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The movie musical would have died out a lot sooner than it did had it not been for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. We think of the musical as an out-of-fashion genre, as the major studios only seem to make one every few years now. While the movie musical is dead today because of a lack of interest from those with the money, the movie musical almost died in 1933 because there was too much interest from the powers that be. All of the studios kept pumping out “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” movies ever since MGM's The Broadway Melody of 1929 was a smash. But all these movies were the same – just musical revues with thin backstage plots. Sometimes, the studios would even get rid of the plots and just string performances together for two hours.
Audiences were tired of it. You can only see the same movie so many times. However, in late 1933, a little Delores Del Rio movie from RKO hit theaters, called Flying Down To Rio. In the middle of a creaky romantic plot came a dance called “Carioca,” which featured the dazzling moves of Astaire and Rogers.
Today, Flying is a pretty bland movie, but in 1933, it served its purpose. It was a smash and RKO paired Astaire and Rogers again, this time making them the stars. In The Gay Divorcee (1934), based on the Broadway hit The Gay Divorce, they really get to show their best. Mark Sandrich directed and the magic was right on the screen. The plot introduced the format that ran through many of their films. One of them is engaged to marry someone else. Suddenly, they meet for the first time and Rogers isn't very impressed with Astaire. They fall in love, somehow get separated and meet up again for the happy ending.
Despite The Gay Divorcee's success, RKO still had them make Roberta as their third film together. It's also based on a Broadway hit, but it diesn't really translate well to the screen. Irene Dunne is usually good at comedy, but she's still a few years away from her screwball classics. Randolph Scott is also hopelessly dull outside of Westerns. At least the film has “I Won't Dance.”
The duo finally got some material worthy of their talent with Top Hat, the jewel of the nine films they made at RKO. This is the film that really epitomizes their work. Everything you need to know is said in the 100 minutes of Top Hat. Not only does it feature “Cheek To Cheek,” but also one of Astaire's finest moments on the screen - “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.” This is the stereotypical Astaire, but it is what he did best, with an amazing tap dance with unexpected elements added in.
After one last movie that found them as the second couple (1936's Follow The Fleet), RKO never bothered again to keep the spotlight away from them. Instead, they got to work with up-and-coming director George Stevens (who went on to make A Place In The Sun, Giant and other classics). Swing Time is a worthy successor to Top Hat, with more great music from Jereome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. This one actually leans a bit more on the comedy, with the great Victor Moore as Astaire's sidekick.
It's worth noting that Swing Time is home to the great “Bojangles of Harlem” dance. While Astaire is in black face, he's actually paying tribute to the legendary Bill Robertson and African American tap dancers as a whole. This is the first time Astaire really plays with the movie process, as he dances with three giant shadows of himself. From now on, Astaire was a movie star and he proved that there was no limit to his creativity.