By Maureen Lee Lenker
Astaire and Rogers – in the Hollywood pantheon of famous couples, they are one of the most beloved. Their comedic timing, their quick-witted chemistry, and their sheer perfection as dancing partners make them a magnetic onscreen couple. As a dancer, Astaire revolutionized Hollywood – choreographing his numbers with Hermes Pan and ushering in an era where dance was filmed in long shots and uninterrupted takes to grant audiences an unparalleled and uninterrupted view of the movement while eschewing reaction shots and close-ups on feet, faces, etc.
Astaire would go on to partner many others, including Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, and Cyd Charisse, but none would stick in the public memory so much as his pairing with Rogers. They made each other famous, and their ability to elevate each other pushed them to new heights. Their sense of humor and fluidity of movement made them an ideal onscreen match in both dance and romantic entanglement. The pair danced together in ten films and made an indelible impression on Hollywood history. Today, their dances stand as the embodiment of onscreen romance – an enactment of desire, passion, and love told through dance. Here are our 8 favorite Fred and Ginger numbers:
8. The Carioca – Flying Down to Rio (1933)
The pair only dance together for about two minutes in what is a twelve-minute plus number, but it made quite the impression on audiences and RKO production staff. Choreographed by Hermes Pan, who would go on to partner with Astaire and Rogers on all of their films, the number lacks some of the grace and pizazz of their later work, but their clear chemistry as dance partners and delight in each other is on brazen display. Neither Astaire nor Rogers were aware they were doing anything special here (in a film where they received fourth and fifth billing), but this was the number that started it all.
7. They Can’t Take That Away From Me – The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Ten years after they ended their run as the reigning song-and-dance King and Queen of RKO, Rogers and Astaire reunited to play a feuding husband and wife at MGM. This number was one of their last onscreen together, and it brings the couple full circle as Astaire had sang the same song to Rogers in 1937’s Shall We Dance?. Here, they brought the memorable tune to vivid life with a dance routine it was never granted in its first go-round. It was Rogers who actually suggested they use this song, and she later called it, “a real musical memory for us, and the audiences who knew us, to savor." The ballroom dance choreography is stunning, and it’s a perfectly nostalgic way for the two to end their onscreen partnership. The two were lucky enough to dance to some of the greatest composers of the American songbook, and this Gershwin number is no exception.
6. Isn’t This a Lovely Day – Top Hat (1935)
Top Hat marked Astaire and Rogers’ fourth film together, and by this time, they knew each other innately, making the synchronicity on display in this number possible. The number is one of the more playful between the couple, with Rogers dancing in a riding habit rather than one of her signature romantic ballgowns. Caught in a rainstorm, Astaire’s Jerry Travers tries to woo Rogers’ Dale Tremont with a little ditty and some dance moves. Rogers’ playfulness and stellar comedic timing are on full display here, as she joins Astaire in the second chorus and shadows his every move. Rogers actually suggested the shadowing during their rehearsals, noting that she should copy Astaire down to the placement of his hands in his pockets. This number is one of their best not only for its comedic aspects (while most of their numbers are romantic), but also because its history demonstrates how many uncredited contributions Rogers made to their partnership. She is best remembered for her dance numbers with Astaire, but she was also a gifted comedienne and gets to showcase that here.
5. Night and Day – The Gay Divorcee (1934)
The Gay Divorcee was the first film to feature Rogers and Astaire as a leading couple, rather than as featured players. “Night and Day” was their first dance onscreen since their brief feature in “The Carioca” in Flying Down to Rio (1933), and it cemented their perfection as onscreen partners. What’s more – for a couple who became so famous for their dancing, it doesn’t occur until 53 minutes into the film! This iconic Cole Porter number is reflective of the formula that worked so well for the couple in their dances and their film plots, with Rogers resisting Astaire until the magnetic pull of the dance sends her into his arms. This number is one of their most romantic with their palpable chemistry and passion running throughout this lush expression of their love.
4. Never Gonna Dance – Swing Time (1936)
This is perhaps the most ambitious of all of Astaire and Rogers’ dance numbers, with its stunningly elaborate Art Deco set providing the perfect backdrop. Rogers and Astaire captured the Art Deco glamour and elegance of the 1930s in all of their films, and this number is the peak expression of that. The scene took 47 takes to complete, with Rogers later recounting tales of removing her shoes to find them full of blood. Despite the song title of “Never Gonna Dance,” this number also features the incredibly romantic Jerome Kern tune “The Way You Look Tonight.” It is a production number on a massive scale, with Astaire and Rogers swirling through the evocative, impressive set and skipping up and down staircases. Merging the delicate romance of the tune with the expansive set creates an unforgettable number.
3. Let’s Face the Music and Dance – Follow the Fleet (1936)
This number is notorious among lovers of Astaire and Rogers. Rogers’ stunning pale blue beaded dress added unforeseen complications to the number with the dress weighing in at about twenty-five pounds. Rogers had to account for the extra weight while executing complicated spins and steps to prevent it from throwing her off balance. Perhaps even worse, when Rogers twirled, the bell sleeves of the dress would slap Astaire in the face causing him to wince and making it necessary for him to duck. This made it difficult to shoot the number in an uninterrupted take as was Astaire’s preference. Still, despite its complications, it’s one of their most beautiful numbers together with its haunting score providing a unique and evocative backdrop to their expressive choreography. And while Rogers’ dress might have been a bit of a shooting nightmare, its flared skirt and wide sleeves are a perfect lyrical complement to their romantic waltz.
2. Pick Yourself Up – Swing Time (1936}
This number, performed in a dance studio in relatively plain black dress, allows all eyes to be on Fred and Ginger while they demonstrate the synchronicity that made them a perfect pair. It’s a delightful comedic moment between them as Astaire has just pretended to have two left feet while Rogers’ dance teacher attempts to instruct him. Her sheer delight and surprise at being swept up into a number with him are deliciously evident on her face. Of all their numbers together, this is one of their most effortless and light-footed with nearly seamless transitions between partner and side-by-side dancing. Lifting her skirts to tap alongside Astaire, Rogers showcases how much she has come into her own as a dancer and exhibits an unparalleled confidence and delight in this scene. As a pair, they exhibit a delectable spontaneity here and feel more down-to-earth and ordinary than they do in many of their ballroom numbers – we can delight even further in their pairing because it is at our level.
1. Cheek to Cheek – Top Hat (1935)
Quite possibly the most romantic dance number ever put to film, “Cheek to Cheek” is part of the fabric of classic Hollywood moviemaking. The number is just as iconic and popular as ever of late, being referenced in everything from La La Land (2016) to Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015). As they twirl and sway, the number is sheer magic, depicting Rogers falling deeply in love with Astaire through the course of the dance. Caught up in the music, you can’t help but sway and fall in love with them. Today, it is remembered for its ethereal sense of romance, enhanced by Rogers’ romantic feather gown. In reality, the gown was a point of contention between Astaire and Rogers. The feathers flew off the gown throughout the dance scene, floating distractedly in the air and irritating Astaire (he described the dress’ behavior as “like a chicken being attacked by a coyote”). He and co-choreographer Hermes Pan even devised alternate lyrics to the song, singing “Feathers, I hate feathers, and I hate them so that I can hardly speak.” However, ultimately the song became a foundational moment in Astaire and Rogers’ relationship, earning her the nickname “Feathers” when he gifted her with a gold feather locket. The number is just as unforgettable for viewers.
Whether it's a high-energy tap number or a romantic waltz, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers gave us no shortage of impressive, unforgettable musical numbers with their partnership.