G-Rated Romance You Can Show the Kids
By Joseph Gelmis
Newsday March 18, 1990, Page 8
Can you imagine Jeff Bridges and Michelle Pfeiffer making a G-rated romantic comedy? No way. But a half-century ago, when graphic sex and violence and strong language were taboo in Hollywood, movies intended for adults had to be suitable for kids as well.
The most popular screen lovers of the mid-'30s, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, didn't disrobe, grapple or talk dirty. They traded wisecracks, and they danced. And in their exhilarating dance routines they suggested every nuance of romantic love, from flirtation through sexual fulfillment.
I recently introduced my 9-year-old daughter to Fred and Ginger, during a marathon encounter with five of the best Astaire and Rogers musicals. The movies - "Flying Down to Rio," "The Gay Divorcee," "Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" and "Swing Time" - were just reissued by Turner Home Entertainment on its RKO / Turner label.
Turner's "Kick Up Your Heels and Dance" home video promotion also includes a dozen lesser swing era musicals - including Frank Sinatra's screen debut in "Higher and Higher," and "A Damsel in Distress," which features Astaire without Rogers. All of the Turner / RKO video transfers were made from good prints and recorded at the superior SP (standard play) speed. The suggested list price is $ 19.98, and Walden Books, Tower Video and RKO Warner carry them.
In their first movie, 'FLYING DOWN TO RIO' (1933), Ginger and Fred were second bananas to Gene Raymond and Dolores del Rio. But their blithe good humor and dazzling hoofing in "The Carioca" made them instant stars; they were immediately teamed by RKO in 'THE GAY DIVORCEE' (1934), which set the pattern for their future screen relationship.
Typically, Ginger is wary of men, resents come-ons, plays hard to get. Fred falls in love at first sight and pursues her. But she punctures his ego, parries his advances. Until they dance. After dancing with him - to "Night and Day" in "Gay Divorcee, " to "Isn't This a Lovely Day (To Be Caught in the Rain)" in "Top Hat," to "Pick Yourself Up" in "Swing Time" (when he pretends to be a klutz so Ginger can teach him how to dance) - she's hooked. They are made for each other: He's a sublime dancer, and, as his partner, she complements and completes him.
In 'TOP HAT' (1935), Ginger hears Fred before she sees him. Astaire does an impromptu tap dance in a hotel room. Ginger is sleeping in the room below. Plaster flakes fall on her. She goes upstairs to complain, meets Fred. Again, he's instantly smitten, and she sinks barbs into him. They return to their rooms. He spreads sand on the floor and does a soft shoe dance, to lull her to sleep. In her bed, she smiles, recognizing what he's up to, thinking he's amusing.
"Top Hat" is the most elegantly graceful movie musical of the 1930s, with its bigger-than-life art deco sets, its mistaken-identity romp, its heckling matches between goofy Edward Everett Horton and exasperated Eric Blore, its Irving Berlin songs, its stunning use of high contrast black-and-white images (Astaire in black tux, blonde Rogers in white gowns).
'SWING TIME' (1936) is more cluttered, less comical, a darker film with Fred as a compulsive gambler. But the Jerome Kern songs are wonderful, especially "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight." In ' SHALL WE DANCE' (1937), the songs ("They All Laughed," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off") are by George and Ira Gershwin. Fred is an American ballet dancer pretending to be a Russian, Petrov. He's the ultimate romantic. A few minutes into the movie, Astaire shows Horton, his impresario, a flip book of Ginger, a vaudeville star, dancing and announces: "I haven't even met her, but I'd kinda like to marry her."
My 9-year-old loved meeting Fred and Ginger. Georgia thought Rogers was beautiful but at first sight of Astaire blurted out, "He looks like a skeleton."
After Fred danced, Georgia, like Ginger, changed her mind. "He's still too thin," she whispered, "but it doesn't matter any more."
CAPTION: Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in "Top Hat', a Turner Home Entertainment reissue.
© 1990 Newsday, Inc.