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 in Nebraska on May 10, 1899 to Austrian immigrants, Fred Austerlitz 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 won raves in a string of hugely successful stage revues; after Adele left her performing career behind for marriage in 1932, Fred Astaire headed to Hollywood in search of new opportunities. Despite a scout’s infamous “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 musical Flying Down To Rio (1933), 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 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 quickly followed with You Were Never Lovelier (1942), 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, forging a lifelong friendship. 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.

Fred was perfect 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 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  in1974. Fred Astaire was 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 The Towering Inferno (1974). 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 at the Kennedy Center Honors. His distinguished colleagues who were honored along with him by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 were Marian Anderson, George Balanchine, Richard Rodgers, and Arthur Rubinstein.

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!

  • Fred Melnick

    He was the best ever and the consummate professional. Today, one movie and you’re a superstar.  He was a star for 70 years in everything he did. He was a star on Broadway, a star in the movies, a star on television. He did musicals, comedy, drama.  Now THERE was a superstar.
    I had occasion to meet, sing to, and dance with Leslie Caron in France.  When we talked, my first request of her was to tell me about Fred Astaire.  She said he was the most wonderful man. They made “Daddy Long Legs” together when his wife died and he refused to close down production, saying he didn’t want to put all these people out of work. He would sing and dance, then sit down and cry. They ended up spending a lot of time together and he asked her to marry him and she loved him but she was afraid of the large age difference. 

    His dancing talent was unsurpassed. To be able to sing a song while dancing, leaping over furniture and getting dressed and making it all so relaxed and easy that anyone would think they could do it, was simply amazing. As Baryshnikov said, he was the greatest American dancer, going from tap to jazz to ballet in one beat and making every other dancer jealous.

    There will never be another Fred Astaire. He was a tremendously unique individual and an extremely rare talent.

  • Wayne

    I love Fred Astaire, period!  Hes always compared to Gene Kelly, who has a fine and much more athletic dancing style (IMHO:).  So Fred could dance top-notch in an all styles a la Broadway approach, of course, but he could also sing, do comedy well and even had a good dramatic acting style…Vaudeville stars usually brought a lot to the cinematic table and did it all so well…see the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby (Mack Sennett Studio stuff), Red Skelton, Jack Benny and George Burns to name some of those greats.

    Happy Bday, Fred and many happy returns of the day (up there we hope to pray!).  Thanks for the excellent remembrance and video of Easter Parade…you know, it was written by someone that Mr. Astaire said Judy Garland had the best talent on the floor of anyone he danced with who didnt have the normally requisite length of formal training…probably not even as much as Ginger Rogers had (for sure not as much film dancing experience), but nowheres near what wonderful pros Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse or Vera-Ellen possessed…thanks much!

  • John George

    Thank you for an excellent, informative, and enlightening article, Jerry. Fred Astaire was certainly the consumate “class act”. I once read (or heard) that he was once asked who he felt was his best dancing partner, and he named Barrie Chase with whom he had danced on TV. To respond by naming a specific person would seem out of character for him, so I am wondering if you, or anyone else, could shed some light on this. Many thanks!

  • Jack Fitzpatrick

    Fred Astaire was the classiest person of all time.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=713983697 Gordon S. Jackson

    Quite simply, Fred Astaire was the Mozart of the dance.  And I well remember how an acquaintance and I (sadly he is no longer with us) would often get into wonderful, extended conversations about Hollywood musicials, especially MGM musicals and above all, Fred Astaire and who was his greatest partner.  He always went with (and I never argued otherwise) that it was Cyd Charisse.  When it came to my choice, Rita Hayworth, he never argued with me because we both recognized that such choices are personal things.

    Of the great musicals “Easter Parade”, “Daddy Long Legs” and “Funny Face” (all of which are of course in my collection) are at the top of my list.  But there is a non-musical Astaire that I would love to have, fully remastered and widely available for all.  It’s entitled “The Pleasure of His Company” which to me is Fred at his twinkley-eyed, mischievious best.  A very cool, dapper, sophisticated comedy with Lili Palmer, Tab Hunter, Debbie Reyonolds, Gary Merrill and Charles Ruggles, it deserves a proper, in-pristine-condition release by Paramount.  If anyone has any pull over there, then the suggestion might be made that instead of regurgetating another tiresome “True Grit” or “El Dorado” re-release (I have both and thin they are great), they could get to the far-too-many ignored classics they still have languishing in cut-off limbo.  (Bob Hope’s “Beau James also immediately comes to mind.)  “Company” and “James” really should be made available.  Any possibility of that happening before the next ice age?  Let’s hope so.    

  • Barb in OK

    John, I think that Fred knew women and female psychology very well.  Am betting that he understood fully just how extremely competitive his female partners were, along with their varied sensitivities coupled with the fickleness of the Hollywood scene.  With these considerations, along with his gentlemanly proclivities, he wouldn’t name a favorite partner as such.  He did honor Rita late in her life, when she was beginning to show signs of Alzheimer’s, by naming her as one of his favorites… But he didn’t want to “open a can of worms.”  Think he was smart about that!  But also wish that he would have spoken or written about the various strengths of his partners (Or perhaps he did and I haven’t found it yet?), as they each brought personal attributes to the table that enabled him to stretch his talents and creativity.  He did comment that (I paraphrase.), in working on the dances, that they all thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. And they all cried… All but Ginger… Ginger never cried.  (And she was there for ten pictures!  No other female partner made over two with Fred.)  Have felt that comment enlightening.  

    Jerry, I appreciate your work in putting this together as well!  And I did remember Fred on his birthday.  What a gift he left us all!  Glad you got published here!  

    • I Rboughner

      “No other female partner made over two with Fred”….CYD CHARISSE.

      Yes, her presence in “Ziegfeld Follies” is small, but that was because the bubble sequence was halted after almost killing some of the stars. “Silk Stockings” is fun for the costume changes in mid-sequence.  We weren’t supposed to know, but who looked elsewhere than Charisse’s legs when she was dancing on screen? “The Band Wagon” is stuffed with goodies, but ‘Dancing in the Dark’ is the most romantic dance number Fred ever committed to film, and probably the most romantic number in any film from any performers.
      Having said all that, only one of his leading ladies, Joan Fontaine,  was terribly wrong as a dance partner, and she had no choice in the matter. Besides, Hollywood made it up to her with an Oscar later

    • JackJones

      I’ll bet Eleanor Powell didn’t cry. Whenever I watch Broadway Melody of 1940 and they finish the Begin the Beguine number I have to back up and watch it again.

  • Rkkessler

    I had an artist do a montage of fred in tophat &tails.It is one of a kind same as fred .I can’t imanage a bigger fan

  • Jwhuey67

    …Fred was the greatest dance man, ever…and of course with Ginger, they created something we’ll NEVER see the likes of again… He had a lot of great partners, but…I’m just a BIT bias toward Ginger…and I kinda think he felt the same, even tho they had their moments (see the ‘ostrich feather dress’ saga…)  :-)  Heck, she never really danced with anyone else, although it would hvae been interesting to see her with Gene Kelly… but it just wouldn’t have been…RIGHT, y’know? It really seems a bit odd to even see Fred dancing with someone other than Ginger, although he DID have a great list! (Rita is my fave…and she was a distant cousin of Ginger, so, there ya go!)

    Anyway, Happy Birthday to Mr. Astaire… a great synopsis of his career!

    KIG!

    VKMfanHuey

    Visit the Gingerology blog…

    • Janet

      Rita and Ginger were related? But Rita was Mexican….????

      • Barb in OK

        Ginger and Rita were NOT blood relatives. Turns out that an aunt of Ginger’s married a relative of Rita’s….  So while not getting into the formalities of relationships, they were in-laws of a sort.  Rita’s parentage on her father’s side was Spanish, not Mexican.  

  • Netherlandj

    I always refer to “My love affair with Fred Astaire.”  The best dancer that ever lived, I’ve seen his movies time and time again.  Just the best ever.  Gene Kelly was good, but couldn’t wear a tux like Fred…..

    • hypatiab7

      Fred Astaire was ballroom dancing and tap, while Gene Kelly was ballet and
      tap. Astaire couldn’t have done the apache dance in American in Paris. They
      had totally totally different builds and looked best in different styles. I loved both
      of them.

      • Cinzia

        Fred Astaire studied ballet as a child—he was quite good, and you can see the remnants of that training in his films. So so graceful–the way he holds his hands when he dances is a dead giveaway.

        • hypatiab7

          I agree that he was very graceful, but what he specialized in was ballroom dancing and tap dancing. But, as you say, the remnants of his ballet training can be seen. I only pointed this out to show the difference in Mr. Astaire’s and Gene Kelly’s dancing styles.

  • Wayne P.

    Lets not forget Ray Bolger…hes right up there too but in limited action, compared to the standards set, given his lack of movie roles, by Fred and Gene…but as far as great male dancers goes…would say he combined grace and athleticism, Gene took the cake in athletically driven talent and Fred could simply do it all in the Golden Age, as the comments here put it so well…!

  • Kathleen

    I’ve seen every picture Fred Astaire made, and that includes “Ghost Story ” His first partner was his sister (Adele), they performed from Vaudeville to the Stages of Broadway and London.  His relationship with Ginger Rogers (he nick-named ‘Feathers’.) if they did not really like each other would be a shame.  Their dancing together was heavenly my favorite “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle.”   My passion for dancing was inspired by these films.

      Kathleen

  • Marcia

    What a Sensational Talent. There will never be another like him and he is well missed.

  • Roger Lynn

    Mr Astaire showed his dramatic ability in ON THE BEACH,(oSCAR NOMINATION HE SHOULD OF GOTTEN,HE WAS ROBBED)THE TOWERING INFERNO,,his only Oscar Nomination,,should of won he and Ms Jones both,,a class act all the way

  • rob

    I’m sure I will be in the minority, but to me Astaire’s greatest dances (while not his best films) were those he did with Lucille Bremer in Ziegfeld and Yolanda. The “Coffee Time” dance and dream sequence in Yolanda are brilliant and the “Limehouse Blues” and “This Heart of Mine” from Ziegfeld are the highlights of the film. It probably helps that Vincente Minelli directed with all the color and style he brought, but Astaire himself was probably at the peak of not only his style, but physical capabilities.

  • billgrove57

    The definition of the word, CLASS!

  • John

    billgrove57, you got it right! Fred Astaire could wear a top hat and tails to a garage sale and not look out of place.

  • BernardS

    Reading the “capsule” bio of a great legendary performer like Fred Astaire, one can’t help thinking–now that we are in 2013–with all the blu ray versions of classic musicals coming out
    every week, can somebody put out these BOX SETS of Fred Astaire’s work like :
    “Fred at Paramount” : “Lets Dance”, “Blue Skies”,”Second Chorus”, “Holiday Inn”, “Pleasure of His Company”.
    “Fred at Columbia” : “You’ll Never Lovelier”, “You’ll Never Get Rich”, “Notorious Landlady”
    “Fred on TV ” — all his TV specials, please !!!
    Anybody reading this ? Please, get these box sets going !

  • Falcon41

    Three words that always put a smile on my face Fred Astaire dances!!!

  • Richy

    Whenever one of his dances appears on TV it’s a drop-everything moment for me. To me, his career is one of the great justifications for the invention of movies. Can you imagine if his dances had never been recorded?

  • Antone

    CAVEAT: The following is from a klutz, who wouldn’t know a pirouette from a bump & grind.

    I agree with the majority view that Astaire was the master of elegance in golden era dancing in “A” musicals. It did take some imagination to accept Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth & Ginger Rogers falling madly in love with the short, scrawny, balding Fred. But as veterans of radio drama, we were willing to accept almost any premise. The younger Kelly was the standard for athleticism and either Bolger or O’Connor for comedy.

    However my vote for best all-around dancers during this era [based on the limited chances I've had to see them] goes to the Nicholas Brothers, who were limited to small roles in “B” movies. They could match Astaire’s elegance and Kelly’s athletic ability, but they didn’t “look right” for Hollywood movies of the 30′s-50′s.