I had the urge recently to make a top 100 films list so I went to my spreadsheet and found some good news and some bad news. The good news was that I had reached 1400 total films recorded in my spreadsheet, the bad news was that only 200 of them were from before 1980 and almost half of those were from the 70s. I’m unabashedly a fan of new Hollywood, but I feel some responsibility to educated myself on films from before my beloved Hollywood Renaissance.

This week I decided to go with the on screen pairings of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They appeared in 9 films together from 1933 to 1939 with an additional film in 1949 (their only film in colour). So similarly to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, here I will rank the Astaire & Rogers pairings with a few thoughts on each. Here are all the films in order and below the fold they will appear in order of quality.

Flying Down to Rio (1933) dir. Thornton Freeland

The Gay Divorcee (1934) dir. Mark Sandrich

Roberta (1935) dir. William A. Seiter

Top Hat (1935) dir. Mark Sandrich

Follow the Fleet (1936) dir. Mark Sandrich

Swing Time (1936) dir. George Stevens

Shall We Dance (1937) dir. Mark Sandrich

Carefree (1938) dir. Mark Sandrich

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) dir. H.C. Potter

The Barkleys of Broadway  (1949) dir.  Charles Walters

Flying Down to Rio (1933) dir. Thornton Freeland

★★★★ (4)

This was the first pairing for Astaire & Rogers and they were only in supporting roles. Unfortunately, stars Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond do not have the chemistry later found between Astaire & Rogers. The plot of the film is very thin and the only things you should check out are the dances at the half way mark – The Carioca – and the highflying finale dance. Considering the era, the cinematography and practical effects are remarkable even if the film itself is forgettable.

Carefree (1938) dir. Mark Sandrich

★★★★ (4)

Carefree is a really bizarre film. Instead of portraying a professional dancer (or dancing sailor), Astaire plays a psychiatrist that is treating Rogers. When she falls in love with him, he hypnotizes her into hating him. She is the most suggestible character in the history of film and removes even the smallest semblance of believability from the film. And that wouldn’t be a problem (it wasn’t in Swing Time) but the film focuses more on the plot than the dancing (only featuring 4 sequences) bringing attention to the ridiculousness often found in these films. It also features the single worst ending of the 10.

Follow the Fleet (1936) dir. Mark Sandrich

★★★★★ (5)

The only reason this is above Flying Down to Rio is that Astaire & Rogers are leads and the boring other couple are supporting. The best dance sequence from the film is barely better than “The Carioca” and certainly not as memorable. And it is rather unfortunate because the first half hour of the film is very promising and the conflict could actually be interesting. But the set up for the conflict is pretty lousy which undermines the second most effective part of the film. Overall, a mediocre piece.

Shall We Dance (1937) dir. Mark Sandrich

★★★★★★ (6)

Shall We Dance benefits from the music of George Gershwin and probably the two best dramatic performances Astaire and Rogers gave together. The plot is also greatly improved from Swing Time even if the coalescence between the plot and the music isn’t as good and the comedy doesn’t hit as well. When it comes to the songs, I will admit that I HATE the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and that may color my opinion of the film.

Top Hat (1935) dir. Mark Sandrich

★★★★★★ (6)

Top Hat has a similar problem to Roberta in that the pacing is off and the film is a little too long for what it is. But Roberta has the better music and a plot I actually care about where the plot of Top Hat could easily be (and probably was in some way) reused for Three’s Company 40 years later. And while comedy-of-errors is a genre of comedy that can be done very well, this one overstays its welcome. The reason to watch this (aside from the times the comedy works) is the dance sequence for “Cheek to Cheek” (even if it isn’t as effective as “I Won’t Dance” or “Lovely to Look At” from Roberta).

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) dir. H.C. Potter

★★★★★★★ (7)

This is arguably the most interesting film Astaire & Rogers made, it’s just unfortunate that much of it is pretty boring. Great performances, forgettable music, good dancing, temperamental pacing; the film is a good one; really it’s one of their best. However when you move outside the sample of their ten films, it fails in comparison to the great biographical films and other great musical films that exist. The best moment is the ending, featuring the most dramatically powerful scene of the entire series.

The Gay Divorcee (1934) dir. Mark Sandrich

★★★★★★★ (7)

This was the first starring performance of the Astaire & Rogers pairing and their chemistry lifts the film to heights Flying Down to Rio could never achieve. The story is one of Rogers’ wanting to procure a divorce and her husband not letting her. So she and her aunt hire a lawyer who happens to be Astaire’s best friend to help her husband come to his senses. Along the way Astaire and Rogers fall in love and we get an excellent dance in the form of The Continental. However, that is the only song of any note in the film and the rest of the film takes the shape of a screwball comedy. Its funny, well made and impeccably paced, but I wish there had been more songs.

The Barkleys of Broadway  (1949) dir.  Charles Walters

★★★★★★★★★ (8)

I’m so glad that Astaire & Rogers got to do a film in colour. Even if only half of the pairing’s films are worth a second viewing, this one makes that list simply because of the performance of “They can’t take that away from me.” Its elegant and understated but the colour highlights their performances beautifully. This film also serves as an explanation for their split ten years earlier and it makes me wonder how much of the emotion is real. It’s not a perfect film obviously (and features a really hammy Ginger Rogers French accent) but it is easily the best written film of the ten and the pair’s chemistry is at its dramatic best here.

Roberta (1935) dir. William A. Seiter

★★★★★★★★ (8)

Roberta got the balance of comedy, narrative, music, and dancing perfect even if the film has some pacing problems (it’s about 20 minutes too long). There are some touching dramatic moments with the song “Smoke Gets in your Eyes” and Astaire and Rogers get some great laughs and sighs in the songs “I Won’t Dance” and “Lovely to Look at.” Between this and The Gay Divorcee I would likely re-watch  Roberta more willingly so it takes the higher rank of the two.

Swing Time (1936) dir. George Stevens

★★★★★★★★★ (9)

As one of my favourite critics once said, “This movie is stoopid with two O’s.” The plot makes absolutely no sense and there are so many contrivances and conveniences that it’s kind of hard to believe that this is likely the best film Astaire and Rogers made by that point. Swing Time is easily the most entertaining of the films from Astaire and Rogers. The music is better, the dancing is better, the cinematography and editing are better, and the acting (in spite of the ridiculous plot) makes every emotional moment poignant.

I do want to point out one thing about Swing Time which is a serious draw back. For one of the best sequences in the movie, in terms of cinematography and choreography, Astaire is in black face. I actually screamed with anger while watching the scene because it is a great scene ruined by racist history. Below is the scene so you all can be as conflicted as I am about the best film from Astaire and Rogers.

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