton Horton, Edward Everett took the role of the fussy but likable theatrical producer Horace Hardwick, Helen Broderick Broderick, Helen appeared as Hardwick’s sarcastic wife, and Erik Rhodes Rhodes, Erik drew on his supply of accents to play Beddini (Rhodes had played a Frenchman in The Gay Divorcee). The studio’s contract system also resulted in the casting of some performers who would later become famous, including a brief cameo by a platinum blond Lucille Ball, who plays a clerk in a flower shop.

Although Astaire would later appear with dancers who were more technically proficient than Rogers, none of these women generated the magnetism seen in the Rogers and Astaire pairing. Rogers would later win an Academy Award for her dramatic performance in RKO’s Kitty Foyle: The Natural History of a Woman (1940), but she would always be remembered first for her work with Astaire. As well-known actress Katharine Hepburn noted, Rogers gave Astaire sex appeal, and Astaire gave Rogers class. When Top Hat opened at the new Radio City Music Hall (which was partly owned by RKO) on September 6, 1935, it became an instant hit. The New York Daily News called it the best movie musical ever. Produced at a cost of $600,000, the film brought in more than $3 million. Only Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) earned more money that year.

Significance

The Astaire-Rogers series began at a time when the techniques for filming screen musicals were changing. Director Mark Sandrich has been credited with formulating the playback method of prerecording the performers’ songs with the orchestra and then having the actors lip-sync the lyrics during shooting. The advantages of this approach can be seen by comparing any of the Astaire-Rogers films with a musical such as The Cocoanuts, an early talkie starring the Marx Brothers. In that film, the usually fast-moving comedians are noticeably more stationary because of their need to hear the off-camera accompaniment and because of the immobile camera and sound apparatus used at the time. By 1935, the playback method had improved and the equipment was lighter, allowing the creation of livelier musical numbers and more ambitious dance sequences.

These dance numbers were enormously effective. More than any other element, they give the Astaire-Rogers films their unique stamp. Dancing became Astaire’s way of reshaping the film medium. In the same way that Alfred Hitchcock would shoot his suspense scenes by trying to avoid clichéd situations and by emphasizing the visual and Ernst Lubitsch would find fresh ways to film romantic scenes, Astaire brought innovations that forever changed dance musicals.

This change had both technical and dramatic facets. Astaire insisted that dance numbers be shot and shown as much as possible in one continuous camera take. By minimizing editing, he hoped that the audience would notice that a dance number was not a spliced-together sequence representing the best of numerous takes on the sound stage but rather a single perfect performance captured on film. He opposed cutaways and reaction shots, since they interrupted a scene’s fluidity and hinted that camera tricks might be involved (and, indeed, the few reaction shots that remain in the dance numbers are always intrusive). Filming in one unbroken take placed greater demands on Astaire and Rogers, since one wrong step would mean reshooting the entire dance from the beginning. Hermes Pan and Astaire also gave attention to camera placement. To move a dancer toward the camera, for example, tended to lessen the audience’s overall impression of movement; moving the camera at times with the performer, however, created more kinetic excitement.

Dramatically, the dances develop character and advance the plot. The first number in Top Hat, “No Strings,” is an anthem of independence for Astaire’s character, Jerry Travers. After he sings about his freedom from emotional ties, he dances with syncopated squirts from a seltzer bottle and slaps on the furniture, using rhythm and objects to emphasize his happiness as a bachelor. The film’s second song—Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)?”—becomes a courtship dance for Astaire and Rogers. Trapped on a deserted bandstand when a cloudburst hits, they stroll about and cautiously ease into concurrent steps; clearly, they are releasing their inhibitions through music. The visual contrast between the downpour outside and the couple moving in graceful rhythm under the roofed bandstand works well: At the start of the song, she faces him as an antagonist, but by the song’s end, they are in love. It is a cinematic courtship that takes place through dance rather than words.

The Astaire-Rogers films may have established and popularized the film musical, but they did not spawn a series of close imitations at other studios. Audiences continually cherished the films not because they are time capsules of an age gone by, since such total stylization—people who always wear dinner jackets and formal dresses, drawing rooms as big as gymnasiums—never existed. In fact, Woody Allen gently satirized such films in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and even included a clip from Top Hat. Instead, the Astaire-Rogers films depict a cultivated artificiality that provided audiences with a welcome escape from the Depression. Motion pictures;Top Hat Top Hat (film) Dance;motion pictures Choreography;musical motion pictures Musical motion pictures;Top Hat

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time. 1959. Reprint. New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000. More a series of anecdotes than a thorough autobiography, this work is still an entertaining read.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bergreen, Laurence. As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin. New York: Viking Press, 1990. The most thorough and authoritative biography of the famous composer and the first published after his death. Chapter 14 discusses the making of Top Hat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carrick, Peter. A Tribute to Fred Astaire. Salem, N.H.: Salem House, 1984. Carrick’s biography describes Top Hat more fully than any other Astaire-Rogers film, seeing it as representative of the very best of the series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Croce, Arlene. The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers Book. New York: Vintage Books, 1972. Not merely good on the Astaire-Rogers series, Croce’s excellent study is one of the best books ever about film. Thoughtfully written and a pleasure to read, the work also cleverly features two series of still frames printed in page corners, so that by flipping pages, one can see Fred and Ginger dance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gallafent, Edward. Astaire and Rogers. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. A solid treatment of Astaire and Rogers’s work together and as individuals. Dense, serious, and detailed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jewell, Richard B. The RKO Story. New York: Crown, 1982. Oversized and filled with photographs, but good for reading as well as for browsing. Covers every film RKO produced year by year and includes useful facts about the costs of productions and the box-office receipts of notable successes and failures.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mueller, John E. Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985. Rich analysis of each of Astaire’s dances from every film. Mueller’s book is rightfully viewed as one of the best on Astaire and dance musicals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rogers, Ginger. Ginger: My Story. New York: HarperCollins, 1991. Somewhat slight and anecdotal, and obviously geared toward a popular audience. Nevertheless, valuable for its first-person—albeit highly selective—view.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Bob. Astaire, the Man, the Dancer: The Life of Fred Astaire. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. A popular biography that includes comments by Astaire. Readers interested in more of Astaire’s point of view should consult his autobiography, Steps in Time (1959).

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