Monday, December 24, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Carefree'


I must admit I have a soft spot for “Carefree,” the eighth film with Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers and the first after a 15-month break.

“Carefree” is a breezy, fun film that works like a screwball comedy with music than what is expected from an Astaire/Rogers film. Even the look sets it apart from what had come before, ditching the art deco and urban glitter for wood and fieldstone, replacing swanky nightclubs with a country club.

Astaire plays Tony Flagg, a psychiatrist approached by friend Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy), who is having some problems with his fiancé Amanda Cooper (Rogers). Amanda initially rejects Tony as a quack but ultimately falls for him. Tony tries to get Amanda to refocus on Stephen but is drawn to her after she fabricates an elaborate recurring dream in order to continue seeing him.

“Carefree” reunites several key players from the Astaire/Rogers series, including Irving Berlin and director Mark Sandrich. Ginger was not happy that Sandrich was directing again, and she felt he treated her as a supporting member of the team. However, Ginger loved the role of Amanda, and it was a substantial one. She made three films during the break – “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn, which didn’t make money but was a hit with the critics; “Having Wonderful Time” with Douglas Fairbanks Jr.; and “Vivacious Lady,” opposite Jimmy Stewart, a delightful romantic comedy that demonstrated that Ginger didn’t need Fred to succeed in films. “Carefree” is really Ginger’s film, allowing her comedic abilities to shine, and it’s telling that the movie was renamed “Amanda” for its European release. 
 

Both Fred and Ginger were eager for the break. It wasn’t that they disliked each other; each wanted to demonstrate his/her individual abilities. Ginger succeeded; Fred less so. While he had spent his career first on stage with his sister Adele at his side and on film with Ginger at his side, Fred didn’t choose well for his first starring film role without either. “A Damsel in Distress” has its charming moments, but it plays like a Fred and Ginger film – minus Ginger. Joan Fontaine, in her first big role, isn’t a singer or dancer and looks lost in this film, and it only emphasizes how much the audience wishes she was Ginger. The film should have been far different in order to demonstrate what Fred was capable of, despite his doing some terrific solos. Thankfully that would come later.

So Fred and Ginger are back together in “Carefree,” and both are in terrific. The film was supposed to be filmed in color, and Berlin actually changed lyrics in songs to emphasize color. Unfortunately, due to cost, the idea of color was scrapped, so both Fred and Ginger would have to wait for their first color film appearances.

The first big number in “Carefree” is a marvelous Fred solo, one of his best in the series. “Since They Turned ‘Loch Lomond’ into Swing” puts Fred on the golf course and manages to incorporate golf clubs and some perfect golf drives. It’s one of Fred’s favorites and, like most of his solos, pure delight to watch. 
 

“I Used to Be Color Blind” would have been sensational in color (two of my books contain conflicting facts – one says a test of this sequence was filmed in color but it didn’t turn out, while another states color was vetoed before any filming began). Still, it’s marvelous to watch. It’s actually a number that Amanda dreams about, and the trick here is that it is filmed in slow motion. It’s a number filled with more lifts and jumps than most of the Fred and Ginger numbers as they move through a dreamy garden and over streams, the slow motion often leaving them airborne. The segment captures the pure joy of their movements and the expressions on their faces register that joy. The dance ends with a long kiss – actually a short peck extended due to the slow motion. It’s a rare occurrence in a Fred and Ginger film, because the dances always represented any physical displays of affection or passion. 
 

Ginger said Fred didn’t think much of “The Yam,” which is why she sings it initially before they begin dancing. This is the big production number, and it was created to cash in on such popular dances as the Big Apple and the Lambeth Walk. Although the name probably sank its popular appeal, it’s a tremendous sequence in the film as it physically moves in and out and back inside the country club, starting between the stars, engaging all of the guests. It then climaxes with a breathtaking display of physicality as Fred extends one leg onto various pieces of furniture around the room and then lifts Ginger as she leaps across his leg, the two flying around the room until the number ends.

Perhaps the best song in the film is the lovely “Change Partners,” which begins with Fred singing to Ginger as they dance with different partners across a crowded dance floor. Once alone outside, he entrances her in a lovely dance that is simply done. Such straightforward elegance is what the story demands at this point, and it’s that elegance that has always defined them and is what the audience wants.

The supporting cast may be new to the series but they are in fine form, including Jack Carson, Bellamy and Luella Gear.

Even though “Carefree” may not be considered by some one of the duo’s best films, I think it is underestimated. The tight story, marvelous numbers and confident performances from Fred and Ginger make this one a winner. Unfortunately, the end was drawing near for this dynamic duo for a number of reasons. First, Sandrich, unable to negotiate a better contract with RKO, left to set up a production deal at Paramount. Second, RKO – the major studio that seemed to teeter on the brink of financial ruin more often than the other major studio – was suffering once again. Third, because of the 15-month break, Fred and Ginger fell out of the top ten box office draws by the end of 1938, and while “Carefree” made money, it wasn’t the smash that earlier films were. Fourth, since Ginger had proven herself during the break, RKO was viewing her as one of its top stars and wanted to use her as such.

But Fred and Ginger still had one more film left before the end of the decade, and it would be very different from what they had made before. 

23 comments:

  1. CFB, I have enjoyed your Fred & Ginger reviews tremendously. Your assessment of CAREFREE as "breezy fun" is right at target--really, what's not to like about this Astaire-Rogers outing? It may lack a classic production number (e.g. "Cheek to Cheek" in TOP HAT), but that doesn't keep the charm from flowing. Interesting to learn that it was originally intended to be made in color.

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    1. Hi Rick, I'm glad you like the series and this film. I've always been fond of it, and while you are right, it doesn't have the classic production number, story-wise it is stronger than many of their films, and Ginger really shines in this one.

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  2. Filmboy, it's clear from your post how much you like this film in the Astaire-Rogers filmography, probably, as you acknowledge, more than most do. (I'm the same way about "Shall We Dance.") I thought your detailed descriptions of the dance numbers were especially interesting. I agree that "Change Partners" is the best song in the film, actually the only one that really stays with me. The idea of this film in color is a fascinating one, especially in view of "I Used to Be Color Blind."

    Probably the thing that has always bothered me the most about the film is the idea of Fred Astaire as a psychiatrist, which doesn't seem to me a comfortable fit with his breezy screen image. And unlike other Astaire-Rogers films that aren't at the top of the heap, this one doesn't have one big number that really lifts it up for me (like "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in "Follow the Fleet" or "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" in "Shall We Dance"). Still, the film has enough good qualities to make it interesting, and not just to fans of Astaire and Rogers.

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    1. Thanks, R.D. Always appreciate your insights. "The Yam" is really a terrific number; it's a shame that the song itself and the title are forgettable, but the dance is not. Had the song been better, I think this dance would be considered one of their best ones.

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  3. Classicfilmboy - I agree with you. The critics never liked this film but I too find it a lot of fun, and as one of the last Fred and Ginger RKO musicals, it deserves to be considered a classic in its own right.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. Glad you enjoy the film and I hope others will give it another look.

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  4. Great review, Classicfilmboy. I really like this film although it doesn't have enough song and dance numbers - must agree that'Change Partners' is a standout number, and the opening when Fred sings across the room to Ginger is especially wonderful.

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    1. Hi Judy, glad you stopped by. It's interesting that both "Shall We Dance" and "Carefree" suffer from the feeling that they don't have enough dance numbers. Still, "Change Partners" is terrific, and I agree that Fred singing the song to Ginger at the beginning of the number is wonderful.

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  5. I love all of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers romantic/musical/ comedies. Although, not many musical numbers, this romantic film showcases some of their best dancing. Ginger Rogers, as always.. is stunning and Astaire's feet, never seem to touch the ground. Definitely, their most underrated film.

    It has been awhile since I have enjoyed this film.. I may have to pop it into the player later today..

    Happy New Year!!

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    1. Thanks, Dawn. This is a great film to ring in the new year ... hope you pop it into the player soon!

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  6. I like Carefree a lot, CFB. You are quite right that the story is more than usually interesting, Ginger was hilarious, and my gosh "Change Partners" is a beautiful number! It's too bad that Fred did that awful Damsel in Distress. I guess it just wasn't time yet for him to show all that he could do -- that had to wait until he was older. Enjoyed this as always!

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    1. Thanks, CB. Good to see you and glad you enjoy this one.

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  7. CFB, You've convinced me that it's time to take another look at "Carefree." As I read, I realized that I've watched much more often and am more familiar with the pair's earlier (before "Carefree," "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle," "The Barkleys of Broadway") films. Your enthusiasm is infectious and your description of the "Change Partners" number reminded me how much I like it - and I'll be revisiting "Carefree" very soon. Thanks!

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    1. Thank you, TLE. I definitely suggest another look at this one.

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  8. I like this one too, though I've always suspected that the reason The Yam didn't become a dance sensation was one partner lifting the other over the knee.

    I also like the whole bit with the Tyrolean hat. It's little things like that that make 1930s musicals and comedies so much fun.

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    1. Ha! You are right, although perhaps a less strenuous version of The Yam would be quite acceptable. I agree about the little things ... films today have forgotten that little things do count.

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  9. CFB,
    No, "Carefree" isn't the most memorable of the Astaire/Rogers union but it does stand on it's own as very entertaining. I can't name one thing wrong with it but perhaps I'm partial when it comes to the duo.

    You've given us another honest and well thought out review here. I haven't seen an Astaire musical in awhile but this puts me in the mood for one.

    Happy New Year, Brian. Wishing you and your family all great things in 2013.
    Page

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    1. Hi Page, Glad you like the movie. It is a fun one. I hope you also have a great 2013!

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  10. I simply love the fred and ginger series. Never get bored of these

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    1. Thank you for the comment! Always good to find another Fred and Ginger fan.

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  11. I want to say your blog is very great. I usually like to read some thing new about this because I’ve the comparable blog in my Country on this subject so this help’s me a lot.

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  12. Once they go outside after the change partners song ...'Tony' sings another song...Can you tell me the name...It seemed it was something like 'When I dance with you..." but not certain. The words to that song really touched me!

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