ASTAIRE & ROGERS COLLECTION: VOLUME 1 (1935-1949). The top-billed stars of 1933's Flying Down to Rio were Dolores Del Rio, Gene Raymond and Raul Roulien, but it didn't take a genius to see that the real draws were two supporting players named Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Certainly, the suits at RKO saw the writing on the wall -- or, more accurately, the dancing on the screen -- and by the end of the 30s, the incomparable dance team of Astaire & Rogers had been paired in a total of nine motion pictures for the studio -- reuniting only once after that for MGM in 1949. Katharine Hepburn famously described the pair's appeal by stating, "He gives her class and she gives him sex" -- certainly, that's a more accurate declaration than the legendary screen test evaluation for Astaire that read, "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Flying Down to Rio will turn up in Volume 2, but for now, here are five other of the 10 Astaire-Rogers musicals, including the cream of the crop.
Top Hat (1935) doesn't just earn my vote as the best musical ever made -- it ranks near the top of my list of the all-time great movies, eliciting adoration whether it's being viewed for the first time or the 40th. A gargantuan hit in its day and nominated for four Oscars including Best Picture, its pleasures are endless, as Rogers' mistaken belief that Astaire is married keeps them apart for the better portion of the 100-minute running time. The comedy quotient is higher than in any other Astaire-Rogers flick thanks to a stellar supporting team led by Edward Everett Horton (master of the double take) and Eric Blore, while the Art Deco sets are glorious to behold (love that studio recreation of Italy!). As for the song score by Irving Berlin, it's packed with such classics as "No Strings," "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught In the Rain)?" and the incomparable "Cheek to Cheek," perhaps the greatest dance song in film history.
Follow the Fleet (1936) reunites many of the principals from Top Hat (Astaire, Rogers, Berlin, director Mark Sandrich, producer Pandro S. Berman), but the results aren't nearly as magical. Certainly, the musical players pull their weight -- Astaire and Rogers are as effervescent as ever, and the excellent Berlin score includes the likes of "Let Yourself Go" and "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket." But while the sparring between our stars -- he's a sailor, she's a dancehall girl -- is enjoyable, too much time is spent on a dull subplot involving secondary leads Randolph Scott and Harriet Hilliard.
Along with "boxers or briefs?" and "regular or decaf?," one of the enduring questions is "Top Hat or Swing Time?" Top Hat is arguably the most famous of the team's output, but a hefty number of critics (including Roger Ebert and USA Today's Mike Clark) cite Swing Time (1936) as their best film. In this one, Fred's a gambler who's set to get married to his hometown girl until he meets dance instructor Ginger in the big city. The plot occasionally dawdles, but the movie's worth is immeasurably enhanced by the sterling Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score, as well as some of the most intricate dance routines found in any of the Fred'n'Ginger films. "The Way You Look Tonight" earned the Best Song Oscar, though "Pick Yourself Up" and "Bojangles of Harlem" are equally memorable.
By Astaire-Rogers standards, Shall We Dance (1937) is probably the most underrated in the bunch, though the bungling of the climactic production number, with Fred dancing more with the odd Harriet Hoctor than with Ginger (say what?), probably has a lot to do with its diminished status. Barring this last-inning collapse, this one's a sheer delight, with Astaire as a classically trained ballet dancer longing to cut loose with musical-comedy star Rogers. This time, the A-list composers contributing the score are George and Ira Gershwin, and among the exquisite numbers are "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and the irresistible "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (performed by our stars on skates). Top Hat MVPs Horton and Blore also return, again carrying the bulk of the film's hilarious comedy routines.
The Astaire-Rogers-RKO partnership ended in 1939 with The Story of Vernon & Irene Castle (not included in this set), and when MGM put The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) into production, they viewed it as a vehicle for Astaire and Judy Garland. But Garland dropped out because of poor health, paving the way for one last hurrah from the immortal dance team. There's a certain poignancy -- not to mention a relevance to real life -- in this yarn about a bickering husband-and-wife dance team and the tensions that arise once she decides to give up musicals for dramatic theater (her first role as a "serious" actress is playing the young Sarah Bernhardt). The score by Harry Warren and Ira Gershwin is serviceable rather than inspired, though Fred does dance with several pairs of animated shoes in "Shoes With Wings On" and both stars are delightful performing the bouncy ditty "My One and Only Highland Fling."
Assorted extras on the five discs include audio commentaries by film historians (and, on Top Hat, by Astaire's daughter Ava Astaire McKenzie), new making-of featurettes, musical and comedy shorts, cartoons and trailers.
Top Hat: ****
Follow the Fleet: ***
Swing Time: *** 1/2
Shall We Dance: *** 1/2
The Barkleys of Broadway: ***
Extras: *** 1/2