The romantic musicals that paired Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the mid-1930s did much to rescue the financially troubled RKO studio from the bankruptcy it had declared in the depths of the Great Depression. From The Gay Divorcee (1934) to Swing Time (1936) the six movies in which they starred all made handsome profits. The most lucrative of these, Top Hat, broke box-office records at Radio City, taking $350,000 in its first three weeks, and was the second-highest grossing film of 1935. In the respected Quigley poll of Hollywood's top box-office stars, Astaire and Rogers ranked fourth in 1935, third in 1936, and seventh in 1937 (all years when Shirley Temple was at number one).
Among the first to blend musical duets and solos into the unfolding relationships of the principal characters, the Astaire/Rogers films mediate notions of selfhood, sexuality and national identity. The glamour and charm of the central couple, the dazzling décor, and the brilliance of the song and dance routines projected the wish-fulfilment fantasies of Depression-audiences. In some of their best films – The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance – the couple's personification of wide-ranging questions of self and society is nuanced by the contribution of the comic secondary character players such as Helen Broderick, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Victor Moore, who refine the ideology of individual or national identity and, especially, of romantic love through badinage, displays of affection and comic turns. Honouring a tradition found in stage as well as film comedy that gently mocks the high-fl own fantasies of the lovers, the secondary characters in the Astaire/Rogers films sometimes additionally gesture to the hardships of the Depression, as when in Swing Time the famished ‘Pop’ (Victor Moore) wolfs the club sandwich brought for her lunch by Mabel (Helen Broderick), or when, in the same film, the Dance Academy director (Eric Blore) threatens everyone with the sack if they do not step up to the mark.
Described by Arlene Croce as a ‘key film’, and by John Mueller as the film that established Astaire and Rogers as a team, Roberta features none of the comic secondary performers found in the aforementioned films.