The Partnership Of Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers

Laurel and Hardy, Bogie and Bacall, Morecambe and Wise, Hope and Crosby, Pryor and Wilder, Tracy and Hepburn. There are some people who are just meant to be together and you cannot ever imagine them apart. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are one such screen partnership. Fred and Ginger fit together perfectly and are quite rightly considered as one of the most beloved and iconic film duos of all time. I especially like how their screen partnership was equal with neither one of them outshining the other in any way, or doing anything which could lead one of them to be considered more talented than the other. It also must be said that Ginger Rogers deserves so much respect for doing all that incredible dancing in high heels. Those of us who’ve worn heels know that they can often prove tricky at the best of times, but I for one cannot fathom dancing in them at the speed she had to!

Fred and Ginger doing their thing.

Whenever I hear the names Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers the first words that immediately come into my mind are elegance, effortlessness, perfect timing, fun and style. Fred and Ginger had all of those things in abundance.

I especially love how the pair made everything they did on screen appear natural and effortless, even though you know full well that they rehearsed and practiced constantly beforehand to get their dance routines to look so spontaneous and effortless.

I also love how Fred and Ginger always make you completely believe that their characters are falling for one another. I think their pairing works so well because of the way they both usually play their characters – Fred is all charm, playfulness and silliness, while Ginger is a fiercely independent type of gal, one who takes life far more seriously before she eventually falls for Fred’s charms and his more laid back attitude towards life.

Fred and Ginger’s films have become comfort films for me. If I’m not well or am going through a tough time, I know that putting on a Fred and Ginger film will always make me smile. I adore all ten of their films but my favourites are Top Hat(their best in my opinion); The Gay Divorcee(featuring the very romantic Night and Day sequence); The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle(which tells the moving story of the real life husband and wife dance team Vernon and Irene Castle); Carefree(featuring a lovely fantasy dance sequence on a giant Lillie pad); and Swing Time(which features some of the best dancing ever put on film.)

I think Fred and Ginger’s films are the perfect blend of romance, comedy, drama and spectacle. Their films are also enchanting slices of pure escapism which offer us some truly wonderful sights to behold. They are also all films which the whole family can watch regardless of how young or old they may be. Everyone can find something to enjoy in a Fred and Ginger film. The heart and soul of these films are Fred and Ginger themselves. They are such an amazing team and you can totally see them bringing out the best in one another as each and every scene unfolds. Not only are they a great match as dancers, but I think they work wonderfully well together in the dramatic scenes as well. It also helped that they had the type of chemistry that just can’t be faked. 

My first introduction to Fred and Ginger came when I was a young girl and watched the musical documentary That’s Dancing(1985). Some clips of the pair dancing together in The Gay Divorcee and Swing Time are included in the documentary and I absolutely loved what I saw of them in those clips. I knew that I wanted to see Fred and Ginger’s full films and see more from them after this. So you can imagine how over the moon I was when not long after this my parents bought me the video of Top Hat. I loved every minute of the film and it has gone on to become my favourite of all the Fred and Ginger films.

We have the marriage of Fred’s sister Adele to thank for Fred and Ginger ending up being paired together as screen partners. Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz on the 10th of May, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska. His older sister Adele, born on the 10th of September, 1896, had shown a talent for singing and dancing from an early age and her parents enrolled her at a local dance school to improve her skills. Fred was sent there too in the hopes that dancing might help build up his strength, as he was quite a frail child. It soon became clear that Fred also had the makings of a dancer.

Brother and sister hit the dancefloor.

Fred, Adele, and their mother, Johanna, moved to New York where Fred and Adele were enrolled at the Alviene Master School Of The Theatre And Academy Of Cultural Arts. The siblings and their mother adopted the more American sounding surname of Astaire.

In late 1905, the siblings dance instructor Charles Alvienne helped Adele and Fred develop a professional vaudeville act. Over the next 27 years Adele and Fred would work the vaudeville circuit, perform on Broadway, and would also travel over here to the UK to perform in London.

Fred and Adele’s fame and popularity grew throughout the 1920’s, and while it may seem a bit surprising to us today given how legendary Fred was, it was actually Adele who was the bigger star of the two when they were working together. Adele was charming and had great comic timing, she was also a far more outgoing person than her shy and workaholic brother. Adele affectionately nicknamed Fred “Moaning Minnie” due to how worried he would get over everything. 

Adele officially retired from the stage in 1932. She had met Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire, in 1927 and the pair had fallen in love. Adele had broken with tradition and proposed marriage to him. The couple married in May 1932 at the Cavendish family estate of Chatsworth. Sadly their marriage would become an unhappy one. Charles was an alcoholic and would sadly die in 1944, aged just 38.

Adele and Fred would always remain close.
Adele and Fred photographed onboard a ship. Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection. Source Wikimedia Commons.

Adele became pregnant three times but all of her pregnancies ended tragically. She gave birth to a premature daughter who didn’t survive; then came twin boys who were stillborn; while her third and final pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. Adele married for a second time in 1947, this time to Colonel Kingman Douglass, the American chief of US Air Force Intelligence. The couple were married until his death in 1971. Adele and Fred remained incredibly close throughout their lives until Adele’s death in 1981. Adele was inducted into the American Theatre Hall Of Fame in 1972. Despite several offers over the years of various stage and film roles, Adele chose to remain in retirement until her death.

After Adele left their act Fred went on to achieve great solo success on stage in London and America, thanks to his starring role in Cole Porter’s play Gay Divorce.Fred then travelled to Hollywood in 1933 to make a screen test for RKO(the baby of the Hollywood Studios) which had been founded in 1928. Fred was signed to RKO by producer David O’ Selznick.

The legend goes that on the basis of Fred’s test someone in Hollywood is supposed to have remarked “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little”. This quote has always made me laugh given how ridiculous and untrue it is. If the quote really was said, then I hope that whoever uttered those words quickly regretted it once Fred and Ginger took Hollywood by storm and proved that opinion so wrong. Fred was a VERY multi-talented man indeed. Not only was he a fantastic dancer, singer and actor, but he also had a real eye for choreography and revolutionised the way dance was filmed. Fred made sure that the camera held dancers in full view at all times and that filmed dance sequences had as few editing cuts in them as possible. Fred’s first film role saw him loaned out to MGM by Selznick, not to play someone fictional, but to play himself alongside Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady(1933). Fred’s second film would be the one that changed everything, and not only for him, but also for a young actress called Ginger Rogers.

“I loved Fred so, and I mean that in the nicest, warmest way. I had such affection for him artistically. I think that experience with Fred was a divine blessing.”     Ginger Rogers talking about Fred Astaire.

Fred was cast next in Flying Down To Rio to play one half of a dance act featured in the film. His partner was played by a young actress called Ginger Rogers, who was replacing Dorothy Jordan in the role after Dorothy got married to the famed director/producer/screenwriter, Merian C. Cooper. Ginger was a Hollywood veteran compared to Fred, with around 20 films under her belt at the time they began work on this film.

Flying Down To Rio would also bring Fred and Ginger together with the choreographer and dancer Hermes Pan for the first time. Hermes would go on to work on many of Fred’s musicals and all of the future Fred and Ginger films and would be nominated for Academy Awards for his work on Top Hat and Swing Time.

Ginger and Hermes Pan rehearse.

Hermes and Fred would not only become professional collaborators but lifelong friends too.Hermes would become rehearsal partner and teacher to Ginger whenever she and Fred’s schedules conflicted. After Fred and Ginger’s taps ceased being recorded live following completion of their third film Roberta, Fred re-recorded all of his taps in post production, while Hermes Pan re-recorded Ginger’s taps. 

“I just want to pay tribute to Ginger,because we did so many pictures together and believe me it was a value to have that gal. Woo, she had it. She was just great.”   Fred Astaire talking about Ginger Rogers.

Ginger Rogers.

Ginger Rogers was born on the 16th of July, 1911, in Missouri. Her birth name was Virginia Katherine McMath. Ginger was an only child and had quite an unsettling childhood to say the least. Her parents separated shortly after she was born, and her dad kidnapped her twice. 

Ginger was very close to her mum(who later starred alongside her daughter in the film The Major And The Minor)and her grandparents.Winning a Charleston dance competition would prove to be Ginger’s first step on the road to fame.

Her marriage to vaudevillian and singer Jack Pepper in 1929, saw the pair set up a vaudeville act of their own called Ginger and Pepper. The couple divorced in 1931.

Being selected by George and Ira Gershwin to play Molly in the 1930 stage musical Girl Crazy, was what really turned Ginger into a star. She signed a contract with Paramount Pictures the same year.Over the next few years Ginger made films for various studios before moving over to RKO and eventually being cast in Flying Down To Rio. Like Fred, Ginger was also a very multi-talented performer, with a knack for comedy, drama and dance. She would become one of the most popular of the classic era actresses and would become an Oscar winner in 1941 for her performance in Kitty Foyle.

Ginger and Fred’s roles were small in Flying Down To Rio and they were billed fourth and fifth respectively in the credits, with Ginger’s name appearing above Fred’s. The film was really a vehicle for actress Dolores Del Rio and her co-star Gene Raymond.

Fred and Ginger dance the Carioca in Flying Down To Rio.

When the film was released audiences went wild for Fred and Ginger dancing the Carioca. In the film Fred and Ginger’s characters decide to hit the dancefloor to perform the Carioca, and as they leave their table, a very excited Ginger utters these immortal words “We’ll show ’em a thing or three!”, how right she was. The dance is energetic and Fred and Ginger already seem at ease with one another and in complete sync. Audiences didn’t realise it but they were witnessing the birth of something truly special in this moment. 

RKO could see that they had something in this dance partnership so they paired Ginger and Fred up again, this time in a screen adaptation of Fred’s last Broadway musical Gay Divorce(1932), which was renamed The Gay Divorcee(1934) for its transfer to the big screen. Fred had enjoyed working with Ginger and said he wouldn’t mind making another film with her, but he was initially very reluctant to begin working in a long term dance partnership again but soon changed his mind and the rest as they say is history. 

The Night and Day sequence in The Gay Divorcee.

I consider The Gay Divorcee to be the most important film of the ten which Fred and Ginger made together. It is the first film in which Fred and Ginger’s names receive star billing. It is also the film which really sets in stone the outline of the rest of their future films. The film has the mistaken identity subplot; dance used as a form of wooing and to convey the growing romantic attraction and desire between the two; and it’s also the first to have the comic relief provided by the double act of Eric Blore and Edward Everett Horton, two gentlemen who both contributed massively to the Fred and Ginger films they appeared in. The film is also one of the best looking of the ten.

The Gay Divorcee was nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture, and it took home one for Best Song. Ginger was always lucky and got some beautiful clothes to wear in the films she made with Fred, but I really envy her for the extremely gorgeous dress she gets to wear in this film during the Night and Day sequence.

Between 1934 and 1949, Fred and Ginger would go on to make eight more films together –Roberta(1935), Top Hat(1935), Follow The Fleet(1936), Swing Time(1936), Shall We Dance?(1937), Carefree(1938), The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle(1939) and The Barkleys Of Broadway(1949).

Both stars wanted to move onto other things after they had made The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle in 1939, and so one of the most beloved screen partnerships came to an amicable end for a decade. Ginger would take on more dramatic roles from that point on while Fred mainly stuck with musicals. Fred also proved his talents as a dramatic actor when he played scientist Julian Osborn in the 1959 film On The Beach. I think that film features some of his best work as an actor and I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it before. 

Their final film The Barkley’s Of Broadway was made at MGM rather than at RKO, and it was also the only colour film in their series. Fred and Ginger hadn’t worked together for ten years at this point and Ginger was cast as a replacement for original leading lady Judy Garland after Judy became ill. 

Fred and Ginger’s ten films together would be extremely profitable for the most part and proved very popular indeed with audiences. It’s not hard to see the much needed escapism that Fred, Ginger, and their glamorous and fun films,offered to people who were living through the Great Depression. Who wouldn’t want to escape their misery and stress for a couple of hours by watching Fred and Ginger? 

Ginger and Fred contributed so much to the Golden era of Hollywood in their individual careers, but nothing they did ever individually quite came close to their special screen partnership. There is something so beautiful about their partnership and the ten films they made together. The quality of these films and the level of talent that Fred and Ginger bring to them is unsurpassed in my opinion. There has never been a partnership or film series quite like theirs. The Fred and Ginger film series is a real high point, not only of the Classic Film era, but in all of cinema. 

While I think it’s fair to say that the two never became the best of friends, Fred and Ginger did enjoy working together and they always spoke fondly and respectfully of each other until the end of their lives. Ginger presented Fred with a special Oscar in 1950, and the two co-presented together at the 1967 Oscar ceremony. Fred died on the 22nd of June, 1987, and Ginger died on the 25th of April, 1995. They left behind them an incredible legacy. 

I’d love to know your thoughts on the Astaire siblings, Ginger Rogers and all those wonderful films.

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4 thoughts on “The Partnership Of Fred Astaire And Ginger Rogers

  1. I tell you, Maddy, you have an amazing talent for writing. This is a superb tribute to Fred and Ginger but also to the talented Astaire siblings. They were the epitome of classiness. Can you imagine how grand it would have been to see them performing in-person? I did not know that Adele had gone through so much heartache on a personal level. In reading more about her, she seemed very resilient indeed. I’m admirative of those who can overcome tragedy and grief in such a dignified fashion.
    There is not a moment when I can take my eyes off of Fred when he is on-screen. He is, for me, the greatest song and dance man the world has known. I enjoy his films with Ginger immensely and absolutely agree with your remark that their characters genuinely seem to be in love with one another. They had a great on-screen chemistry and knew how to play off of each other. In all honesty, I have never disliked any dancer partner of Fred’s. He and Judy were adorable together and boy could he get down with Rita! Cyd, Vera, Ann, Leslie, Debbie… he was always treated his leading ladies like they were the most elegant and desirable women. Showing off was not in Fred’s nature; complementing his partner seemed to be of utmost importance.
    Thank you for such a lovely read! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much. Glad you enjoyed it, Erica. Adele was such a strong woman who went through a lot. I’m glad she had Fred to support her over the years. Would have loved to see them perform on stage. You’re so right about Fred’s persona and how he fit with each of his leading ladies. I think he was a very humble man. Each partner seems to match him really well when dancing. He and Rita were phenomenal together! She matched him every step of the way and I just wish they’d made more than two films together.

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  2. Great work – lovely photos in this article! I’ve always loved Fred, particularly his recordings for Verve. There were few men in Hollywood as dapper as ol’ Freddie – though I always chuckle at the fact that, to my eye, he ALWAYS looked 60 years old!

    Liked by 1 person

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