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Fred And Ginger Cheered Us Up During The Depression. Might They Do It Again?

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 8, 2020 8:47 pm

Sequestering is getting old, right? And so are reruns of every sitcom you've ever watched. Maybe it's time to face the music ... and dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

They danced America through the Great Depression. No reason they can't dance us through this — he, suave and ever on the make; she, lovely and feisty when she feels she's been crossed. He's forever crossing her.

Take the way they first hit the dance floor in Swing Time (1936). Ginger's a dance instructor, who's just been fired because, for reasons too silly to elaborate, she thinks that Fred's a klutz.

He tries to make things right with her boss by pretending she's just taught him a tricky tap step. She protests right up to the moment when he does that tricky tap step, and she realizes he's a professional dancer.

Her face lights up, the boss sits down to watch, and several minutes of sheer bliss ensue — Fred dapper as a tapper, and Ginger, as is often noted, doing everything he does, backwards and in heels.

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Swing Time was the sixth of their 10 films together, and it's more or less perfect of its type, with a bunch of terrific numbers for the two of them, including one in tux and evening gown, where he says — actually, where he sings — that having danced with her, he's "Never Gonna Dance" again.

At song's end, he looks like a wounded puppy while she appears not so much distressed as ambivalent. He takes her hand, and for a long moment — a few seconds longer than you think you can stand, in fact — they just walk around the dance floor.

And then, with hardly a change, but all the change in the world, he steps slightly sideways, and she leans into his shoulder, and the music takes hold of them. And of us. And you think, "of course they danced the nation's depression away" — in both the economic and the emotional sense. Movies were the cheapest form of entertainment in the 1930s, and escape from the Depression on screen meant what was called "white telephone" extravagance, romance, and stories slight enough to get out of the way when the conductor gave a downbeat.

It was a formula that worked for Astaire and Rogers in story after story — on country estates, in backstage epics, aboard battleships — right up until The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), a star-vehicle that was a reunion after they'd been doing solo projects for nearly a decade. It was the only Astaire-Rogers film in color, and the last time they danced together on screen.

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The first time, some 16 years earlier, they'd been bit players in a forgettable piece of fluff called Flying Down to Rio. They were given a specialty number when their characters were stuck at a nightclub without a ride home. The band was playing a latin dance, "The Carioca," and though it pretty clearly wasn't in their wheelhouse, Fred suggested they give it a try.

"We'll show 'em a thing or three," grinned Ginger following him onto the dance floor in a dress that bounced at the hem. And for the next two minutes on screen they did a lot of ... well, of stomping. You would not guess that this number would launch a partnership lasting 10 movies.

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But it was cute, danced mostly with their foreheads pressed together — not cheek-to-cheek but brow-to-brow. Anyway, audiences liked it, and the rest is history.

Also herstory, especially her gowns, which got more and more elaborate as their films grew more successful. Feathers enough to fill a down comforter when they were dancing cheek-to-cheek in Top Hat (1935). And that exquisite, slinky, beaded number for "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in Follow the Fleet (1936). Fred sings the first lyric: "There may be trouble ahead," little knowing that there'd be trouble with that dress.

The beading that made it glisten was gorgeous, but it weighed more than 25 lbs — so much that once the skirt started moving in a direction, it just kept going. You can see them posing briefly at the end of spins, so that her hem can twirl around her legs, and then twirl back, freeing her to take the next step. And the sleeves — long, and flowing, and each so bead-heavy, it weighed more than a pound — smacking Fred in the face when he spins her around at the start.

Ginger later said she wasn't aware it was happening, and she was spinning so fast she couldn't see that Fred winced and ducked, and kept going. On subsequent takes, they tried to figure out ways to protect him, but nothing worked, so they ended up using that first take.

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You can find most of the Astaire-Rogers dance numbers online, and it's easy enough to watch them by themselves. But don't stop there. They're more fun in context, and if you don't watch the whole films, you'll miss the tension the Fred and Ginger characters are building up between numbers. Their relationship on screen was always prickly, his insistence meeting her resistance until the emotions built to the point they could no longer be contained. The only way they could be expressed was the eruption into dance.

I understood that in a personal way long before I knew how to articulate it. My folks had a sometimes abrasive relationship when I was small. Barbs were traded, sadly not as funny as in the movies. But on a dance floor — which could be just kitchen linoleum if the right song came on the radio — Mom and Dad were so in-tune, so graceful.

I remember one New Year's party when mom wore a long dress, dad a dark suit. And when they joined the other couples dancing, after a few seconds, everyone else on the dance floor backed away to watch them — just like in a Fred Astaire Ginger Rogers movie.

Barbs were forgotten for the moment, and, as Irving Berlin's lyrics had it, while they were cheek-to-cheek, "the cares that hung around me through the week, seemed to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak."

That, I would realize much much later, must have been how Fred and Ginger made the world's troubles vanish — at least for a couple of hours — for Depression-era audiences.

Wonder if they might be able to do it again for us. One thing's sure, while nesting at home, we've got all "Night and Day" to find out.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

OK. Staying at home might be getting a bit old, right? And so are reruns of every sitcom you've ever watched. Well, critic Bob Mondello says maybe it's time to face the music and dance with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Fred and Ginger danced America through the Great Depression. No reason they shouldn't dance us through this - he, suave and ever eager; she, reluctant at first but then going along in "Swing Time," say, where Ginger's a tap instructor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Ms. Carroll, I want to show Mr. Gordon how much you've just taught me.

GINGER ROGERS: (As Penny Carroll) No, never mind.

MONDELLO: She's just gotten fired because of something Fred did. He's trying to make it right with her boss, Mr. Gordon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Now, how did you say that last step went?

MONDELLO: Fred's a professional dancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Oh, yes.

MONDELLO: Ginger didn't know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

MONDELLO: Now she does, and her face lights up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Shall we try it right through? Won't you sit down, Mr. Gordon?

MONDELLO: Several minutes of sheer bliss ensue - Fred, dapper, charming and a stunning tap dancer; Ginger, as is often noted, doing everything he does but backwards and in heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF TAPPING)

MONDELLO: "Swing Time" was the sixth of their 10 films together, and it's more or less perfect of its type, with a bunch of terrific numbers for the two of them, including one in tux and evening gown where he says that having danced with her, he'll never dance again. And for a moment, holding hands, they just walk around the dance floor, a few seconds longer than you think you can stand it. And then he steps slightly sideways, and she leans into his shoulder. And my God...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Of course they dance the nation's depression away in both the economic and emotional senses. Movies were the cheapest form of entertainment back then, and escape on-screen meant extravagance, romance and stories slight enough to get out of the way...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY")

ASTAIRE: (As Josh Barkley) All right. Go.

MONDELLO: ...When the conductor gave a downbeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: This is from "The Barkleys Of Broadway," a 1949 star vehicle that was the only Astaire-Rogers film in color and the last time they danced together. The first time, some 16 years earlier, they were bit players in a forgettable piece of fluff called "Flying Down To Rio," their spot a specialty number when the characters were stuck at a nightclub without a ride back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ROGERS: (As Honey Hale) Just how much does it cost to get home from here?

MONDELLO: The band was playing a Latin dance, the carioca.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ASTAIRE: (As Fred Ayres) I'd like to try this thing just once.

MONDELLO: Not really in their wheelhouse, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ASTAIRE: (As Fred Ayres) Come on, honey.

ROGERS: (As Honey Hale) We'll show them a thing or three.

MONDELLO: She's in a dress that bounces at the hem. He's in a jacket and tie. And for the next two minutes on-screen, they do a lot of stomping. You would not guess that this number would launch a partnership lasting 10 movies, but it does look like they're having fun. Oddly, they dance most of the carioca with their foreheads pressed together, dancing not cheek to cheek, but brow to brow.

Anyway, audiences liked it, and the rest is history and herstory, especially her gowns. They got more and more elaborate, feathers enough to fill a down comforter when dancing cheek to cheek. And that beaded number for "Let's Face The Music And Dance" in "Follow The Fleet"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) There may be trouble ahead.

MONDELLO: There was trouble with the dress. The beading was gorgeous, but it weighed so much that once the skirt started moving, it kept going. You can see them posing briefly at the end of spins so her hem can twirl around her legs...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Let's face the music and dance.

MONDELLO: ...And then twirl back, freeing her to take the next step.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S FACE THE MUSIC AND DANCE")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Before the fiddlers have fled...

MONDELLO: You can find most of their dance numbers online and watch them by themselves, but don't. You miss the tension that builds up between the Fred and Ginger characters that way. In every movie, their relationship was prickly, his insistence meeting her resistance. And when the emotions built to the point that they could no longer be contained, they erupted in song and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED ASTAIRE SONG, "NIGHT AND DAY")

MONDELLO: I understood that in a personal way. My folks had a sometimes abrasive relationship when I was small. Barbs were traded, sadly not as funny as in the movies. But on a dance floor, which could be just kitchen linoleum if the right song came on the radio, Mom and Dad were so in-tune, so graceful. I remember one New Year's party when Mom wore a long dress, Dad a dark suit. And when they joined the other couples dancing, after a few seconds, everyone backed away to watch them, just like in a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie - barbs forgotten, everything just...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Heaven - I'm in heaven. And the cares that hung around me through the week seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak.

MONDELLO: Fred and Ginger made the world's troubles vanish in the 1930s for Depression-era audiences, at least for a couple of hours. What do you think? Can they do it again?

I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED ASTAIRE SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.