After a string of masterpieces between 1935 and 1937, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were ready for a break. Neither one of them had been looking for a partnership in the first place, and it was time to prove they didn't need each other for success.

Ginger ended up starring in three films without Fred in 1937 and 1938, with the biggest hit artistically, commercially and personally being Stage Door, where she performed opposite then-Bright Young Thing Katharine Hepburn. For his part, Astaire appeared in A Damsel in Distress, one of the most notorious musicals of the decade, a flop in 1937 that is remembered primarily for Joan Fontaine's utter failure in her one and only singing role.

When the team was inevitably reunited after more than a year apart, it should therefore be unsurprising that it stands out in their RKO cycle for two interrelated reasons: first, that it is the only film in which Ginger is the focal point of the plot, and second, that it is by far the most overtly comedic of them all. Every one of the 7 films the duo had made thus far was a musical comedy; Carefree, by contrast, feels much more like a comedy with a couple of dance numbers mixed-in.

In addition to the fact that the comedienne Ginger was suddenly the bigger name, I half wonder if there might be a second reason for this apparent generic shift. Remember, 1938 was just about the first year in which one could release an honest-to-god screwball comedy and know what that phrase meant. And while Carefree is a far sight from the comedies of Howard Hawks - certainly Mark Sandrich, directing the team for the last time, was much more of a classicist and far less comfortable with manic pacing than his colleague - it's easily the most bent of the Astaire-Rogers cycle.

This is going to be intolerably academic even by my standards, but probably the clearest way the film lies with the screwball tradition and not the RKO musical tradition lies in its representation of psychoanalysis; which is to say, it has one. For the first time in his career, Fred is not playing a dancer, or a band-leader, or a band-member, or any such thing. Here, he is Dr. Tony Flagg, a psychiatrist who is investigating Ginger's Amanda Cooper to learn why she is so reluctant to marry her fiancé, Ralph Bellamy (played by Ralph Bellamy - I imagine he has an actual character name, but he's playing the quintessential Ralph Bellamy role here: a impossible bore who is not desirable so much as safe, and whom the heroine leaves the instant she encounters another man).

The possibility of the actually insane comic heroine (and it's always the female lead, never the male lead) is something that originated with the screwball genre, and even though it's established immediately that Amanda is perfectly fine, the plot revolves around her psychiatric treatment by Tony. It is simply impossible to imagine something like this prior to 1936 or so, and it definitely leaves Carefree closer in temperament to Bringing Up Baby than Top Hat.

So: Carefree is a screwball comedy. And not a half-bad one: perhaps a bit contrived in the plot department, but that's part-and-parcel for '30s comedies as a whole, and screwball comedies in particular. It is shocking to consider, though, that a story in which two major plot points hinge on a patient under hypnosis escaping from her doctor still manages to qualify as the least-contrived plot in the Astaire-Rogers canon to this point.

It's also the best chance Ginger had in several films to stretch her comic chops - which, if my hunch was correct - was entirely the point. Her career with Fred, coupled with her post-Fred urge to star in dramas tends to obscure the very real fact that she was one of the 1930s' best screen comediennes. I know I've said that before, but it's the last chance I'll get to do so. She's not at her absolute peak here - reteaming with Fred seems to have been a greater indignity for her than for him - but I love it anyway. Your mileage may vary, as a function of your tolerance for screwball.

All this means that it's a bit "off" as a Fred & Ginger movie, and that's perhaps reflected in the general indifference paid to this film at the box-office: not a failure, certainly not like A Damsel in Distress, but pretty far from the heights of the cycle. But box-office reception is beyond my current scope. What I would instead focus on is how different it feels: there is not a drop of art deco to be found anywhere, it takes place in just a handful of locations. It's not as elegant. That's a loaded thing to say because it's vague, but it's still true: there aren't so many cocktail hours and cabarets here. In fact, there aren't any cocktail hours or cabarets at all, and if not for a single dinner party, we'd never see Fred in a white tie and tails. I would call this a horrible development, but I am a sensitive, wasting soul.

What's really obvious is the change in dance numbers. Specifically, that there are only four of them (five, really, but the short Astaire solo number "Carefree" hardly counts at all), and of these, only two are really significant additions to the series. To start with the other ones: Fred gets a proper solo dance in the instrumental "Since They Turned Loch Lomond into Swing," and it's very technically impressive and all that, to watch him tap-dance as he drives rows of golf balls very precisely across a driving range. But there's no emotional core to it, and the golfing gimmick serves mostly to limit how exuberant his dance could be. It's the sort of thing where one nods in understanding that one is impressed, rather than just, y'know, being impressed. The last number in the film, "Change Partners," is extremely beautiful as a song (by Irving Berlin, along with the others, and Oscar-nominated), and the central concept that Fred directs Ginger while she's hypnotized makes it kind of dreamy and surreal; but the dance itself is wholly unimaginative and simple: sort of "walk here in time to the music, then spin, then walk back." Plus, it's only about 70 seconds long.

The good: Berlin wrote a novelty song called "The Yam" that Fred hated, leaving vocal duties to Ginger, and honestly, it's not that great. But the dance that goes along with it is a lot of fun. It's the screwball number, basically: Ginger needs to keep Fred nailed down, so she tricks him into dancing with her. It's the one chance in the film to see her doing that "acting while dancing" thing that made her Fred's best partner, and it's the one chance to see him doing that acrobatic "my feet aren't on the ground for minutes at a time" thing that made him the cinema's best dancer.

The best number, however, is the dream sequence (!) "I Used To Be Color Blind." This is the great lost chance of the film: it was originally to be shot in Technicolor, but a late-game budget pinch shelved that idea. This tends to leave the lyrics about the wonderful colors Fred sees when Ginger's around a little embarrassing, as does the obviously-not-designed-for-black-and-white fantasy set that the whole thing takes place on.

But what a dance! It's the only time in their career that they danced together in slow-motion (dream sequence, yo), and it's one of the exceedingly few uses of slow-motion in cinema history that isn't awful. Ginger wears needlessly gauzy, drapey things, and Fred spins her around a great deal, and it's beautiful. And brilliantly-choreographed: the dancing is in perfect time to the music, altered speed and all. This was to be the last film for which Fred would design choreography for himself and Ginger, and he went out with a bang.

Yes! The last! Carefree was no flop, like I said, but it only took in $1.7 million on a $1.25 million budget. Their next film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, would do slightly better; but the days of Top Hat were gone. But that's a story for another review. For now, let me end by saying that I believe Carefree to be the most underrated of their films, perhaps the funniest, and a satisfying (if sad) farewell to "Fred & Ginger." Two more films would follow, but The Formula ended here.

That semi-circle that was always hanging about
Is not a storm cloud, its a rainbow
And you brought the colors out

Believe me its really true
Till I met you I never knew
A setting sun could paint such beautiful skies.