Flying Down to Rio (1933) headlined Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond, but it was the fourth- and fifth-billed stars who would rewrite cinematic history. Astaire and Rogers had limited screen time, but were still able to establish many of the trademarks of their later films. The heart of the film is "The Carioca," a company dance extravaganza in which they take the floor together for the first time; their eyes meet and their foreheads touch. Their dance lasts only a few minutes, but it was the highlight of the film and audiences wanted more. The Gay Divorcee (1934) is their best early picture, a loose adaptation of Astaire's stage show, The Gay Divorce. The only song retained for the movie is Cole Porter's smash hit "Night and Day," which is the setting for a sublime pas de deux between Fred and Ginger. The closer is the sprawling 17-minute ensemble number "The Continental." Roberta (1935) was a step backward, with too much time spent on 1930s Parisian fashion and the romance between top-billed Irene Dunne (who gets the best Jerome Kern ballads, "Yesterdays" and "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes") and Randolph Scott. But as the second-banana couple Astaire and Rogers still get a tap battle, a romantic duet, and plenty of comic banter.
The eighth and ninth entries in the series tried some different approaches, with the underrated Carefree (1938) more of a comedy vehicle for Ginger (yet still including some fine dances and Irving Berlin songs as well as their first onscreen kiss) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) portraying the pair as historical dancing stars and using a score of turn-of-the-century standards. --David Horiuchi