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Fred and Ginger: America’s Sweethearts
by Sophie Stanish

Think of great things that go together: peanut butter and jelly, bread and butter, Broadway and musicals, Oreos and milk.  All of these great partnerships have something in common: they work extremely well together.  They have chemistry.  Each pairing feeds off each other, enhancing and augmenting the natural qualities inherent in each separate unit and combining them to create a singularly unique and enticing entity.  Similarly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the darlings of 1930s cinema, had chemistry, enough that they made ten movies together and inspired a decade of Americans to hold on to the hope the Great Depression threatened to leach away.  Beginning in 1933, this whirlwind duo took the silver screen by storm with their elaborate song and dance numbers and their charm and personality. (Fig. 1)  Their seeming spontaneity and easily relatable characters brought people to the theatres over and over to watch the dancing which causes New York Times writer Alastair Macaulay to gush saying it was:

“Most miraculous in terms of pure dance. They’re moving fast and percussively, yet the impression is of an unbroken slow-traveling legato flow. They’re combining swing and waltz rhythms (it feels like riding two horses at once), yet the impression isn’t of rhythmic virtuosity so much as of impulsive rapture.” 1

As entranced as Mr. Macaulay, audiences flocked to see Fred and Ginger, to believe in the image projected by the two stars, to adopt their practices to bring themselves closer to their idols.  In the era of the Great Depression, these two projected an aura of hope and promise for a better tomorrow which appealed to the people.

Unconsciously, Fred and Ginger became the face of optimism and modernity amid the storm of recession and job and property loss characteristic of the Great Depression.2  As such, their movies, such as The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Follow the Fleet, and Swing Time, heavily influenced the art of the period and certainly aided in popularizing the Art Deco movement in the United States of America through the set design, especially.

The Art Deco movement, begun in France in the early 1920s, favored lavish and opulent displays, the opposite of the forced simplicity and severity of the World War One period.  It reveled in the “deceptive simplicity,” the “sleek yet finely detailed,” in “geometric and jazzy forms” and in the “expanses of color” embodied in ocean liners such as Normandie and Queen Mary.3  All in all, the forms of the Art Deco movement were filled with energy and exuberance.  In the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the distinctive style of Art Deco was shaped by “all the nervous energy stored up and expended in the War.”4  Fred and Ginger’s movies all contained various elements of the Art Deco, subtly influencing the viewers, planting in their minds the idea of the Art Deco as “modern” and forward thinking.

Take for instance, the set behind Fred and Ginger in Figure 4.2. (Fig. 2) In this scene from Roberta, the couple dances stunningly to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in a ballroom accompanied by an orchestra, dressed to the nines and smiling shyly at each other.  The audience only thinks of the dancers, who, for the first time in the entire movie, have come to an accord, working together seamlessly, as if they were the same person, but subconsciously the spectacular Art Deco style set registers as part of the touching scene and becomes necessary to the emotion of the characters.  Fred and Ginger’s characters have just fallen in love with each other.  The Art Deco ballroom, in the audience’s minds, becomes a place of love and happiness, thus associating Art Deco with cheerfulness and an upbeat attitude.  The simplicity and gentle style and elegance of the room become a symbol for a new world order, one in which complete strangers can meet, dance, and fall in love.  Fred and Ginger, through their dancing and acting, sell the Art Deco to their audience.

In addition, the two stars were meant to appeal to everyone, relate to everyone.  Fred was the dashing older man in need of straightening out, the guy who knows what he wants but says and does everything wrong.5  He is a normal man.  Likewise, Ginger was always the sweet, younger woman, needing guidance and someone to help her out.  They were never the upper class couple.  In their first movie together, Flying Down to Rio, they are not even the main characters.  Instead, as members of the leading man’s band, they see the world from the point of view of the normal people.   One of the best illustrations of this occurs halfway through the film.  Fred and Honey, their characters, walk the streets of Rio in search of Belinha, the leading lady, and get sidetracked by a cookie seller.  Seeing Belinha, Fred attempts to speak to her, only to be thrown onto the sidewalk.  “Hiya, Tarzan.  Been having fun?” Honey inquires.  “Gosh if you even speak to a girl, they throw you out on the sidewalk!” he remarks to Honey.  “Boy, is that class!” “Want a cookie?  Take your choice,” she replies.6 (Fig. 3)  Honey sits down next to him as the camera is obscured by pedestrians, establishing the very down-to-earthness of the two characters.  Perfectly comfortable sitting on the sidewalk, they blend into the crowd and are lost.  Likewise in their other movies, they are the “couple with their feet on the ground.”7  Everyone in the theatre can relate to them because everyone in the theatre knows the characters are ordinary people, like themselves.  

In this trait lies the very appeal of Fred and Ginger and their easy marketability and influence on the middle and working classes is explained.  They sell their movies through their very availability to be every person and to bring an element of class to those typically seen as common.  “If these two crazy kids, who don’t know what they’re doing, can be happy, then so can you,” the movies seem to say.  They embody the middle and lower classes in their every role and bring hope that the awful circumstances of unemployment, uncertainty, and unhappiness will soon end in favor of the peaches and cream, fairy tale ending of the Astaire and Rogers movies.  Edward Gallafent observes that, in Flying Down to Rio, Astaire and Rogers differentiate themselves from the upper class stars of the movie in their dress.  Although they do wear fancy clothing such as evening dresses and tailcoats, for them it is merely professional wear, their work clothing, not what they wear by choice. (Fig. 4) “For the aristocrats,” he says, “their appearance is adequately expressive of their identity.  For Fred and Honey, it is costume, which may be acquired, be in need of adjustment, and be discarded.”8 (Fig. 5) This interesting observation also explains the attraction of Fred and Ginger to the masses: they can morph their appearances and become interlopers on the formerly sacred territory of the rich, upper class.  They are of the middle or lower classes but they have privileged insight into the world of which the audience only wished they could be a part. Fred and Ginger’s chameleon acts in their movies allow the audience to feel as if they too can experience the exclusive club that is the upper class.

The nineteen thirties were a decade rife with discord and trouble.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lessened that, at least superficially, the burden of that turmoil and conflict by shining a ray of hope for a better future.   By selling the appeal of the sleek and shiny Art Deco movement and the security of ordinary, the two dancers encouraged a sense of optimism and confidence in eventual improvement of the future.  Despite the American dream of expansion and wealth having turned to a nightmare of dust and debt, Fred and Ginger’s seemingly effortless routines roused a spirit of defiance to the odds, promoting an image of defiance of fate. (Fig. 6)  If they, the lowly strangers on the screen who happen to meet over and over in various contexts and circumstances, can still fall in love every time and have a picture perfect ending, then why shouldn’t the ordinary man or woman have the same experience? Observe Figure 4.2.  The sheer joy and vitality that lives in this picture perfectly exemplifies the spirit with which Fred and Ginger lit the silver screen.  Their chemistry shines electrically and, even captured in a still, their movement and energy radiate and call to a viewer as their onscreen movement spoke to the audience in the theatre.  It called them to forget about their troubles for a short while and to find the joy that was possible, in dancing, in singing, in simply living.  Fred and Ginger absolutely sold this call, drawing viewers in, movie after movie, viewing after viewing, with their chameleon grace and surety of self.

Notes
 1.  Alastair Macaulay. “They Seem to Find the Happiness They Seek.” The New York Times. 14 August 2009. <http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/16/arts/dance/16maca.html?pagewanted
=1&_r=1>.
2. I am aware that there were other silver screen couples who received as much attention and adoration as Fred and Ginger, such as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.  However, in the course of my research, I felt that Fred and Ginger exemplified most strongly the epitome of hope and modernity in the 1930s silver screen world and are also best known today.  After all, when referred to only by their first names, are the other two pairs readily recognizable?  No.  Only Fred and Ginger need no surname to receive recognition.  Therefore, I have chosen them as my “It Couple,” as it were.  For further reading on the onscreen chemistry of these couples as well as a few others, I recommend Screen Couple Chemistry: The Power of Two, by Martha P. Nochimson.
3.  Coons, Lorraine and Alexander Varias. 2003. Tourist third cabin. New York: Palgrave MacMillan. 28-9.
4.  Wood, Ghislaine. "Traditional Motifs". Essential Art Deco. London: VA&A Publications. 21.
 5. Gallafent, Edward. 2000.  Astaire and Rogers.  New York: Columbia University. 18.
 6. Flying Down to Rio, VHS. Directed by Thorton Freeland. RKO Radio Pictures, 1933.
7.  Gallafent, Edward. 2000.  Astaire and Rogers.  New York: Columbia University. 16.
 8. Gallafent, Edward. 2000.  Astaire and Rogers.  New York: Columbia University. 14.
 















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