Even though several movies are released every year, old movies have a very particular charm to me. I enjoy them a bit too much, and I have managed to learn numerous things through them.
My younger sister is planning on applying for cinema school at the end of next year. The entrance exam for the university she wants to go to is known to be quite difficult, so she is making a point to watch as many films as she can as a complement to the exam materials.
My first suggestion was Swing Time. Since she she likes musicals, I thought she might enjoy it. She loved it, so we went for Top Hat. At some point, it was decided that we would watch all the films together as a "just sisters" activity.
We got so much into the pair that we ended up going through all 10 of their films in just a few days.
You may be wondering: What is so great about Fred and Ginger’s films?
The comedy is light and innocent, but very effective.
The conflict in most of the plots is simple and of easy resolution, lying largely in the constant and convenient misunderstandings among the characters, which pushes them into slightly absurd or sometimes totally bizarre situations. So misunderstanding is a word you’re gonna read often in this article.
It is fun to see the limited special effects, the way they shot the dance sequences, but also to observe how much social conventions and relationships between men and women have changed over time.
When it comes to the lead actors, there is something special about the two of them together. You may call it chemistry. They have a unique grace and charm that can make any scene enjoyable.
People tend to talk more about Fred's dancing and singing, but we also have Ginger's acting skills and her ability to keep up with a professional dancer as a partner.
Putting aside their individual talents, it is their teamwork that makes their movies so different from everything else you have seen. One could not have done it without the other.
So, after watching each one of their films, I have composed a list going from my least favorites to the ones I fell in love with.
(Credits to my sister, who was patient enough to make the gifs for me.)
10. Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Composer Roger Bond (Gene Raymond) is working with his orchestra in a hotel in Miami when he spots beautiful Belinha (Dolores Del Rio) in the audience. He immediately falls in love with her. But their romance seems to be prevented by two facts: Belinha's chaperone surveillance, and her fiance, who is waiting for her back at home. That love story will take us from America, all the way to Brazil.
This is the first movie Fred and Ginger did together, playing supporting roles: Fred plays the accordionist of the orchestra and a good friend of Roger's, while Ginger plays Honey Hales, the singer working with them.
As I said, Fred and Ginger had very little screen time here, their most important scene being the carioca dance, when we get to see them dancing together for the first time.
Apart from that, the film held little interest to me: The plot was kind of messy, and Dolores del Rio did not make a great impression on me as Belinha.
The scene of the "show" on the plane is quite strange.
But Flying Down to Rio had to be part of the list for the simple reason of being the beginning of one of the most important partnerships in cinema.
The movie's final scene shows them together. The end of a movie, but the starting point of many more.
9. Roberta (1935)
John Kent (Randolph Scott) travels to Paris in the company of his friend Huck (Fred Astaire) and his band.
After being rejected by the man that was supposed to employ them, the group turns to the only person John knows in the city for help: His aunt Minnie, owner of the famous gown shop "Roberta."
In there, they will meet Countess Scharwenka, played by Ginger, a usual client (And as we later discover, an old friend of Huck) and Stephenie, Minnie's assistant and head designer of the shop, played by Irene Dunne.
The plot is entertaining enough, but I would have enjoyed more Fred and Ginger, less Irene Dunne.
It is not that I do not like Irene Dunne, because I do. In other movies.
Her character in Roberta is good and likable, but the scenes where she sings (Two of them in exactly the same setting, and for exactly the same reason) got me a little impatient.
The real fun of Fred and Ginger is that when they sing and dance, they keep acting. So they can make a choreography, or even just a song, something you would like to watch multiple times.
In this one, their characters do not have much development, for the story only brings attention to them when they are dancing or singing.
Their best musical moment in this film is, without a doubt "I'll be hard to handle"
8. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
When Vernon Castle meets Irene Foote, he is working on a slapstick comedy show that does not allow him to make the most of his talent.
Irene, an aspiring dancer, convinces him to give a try to ballroom dancing.
The couple gets married and travels to Paris, with the promise of a contract to have their own act. But it turns out that their employers were not interested in their dancing, and just wanted Vernon to perform his former comedy show.
When their economical situation is becoming unsustainable, a miracle happens: An influential agent happens to see them performing, and arranges a tryout for them at the Cafe de Paris.
Their dancing style is well received, and they become celebrities. They have everything they have dreamed of; money, recognition, and the chance to do what they love for a living.
But the beginning of World War I takes Vernon away from home, and from his wife.
Though this film allows some comedy moments, it is the only one in the list that can be classified as a proper drama. The characters and their actions, based on a true story, are more realistic and believable than in the former movies.
Vernon and Irene Castle popularized dances just as the foxtrot, the ragtime, and other jazz rhythms, so their style was different from some of the things Fred and Ginger had done till that moment.
The dramatic tone leaves room for many excellent romantic scenes, that maybe got more mixed up with the fun in previous films.
It is the last time Fred and Ginger worked together, until their triumphant return in the late 1940s with The Barkleys of Broadway, and it is also the only one of their movies that does not have a happy ending.
7. Follow the Fleet (1936)
Although this movie has some amazing songs, the plot did not convince me.
At the beginning of the film, Astaire's character, "Bake" Baker, lets us know that the protagonists used to be dancing partners, but that they split after Shirley (Rogers) rejects his offer of marriage. Heartbroken, Bake joins the navy to forget about her. But of course, he finds himself back at home, and he has to go to call on her.
We also have the unwelcomed addition of Harriet Hilliard as Connie, Shirley's sister, whose love story with one of Bake's navy buddies (Randolph Scott) takes far too much screentime for my liking. She sings two love songs, but I could not help but find her character quite boring.
Still, Follow the Fleet is worth watching: All the songs and musical moments are formidable, and when Connie and her lover are not bothering too much, the story is entertaining.
My two favorite songs of this film are "I'm putting all my eggs in one basket" and "Let yourself go", but maybe the most well known is "Let's face the music and dance" the romantic and emotional number of the story. (Random fact: A scene in the movie The Shape of Water is based on that song.)
6. The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
We can sum this film up in one word: Nostalgia.
It is like fanfiction that explores what Fred and Ginger's life would have been if they have gotten married in real life. Which is funny, because Ginger ended up involved in that movie by pure chance: The role was originally meant for Judy Garland, who was supposed to pair up with Fred after their success in "Easter Parade" the year before. At the last moment, Garland was not able to do it, due to health problems, and the part was offered to Ginger instead.
It lacks the spirit and the humor of their most popular films, but it is a good addition to the list of works in common. It is also the only one of Fred and Ginger's movies distributed by MGM (All their previous ones being RKO films). And the only one in color!
This time the pair embodies Josh and Dinah Barkley, partners in life and on stage. The couple has made a successful career in musical comedy theatre.
Dinah is offered the lead in a dramatic play, which would give her the chance of testing her talent in a new genre, but also to get out of the shadow of her husband, who believes (as well as the press and the public) that he created her.
Her decision destabilizes the relationship in such a way that they decide to separate. But of course, Fred and Ginger can never stay apart in any movie.
When Josh discovers that Dinah is struggling with her acting in the new production, he starts to talk to her on the phone, pretending to be the director. This way he can help her prepare without giving up on his "offended husband position", for, in his opinion, nobody knows how to help Dinah to reach her full potential better than himself. And obviously, is a good excuse to stay close to her.
Though the musical numbers in The Barkleys of Broadway are all good, "Bouncing the blues" has no comparison. It is one of the best choreographies they have ever done. It evokes the dances of the first years of their partnership.
And to make all the fanatics get truly emotional, the movie also features the song "They can't take that away from me" which has previously appeared in "Shall we dance". It is an experience to see them again, older and both with important careers of their own, dancing to that particular song, one of the most romantic recorded together.
5. Swing Time (1936)
Willing to make enough money to marry his fiance, John "Lucky" Garnett, a dancer and gambler travels to New York.
There he meets Penny Carroll, a dance instructor, to whom he antagonizes over and uncomfortable meeting in the street.
Lucky follows her to her work, to apologize, and their evident talent for dancing opens the door to some important auditions for the pair.
But when feelings begin to blossom between them, Lucky must make a choice: Go back home with the money, or take a chance on his love for his new dance partner.
Swing time is, in my opinion, the movie with the best songs in this list: "A fine romance," "The way you look tonight," and "Never gonna dance."
And it features my favorite song sang by the pair, "Pick yourself up."
Serotonin in its purest state, as my sister would say. How many times have I mentally repeated or even written down the lyrics before sitting for important exams to give myself some positive vibes?
In that particular scene, Penny is committed to the mission of teaching Lucky to dance. The irony of putting someone to teach Fred Astaire how to dance is not lost to me.
We also have Helen Broderick and Victor Moore as Penny and Lucky's friends. Despite being placed in the story as comic relief, they manage to make their place and gain the audience's sympathy.
It is one of the movies that had better critical reception, and success at the box office.
4. Top Hat (1935)
Where to start? This film has so many iconic scenes and songs! And I am sure that I have mentioned it in one or two of my previous articles.
Jerry Travers, the famous dancer (Played by Fred) comes to London to be the star of a show produced by his friend Horace Hardwick, played by Edward Everett Horton.
There he meets Dale Tremont (Ginger) a beautiful woman staying at the same hotel, and he falls in love with her.
A confusion (At this point, may I say another confusion?) will make Dale think that this man that fancies her so much and to which she feels undeniable attracted, is no other than Horace Hardwick, her friend's husband.
Good news: This friend of Dale is played by Helen Broderick, in another memorable supporting role. Count on her to improve a movie. Her character, Madge, is married to Hardwick, but she does not give a damn about what her husband is up to.
But Dale does.
Indignant, she tries her best to make clear how disgusted she is with the man, but Travers, unaware of the situation and not used to give up, will find in every rejection a reason to keep trying to win her heart.
The misunderstanding leads everyone to ridiculous situations, including an unexpected marriage, and some amazing dancing moments.
Most of the songs made for this Top Hat are still consider American classics. Even if you have never watched the film, you probably know some of them: "Top hat, white tie, and tails" "The Piccolino's" and the one and only "Cheek to cheek."
As the most famous work of the pair, Top Hat was a huge box office success at the time of its release, and it is, still today, critically acclaimed.
It is also the first Fred and Ginger movie I watched in my life, so it has a special place in my heart.
3. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
The first one of Ginger and Fred's movies that was written for them.
This time around, Ginger plays Mimi Glossop, a woman seeking a divorce from her husband. She and her aunt hire the services of lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald (Played by Edward Everett Horton)
As Mimi's husband refuses to divorce her, Fitzgerald's advice is to arrange a situation to make him believe that her wife has a lover. With that purpose, he hires a co-respondent man (Erik Rhodes) that must spend the night at Mimi's hotel room, and warn the husband so he shows up and find them "in fraganti."
For his part, Guy Holden (Fred's character) meets Mimi when she arrives in England, at the beginning of the film, and (Classic Fred) instantly falls in love with her. As he does not know who she is, he spends days trying to find her in the city, and later on, chasing after her.
His friendship with Fitzgerald conveniently takes him to the same hotel Mimi is staying at.
Here is when the real fun begins, for a silly mistake has Mimi believing that Guy is the co-respondent, and causing lots of confusion.
The Gay Divorcee also features two of the most recognized songs of Fred and Ginger's partnership: "The Continental" winner of the very first Academy Award for Best Original Song, as well as "Night and Day."
The only thing I found strange, is a musical number placed in the middle of the film called "Let's knock knees" The star of the song is a still unknown Betty Grable.
It interrupts the film, for it seems disconnected from it. As the song ends, Fred Astaire comes in sight again, to the public's relief.
2. Shall We Dance? (1937)
Peter P. Peters, known as Petrov, an American ballet dancer working for a company in Paris. As much as he enjoys ballet, he wishes to try some other styles and is interested, to the horror of the company owner, in jazz dancing.
Peter wants to meet beautiful Linda Keene, a famous dancer with whom he expects to perform someday.
He tries to talk to her in Paris, but she is not interested in meeting him.
They meet again in an ocean liner (Which Peter purposefully board to be with her) and after some initial conflict, they develop a closer relationship.
Both of them are pretty recognized for their work, so when they start to be seen together constantly, a rumor that they have been married for a while starts to take force.
An indiscretion committed by a person close to them makes Linda believe that Peter spread the rumor on purpose, to get rid of another woman that was after him. Hurt and resentful, she gets engaged to another man. But Peter is not willing to give up on her.
At some point, Linda's manager also interferes in the matter, trying to launch more publicity for her. The result is one of the most bizarre scenes I have ever seen. I leave it here so you can see it for yourself.
After some coming and going, Linda decides that the only way to fix the mess is to marry Peter for real, so she can then divorce him and put the rumors of their relationship to rest.
A totally logical solution. But at this point, we know that Ginger's characters tend to marry in a rush, and for the craziest reasons.
As for the songs, we have a little jewel: "Let's call the whole thing off". Or as we all know it "tomeito, tomato" (It comes from this movie, not from Friends!) The musical moment is accompanied by a choreography in roller skates.
We also have "They can't take that away from me" (The original now), as well as "They all laugh", "Beginner's luck", and "Slap that bass".
Curious fact: A little part of the movie clip for "Slap that base" appears in a scene of Joker. I find it really emotive.
1. Carefree (1938)
And finally, number one.
How do I even start to explain how amazing, funny, entertaining, and brilliant this film actually is?
It is not only my favorite of Fred and Ginger collaborations but also one of my favorite movies ever. I am aware it might be their less famous one, and if I am not mistaken, it did not do great at the box office. I will not pretend to understand that.
Fred plays psychiatrist Tony Flagged, who is asked to take a woman named Amanda Cooper (Played by Ginger) as a patient. The request comes from one of Tony's friends and Amanda's boyfriend, who wants her reluctance to get married to him to be "treated".
Though not very eagerly, Tony accepts to try and help the couple using dream analysis and hypnosis technics on Amanda. But after some days of attempted treatment, doctor and patient end up falling in love.
Unlike most of their previous movies, Carefree brings us more a more dramatic story. This allows Ginger's talent to stand out the most. I feel this movie is more about her than about Astaire.
It does not mean she abandoned comedy at all; Ginger nails each and every one of the funny moments, and manages to make me laugh more than in any of the movies on the list.
To prevent Tony from discovering that she has fallen in love with him, Amanda invents a dream.
She manages to be so utterly convincing, that the therapist believes that he has a patient on critical mind conditions.
In the scenes in which she is in "trance" and therefore, uninhibited and out of control, we can see how she takes the comedy from her previous roles to a whole new level.
The craziness of it all, and the attempts of the rest of the characters to cope with her are truly hilarious.
I am aware that this one was one of their less famous ones, and if I am not mistaken, it did not do great at the box office.
Carefree featured only four musical numbers, including the Academy Award-nominated "Change Partners" (My sister's favorite).
And it features the best dancing scene of their partnership: "The Yam."
This scene is beautiful, not for the choreography or the song (I've read that Fred thought it to be silly and refused to sing it) but for the way it was filmed. Usually, when Fred and Ginger dance the camera stays still, and they dance mostly in a single place.
In "The Yam" they get to make the most of the space, and the camera (and the people) follow them around.
If you have watched some (of all) of this movies, I would love to know your opinion on the subject.
If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend you to do it. You will find they are worth your time!
© 2020 Literarycreature
MG Singh emge from Singapore on December 26, 2020:
This is a fine article. Both these stars are well known but there are so many who are not that well known, I wonder if somebody could also write about them and their films. Up to the early fifties was in my view the golden age of Hollywood and it is a treasure trove of some fine movies.
Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on December 25, 2020:
Nice compilation. I love these movies many of them belonging to the period 1935 to 1945.
Hope you will write similar article on the movies from 1945 to 55. Some of them are the masterpieces including the Hitchcock ones.