Moving moments by Fred and Ginger
Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1
Warner Home Video. $60 for the set: $20 each
THIS toe-tapping collection features four of the most accomplished musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made in the 1930s at RKO -- “Top Hat,” “Follow the Fleet,” “Swing Time” and “Shall We Dance” -- as well as the Technicolor 1949 MGM musical “The Barkleys of Broadway,” which reunited them a decade after they went their separate ways.
In 1933, RKO teamed ingenue Rogers with Broadway star Astaire in the musical “Flying Down to Rio.” Though cast as supporting players, they proved so popular with audiences that RKO immediately gave them their own starring musical vehicle, “The Gay Divorcee,” which was based on Astaire’s Broadway hit, “Gay Divorce.”
The 1935 “Top Hat” was the first musical written for them. And it’s nearly flawless thanks to the shimmering chemistry between Astaire and Rogers, the first-rate script by Allan Scott and Dwight Taylor, the steady hand of director Mark Sandrich, the art deco sets of Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark, and the shimmering cinematography of David Abel.
The Astaire-Rogers films attracted the best musical talent of the time. For “Top Hat,” Irving Berlin supplied several standards, including the Oscar-nominated “Cheek to Cheek,” “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails,” “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” and “The Piccolino.” The innovative choreography for all these films was created by the legendary Hermes Pan and Astaire.
“Top Hat” also features several of the great character actors who became a stock company in their films -- Helen Broderick (the mother of Broderick Crawford), Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore.
Extras: A retrospective documentary “On Top: Inside the Success of Top Hat”; a 1935 comedy short, “Watch the Birdie,” with a very young Bob Hope; an art deco-designed cartoon, “Page Miss Glory”; and engaging commentary from Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, and film dance historian Larry Billman.
Follow the Fleet
Berlin also supplied the score for this sprightly 1936 musical comedy, which features the exquisite dance numbers “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket.” Randolph Scott plays Astaire’s buddy, and Harriett Hilliard, better known as Harriet Nelson of “Ozzie and Harriet” fame, plays Rogers’ mousy sister, who falls for Scott’s character.
Extras: The featurette “Follow the Fleet: The Origins of Those Dancing Feet,” which looks at the early careers of Astaire and Rogers; the cartoon “Let It Be Me,” which spoofs crooner Bing Crosby; and the hep-to-the-jive musical short “Melody Master: Jimmie Lunceford and His Dance Orchestra.”
In the featurette “The Swing of Things,” USC film professor Rick Jewell declares that this 1936 Astaire-Rogers musical comedy is not only the best of their vehicles but also one of the greatest films ever made. Most Astaire-Rogers fans tend to agree with Jewell’s assessment -- “Swing Time” is an exhilarating, dazzling musical romance that is heavy on dance numbers and long on charm. This time around, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields supplied the luscious songs, which include the Oscar-winning “The Way You Look Tonight” as well as “Pick Yourself Up” and “A Fine Romance.”
Among the numerous dance highlights: “Bojangles of Harlem,” Astaire’s valentine to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (though Astaire in blackface is a bit hard to watch these days), the duo’s “Waltz in Swing Time” and their magical “Never Gonna Dance” routine, which finds them dancing separately -- but in unison -- up facing staircases.
This is the only Astaire-Rogers film directed by George Stevens.
Extras: The musical short “Hotel a la Swing,” with Eddie Foy Jr.; another cartoon spoof of Crosby, “Bingo Crosbyana”; and commentary from John Mueller, author of “Astaire Dancing.”
Shall We Dance
This 1937 souffle was the last great RKO Astaire-Rogers musical and the only one with songs by George and Ira Gershwin. In fact, George Gershwin died shortly after completing the score. Songs include the Oscar-nominated “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” as well as the title tune, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” (which they perform on roller skates), “They All Laughed” and “Slap That Bass.” Gershwin also supplied the humorous incidental music.
Extras: The featurette “They Can’t Take That Away From Me: The Music of Shall We Dance”; delightful commentary from songwriter Hugh Martin of “Meet Me in St. Louis” fame and pianist Kevin Cole; a musical short, “Sheik to Sheik,” and a cartoon “Toy Town Hall,” which does include a spoof of -- you guessed it -- Bing Crosby.
The Barkleys of Broadway
In 1939, Astaire and Rogers parted. RKO had found Astaire’s salary demands too high, and Rogers wanted to do more dramatic fare. But in 1949, they reunited quite by accident. In 1948, Astaire and Judy Garland scored a big hit in the musical “Easter Parade,” and MGM began plans to quickly reteam them in “Barkleys.” But Garland’s health was precarious, so Rogers was approached to join her former partner.
Astaire and Rogers’ chemistry didn’t miss a beat in this musical comedy about a squabbling Broadway couple, and they have some great dance numbers alone and together -- including a reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me” -- but the new songs aren’t very good.
Extras: The featurette “Reunited at MGM: Astaire and Rogers Together Again”; a dull dramatic short, “Annie Was a Wonder”; and a Droopy cartoon “Wags to Riches.”
-- Susan King