Viewed objectively, the partnership of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shouldn’t have worked. He was lighter than air and obsessed with dance; she was a solid apple-cheeked chorus girl-type who wanted to prove herself as a dramatic actress. Technically, she was not up to his standard in the way of later partners like Eleanor Powell and Cyd Charisse. Rogers would be shooting other movies while Astaire rehearsed their dance numbers with choreographer Hermes Pan, and she’d have to come in to learn a dance that hadn’t been set on her originally. To top things off, they didn’t really like each other much in real life.
Yet on screen they’re magical. Why? Katharine Hepburn’s famous comment about how Astaire gave Rogers class and she gave him sex is true, if glib. Aside from a certain unexplainable X factor that has to do with the right place (RKO) at the right time (the mid-‘30s), I’d say that their big dramatic dances work so beautifully because Astaire recognized the large disappointment behind Rogers’s seemingly unflappable reserve. Perhaps he had little use for her off screen, but on screen he responds sensitively to her hidden pain. The way he danced away her doubts is among the most moving (and most narcotically elating) images in film. Her barely perceptible awkwardness as a dancer paid off for the audience. After seeing them together, every woman wanted to dance with Fred Astaire, and Rogers made them feel that they could.
Top Hat is their archetypal movie. Every musical number works, and the mistaken identity plot is pleasant enough, even if there’s too much emphatic dithering from the supporting players toward the end (Eric Blore is a pain, but Helen Broderick’s sour tolerance still gets laughs). Astaire’s first solo, “No Strings,” is wonderfully suited to his breezy style. His loud tapping wakes up Rogers, who is in the suite below his, and he makes it up to her by scattering some sand on the floor and putting her to sleep with some slow, caressing steps (one of the most romantic moments in their films). Their courtship is charming, especially in their superb “Isn’t It A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain” number. But nothing can top “Cheek To Cheek,” perhaps their best romantic dance. Rogers’s feather dress makes her seem as if she’s floating, especially when Astaire ends the dance with some lifts and a dreamy backbend. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo excerpts this number when Mia Farrow’s movie-mad character is ready to give up on life. Whenever I see “Cheek To Cheek,” I cannot get Farrow’s shy, hopeful face out of my mind. She stands in for all the Depression audiences who, like drug users, escaped into dream-world movies like Top Hat.