Ginger and Fred: Hard to Handle

One of my favorite dances of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire’s is from the film, Roberta (1935). The dance is to the song, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”. Like their other dances, such as another favorite of mine, “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time (1935), the performance is one continual shot. Yet the energy about this particular dance has always made me feel it was the closest undertone of the working relationship that Rogers and Astaire had off screen. Take a look at the dance for yourself:

For the past 80 years, moviegoers and reporters have stated that Rogers and Astaire hated each other or were in a romantic relationship. Rogers said in an interview for an RKO documentary in 1987 (41:07-31 and 46:19-39) about the origin of the rumors from the publicity department and how much she adored Fred and he echoed the respect in 1970 (22:28-23:52) adding what their conversations during rehearsal were like. Though they went on a date in New York long before either arrived in Hollywood and achieved stardom (Ginger Rogers wrote about this in her autobiography), they never socialized together off screen despite their chemistry on screen, which has somehow made the dated rumor relevant. I personally believe that people can work together well for a project because they both share the same passion for the work but that doesn’t mean that they would be compatible or have similarities outside of work. Back to the dance…

Click for larger view

If you listened closely to the audio you’ll hear their laughs in between breaths. This was recorded directly from the boom, it wasn’t ADR. The joyful giggles and the taps you hear is what you see. In their other dances, chemistry exists but this one has a sort of playfulness. Watch how they constantly exchanged smiles, particularly when the other has a “solo” for lack of better word. It’s clear that they are having such a good time. My favorite part is at 2:41 when the music picks back up and their footwork becomes more energetic. Especially when what sounds like a musician exclaiming in excitement and Rogers throws her head back in joy as Astaire himself has an open mouthed smile. The ending as they collapse in the chairs features Astaire’s boyish laugh that’s sincere. Some may say, “Well, it’s a movie. They are pretending.” But I don’t know that I’d agree with that because yes, a dance can be learned to perform–but the sheer enjoyment that Rogers and Astaire emote cannot isn’t an imitation for the audience. You’ve heard the phrase that the camera doesn’t lie. I believe this dance is a testament to that overused phrase as Rogers and Astaire’s individual happiness to be dancing creates an intimate sequence in this film. There are times I forget that this number isn’t a filmed rehearsal inserted in post as a creative afterthought.

Regarding costume design, initially you may notice not only that they’re similar but those who felt Rogers’s hemlines covered her footwork will see her shoes are visible. I’ve been thinking about what makes the costumes for this dance so interesting. If you’ve seen the film you’ll recall Rogers’s character having an icy persona complete with a false accent in front of Astaire earlier. In this scene, her character doesn’t have to pose as a countess and can be herself with Astaire’s character who knew the truth the whole time but didn’t exploit it. There’s a of unity between the two immediately. Yet the costume’s differences reflect the character’s individuality. Rogers’s jumpsuit features the wide leg style that was featured in women’s trousers of the era as well as a bow at the neckline. While her shoes her difficult to see in the above photo, they certainly appear to be black oxfords with cutouts. Astaire’s costume is very similar to the signature style he’d maintain for many years afterward featuring the thin silk necktie tied at the side of his waist instead of a leather belt and the classy wing tip shoes that have a level of casual elegance.

The song itself was written three years earlier for the Broadway musical, Roberta. Rogers’s performance on the vocals you’ll notice aren’t her usual cheery pipes, because she was imitating Lyda Roberti who performed the song on stage. Since the film’s release the song had been recorded by other singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Ann Miller who also danced to it in the second adaption of the play in MGM 1952’s musical Lovely to Look At. For a more 1930s style, I like this version by Emil Coleman and his Orchestra.

What is your favorite dance performed by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire? Alternatively, what dancing duo do you think had a genuine chemistry on screen?

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