Monday, March 16, 2009

Fred Astaire (1899-1987)

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.

- Fred Astaire

(As requested by Millie for winning my competition! Of course you can't write about Fred Astaire without including any film clips of his dances, but I decided to put them at the end of the post to avoid messing up the text too much. I write "film clip" in parenthesis when I mention something that will appear later on in one of those clips.)

Fred Astaire was an American film and Broadway dancer, choreographer, singer and dancer. Popular for the optimistic, elegant gentleman he played in many films, he had a long career stretching from the 1930's to the 1970's.

Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother was born in America with German parents, and his father, working as a brewer, was an immigrant with Jewish ancestry from Austria. He had an older sister (b. 1896) named Adele Astaire (later Lady Charles Cavendish, moving to Ireland to live with the 9th Duke of Devonshire in the Lismore Castle).

Fred and Adele Astaire ca. 1906.

The family moved to New York City when their father suddenly became unemployed. The mother had, after discovering the natural singing and dancing talents in her children, had dreams about her children doing a brother-and-sister act in showbusiness. They changed the childrens names to Astaire, and made them take instructions in dance, speaking and singing.
Fred and his sister had a successful vaudeville act in 1905, which eventually would bring them to the stage of Broadway in 1917, his sister Adele Astaire being the main attraction.

Fred and Adele Astaire, 1921.

By 1918 Fred's dancing skills were beginning to outshine his sister's, even though she draw much of the attention for her charm and sparkle. There success only grew bigger, and in the 1920's they appeared on Broadway with the popular George and Ira Gershwin musicals Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927), and in the next decade The Band Wagon (1931), the later bringin attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Fred Astaire with George and Ira Gershwin (from left to right) in 1937.

After Fred did Funny Face he went to Hollywood for a screentest at the Paramount Studios, but were considered unsuitable for films. In 1932 he and his sister split when she married the 9th Duke of Devonshire and resigned from the show business.

The separation from his sister was traumatic for Fred, but it also gave him an opportunity to expand his range. In 1932 he starred in Gay Divorce together with Claire Luce, who inspired him to create a more romantic image. "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know", she is supposed to have said while dancing with him, resulting in the creation of a romantic partnered dance to Cole Porter's Night and Day.
When film adapted in Hollywood with Fred and in the future returning dancing partner Ginger Rogers, The Gay Divorcee (1934) started a new era in filmed dance.

Fred Astaire with Claire Luce in Gay Divorce (1932), and with Ginger Rogers in The Gay Divorcee (1934).

"Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little."
That's a famous statement, said to have been spoken about Fred Astaire's screen test at RKO Pictures. Later that has been stated a folklore, and that the actual statement read:
"Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances"
...which of course doesn't sound very optimistic neither. However, producer David O. Selznick commissioned the test and shared his opinion on Fred:
"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."
RKO first lent out Fred to MGM to appear as himself, dancing with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933). The same year he made Flying Down to Rio with RKO, the first of ten pictures opposite Ginger Rogers. He got tremendous reviews, for example a journalist for Variety wrote following:
"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."

In his first screen appearance, with Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933).

Colourized picture of the famous dance couple - Astaire and Rogers.

At first Astaire was reluctant to the idea of building a team with Ginger Rogers, since the partnership with his sister Adele, but he was convinced due to the audience's amazement of the two together.
They're film musicals were enormous successes, including classics like earlier mentioned The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935) (film clip), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Shall We Dance (1937) and Carefree (1938).
Six of their RKO musicals became the studios biggest moneymakers. Astaire received a percentage of the film's profits, which was a very rare benefit at that time, and also got total control over the choreography and how the dances would be presented, giving Astaire the opportunity to revolutionize dance on film. For instance, he wanted his dance sequences to be filmed in one take, and keep the dancers in full view all the time. He also wanted the dance sequences to move the plot forward, interact them with the story line, and not only be pointless spectacles.
The couple Astaire-Rogers was beyond doubt a crystal clear combination the audiences loved. As actress Katharine Hepburn said:
"He gives her class and she gives him sex."
Or as Astaire himself put it:
"Of course, Ginger Rogers was able to accomplish sex through dance. We told more through our movements instead of the big clinch. We did it all in the dance."

RKO publicity still of Astaire and Rogers dancing to Smoke Gets in Your Eyes in Roberta (1935).

Scene from the Astaire-Rogers film Carefree (1938).

In 1939 Astaire left RKO Studios to freelance and look for new film opportunities. Despite of the huge success his partnership with Rogers achieved he still didn't want to be tied to a partnership.
His first dance partner after Ginger Rogers was the skilled tapdancer Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) (film clip).
He also made two pictures with Rita Hayworth - You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942). Their first film together brought Hayworth to stardom, and gave Astaire his first opportunity to experiment with Latin-American dance influences since that was something Hayworth was good at. In You Were Never Lovelier they sang the famous duet I'm Old Fashioned (film clip).

Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire rehearsing for Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940).

Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire.

Astaire also appeared opposite Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946) (film clip), but wasn't very happy with his characters always losing the girl to Crosby.
More commercial successes was to come. Astaire worked together with director Vincente Minelli in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), partnered in a famous scene with Gene Kelly (film clip).

Fred Astaire and the woman with the fabulous legs - Cyd Charisse - in The Band Wagon (1953).

In 1946 Astaire announced his retirement from films:
"I don't want to be the oldest performer in captivity . . . I don't want to look like a little old man dancing out there."
Instead he concentrated on his horse-racing interests, and in 1947 he started Fred Astaire Dance Studios (sold in 1966). However, he soon returned to replace Gene Kelly, who had broken his ankle, in Easter Parade (1948) with Judy Garland (film clip).
Obviously he got a yearning for more, for in the 1950's he made more musicals like Let's Dance (1950) with Betty Hutton, Royal Wedding (1951), the one with the famous ceiling dance (film clip), with Jane Powell, one more Minelli film: The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse (film clips), Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron, and Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn.

Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire having fun in Funny Face (1957).

After those films he actually more or less retired from film, but he did not retire from dancing. He made musical specials for televison in the late 1950's and the 1960's. The first of these programmes, An Evening With Fred Astaire (1958) won nine Emmy Awards.
In 1968 he appeared opposite singer Petula Clark in the film Finian's Rainbow, directed by Francis Ford Coppola (director of the Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now), but unfortunately it was a box office flop.
In 1974 he made an Academy Award nominated supporting role in The Towering Inferno, in addition to the Honorary Oscar he had received in 1950.
Fred Astaire died from pneumonia June 22, 1987. His last wish was to thank his fans for their years of support.

The Towering Inferno (1974), with Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden and others.

Fred Astaire and Frank Sinatra meet Elvis Presley in 1969.

Film clips:

A dance number from the film Roberta (1935) with Ginger Rogers: To Hard To Handle.

Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire in a fantastic tap dancing sequence in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940).

The famous dance scene under the moonlight, with Rita Hayworth and Fred Astaire singing I'm Old Fashioned in You Were Never Lovelier (1942).

A terrific step scene with Astaire from the film Blue Skies (1946).

A famous scene from Ziegfeld Follies (1946) with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly singing The Babbit and the Bromide. I really think they improvised that dance.

Fred Astaire and Judy Garland perform A Couple of Swells in Easter Parade (1948). Peachy keen!

Two scenes from the classic The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse.

And The Girl Hunt Ballet from the same picture. Paraphrase of the film noir genre?

Astaire dancing on the ceiling in
Royal Wedding (1951), singing You're All The World To Me.

Audrey Hepburn expresses herself through the release of dancing in
Funny Face (1957). I know that this is more av Hepburn's than Astaire's scene, but it is too wonderful to exclude. After all, her dancing is very "Astairy".


Keith said...

Wow! This is an incredible post. I really enjoyed the pictures, clips & writeup. Fred Astaire is such an icon and legend. He's an amazingly gifted entertainer. There's never been anybody else quite like him.

Lolita said...

Thank you, sir! Some people I write about has to have mastodon posts like this one, you can't leave out everything!
Fred Astaire is wonderful. Keep an eye on my up-coming "recognition contests" - maybe you can request a person I will write about...

Millie said...

Thanks ever so!

This was a wonderful post! Much better than I could have ever expressed my love for Fred. Everything was so complete and amazing!

Lolita said...

I'm glad you think so! I was a little scared that you wouldn't like it, haha. But I'm glad you did! This seems promising for more competitions...

Robby Cress said...

Fred Astaire is probably the most classy and dapper gentlemen ever in Hollywood. I love his attention details - like matching his socks color to his sweaters or wearing a tie for a belt. Also, hands down the best dancer on film.

Kate Gabrielle said...

As usual, wonderful post! I love that you included The Girl Hunt video-- it's one of my favorite dance sequences from the Astaire color musicals. (His b/w ones top everything else!!)

Lolita said...

Robby Cress:
Haha, seems like he was special, if anything! I love him.

Kate Gabrielle:
And you're always so nice to me! Thank you again. Oh yes, I love the film noir irony of the dances! But yes, his classic b/w will always be the favourites ;)