Choreographile Delight: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Dance on Air

Here at last on DVD are five of the 10 films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers inhabited, "chapters in a single epic romance" (per Arlene Croce) or a glorious serial dream of pearlescent hotel suites and vertiginous nightclubs. Certain farce elements recur (sham marriages, Edward Everett Horton), but the dancing is reliably fresh. It regularly crosses the line from intricate invention to word-beggaring beauty and has the power to reduce even the most casual choreographile—say, anyone with eyes—to grinning imbecility. And the singing (especially Astaire's meticulously, even strenuously crafted delivery) more than holds its own, with a songbook writ by the gods: Berlin, Gershwin, Kern. The standouts are the floating-world fantasy Top Hat (1935), the lovely Swing Time (1936), and the deeply weird 1937 treatment of the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction Shall We Dance (Ginger turned into flip book, mannequin, and masks, while Fred takes cues from machinery). Even the misfires—the baggy Follow the Fleet (1936) and the Technicolor reunion The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)—have their moments. Fleet's concluding "Let's Face the Music and Dance" comes from another planet; it's a whirlwind poem that knocks prior plot insipidities out of your head. And Barkleys' onstage swirl to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (Fred's vocal pinnacle, in Shall We Dance) isn't much, but the idea that we're at the end renders this dancing as crying, a thing of ghost and memory.

 
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