With her unique brand of easy charm, wry humour and elegant style, Ginger Rogers became one of the musical genre’s most beloved stars during the 1930s. Her breakthrough role came as wise-cracking ‘Anytime Annie’ in Warner Bros’s 1933 backstage musical hit 42nd Street, which found her dancing on the chorus line in choreographer Busby Berkeley’s era-defining synchronised spectacles. With America in the grip of the Great Depression, the film’s show-stopping numbers were a mesmerising signal of hope and community.
But it was her subsequent collaborations with screen partner Fred Astaire that made her an icon. The series of films they made together at RKO established a new kind of dance musical: swinging through jazz, tap and ballroom, the pair’s sophisticated footwork, chemistry and repartee created a blueprint for what the romantic musical comedy could be. Filmed usually in one take, with no cutaways or close-ups, the films’ celebrated dancing sequences are some of cinema history’s most exquisitely executed routines.
Here are some of the most memorable musical moments from Ginger’s golden run.
‘We’re in the Money’ from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Hot on the high heels of 42nd Street’s success came this raunchy pre-Code musical comedy about four chorus girls. Also marked by the Depression, there are nonetheless small signs of political optimism following the previous year’s election of Franklin Roosevelt. The ‘We’re in the Money’ number hopefully anticipates the end of the poverty-stricken era with lines such as “Old Man Depression, you are through – you done us wrong”. Meanwhile, Rogers shimmers and shines in a bikini and boa made of enormous glittering gold coins, backed by wealth-laden sets and Berkeley’s elaborately choreographed chorus line of dollar-clad dancers.
The second verse is sung amusingly in Pig Latin as the camera zooms in on an extreme close-up of Rogers’ Fay Fortune – an intimate, playful moment for an audience in need of escape.
‘Cheek to Cheek’ from Top Hat (1935)
Top Hat is generally reckoned to be the strongest of the 10 Fred and Ginger films, and its most celebrated dance scene is the perfect demonstration of the romance and elegance that epitomises the pair.
With Astaire’s Jerry and Rogers’ Dale waltzing through a series of unbelievable misunderstandings and frivolous farce, the plot is as silly and frothy as ever. But the success of their pairing was always our belief that they could overcome any obstacle – whether it was class, mistaken identity or pure indifference – and fall in love through dance.
As the two glide from waltz to tap with low dips and high leaps among the exhilarating clash of cymbals, the strong lines and sharp corners of the black-and-white art-deco staging frame each faultlessly formed shape. The weightlessness of Rogers’ ostrich feather gown (apparently hated by Astaire, but what did he know?), Irving Berlin’s swooning love song (written specifically for Astaire)… everything combines to create cinematic magic.
‘Never Gonna Dance’ from Swing Time (1936)
Fred and Ginger’s sixth pairing, and Rogers’ personal favourite of their films together, is this George Stevens comedy, another high-water mark of the duo’s collaborations.
Rogers’ feet famously bled after shooting the demanding ‘Never Gonna Dance’ routine, with 47 takes during one day’s filming, but the results are one of the best examples of their dance as an expression of love. In a fitting finale, when yet another comedic communication breakdown leads to them giving up on their relationship, the couple’s beautiful ballroom sequence brings the narrative to an emotional conclusion. It’s also one of their most dynamically filmed dance numbers, with the crane shots that follow them as they ascend the stairs giving even more expression to their movements.
‘Let Yourself Go’ from Follow the Fleet (1936)
Although the best of the Irving Berlin songs in Follow the Fleet may be ‘Let’s Face the Music and Dance’, ‘Let Yourself Go’ is notable as it is the only solo number Rogers ever performed in her 10 films with Astaire.
It’s initially sung by Rogers wearing a stylishly jaunty nautical ensemble and followed by a ‘challenge dance’ between her character Sherry Martin and Astaire’s not so convincing sailor ‘Bake’ Baker. But the song is reprised during Sherry’s audition scene in which she dances a fantastic 69 seconds of fabulously fast, scintillating tap. There’s clear pleasure on Rogers’ face at the enjoyment of her virtuosity. The end of her partnership with Astaire meant that she would largely leave film musicals behind in favour of a more varied acting career, but it’s a shame there aren’t more Ginger solo numbers committed to celluloid.
‘Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off’ from Shall We Dance (1937)
This much-loved back-and-forth duet – now a songbook staple – was written for Shall We Dance by George and Ira Gershwin, providing Fred and Ginger with the backing for one of their most delightful routines, performed on roller skates. Like the ‘Isn’t This a Lovely Day?’ number from Top Hat, there’s huge appeal in seeing them dance in a more casual, park setting, away from the ballroom glamour. It’s thrilling to watch them glide around and the faux clumsy way they ease in and out of balancing wobbles and graceful spins.
‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
When Astaire originally sang Gershwin’s Oscar-nominated melody ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ to Rogers in 1937’s Shall We Dance, no elegant dance sequence followed. So when the pair reunited after 10 years apart for The Barkleys of Broadway (“Joyously together again!” as the trailer said), the song was revived for one of the pair’s most emotionally beguiling ballroom numbers.
Against a minimal background of the theatre’s curtains slowly changing colour as if in a dream, they dance through what is almost a Fred and Ginger ballroom best-of, with the unison of every sophisticated, energetic movement, every romantic rotation. They float across the empty stage as in harmony as ever, in a gorgeous, sweeping farewell to their partnership.