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The legacy of Ginger Rogers, who would have turned 112 this week

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ginger Rogers, the late legendary actor and dancer from Hollywood's golden age, would have turned 112 this week. And that seems like a fine reason to let critic Bob Mondello wax nostalgic about Rogers dancing cheek to cheek with Fred Astaire.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Fred and Ginger danced America through the Great Depression - no reason they shouldn't dance us through this, he suave and ever eager; she reluctant at first but then going along in "Swing Time," say, where Ginger's a tap instructor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

FRED ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Miss Carroll, I want to show Mr. Gordon how much you've just taught me.

GINGER ROGERS: (As Penny Carroll) No, never mind.

MONDELLO: She's just gotten fired because of something Fred did. He's trying to make it right with her boss, Mr. Gordon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Now, how did you say that last step went?

MONDELLO: Fred's a professional dancer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Oh, yes.

MONDELLO: Ginger didn't know that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOES TAPPING)

MONDELLO: Now she does, and her face lights up.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SWING TIME")

ASTAIRE: (As Lucky Garnett) Shall we try it right through? Won't you sit down, Mr. Gordon?

MONDELLO: Several minutes of sheer bliss ensue - Fred dapper, charming and a stunning tap dancer; Ginger, as is often noted, doing everything he does but backwards and in heels.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOES TAPPING)

MONDELLO: "Swing Time" was the sixth of their 10 films together, and it's more or less perfect of its type, with a bunch of terrific numbers for the two of them, including one in tux and evening gown where he says that having danced with her, he'll never dance again. And for a moment, holding hands, they just walk around the dance floor, a few seconds longer than you think you can stand it. And then he steps slightly sideways, and she leans into his shoulder. And my God.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: Of course they dance the nation's depression away in both the economic and emotional senses. Movies were the cheapest form of entertainment back then, and escape on-screen meant extravagance, romance and stories slight enough to get out of the way...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE BARKLEYS OF BROADWAY")

ASTAIRE: (As Josh Barkley) All right. Go.

MONDELLO: ...When the conductor gave a downbeat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: This is from "The Barkleys Of Broadway," a 1949 star vehicle that was the only Astaire-Rogers film in color and the last time they danced together. The first time some 16 years earlier, they were bit players in a forgettable piece of fluff called "Flying Down To Rio," their spot a specialty number when the characters were stuck at a nightclub without a ride back.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ROGERS: (As Honey Hale) Just how much does it cost to get home from here?

MONDELLO: The band was playing a Latin dance, the carioca.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ASTAIRE: (As Fred Ayres) I'd like to try this thing just once.

MONDELLO: Not really in their wheelhouse, but...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FLYING DOWN TO RIO")

ASTAIRE: (As Fred Ayres) Come on, honey.

ROGERS: (As Honey Hale) We'll show them a thing or three.

MONDELLO: She's in a dress that bounces at the hem. He's in a jacket and tie. And for the next two minutes on screen, they do a lot of stomping. You would not guess that this number would launch a partnership lasting 10 movies, but it does look like they're having fun. Oddly, they dance most of the carioca with their foreheads pressed together, dancing not cheek to cheek but brow to brow. Anyway, audiences liked it, and the rest is history and herstory, especially her gowns. They got more and more elaborate - feathers enough to fill a down comforter when dancing cheek to cheek. And that beaded number for "Let's Face The Music And Dance" in "Follow The Fleet"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOLLOW THE FLEET")

ASTAIRE: (As Bake Baker, singing) There may be trouble ahead.

MONDELLO: There was trouble with the dress. The beading was gorgeous, but it weighed so much that once the skirt started moving, it kept going. You can see them posing briefly at the end of spins so her hem can twirl around her legs...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOLLOW THE FLEET")

ASTAIRE: (As Bake Baker, singing) Let's face the music and dance.

MONDELLO: ...And then twirl back, freeing her to take the next step.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FOLLOW THE FLEET")

ASTAIRE: (As Bake Baker, singing) Before the fiddlers have fled...

MONDELLO: You can find most of their dance numbers online and watch them by themselves, but don't. You miss the tension that builds up between the Fred and Ginger characters that way. In every movie, their relationship was prickly, his insistence meeting her resistance. And when the emotions built to the point that they could no longer be contained, they erupted in song and dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED ASTAIRE SONG, "NIGHT AND DAY")

MONDELLO: I understood that in a personal way. My folks had a sometimes abrasive relationship when I was small. Barbs were traded, sadly not as funny as in the movies. But on a dance floor, which could be just kitchen linoleum if the right song came on the radio, Mom and Dad were so in-tune, so graceful. I remember one New Year's party when Mom wore a long dress, Dad a dark suit. And when they joined the other couples dancing, after a few seconds, everyone backed away to watch them, just like in a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie - barbs forgotten, everything just...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Heaven - I'm in heaven. And the cares that hung around me through the week seem to vanish like a gambler's lucky streak.

MONDELLO: Fred and Ginger made the world's troubles vanish in the 1930s for Depression-era audiences, at least for a couple of hours. What do you think? Can they do it again? I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FRED ASTAIRE SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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