Austerlitz and McMath.
Frederick Austerlitz and Virginia McMath were just two young kids at first, both setting their sights on fame in vaudeville, Broadway, and finally Hollywood. But not together, of course. No, Fred started an act with his sister, Adele, who was considered the star of the two. Together they studied dancing and singing until they were ready to debut their act—after a small name change of “Austerlitz” to “Astaire.”
Shortly after that, their father got them a major contract with the famous Orpheum Circuit. Adele and Fred continued polishing and creating their act, slowly moving up the ranks. Fred even developed a friendship with George Gershwin, one which would serve both of their future careers. In the 1920s, the Astaires were on Broadway, and Fred was gaining notice as “the greatest tap-dancer in the world,” as quoted by Robert Benchley in 1930. 1932 brought the break-up of the team. Adele was going to get married, but Fred knew he had to keep going, especially while his star was still hot. And so, to Broadway and a show called “The Gay Divorce” he went…
Virginia, nicknamed “Ginger” as a kid and adopting her stepfather’s name “Rogers,” had a slightly different path. After winning a Charleston dance contest, she toured the theater circuits until she debuted on Broadway in 1929. She was quickly put into the Gershwins’ “Girl Crazy” and got to introduce the now-standard “Embraceable You” and "But Not for Me."
Paramount Pictures signed her as soon as they could. After only a few films, Ginger got out of her Paramount contract and went to work for other studios. 1933 was Ginger’s breakthrough year—she was cast as “Anytime Annie” in 42nd STREET, which led to a series of roles at Fox, Universal, Warner Bros. (where she made GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933), and RKO Radio Pictures. Little did she know what RKO had in store for her…
Fred, meanwhile, was a huge hit in “The Gay Divorce,” not only introducing “Night and Day” for the first time, but also showing audiences he could do just fine without his sister. Hollywood wanted him, and David O. Selznick signed him to RKO, which then lent him to MGM to play himself in the Joan Crawford-Clark Gable vehicle DANCING LADY. Back at RKO, the studio assigned him to FLYING DOWN TO RIO.
FLYING was typical fare in the 1930s. It was a musical with gorgeous women, a big love story, an exotic location, and outrageous ensemble dance numbers. But instead of fading in with the other musicals of its kind, FLYING sticks out for one, or rather two, reasons: Fred and Ginger. The two had met before, even dated a few times. Fred also had helped with choreography for “Girl Crazy.” But when they were on screen together, something ignited. They had unbelievable chemistry, and it didn’t hurt that they both had loads of charm. Their verbal banter was great, Fred matching Ginger’s sassiness with a cool wit. And then came the dance “The Carioca.” One word: fireworks. They stole the whole picture. Audiences everywhere saw it. Soon, RKO saw it, too. Astaire and Rogers must be put in another film together.
Fred was reluctant. He had finally established himself as a star outside of his sister’s orbit and he promptly wrote his agent “I don’t mind making another picture with her, but as for this ‘team’ idea, it’s out! I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.” Obviously, he was persuaded and the beautiful partnership of Astaire and Rogers was able to flesh itself out in nine more films: THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934), ROBERTA (1935), TOP HAT (1935), FOLLOW THE FLEET (1936), SWING TIME (1936), SHALL WE DANCE (1937), CAREFREE (1938), THE STORY OF VERNON AND IRENE CASTLE (1939), and finally, THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY (1949).
These films are unique in the way that they’re all well-made films. Some movie partnerships have certifiable duds, but I don’t think that’s the case with Fred and Ginger. The plots may be flimsy from time to time, but you don’t care. The sets are always fabulous. The music is simply incredible, usually written just for the film and becoming standards in their own right. The supporting characters are amusing and take up the right amount of screen time. The direction is never super fancy because the directors knew what the main attraction was. The verbal sparring between the two stars is always delightful, and, of course, the dancing is nothing short of superb.
It’s important to note that the Astaire-Rogers teaming did more than entertain millions—they revolutionized the Hollywood musical. Before they came along, musicals were all about the Busby Berkeley model: crazy outfits on beautiful chorus girls with various camera shots and edits, almost like a Picasso painting. But that wouldn’t fly with Mr. Astaire. He didn’t want the camera to do anything except look straight at him and follow his movements. That way, audiences got the whole picture and could see that there were no breaks or special tricks. His dances would be graceful, elegant, and more importantly, they’d serve the story. Interrupting the plot for some silly number would not do. Fred was granted complete control over the dances, so he made sure his numbers had a purpose. Take “Night and Day” from THE GAY DIVORCEE, for example. Up until this point, Ginger’s character has been avoiding Fred’s and wants to stay away from him. He starts singing to her, which seems to amuse her, but she still tries to walk away. Fred stops her and engages her in a dance of total seduction. Halfway through the routine you see her surrender to him, and by the end, you know she won’t be walking away from him again.
As a film fan, it’s really incredible to me that these two people could make so much magic in nine films, take a break, make other fantastic films, and then come back together ten years later to make their tenth and final film, with all their chemistry and talent still intact. A lot happened in those ten years for them, but THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY makes it seem like nothing changed. They’re still Fred and Ginger, they’re still going to burn the screen with their stardom, and they’re always going to be giving us moments of happiness.
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