Fred Astaire: Born in Top Hat and Tails

They say that the mark of the great ones is that they make their accomplishments look so effortless, and that certainly applies to this inimitably graceful figure who defined the musical film genre for generations with his polish, skill and class. Born Fred Austerlitz in Nebraska on May 10, 1899 to Austrian immigrants, Fred Astaire demonstrated a gift for dance even as a small boy tagging along to his big sister Adele’s ballet lessons. While still children, the siblings were booked as a vaudeville novelty act, and they polished their craft until obtaining their Broadway break in 1917.

Throughout the 1920s, the Astaires (the name change courtesy of their mother, who thought Austerlitz would remind audiences of a battlefield) won raves in a string of hugely successful stage revues; after Adele left her performing career behind for marriage in 1932, Fred headed to Hollywood in search of new opportunities. Despite a scout’s infamous “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” assessment, David O. Selznick signed Astaire for RKO. After loaning him to MGM for a screen debut opposite Clark Gable, Joan Crawford and the Three Stooges (!) in Dancing Lady (1933), RKO paired him with contract actress Ginger Rogers as the second leads in the ’33 musical Flying Down to Rio, and the two proceeded to dance away with the picture.

The dancing duo went on to delight Depression-era audiences in a string of vehicles which retain their charm to this day, including 1934’s The Gay Divorcee and Roberta and  Top Hat, both from 1935. It was during the filming of Top Hat that Astaire met and befriended Irving Berlin, and the two remained close throughout their lives. 1936 saw the duo wow audiences with Swing Time and Follow the Fleet. Fred performed without Ginger in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress, which gave him the chance to work with another famous team of the day, George Burns and Gracie Allen. The Astaire-Rogers magic returned to the screen with Shall We Dance (1937), followed by Carefree in 1938 and the biographical musical The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939.

By the ’40s, Rogers wished to concentrate on dramatic performance, and Astaire continued to craft his creative choreography for various studios with new partners. Even without Ginger, he was a big draw for MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1940 opposite Eleanor Powell and George Murphy. Also in 1940, Fred teamed up with Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus for RKO, and he found a new partner the following year at Columbia Pictures in Rita Hayworth. Their first musical was You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), which was followed the next year with You Were Never Lovelier, and with the help of Irving Berlin, Astaire had one of his biggest successes co-starring with Bing Crosby in Paramount’s Holiday Inn (1942). He was back at RKO for a one-picture deal in 1943, in The Sky’s the Limit with newcomer Joan Leslie.

Making a career move to MGM began a beautiful and long-lasting partnership, starting with Ziegfeld Follies and Yolanda and the Thief (both in 1945), and followed by a string of sumptuous Technicolor spectacles which are forever linked to the Golden Age of Hollywood Musicals. In 1948, he and Judy Garland wowed audiences in Easter Parade and forged a lifelong friendship with the talented, troubled Garland. His interpretation of “Drum Crazy” from that film can’t be beat.

The following year, Fred and Ginger teamed again for the 10th and final time as The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), their only movie together in color. Through the years there were rumors that Astaire and Rogers didn’t really get along that well, but it was Fred who paid Ginger the highest form of respect when he said, “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually, she made things very fine for the both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.”

In 1950, he appeared in another bio, Three Little Words, as Bert Kalmar of the songwriting team of Kalmar and Ruby, with Red Skelton as Harry Ruby. Royal Wedding (1951) remains one of Astaire’s most talked-about performances, thanks to his gravity-defying dance on the walls and on the ceiling of his room in “You’re All the World to Me.” This film was written with June Allyson in mind, but June bowed out when she became pregnant. Fred’s Easter Parade co-star Garland was considered a natural for the role, but she and MGM parted ways around that time. Jane Powell stepped in and was so perfect as Fred’s little sister; she deserves her co-starring credit. Incidentally, in this movie she and Fred belted out, “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You When You Know I’ve Been a Liar All My Life,” which stands as the longest song title from a Hollywood movie.

It was around this time that Astaire was thinking of retiring from movies, but he agreed to make another film, this time co-starring with lovely Vera-Ellen in The Belle of New York (1952). Fred stuck around as The Band Wagon, hailed as containing the best screen rendition of the hit song “That’s Entertainment,” rolled into theaters in 1952 . In 1955, he joined Leslie Caron in the May-December romance Daddy Long Legs at 20th Century-Fox, and re-teamed with Cyd Charisse in Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings (1957), the musical remake of Ninotchka, back at MGM.

FUNNY FACEFred was perfect in 1957 when he agreed to appear in Paramount’s Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. It wasn’t much of a stretch for a trooper like Astaire since he had appeared on Broadway in the original 1927 Gershwin show of the same name, although in a different leading role. Oddly enough, this movie was slated to be made at Metro, but Paramount wouldn’t let Miss Hepburn out on loan, so the story goes that director Stanley Donen remained vigilant to the project and made a deal to take the entire cast and crew from Metro over to Paramount to make an MGM movie on the Paramount lot.

By the end of the ’50s, the studio musical had waned, and Astaire by and large reserved his hoofing for a series of popular TV specials but without giving up films entirely. He turned in a surprisingly good dramatic performance in 1959’s On the Beach opposite his former friend at MGM, Ava Gardner, and was ideal as Debbie Reynold’s unpredictable dad in The Pleasure of His Company (1961). In 1962, Fred co-starred with Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon in The Notorious Landlady, before giving one of his most fondly-remembered accomplishments of his later career as the title character in Warner’s Finian’s Rainbow in 1968. Astaire’s acting gigs also took him to the small screen, as he had a recurring role as the father of Robert Wagner’s burglar-turned-government agent in ABC’s 1968-70 drama It Takes a Thief.

It was around this time that the folks at MGM, in trying to keep their franchise alive, had a brilliant idea of presenting a review of the studio’s most defining moments from its history and did a bang-up job of presenting clips of the songs and the performers who helped them claim their fame with That’s Entertainment  in 1974. Fred served as co-host along with many former MGM stars, and two years later he was back for the sequel, That’s Entertainment, Part II.

Over the remainder of his life, he acquitted himself well in sporadic dramatic turns, such as 1974’s The Towering Inferno. When he started filming, he said, “It’s a fun picture to make – all fire and water!” That role gave Fred his only Academy Award nomination, as Best Supporting Actor. The 1981 chiller Ghost Story, with Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and John Houseman, was Astaire’s final big-screen performance, and he remained the consummate professional in his many guest spots on just about every TV talk show.  Fred was among the very first honorees in 1978 at the Kennedy Center Honors, alongside such distinguished colleagues as Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Arthur Rubinstein. Staying active well into his 80s, Astaire passed away due to complications from pneumonia at June of 1987, at the age of 88.

He summed up his years in the spotlight beautifully when he offered, “I have never had anything that I can remember in the business – and that includes all the movies and the stage shows and everything – that I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t like some of the small-time vaudeville, because we weren’t going on and getting better. Aside from that, I didn’t dislike anything.”

Well, Mr. Astaire, there wasn’t anything about you that anyone could dislike and we’re so glad you didn’t retire in 1951. Happy Birthday!