Fred Astaire (May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987), born Frederick Austerlitz, was an American film and Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, singer and actor. His stage and subsequent film career spanned a total of 76 years, during which he made 31 musical films. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute. He is particularly associated with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films.
According to another major innovator in filmed dance, Gene Kelly, “The history of dance on film begins with Astaire.” Beyond film and television, many classical dancers and choreographers, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Jackson, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Jerome Robbins among them, also acknowledged his importance and influence.
Astaire was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Johanna “Ann” (née Geilus) and Frederic “Fritz” Austerlitz (born September 8, 1868, as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz). Astaire’s mother was born in the United States to Lutheran German immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace, while Astaire’s father was born in Linz, Austria, to Jewish parents who had converted to Catholicism.
After arriving in New York City at age 24 on October 26, 1892, and being processed at Ellis Island, Astaire’s father, hoping to find work in his brewing trade, moved to Omaha, Nebraska, and landed a job with the Storz Brewing Company. Astaire’s mother dreamed of escaping Omaha by virtue of her children’s talents after Adele Astaire early on revealed herself to be an instinctive dancer and singer. She planned a “brother-and-sister act,” which was common in vaudeville at the time. Although Astaire refused dance lessons at first, he easily mimicked his older sister’s step and took up piano, accordion, and clarinet.
When their father suddenly lost his job, the family moved to New York City to launch the show business career of the children. Despite Adele and Fred’s teasing rivalry, they quickly acknowledged their individual strengths, his durability and her greater talent. Sister and brother took the name “Astaire” in 1905, as they were taught dance, speaking, and singing in preparation for developing an act. Family legend attributes the name to an uncle surnamed “L’Astaire”.
Their first act was called Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. Fred wore a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second. The goofy act debuted in Keyport, New Jersey, in a “tryout theater.” The local paper wrote, “the Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville.”
As a result of their father’s salesmanship, Fred and Adele rapidly landed a major contract and played the famed Orpheum circuit not only in Omaha but throughout the United States. Soon Adele grew to at least three inches taller than Fred and the pair began to look incongruous. The family decided to take a two-year break from show business to let time take its course and to avoid trouble from the Gerry Society and the child labor laws of the time. In 1912, Fred became an Episcopalian.
The career of the Astaire siblings resumed with mixed fortunes, though with increasing skill and polish, as they began to incorporate tap dancing into their routines. Astaire’s dancing was inspired by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John “Bubbles” Sublett. From vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, they learned the tango, waltz, and other ballroom dances popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle. Some sources state that the Astaire siblings appeared in a 1915 film entitled Fanchon, the Cricket, starring Mary Pickford, but the Astaires have consistently denied this.:103
Fred Astaire first met George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger in Jerome H. Remick‘s, in 1916. Fred had already been hunting for new music and dance ideas. Their chance meeting was to deeply affect the careers of both artists.
Astaire was always on the lookout for new steps on the circuit and was starting to demonstrate his ceaseless quest for novelty and perfection. The Astaires broke into Broadway in 1917 with Over The Top, a patriotic revue.
They followed up with several more shows, and of their work in The Passing Show of 1918 Heywood Broun wrote: “In an evening in which there was an abundance of good dancing, Fred Astaire stood out…. He and his partner, Adele Astaire, made the show pause early in the evening with a beautiful loose-limbed dance.”
By this time, Astaire’s dancing skill was beginning to outshine his sister’s, though she still set the tone of their act and her sparkle and humor drew much of the attention, due in part to Fred’s careful preparation and strong supporting choreography.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and on the London stage in shows such as George and Ira Gershwin‘s Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927), and later in The Band Wagon (1931), winning popular acclaim with the theater crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. By then, Astaire’s tap dancing was recognized as among the best, as Robert Benchley wrote in 1930, “I don’t think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world.”:5
They split in 1932 when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred Astaire went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with Gay Divorce, while considering offers from Hollywood. The end of the partnership was traumatic for Astaire but stimulated him to expand his range. Free of the brother-sister constraints of the former pairing and with a new partner (Claire Luce), he created a romantic partnered dance to Cole Porter‘s “Night and Day“, which had been written for Gay Divorce. Luce stated that she had to encourage him to take a more romantic approach: “Come on, Fred, I’m not your sister, you know.”:6 The success of the stage play was credited to this number, and when recreated in the film version of the play The Gay Divorcee (1934), it ushered in a new era in filmed dance.:23,26,61 Recently, film footage taken by Fred Stone of Astaire performing in Gay Divorce with Luce’s successor, Dorothy Stone, in New York in 1933 was uncovered by dancer and historian Betsy Baytos and now represents the earliest extant performance footage of Astaire.
According to Hollywood folklore, a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Pictures, now lost along with the test, is reported to have read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, Pandro S. Berman, claimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later.:7 Astaire later insisted that the report had actually read: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances“. In any case, the test was clearly disappointing, and David O. Selznick, who had signed Astaire to RKO and commissioned the test, stated in a memo, “I am uncertain about the man, but 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.”:7 However, this did not affect RKO’s plans for Astaire, first lending him for a few days to MGM in 1933 for his Hollywood debut, where he appeared as himself dancing with Joan Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady.
On his return to RKO Pictures, he got fifth billing alongside Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores del Río vehicle Flying Down to Rio. In a review, Variety magazine attributed its massive success to Astaire’s presence: “The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire…. He’s assuredly a bet after this one, for he’s distinctly likable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing.”:7
Having already been linked to his sister Adele on stage, Astaire was initially very reluctant to become part of another dance team. He wrote his agent, “I don’t mind making another picture with her but as for this team idea it’s out! I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.”:8 He was persuaded by the obvious public appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing. The partnership, and the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film musical. Astaire and Rogers made ten films together, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine musicals he created became the biggest moneymakers for RKO; all of the films brought a certain prestige and artistry that all studios coveted at the time. Their partnership elevated them both to stardom; as Katharine Hepburn reportedly said, “He gives her class and she gives him sex.”:134
Astaire easily received the benefits of a percentage of the film’s profits, something extremely rare in actors’ contracts at that time; and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film. Astaire is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals.:23,26 First, he insisted that the (almost stationary) camera film a dance routine in a single shot, if possible, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. Astaire famously quipped: “Either the camera will dance, or I will.”:420 Astaire maintained this policy from The Gay Divorcee (1934) onwards (until overruled by Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Finian’s Rainbow (1968), Astaire’s last film musical). Astaire’s style of dance sequences thus contrasted with the Busby Berkeley musicals, which were known for dance sequences filled with extravagant aerial shots, quick takes, and zooms on certain areas of the body, such as the arms or legs. Second, Astaire was adamant that all song and dance routines be seamlessly integrated into the plotlines of the film. Instead of using dance as spectacle as Busby Berkeley did, Astaire used it to move the plot along. Typically, an Astaire picture would include a solo performance by Astaire — which he termed his “sock solo” — a partnered comedy dance routine, and a partnered romantic dance routine.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce,:6 Hannah Hyam:146,147 and John Mueller:8,9 consider Rogers to have been Astaire’s greatest dance partner, while recognizing that some of his later partners displayed superior technical dance skills, a view shared by Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen. Film critic Pauline Kael adopts a more neutral stance, while Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel writes “The nostalgia surrounding Rogers-Astaire tends to bleach out other partners.”
Mueller sums up Rogers’s abilities as follows: “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s partners not because she was superior to others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began … the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable.” According to Astaire, “Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn’t tap and she couldn’t do this and that … but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.” For her part, Rogers described Astaire’s uncompromising standards extending to the whole production, “Sometimes he’ll think of a new line of dialogue or a new angle for the story…they never know what time of night he’ll call up and start ranting enthusiastically about a fresh idea…No loafing on the job on an Astaire picture, and no cutting corners.”:16 Astaire was still unwilling to have his career tied exclusively to any partnership, however. He negotiated with RKO to strike out on his own with A Damsel in Distress in 1937, unsuccessfully as it turned out. He returned to make two more films with Rogers, Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). While both films earned respectable gross incomes, they both lost money due to increased production costs:410 and Astaire left RKO. Rogers remained and went on to become the studio’s hottest property in the early forties. They were reunited in 1949 at MGM for their final outing, The Barkleys of Broadway.
n 1939, Astaire left RKO to freelance and pursue new film opportunities, with mixed though generally successful outcomes. Throughout this period, Astaire continued to value the input of choreographic collaborators and, unlike the 1930s when he worked almost exclusively with Hermes Pan, he tapped the talents of other choreographers in an effort to continually innovate. His first post-Ginger dance partner was the redoubtable Eleanor Powell – considered the finest female tap-dancer of her generation – in Broadway Melody of 1940 where they performed a celebrated extended dance routine to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. He played alongside Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and later Blue Skies (1946) but in spite of the enormous financial success of both, was reportedly dissatisfied with roles where he lost the girl to Crosby. The former film is particularly remembered for his virtuoso solo dance to “Let’s Say it with Firecrackers” while the latter film featured an innovative song and dance routine to a song indelibly associated with him: “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Other partners during this period included Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1940), in which he dance-conducted the Artie Shaw orchestra.
He made two pictures with Rita Hayworth: the first You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) catapulted Hayworth to stardom and provided Astaire with his first opportunity to integrate Latin-American dance idioms into his style, taking advantage of Hayworth’s professional Latin dance pedigree. His second film with Hayworth, You Were Never Lovelier (1942) was equally successful, and featured a duet to Kern’s “I’m Old Fashioned” which became the centerpiece of Jerome Robbins‘s 1983 New York City Ballet tribute to Astaire. He next appeared opposite the seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie in the wartime drama The Sky’s the Limit (1943) where he introduced Arlen and Mercer‘s “One for My Baby” while dancing on a bar counter in a dark and troubled routine. This film which was choreographed by Astaire alone and achieved modest box office success, represented an important departure for Astaire from his usual charming happy-go-lucky screen persona and confused contemporary critics.
Here’s my very favorite Fred Astaire clip. From the motion picture, “You Were Never Lovelier” with Rita Hayworth. Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer’s song, “I’m Old Fashioned. Fred Astaire is singing, but Rita Hayworth’s voice is dubbed by actress/singer, Nan Wynn. This film was made in 1942 right in middle of the big band era. Look for the perfect blend between the typical dance moves which Fred was known for during the 1930’s films with Ginger Rogers, and the more Latin and swing styles which were becoming increasingly more popular.
Fred and Ginger from the 1935 film, “Top Hat” dancing, to Irving Berlin’s, “Cheek To Cheek.”
His next partner, Lucille Bremer, was featured in two lavish vehicles, both directed by Vincente Minnelli: the fantasy Yolanda and the Thief which featured an avant-garde surrealistic ballet, and the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies (1946) which featured a memorable teaming of Astaire with Gene Kelly to “The Babbit and the Bromide”, a Gershwin song Astaire had introduced with his sister Adele back in 1927. While Follies was a hit, Yolanda bombed at the box office and Astaire, ever insecure and believing his career was beginning to falter surprised his audiences by announcing his retirement during the production of Blue Skies (1946), nominating “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as his farewell dance.
After announcing his retirement in 1946, Astaire concentrated on his horse-racing interests and went on to found the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in 1947 — which he subsequently sold in 1966.
However, he soon returned to the big screen to replace the injured Kelly in Easter Parade opposite Judy Garland, Ann Miller and Peter Lawford, and for a final reunion with Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). He then went on to make more musicals throughout the 1950s: Let’s Dance (1950) with Betty Hutton, Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell, Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera-Ellen, The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) with Cyd Charisse, Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron, and Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn.
During 1952 Astaire recorded The Astaire Story, a four volume album with a quintet led by Oscar Peterson. The album provided a musical overview of Astaire’s career, and was produced by Norman Granz. The Astaire Story later won the Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, a special Grammy award to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have “qualitative or historical significance.”
His legacy at this point was 30 musical films in 25 years. Afterwards, Astaire announced that he was retiring from dancing in film to concentrate on dramatic acting, scoring rave reviews for the nuclear war drama On the Beach (1959).
Astaire did not retire from dancing completely. He made a series of four highly rated Emmy Award-winning musical specials for television in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968, each featuring Barrie Chase, with whom Astaire enjoyed an Indian summer of dance creativity. The first of these programs, 1958’s An Evening with Fred Astaire, won nine Emmy Awards, including “Best Single Performance by an Actor” and “Most Outstanding Single Program of the Year.” It was also noteworthy for being the first major broadcast to be prerecorded on color videotape, and has recently been restored. The restoration won technical Emmy in 1988 for Ed Reitan, Don Kent, and Dan Einstein, who restored the original videotape, transferring its contents to a modern format, and filling in gaps where the tape had deteriorated with kinescope footage.
Astaire’s last major musical film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. He shed his white tie and tails to play an Irish rogue who believes if he buries a crock of gold in the shadows of Fort Knox it will multiply. His dance partner was Petula Clark, who portrayed his skeptical daughter. He admitted to being as nervous about singing with her as she confessed to being apprehensive about dancing with him. Unfortunately, the film was a box-office failure, though it has gained a strong reputation over the years since its release.
Astaire continued to act into the 1970s, appearing on television as the father of Robert Wagner‘s character of Alexander Mundy in It Takes a Thief and in films such as The Towering Inferno (1974), in which he danced with Jennifer Jones and for which he received his only Academy Award nomination, in the category of Best Supporting Actor. He voiced the mailman narrator in 1970’s classic animated film Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. He appeared in the first two That’s Entertainment! documentaries in the mid 1970s. In the second, aged seventy-six, he performed a number of song-and-dance routines with Kelly, his last dance performances in a musical film. In the summer of 1975, he made three albums in London, Attitude Dancing, They Can’t Take These Away From Me, and A Couple of Song and Dance Men, the last an album of duets with Bing Crosby. In 1976, he played a supporting role as a dog owner in the cult movie The Amazing Dobermans, co-starring Barbara Eden and James Franciscus. In 1978, Fred Astaire co-starred with Helen Hayes in a well-received television film, A Family Upside Down, in which they play an elderly couple coping with failing health. Astaire won an Emmy Award for his performance. He made a well-publicized guest appearance on the science fiction television series Battlestar Galactica in 1979, as Chameleon, the possible father of Starbuck, in “The Man With Nine Lives”, a role written for him by Donald P. Bellisario. Astaire asked his agent to obtain a role for him on Galactica because of his grandchildren’s interest in the series. His final film role was the 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub‘s novel Ghost Story. This horror film was also the last for two of his most prominent castmates, Melvyn Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Sources: fredastaire.com, Wikipedia, YouTube, imdb.com
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