Of equal importance with the Busby Berkeley musicals of the 1930s were the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. How these two even met is a mini-story of its own.
Born in 1899, Fred was a popular Broadway star during the 1920s along with his sister Adele. When Adele retired in the late 1920s, Fred started looking toward Hollywood. Ginger had some Broadway experience but by 1930 was still only nineteen years old. However, like Fred, she had Hollywood on her mind.
Both scuffled a bit out west but in 1933, RKO was looking for a dance team for their Dolores del Rio-Gene Raymond musical, “Flying Down to Rio”. In spite of their minimal film experience, Fred and Ginger were given the parts along with fourth and fifth billing. They looked a bit odd: He was a balding mid 30s guy while Ginger was a gorgeous young blonde babe of twenty-two. That was forgotten after they did their sensual eighteen minute dance of the Carioca. They started a Carioca dance craze and assured themselves stardom for the next six years after gliding across those white pianos.
Next came “The Gay Divorcee” where Astaire-Rogers started another dance craze with ”The Continental” along with a number to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”.
They were on a roll in the mid 1930s as they recorded successes like “Top Hat” (1935), “Follow the Fleet” (1936), “Shall We Dance?” (1937), and “Carefree” (1938).
After nine films in six years, they decided enough was enough and decided to move on. Their only film together after 1939 was “The Barkley’s of Broadway” (1949) which was a reunion flick and also their only film done in color.
Fred had gone on to other musicals with dancers like Rita Hayworth while Ginger tried straight acting. After playing so many light hearted musical parts, she surprised everyone by winning the Best Actress Oscar for “Kitty Foyle” in 1940. If you haven’t seen that film, check it out the next time it is on TCM. It is worth your time.
Fred danced his way up to 1976 with an appearance in “That’s Entertainment, Part II”. He also did a lot of straight acting and got an AA nomination for “The Towering Inferno” (1974). Ginger continued acting but after “Kitty Foyle” the good parts dried up.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing what they did best. (RKO Pictures)
As a side note, Ginger’s mother was the quintessential stage mother who didn’t think that Astaire was that good and that Ginger should have received more credit for her work. At one time she supposedly said “Ginger does the same things he does only she does them backwards with heels.”
Regardless, for a couple of kids from Nebraska and Missouri, Fred and Ginger did pretty well. In an early screen test one movie executive said that Fred “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little.” So much for his evaluation!
Fred died in 1987 and Ginger followed him in 1995. A couple of years ago, Ginger’s childhood home and birthplace in Independence, Missouri was for sale at $20,000. There were no offers.