Fred Astaire: Hollywood’s Leading Gentleman
“The history of dance on film begins with Astaire.” — Gene Kelly
“Balding. Can’t sing. Dances a little.”
This was what a studio executive at RKO wrote after he failed to be impressed by the screen test of a young dancer, fresh from the Broadway stage, named Fred Astaire. The year was 1933, and the 24-year-old had been in Hollywood trying to land a contract after his sister and dance partner for more than some 20 years, Adele, had retired from the stage to get married.
Born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire started entertaining as a child, in Vaudeville with his sister, Adele. Adele & Fred had been teenagers when they burst onto Broadway. Just 18 months apart in age, the talented twosome created a delightful musical comedy act that made them a natural for such Broadway shows as George Gershwin’s musical Lady Be Good. Gershwin and the Astaires, in fact, were personal friends. They would introduce, on stage, a number of Gershwin classics. (Fun fact: Astaire starred in Gershwin’s Funny Face in 1927, and would reprise the role 30 years later opposite Audrey Hepburn in the film adaptation of Funny Face.)
“I do not know whether Gershwin was born into this world to write rhythms for Fred Astaire’s feet or whether Fred Astaire was born into this world to show how the Gershwin music should really be danced.” — Alexander Woollcott
It’s very important to make this point clear: Fred & Adele were major entertainers during the 1920s. Major. In fact, if you lived during the jazz age and were into popular culture, you probably had a recording or two of theirs in your home. Adele was the more popular of the two, which suited Fred just fine as he had more time to focus on creating routines.
This is what makes the fact that Fred Astaire, an internationally renowned singer and dancer, failed his screen test so surprising. But RKO’s young and ambitious studio head, David O. Selznick, saw through Astaire’s less-than-ideal leading man looks. In fact, Selznick, who is even today famous for his memos, wrote: “I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test.”
Ouch. Well. Thankfully Astaire soon proved that his “enormous ears” (they’re perfectly fine) and his “bad chin line” (with all due respect, Mr. Selznick, but who are you to talk) paled into nothingness by the sheer weight of his talent. We happen to love his funny face, thank you very much.
Perhaps one of Astaire’s biographer put it best when he wrote, “Something in the name [Astaire] suggests brilliance, dazzle. Astaire implies ‘a star’; so, too, a stairway (‘with a new step every day.’).”
His first screen appearance was in a glossy MGM musical starring Joan Crawford, Dancing Lady (1933), and he was soon ushered into production on another film, Flying Down to Rio (1933), where he was, again, a supporting player. But so was a pretty young blonde named Ginger Rogers who, like Astaire, had made it big on Broadway and had been able to leverage that into a career in the movies. A fixture in such backstage musical extravaganzas as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, Rogers was a talented and highly ambitious triple-threat. Sing? check. Dance? check. Acting? check.
But so was Fred. In fact, Astaire and Rogers already knew each other from their Broadway days. The story goes that while Ginger was performing in Gershwin’s hit musical Girl Crazy, Fred and Adele were also performing next door. Astaire was called in to watch a number in which the producers weren’t happy with Ginger’s performance. He told her, “Here Ginger, try it with me.”
It did not take long for their on-screen chemistry in Rio to overtake the film. Their first official film together as a team followed in The Gay Divorcee and and then again (this time as supporting characters) in the 1935 film Roberta.
The results were magic. Spry, athletic, and refreshingly organic, they made highly sophisticated choreography look like it was the most natural thing in the world.
There was no looking back after that: the greatest dancing team in Hollywood history had been born.
“He gives her class, and she gives him sex.” — Katharine Hepburn
Although you’d never believe it for a moment given how natural and exciting they are on screen: both Fred and Ginger were far from excited at the prospect of being paired as a team. As The Telegraph once quipped, it was “not such a fine romance.”
For Fred, it was because after some 20 years as one half of “Adele & Fred” he was eager to go solo. He wrote to his agent, Leland Hayward, “What’s all this talk about teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it, Leland. I’d rather not make any more pictures for RKO if I have to be teamed up with one of those movie queens.”
Ginger, too, had a deep ambition to do her own thing and, in an industry run by men, was often — out of necessity — stubborn in having her voice heard. Astaire, as well, fought to have his wishes granted by studio execs. One of the biggest, was demanding that their dancing be shot in a long shot, so that the viewer can view the entire body, not just the feet.
This makes sense perfect today (La La Land, for one, adheres to this style entirely) and with Fred coming from the theatre — with a proscenium sensibility — he knew that the feet were only a part of the instrument. But this wasn’t the way musicals were made when Fred came to Hollywood — the Berkeley tradition made cuts and zooms and pans the norm. Fred Astaire changed this, making the only special effect the dance itself. He also insisted on over-dubbing the tapping itself: after getting the musical routine correctly, he would tire on re-creating the taps for over-dubs.
Fred & Ginger proved to be the perfect recipe for Depression-era audiences. They were a top box office draw for much of the 1930s, defining Hollywood escapism at its most glorious: their movies shimmer in a nitrate glow, the clothes are exquisite, the sets larger-than-life, and the two of them together are…perfection.
What do dancers think of Fred Astaire? It’s no secret. We hate him. He gives us a complex because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity. It’s too hard to face. — Mikhail Baryshnikov
After the Astaire-Rogers team parted ways at the end of the ’30s, Rogers went on to pursue a dramatic career (she won the Oscar for Kitty Foyle in 1940) but Astaire’s career…floundered somewhat. There was no shortage of talented dancers to work with — most notably his work with Eleanor Powell and Rita Hayworth — but by 1946, Fred Astaire was ready to move on.
There comes a day when people begin to say, ‘Why doesn’t that old duffer retire?’ I want to get out while they’re still saying Astaire is a hell of a dancer. — Fred Astaire
After his appearance in Ziegfeld Follies, the only film in which he and Gene Kelly danced together (yes, they appeared later in That’s Entertainment, but you know what we mean) Astaire announced his retirement, intending to spend his time with his newly founded dance studio and his other great love: horse racing.
But, thankfully, fate had other plans.
When Gene Kelly, his greatest contemporary and friend, had to withdraw from production of Irving Berlin’s Easter Parade because of a sprained ankle, Fred Astaire stepped in. The New York Times clarified: Astaire’s had only been a “mental” retirement. (Translation: hiatus.) It was a great move on Astaire’s behalf, because that film ushered in a new phase of his career. In 1950, he was awarded an honorary Oscar “for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures.” (He would never win a competitive Oscar.) And in 1951, he won a Golden Globe for the musical Three Little Words.
In fact, the 1950s brought Astaire a number of his most loved films including Royal Wedding, The Band Wagon, Silk Stockings and Funny Face.
Now, Astaire was shockingly insecure for a man of such incredible talent. And one of his biggest insecurities was: his voice. It had a limited range, and was on the high side, and his insecurity makes sense when you realize that the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter relied on him to debut their compositions — when Astaire knew perfectly well that there were untold numbers of singers with better range than he.
But as it turns out? Their songs didn’t need the schooled precision of a trained singer, but the warmth, honesty, and charm of an everyday fellow. When Fred sings, you can feel the sincerity. So in 1952, glum after disappointing box office returns of the The Belle of New York, Astaire partnered with jazz great Oscar Peterson in Los Angeles to record a top-notch collection of his film & stage standards called Steppin’ Out: Astaire Sings. It remains a classic songbook of standards.
Fred, again, announced that he was retiring. And, again, this retirement didn’t exactly…happen.
For the rest of his life, Astaire was never too far from the public eye. Although appearing once in awhile in movie musicals (the most notable being the box office smash That’s Entertainment, and the musical fantasy Finnian’s Rainbow) Astaire spent his autumn years in more dramatic roles: from On the Beach (1959) to The Towering Inferno (1974) — the later of which he won a Golden Globe for, and even TV appearances like Dr. Kildare:
He was the first recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, won another Emmy that same year (opposite Helen Hayes), and was awarded the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981 — after having been in show business for some 76 years.
Even though Mr. Astaire left us in 1987, physically, he’s never truly left us. Here at Warner Archive we are proud to have a number of his films in our library and agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Gene Kelly’s words: “The history of dance on film begins with Fred Astaire.”
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