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By 1937, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had made seven films together, and were among the country's top box office attractions. But both of them were anxious to break out on their own and escape their identity as a screen team. Rogers in particular did not want to do only musicals, and was eager to try drama. So RKO reluctantly agreed to let them take a break and work separately. Astaire made A Damsel in Distress (1937), with a non-dancing co-star, Joan Fontaine, and Rogers made three non-musical films, including the critically acclaimed Stage Door (1937). Although Rogers' role in that film, a wisecracking showgirl who rooms with rich-girl actress Katharine Hepburn, was primarily comic, there was plenty of drama in the film and Rogers was finally being taken seriously as an actress.
Carefree (1938), Astaire and Rogers' reunion film, was different from their previous collaborations. Closer in style to a screwball comedy than a musical, with only four musical numbers, Carefree focuses more on Rogers' character than on Astaire's. It's also the shortest Astaire-Rogers film, at 83 minutes. Rogers plays a radio singer who is reluctant to commit to marriage, so her boyfriend, Ralph Bellamy (in his standard boy-who-loses-the-girl role), takes her to psychiatrist Astaire to find out why. Naturally, Astaire and Rogers sing, dance, and fall in love to Irving Berlin tunes such as "Change Partners and Dance with Me," which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Song. (The film was also nominated for Best Scoring and Best Art direction.)
The musical numbers were different, too. Astaire rarely lifted his partner in dances. In Carefree, he does so to great effect in two numbers, "I Used to be Color Blind," and "The Yam." In her autobiography, Rogers takes credit for coming up with the idea for the all-around-the-room lifts in the latter; dance critic Arlene Croce, in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, credits choreographer Hermes Pan. "I Used to be Color Blind" also contains a first for an Astaire-Rogers film: a kiss, a major lip-lock which seems to go on forever since it's played in slow motion. The lack of kisses in their previous screen romances was due to one of Astaire's quirks. He had an aversion to what he called "mushy love scenes," and thought it would be "somewhat novel" to confine their lovemaking to the dances. Then rumors began that Astaire's wife wouldn't let him kiss onscreen, or that he and Rogers disliked each other. So Astaire agreed to the long and languid smooch, "to make up for all the kisses I had not given Ginger for all those years." Another first was planned for Carefree, but never happened. It was supposed to be filmed in color -- hence, the "I Used to be Color Blind" number. But at the last moment, RKO decided color would be too expensive.
In spite of having the opportunity to use her comedy talents in Carefree, Rogers was unhappy about being forced to work again with director Mark Sandrich, who had directed four previous Astaire-Rogers films. She felt Sandrich bullied and patronized her and favored Astaire, and RKO had promised that Sandrich would never again be assigned to direct her. The studio mollified her with a raise, her favorite cinematographer, Robert de Grasse, and other concessions. And after Carefree, she never had to work with Sandrich again.
Carefree proved that the Astaire-Rogers magic was still potent. But as Arlene Croce wrote, "it is very much the twilight movie of the Astaire-Rogers series." There would be one more at RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), then Astaire left the studio, and Rogers went on to a non-musical career, earning an Academy Award for her performance in Kitty Foyle (1940). Their final RKO film would have been their last together, had not Judy Garland bowed out of The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) ten years later; instead, the movies' most popular dance team reunited for one last hurrah.
Director: Mark Sandrich
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Allan Scott, Ernest Pagano; story and adaptation by Dudley Nichols & Hagar Wilde, based on an original idea by Marian Ainslee & Guy Endore
Editor: William Hamilton
Cinematography: Robert de Grasse
Costume Design: Edward Stevenson, Howard Greer
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Victor Baravalle; Songs by Irving Berlin
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Tony Flagg), Ginger Rogers (Amanda Cooper), Ralph Bellamy (Stephen Arden), Luella Gear (Aunt Cora), Jack Carson (Connors), Clarence Kolb (Judge Travers), Franklin Pangborn (Roland Hunter).
BW-84m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri