not in our stars, but in ourselves
I have to begin at the beginning, with this great-screen-couples thing. For me, that beginning is Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Despite the ardent wishes of their fans, they were not a couple in real life, only in reel life. (Ha! Get it? I stayed up all night thinking that one up.) They’d dated a little bit when they both were on Broadway, but it was far from a grand passion of either of their live. Astaire was happily married to one woman until she died; Rogers was married off and on to various men before, during, and after their series of films together. But if you let yourself get lost in those films, from Flying Down to Rio (1933) through The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) with The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) as a postscript, you’ll have a hard time imagining two people who look more right together.
Even if they weren’t musicals, the films would still be adorable little bits of fluff, thanks entirely to Fred and Ginger. They’re the comic-relief couple in Rio, Roberta (1935), and Follow the Fleet (1936); they’re the main event in The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), Castle, and Barkleys. They’re the best thing about all ten movies – with or without the singing and dancing.
With the singing and dancing, however, their partnership goes from adorable to sublime. There are some dancers that find some sort of alchemy with each other: Fonteyn and Nureyev are my other favorite. Astaire and Rogers are number one, as far as I’m concerned. He was obviously one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth (or any) century, as anointed by everyone from Nureyev to Michael Jackson. She was less naturally gifted, but extraordinarily hard-working, quick to learn, and beautifully sensitive to Astaire’s lead. He was, in turn, beautifully sensitive to her following. It has often been remarked that they kept acting as they danced – something that every ballet dancer knows how to do, but that not every musical film actor understands. It has also been remarked, by none other than Astaire himself, that “the clinch” (i.e., the moment of consummation) was in the dances.
Was it ever.
I fully expect that all of these links will be dead almost before I post them, but nevertheless: some of my favorite Fred and Ginger moments.
“The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time: the glow on her face! That gorgeous glow of surprise and delight and love.
“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet: an amazing little ballet that’s part of a show their characters are putting on. It’s just under ten minutes of pathos, tenderness, and Depression-era hedonism in the face of adversity.
“Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee: the single moment in cinema that taught me what love feels like. If you greet that statement with cynicism, I suggest you exit to the left. The song alone – especially the way he just barely hesitates before the “boom” – is enough to melt the heart. And then they start dancing.
“Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time: and the single moment in cinema that taught me what heartbreak feels like. Poor Ginger experienced footbreak while they were filming, as the entire number is contained within a single shot, which necessitated over 45 re-takes. Her feet were bleeding by the end, poor girl. Maybe that’s why the tragedy feels so real.
“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from Roberta: like “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” they’re sort of playing characters (note Ginger’s atrocious “Polish” accent), and again, as in ballet, letting the haunting and plaintive quality of the music drive not only the dance but the emotion behind it. Incidentally, her dress here is my favorite of all her dresses. I want one just like it, for everyday wear.
“Pick Yourself Up” – the song and the dance, also from Swing Time: can you tell which is my favorite of their movies? This is just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen, and no matter how terrible I feel, this really does pick me right up. When he sets her sailing over the balustrade – why, my heart just about soars right out of my chest.
“Waltz Medley” from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle: oh, Vernon, indeed. Not quite so athletic or balletic as their earlier efforts, but achingly beautiful all the same. Here, they’re grown-ups: grown-ups who just love and adore each other, who find relief in each other, who understand each other perfectly. Isn’t that what we all want?
“The Carioca” from Flying Down to Rio: the one that started it all. It’s pretty silly, but it’s also pretty irresistible. And look at how much fun they’re having!
Honorable mentions to all the numbers in Top Hat, of course. (It’s some people’s favorite. Not mine. You see where my loyalties lie.)
Astaire danced with plenty of other people; Rogers usually didn’t bother with anyone else. Some of his other partners were frankly better dancers: Cyd Charisse especially, and Rita Hayworth as well. He was wonderful with all of them, and they were all elevated by their partnership with him, but only Rogers helped him to create pure gold. I think that’s what we all hope for in love: someone to add their lead to our tin, and make gold out of it somehow. (Whatever the metals were in alchemy. I’m a movie-watcher, not a chemist, geez.)