Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska the son of Johanna “Ann” (née Geilus; 1878–1975) and Friedrich “Fritz” Emanuel Austerlitz (1868–1923), known in the US as Frederic Austerlitz. Astaire’s mother was born in the US to Lutheran German immigrants. Astaire’s father was born in Austria, to Catholic parents who had converted from Judaism.
Astaire’s father, Fritz Austerlitz, arrived in New York City at the age of 25 on October 26, 1893, Fritz was seeking work in the brewing trade and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was employed by the Storz Brewing Company. Astaire’s mother dreamed of escaping Omaha through her children’s talents. Astaire’s older sister, Adele, was an instinctive dancer and singer early in her childhood. Johanna planned a “brother and sister act”, common in vaudeville at the time, for her two children. Although Fred refused dance lessons at first, he easily mimicked his older sister’s steps and took up the piano and other instrument.
During his long lifetime in every venue of entertainment he received accolades, great revues and plaudits from his peers, the critics and the audiences. He is widely regarded as the “greatest popular-music dancer of all time”. He received an Honorary Academy Award three Primetime Emmy Awards, a BAFTA Award, two Golden Globes and a Grammy Award. He was honored with the Film Society of Lincoln Center tribute in 1973, the Kennedy Center Honors in 1978 and the AFI Life Achievement Award in 1980. He was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the American Theater Hall of Fame and the Television Hall of Fame.
His career in film, stage and television spanned 76 years. He starred in more than ten Broadway and West End (London) productions and thirty-one musical films. His great film performances included his long partnership with Ginger Rogers. Among his notable films are Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Holiday Inn, Easter Parade, The Band Wagon Funny Face and Silk Stockings. He was named the 5th greatest male star in the 100 years of Hollywood Cinema by the American Film Institute. But, all in all, he certainly was the greatest star of the 20th Century and no greater authority on the dance, Gene Kelly, said that in 100 years after his era, he will be the only one remembered.
His first partner was his sister Adele (born Adele Marie 1896-1981). They were taught dance, speaking, and singing in preparation for developing an act. Their first act was called Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. They took lessons at Claude Alveinne’s dancing school on 8th Avenue in NYC. Fred wore a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second. In an interview, Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, observed that they often put Fred in a top hat to make him look taller. In November 1905, the comic act debuted in Keyport, New Jersey at a “tryout theater”. The local paper wrote, “The Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville.” One of the critics labeled them the greatest act in vaudeville.
As a result of their father’s salesmanship, Fred and Adele landed a major contract and played the Orpheum Circuit in the Midwest, Western and some Southern cities in the US. They were paid $150 per week and transportation. 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 with the child labor laws of the time. 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. (A hero he honored in a routine in “Swing Time”) and John “Bubbles” Sublett.
From the vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, they learned the tango, waltz, and other ballroom dances popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle Some sources that the Astaire siblings appeared in an early 1915 film titled Fanchon the Cricket. They both denied appearing in that film.
By age 14, Fred had taken on the musical responsibilities for their act. He first met the great George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger for Remick’s Music publishing company, in 1916, located on 28th Street (Tin Pan Alley) in Manhattan. This would be three years before Gershwin’s great hit Swanee. Gershwin joined Remick’s in 1914 and composed many songs, but he left the firm in 1917. Fred had already been hunting for new music and dance ideas. Their chance meeting was to affect the careers of both artists profoundly. Astaire was always on the lookout for new steps on the circuit and was starting to demonstrate his ceaseless quest for novelty and perfection. Gershwin always believed that Fred Astaire sang his songs the best.
The Astaires broke into Broadway in 1917 with Over the Top, a patriotic revue, and performed for U.S. and Allied troops at this time as well. The critic of the NY Globe wrote, “One of prettiest features of the show is the Dancing Astaires.”
They followed up with several more shows. Of their work in The Passing Show of 1918. Heywood Broun (father of TV personality and critic Heywood Hale 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.” During the production of The Passing Show, which ran for 125 performances at the Winter Garden Theater (made famous by Al Jolson), they sang songs by Sigmund Romberg and Jean Schwartz.
Adele’s sparkle and humor drew much of the attention, owing in part to Fred’s careful preparation and sharp supporting choreography. She still set the tone of their act. But by this time, Astaire’s dancing skill was beginning to outshine his sister’s.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and in the West End theater district in London. They won popular acclaim with the theater crowd on both sides of the Atlantic in shows such as Jerome Kern’s The Punch and Judy (1922). Their first hit, For Goodness Sake was also in 1922. In London, they were embraced by the aristocracy and the royalty. They quickly came to epitomize the elegance and grace.
George and Ira Gershwin’s Lady Be Good (1924), and Funny Face (1927) and The Band Wagon (1931) were all hits for the Astaires. Funny Face (1957) would later be a successful film musical with Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson (1909-1998 born Katherine Fink, author of I am Eloise). The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabrey also became a classic. They would introduce S’Wonderful and He Loves and She Loves. When Funny Face opened at the Alvin Theater, with the book by Fred Thompson and Robert Benchley they were a big draw.
Astaire’s tap dancing was recognized by then as among the best. For example, the great wit, humorist, movie personality and writer Robert Benchley (1889-1945, Chips off the 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.” While in London, Fred studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music alongside his friend and colleague the great Noel Coward (1899-1973, Private Lives). In 1926, he was one of the judges at the Charleston Dance Championship of the World competition at the Royal Albert Hall, where Lew Grade (later impresario and movie producer) was declared the winner.
After the close of Funny Face, the Astaires went to Hollywood for a screen test (now lost) at Paramount Pictures, but Paramount deemed them unsuitable for films. They split in 1932, when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, the second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire.
He adored his sister and had never really danced with anyone else. The end of the partnership was traumatic for Astaire, but stimulated him to expand his range, as he considered offers from Hollywood.
His next partner was Claire Luce, (1903-1989). Free of the brother-sister constraints of the former pairing and working with new partner, they danced together in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce. (Later made into the film with Ginger Rogers, The Gay Divorcee in 1934 with Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady). Fred created a romantic partnered dance to Porter’s haunting, Night and Day. He stated that she (Claire Luce) had to encourage him to take a more romantic approach: “Come on, Fred, I’m not your sister, you know.” The success of the stage play was credited to this number, and when recreated in The Gay Divorcee (1934), the film version of the play, it ushered in a new era in filmed dance. 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 known performance footage of Astaire. As for the beautiful Claire Luce, during the show she tripped over a piece of furniture they were dancing over. She dragged him down also. They finished the scene, the show and the run, despite being in pain over her injured hip. From that fall her dance career ended. He once again flew off to Hollywood, on a 26 hour flight.
According to Hollywood folklore, a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Radio 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 afterward. Astaire later clarified, insisting that the report had 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.”
However, this did not affect RKO’s plans for Astaire. They lent him for a few days to MGM in 1933.Thus, his significant Hollywood debut, was in the successful musical film with Clark Gable, Dancing Lady. In the movie, he appeared as himself, dancing with Joan Crawford. On his return to RKO, he got fifth billing, after the fourth-billed Ginger Rogers, in the 1933 Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond vehicle Flying Down to Rio. In a review, Variety magazine attributed its massive success to Astaire’s presence. In the film, he was only on screen for 4 minutes and 50 seconds. Originally Astaire expected to dance with Dorothy Jordan but she married producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong, etc). RKO shipped in the young Ginger Rogers, who at 21 years old had already made 23 pictures. (Probably the best known was Stage Door, with Katherine Hepburn).
One critic wrote, “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.” Thus, by 1932, he had never really danced with another partner, except on occasion with Marilyn Miller and Tillie Tosch. During this period he met at the racetrack a pretty 23 year old socialite, who was recently divorced, name Phyllis Potter. He was always a lover of horses and the track. They date, he convinced her to see him perform at the New Amsterdam Theater and she married him in July of 1933.
Astaire stated, “Ginger had never danced with a partner before Flying Down to Rio. 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.” In his book Ginger: Salute to a Star, author Dick Richards quotes Astaire saying to Raymond Rohauer, curator of the New York Gallery of Modern Art, “Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually, she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success.” Of course, during much of the rehearsals, Astaire practiced with Hermes Pan, his sort of alter ego. They would work out all the innovations. They would work often from 10 am for 12 hours. They would then present it to Ginger and teach her the steps and the routine.
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 (Rogers), 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.” However, he was persuaded by the apparent 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 nine films together at RKO: Flying Down to Rio (1933), The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935, in which Astaire also demonstrates his oft-overlooked piano skills with a spirited solo on I Won’t Dance), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936, also with Harriet Hilliard of Ozzie and Harriet and Randolph Scott), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Six out of the nine Astaire–Rogers musicals 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 Katherine Hepburn reportedly said, “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal Astaire received a percentage of the films’ profits, something scarce in actors’ contracts at that time. The film Carefree was to many a failure, but still brought in revenue. With The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Astaire had learned a lot from the Castle’s style in his early days dancing with his sister. Vernon Castle volunteered for the US AEF during WWI and was killed testing a plane. Of those six films, most critics rate Swing Time as the best!
Astaire was a perfectionist and every routine was an effort in endurance and the utmost concentration. In Top Hat, the classic Top Hat number was quite frustrating. He broke his cane 12 times and the number 13 was lucky, because after 40 takes and the 13th cane the scene was done. The Irving Berlin score was great, the set designs by Van Nest Polgase and Carroll Clark were terrific, but not cheap. The film opened at Radio City, in NYC, and it was the most lucrative in the history of the RKO Radio Pictures. In fact, it was the first time RKO had made a profit.
In the meantime, Astaire was quite happy, his wife had given birth to a son, Fred Astaire, Jr. He celebrated by doing a radio show. The next effort, Follow the Fleet, was not liked by the critics, but it made money. It involved a dual romance with Hilliard and Scott and Astaire and Rogers. They all worked hard on the movie, with many re-takes. The song and dance sequence, Let’s Face the Music and Dance took 14 separate takes.
The next film, which many believe was their best, was Swing Time (also with stage veterans, Victor Moore and Helen Broderick). They spent 350 hours rehearsing their numbers. After one very long rehearsal, there was blood on the stage from Roger’s broken foot blisters that had soaked through her shoes.
After Swing Time he headed for England with Phyllis. On the way, they stopped in NYC and he was able to do six 15 minute radio shows at $4,000 each. After their return from England he contracted to do 39 shows for the Packard Motorcar Show. Eventually, after his singing and dancing for radio started to wear on him, his wife felt he was spreading himself too thin. Also his efforts were starting to intrude on the rehearsals for his next film Shall We Dance.
This film (with top character actors, Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore) received better reviews, but made less money. It seems the novelty of this great dance pair was wearing down. But, their next venture was still planned. As usual, perfection was the order of the day for Astaire. The roller-skating sequence in the park took four days to shoot and 150 takes for a 2 minute and 40 second routine.
The film Carefree suffered from a very confused script, with their typical social mix-ups. The cast included Jack Carson and Ralph Bellamy. The golf ball hitting, scene where Astaire, a psychiatrist, is attempting to impress his patient, one Ginger Rogers, used over 600 golf balls.
The end of their unique and very profitable run came in 1939 with another loss with the film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. Astaire had learned from the famous dance team of the Castles, who great success was in the years before WWI. The cast was bolstered by the great character actor, Walter Brennan and dealt with their rise to fame. Vernon Castle was enamored with flying and joined the British RAF during WWI. After serving with distinction as a pilot in the war, Vernon died in a plane crash on a flight training base near Fort Worth, Texas, in 1918. Irene continued to perform solo in Broadway, vaudeville and motion picture productions over the next decade.
In between his work with Ginger Rogers, he made a decent film, Damsel in Distress (1937) without his partner and with the non-dancing Joan Fontaine. RKO added George Burns and Gracie Allen to the picture and it was well received.
After the celebrated collaboration with Ginger Rogers, Astaire was listed as one of the richest men in America. As for the cost of his pictures in film alone, it was estimated that during the 1930s, over 125,000 feet of dancing film had been recorded, and only 25,000 feet had actually been used in their movies. It was also determined that the filming of the dance sequences had worked out to 500 hours per film.
Astaire left RKO in 1939 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. Unlike the 1930s when he worked almost exclusively with Hermes Pan, he tapped the talents of other choreographers to innovate continually. He was also labeled “box office poison” after Carefree by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
His first post-Ginger dance partner was the redoubtable Eleanor Powell, considered the most exceptional female tap-dancer of her generation. They starred in Broadway Melody of 1940, in which they performed a celebrated, extended dance routine to Cole Porter’s Begin the Beguine. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire remarked, “She ‘put ’em down’ like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.” In the film, he and George Murphy (later a one-term US Senator from California) were cast as broken down hoofers. According, to the studio, she lacked personality and femininity. She refused any work on her face. She was a superb dancer, a so-so actor, and a long way from being a typical MGM glamour girl. The reviews were very good and the NY Times found the film superior to his earlier films and said “his numbers seemed even more fascinating than ever!”
In, 1940, he signed with Paramount, which was probably a mistake, to make a musical called, Second Chorus. If Broadway Melody had been a high in his career, Second Chorus was certainly a low point. Paulette Goddard was his dancing partner. She certainly was attractive, had long, thin legs, but she was no dancer. It co-starred Burgess Meredith in a similar role that Murphy had played. They were both unpleasant characters. The film was a mess. Bosley Crowther, the great and very well respected movie critic of the NY Times, said, “Astaire was badly in need of a new dancing partner, and judging by Second Chorus, he is desperately in need of a producer, a writer, and a director, who again offer something smart, slick and joyful for him to do.”
Astaire was at the lowest ebb of his career in 1940. His former partner, Ginger Rogers, won the Academy Award for her work in the forgettable tear-jerker film, Kitty Foyle! With all that in mind, he left Paramount and signed a new contract with Columbia Pictures to make a couple of films with the young actress Rita Hayworth. She was a trained dancer, from a dancing family, who had not been placed in a musical for years while under contract. Hayworth, years later at the San Francisco Film Festival remembered her two films with Astaire with great affection.
She said that when he came to Columbia, he asked for me. “Fred knew I was a dancer, not those dumb-dumbs at Columbia!” She had always believed that it was Astaire who had wanted her in his films. Astaire had known her father, Eduardo Cansino from 30 years earlier in Vaudeville. This, of course, was totally inaccurate. As gruff and vulgar was Harry Cohn, the boss at Columbia, he was no fool, and he knew what. and who. he wanted to be partnered with Astaire. Rita was thrilled and terrified at the prospect of dancing with Astaire. She was so shy she couldn’t even say his name. Meanwhile, as she talked to Astaire, he said, “Let’s try these little steps.” So she did and tried to follow him and figure it out. He said to Hayworth, “How can you do that so fast?” The he said, “I know why it is because of your training with your father!” Of course, she had been dancing since age three or four. The reviews of You’ll Never get Rich, (1941) were very good,
This was the first of two films he made with Rita Hayworth, and the film catapulted her to stardom. In the movie, Astaire integrated for the third time Latin American dance idioms into his style (the first being with Ginger Rogers in “The Carioca” number from Flying Down to Rio (1933) and the second, again with Rogers, was the “Dengozo” dance from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)).
His second film with Hayworth, You Were Never Lovelier (1942), was equally successful. It 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. Rita Hayworth had one big advantage over Ginger Rogers, she actually looked like she was enjoying herself. Rogers, although she danced beautifully and smiled a lot during those numbers, sometimes gave the impression that the smile was a trifle fixed.
In between the two Hayworth films, he signed once again with Paramount and played alongside Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and later Blue Skies (1946). But, in spite of the enormous financial success of both, he was reportedly dissatisfied with roles where he lost the girl to Crosby. The former film is memorable for his virtuoso solo dance to Let’s Say it with Firecrackers. The film was a big success, the top grossing film of 1942, very nostalgic, and he had six dance numbers with Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale. He was very happy with the Irving Berlin score, which featured the mega hit, White Christmas and he was reunited with his former director from the RKO days, Mark Sandrich (who unfortunately died at age 45 during the shooting).
The latter film featured Puttin on the Ritz an innovative song-and-dance routine indelibly associated with him. Always insecure and believing his career was beginning to falter, Astaire surprised his audiences by announcing his retirement during the production of his next film, Blue Skies (1946). After announcing his retirement in 1946, Astaire concentrated on his horse-racing interests and in 1947 founded the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which he subsequently sold in 1966.
Of course, before Blue Skies and after Holiday Inn he next appeared opposite the seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie in the wartime comedy, The Skies the Limit (1943). In it he introduced Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s One For My Baby while dancing on a bar counter in a dark and troubled routine. Astaire choreographed this film alone and achieved modest box office success. It represented a notable departure for Astaire from his usual charming, happy-go-lucky screen persona, and confused contemporary critics.
His next partner, Lucille Bremer was featured in two lavish vehicles, both directed by Vincente Minnelli, the fantasy, Yolanda and the Thief 1945) which featured an avant-garde surrealistic ballet. In the musical revue Ziegfeld Follies (1945), Astaire danced with Gene Kelly to the Gershwin song The Babbit and the Bromide, a song Astaire had introduced with his sister Adele back in 1927. While the over-blown, extravaganza, Follies was a hit, Yolanda bombed at the box office.
Meanwhile, Astaire’s retirement did not last long. He returned to the big screen to replace an injured Gene Kelly in Easter Parade. (1948) opposite Judy Garland and Ann Miller. Easter Parade was a movie of great charm, but true to form that the story had little consequence. Irving Berlin wrote the score. Of course, for MGM, it was a big story, Astaire’s comeback. The picture received most of MGM’s publicity budget, obviously more than any other picture being “shot” on the MGM lot. Judy Garland was his co-star, but she was in a fragile emotional state, after a reported suicide attempt. Irving Berlin’s choice of the song, Let’s Take an Old-Fashioned Walk was rebuffed, so he came up with A Couple of Swells, which the critics and the public loved. The film returned a very healthy profit to MGM.
The next film scheduled with Judy Garland was first entitled, You Made Me Love You, (maybe a reference to the great Al Jolson hit, which Garland turned into her own hit.”) But, after three weeks Garland broke down emotionally. The film was renamed The Barkley’s of Broadway (1949) and Garland was replaced with Ginger Rogers. This final reunion with Rogers meant a number of the songs had to be changed. Astaire was not thrilled with Rogers. No one really knew the reason. Some speculated it was her height or her fame. Basically the picture didn’t have the pace or success of Easter Parade. They reprised They Can’t Take that Away from Me, from Shall We Dance, which was done twelve years earlier. But the big hit was Astaire’s solo, Shoes With Wings! Bosley Crowther of the NY Times loved the fil. It was a marginally successful, but a disappointment for MGM. Thus, another film with Ginger Rogers was not considered.
Both of these films revived Astaire’s popularity. In 1950, he starred in two musicals, Three Little Words with Vera-Ellen and Red Skelton for MGM. Let’s Dance with Betty Hutton who was on loan-out to Paramount. While Three Little Words did quite well at the box office, Let’s Dance was a financial disappointment. To a degree, both films were mediocre and forgetful. Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell and Peter Lawford proved to be very successful. Astaire and producer Arthur Freed came up with Powell as his third choice. June Allyson, the first choice, was pregnant and Judy Garland broke down again. Her contract with MGM was terminated on June 19, 1950.
As for the next film, The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera-Ellen, it was a critical and box-office disaster. The Band Wagon (1953) received rave reviews from critics and drew huge crowds. Astaire loved the Band Wagon and was quite happy to dance with Cyd Charisse. Their number, Dancing in the Dark (from Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz -1931) was a sensation and was well received. Director Vincente Minelli (Garland’s husband) was back with Astaire, but he had immense problems with Oscar Levant, eventually they were ironed out. Archer Winston of the NY Post (then owned by the liberal Dorothy Schiff) thought the film was better than An American in Paris. Bosley Crowther thought it was one of the best musicals ever. Up to that time, the consensus was that it was one of the Big Three, along with Singing in the Rain and An American in Paris. Unfortunately, after its original release, it did not make money. Later on, it would do very well for MGM.
Soon after, Astaire, like the other remaining stars at MGM, was let go from his contract because of the advent of television and the downsizing of film production. In 1954, Astaire was about to start work on a new musical, Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron at 20th Century Fox. Then, his wife Phyllis became ill and suddenly died of lung cancer. Astaire was so bereaved that he wanted to shut down the picture and offered to pay the production costs out of his pocket. However, Johnny Mercer, the film’s composer, and Fox studio executives convinced him that work would be the best thing for him. Daddy Long Legs did only moderately well at the box office. His next film for Paramount, Funny Face (1957), teamed him with Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson. Despite the sumptuousness of the production and the good reviews from critics, it failed to make back its cost. ( it was thought that Astaire’s role as a photographer was based on Richard Avedon.)
Astaire’s next project – his final musical at MGM, was Silk Stockings. (1957), in which he co-starred with Cyd Charisse. It was taken from the Broadway hit, which was adapted from the great Greta Garbo smash film, Ninotchka,. The score was embellished with the new song The Ritz Roll and Rock, a parody of then-emerging rock and roll. The number ends with Astaire symbolically smashing his top hat, considered one of his trademarks, signaling his retirement from movie musicals, which he announced following the film’s release, also lost money at the box office.
Afterward, Astaire announced that he was retiring from dancing in films. His legacy at this point was 30 musical films in 25 years. Astaire did not retire from dancing altogether. He made a series of four highly rated Emmy Award-winning musical specials for television in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968. Each featured with Barrie Chase whom Astaire enjoyed a renewed period 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. Astaire won the Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor. The choice had a controversial backlash because many believed his dancing in the special was not the type of “acting” for which the award was designed. At one point, Astaire offered to return the award, but the Television Academy refused to consider it. A restoration of the program won a technical Emmy in 1988 for Ed Reitan, Don Kent, and Dan Einstein. They restored the original videotape, transferring its contents to a modern format and filling in gaps where the tape had deteriorated with kinescope footage.
Astaire revolutionized dance on film by having complete autonomy over its presentation. He is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals. First, he insisted that a closely tracking dolly camera film a dance routine in as few shots as possible, typically with just four to eight cuts, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. This gave the illusion of an almost stationary camera filming an entire dance in a single shot. Astaire famously quipped: “Either the camera will dance, or I will.” Astaire maintained this policy from The Gay Divorcee in 1934 until his last film musical, Finian’s Rainbow in 1968, when director Francis Ford Coppola overruled him.
Astaire’s last major musical film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and he shed his white tie and tails to play an Irish rogue who believes that if he buries a crock of gold in the shadows of Fort Knox the gold will multiply. Astaire’s dance partner was Petula Clark, who played his character’s skeptical daughter. He described himself as nervous about singing with her, while she said she was worried about dancing with him. The film was a modest success both at the box office and among critics.
Astaire’s style of dance sequences allowed the viewer to follow the dancers and choreography in their entirety. This style differed strikingly from those in the Busby Berkeley musicals. Those musical sequences were filled with extravagant aerial shots, dozens of cuts for quick takes, and zooms on areas of the body such as a chorus row of arms or legs.
Astaire’s second innovation involved the context of the dance; he was adamant that all song and dance routines be integral to the plotlines of the film. Instead of using dance as a spectacle as Busby Berkeley did, Astaire used it to move the plot along. Typically, an Astaire picture would include at least three standard dances.
One would be a solo performance by Astaire, which he termed his “sock solo”. Another would be a partnered comedy dance routine. Finally, he would include a partnered romantic dance routine.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce, Hannah Hyam, and John Mueller consider Rogers to have been Astaire’s greatest dance partner, 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.
In 1976, British talk-show host. Sir Michael Parkinson asked Astaire who his favorite dancing partner was on his show. At first, Astaire refused to answer. But, ultimately, he said “Excuse me, I must say Ginger was certainly, [uh, uh,] the one. You know, the most effective partner I ever had. Everyone knows.”
Ginger 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.”
Hermes Pan met Fred Astaire on the set of Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which he worked as an assistant to dance director Dave Gould. While Astaire was trying to work out a series of steps for “The Carioca”, someone told him that Pan had a few ideas, and the dancer was invited over. Pan demonstrated a brief break he had picked up from his street days in New York.
From then on the two began a lifelong professional collaboration and friendship. Pan worked on all the RKO Astaire pictures. He was nominated for Academy Awards for the Top Hat and The Piccolino numbers from Top Hat (1935) and for the Bojangles of Harlem number from Swing Time (1936). In 1937, he received the Academy for Best Dance Direction for A Damsel in Distress (1937), in which Joan Fontaine starred with Astaire.
Reviews: His tension between movie magic and an ugly reality was echoed in the gap between Astaire’s public facade and private self. After Astaire’s death in June 1987, John Mueller wrote in a tribute for Dance Magazine that he was “not only one of the greatest choreographers of all time, but also one of history’s master illusionists. Astaire’s screen persona convincingly suggested that he was carefree, easygoing, unruffled, resourceful, effortlessly successful, and supremely confident.
“In reality, Astaire was consumed by doubt and insecurity…. he often flew into violent rages in a quest for perfection that was relentless, obsessive, and, by his standards, futile: At the end of his musical career, he complained, ‘I’ve never yet got anything one hundred percent right.’… Because his performances are often so contagiously joyous, Astaire also generated the illusion that he enjoyed what he was doing. But it is not clear he ever really liked performing…. For him, an advantage of film work is that it had so little sense of theater—it’s more like rehearsing than performing, he observed, and ‘you don’t have to go to your own opening night.’…
Look at the final moment of their number “Isn’t It a Lovely Day?” in Top Hat (1935). It begins with her mocking him, following him around a bandstand with her hands in her pockets. It escalates into a passionately physical dance in counterpoint to thunder and lightning, and then slows down into a sequence where they imitate each other’s styles and moves. Finally, satisfied, they plop down on the edge of the bandstand and shake hands.
Sammy Cahn, the great song writer, when asked who he thought was the most incredible “song salesman” g\he had met. Everyone thought the answer would be Sinatra, but, he said it was Astaire. It was because of his enunciation, with him the word stands in front of the note.
John O’Hara, the well-known writer and novelist said that he “the living symbol of all that is best in show business.”
Astaire’s Dance Partners:
Adele Astaire- 1896-1981
Adele Astaire Douglass (born Adele Marie Austerlitz, later known as Lady Charles Cavendish; was an American dancer, stage actress, and singer. After beginning work as a dancer and vaudeville performer at the age of nine, Astaire built a successful performance career with her younger brother, Fred Astaire who she teamed up with for 27 years and many hit shows.
Claire Luce 1903-1989
Luce starred in many Broadway plays from 1923 until 1952, including costarring with Astaire in the original musical Gay Divorce (1932). Astaire tried to get Luce for the film version of Gay Divorce, but was overruled by the studio, RKO Radio Pictures, which preferred to use their contract player, Ginger Rogers.
Ginger Rogers (born Virginia McMath) 1911-1995
She was an American actress, dancer and singer during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her starring role in Kitty Foyle (1940), and performed during the 1930s in RKO’s musical films with Fred Astaire Her career continued on stage, radio and television throughout much of the 20th century.
Flying Down to Rio (1933)
Gay Divorcee (1934)
Top Hat (1935)
Swing Time (1936)
Shall We Dance (1937)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Eleanor Powell 1912-1982
Was an American dancer and actress. Best remembered for her tap dance numbers in musical films in the 1930s and 1940s, she was one of MGMs top dancing stars during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Powell appeared in vaudeville, on Broadway, and most prominently, in a series of movie musical vehicles tailored especially to showcase her dance talents, Recognized as the greatest woman dancer in the 20th Century.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
George Murphy 1902-1992
He was an American dancer, actor, and politician. Murphy was a song-and-dance leading man in many big-budget Hollywood musicals from 1930 to 1952. He was the president of the Screen Actors Guild from 1944 to 1946, and was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1951. He was a one term US Senator from California.
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
Paulette Goddard (born Marion Levy) 1910-1990
She was an American actress during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Goddard initially began her career as a child fashion model and performer in several Broadway productions as a Ziegfeld Girl In the early 1930s, she moved to Hollywood and gained notice as the romantic partner of actor of Charlie Chaplin. Best known for Modern Times.
Second Chorus (1940)
Rita Hayworth (born Margarita Cansino) 1918-1987
She was an American actress, dancer and producer. She achieved fame during the 1940s as one of the era’s top stars, appearing in 61 films over 37 years. The press coined the term “The Love Goddess” to describe Hayworth after she had become the most glamorous screen idol of the 1940s. She was the top pin up girl for GIs in WWII.
You’ll Never Get Rich (1941)
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
Joan Leslie (Born Joan Agnes Brodel) 1925—2015
She was an American actress and vaudevillian who during the Hollywood Golden Age appeared in such films as High Sierra( 1941), Sergeant York (1941), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942).She starred in a number of the top films of the 20th Century!
Sky’s The Limit (1943)
Lucille Bremer 1917-1996
She was an American film actress and dancer.
Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
Gene Kelly 1912-1996
He was an American dancer, actor, singer, director, and choreographer. He was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style and sought to create a new form of American dance accessible to the general public, which he called “dance for the common man” .He starred in, choreographed, and co-directed with Stanley Donen some of the most well-regarded musical films of the 1940s and 1950s. He is considered one of the greatest dancers in entertainment history.
Ziegfeld Follies (1945)
That’s Entertainment (1976)
Hermes Pan (born Hermes Panagiotopoulos) 1909-1990
He was an American dancer and choreographer, principally remembered as Fred Astaire’s choreographic collaborator on the famous 1930s movie musicals starring Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He worked on nearly two dozen films and TV shows with Astaire. He won both an Oscar and an Emmy for his dance direction.
Olga San Juan 1927-2009
She was an American actress and comedian. Born in Brooklyn, she began her brief film career with Paramount after being scouted at the Copacabana. She performed in several Hollywood musicals in the 1940s and on Broadway in Paint Your Wagon (1951).
Blue Skies (1946)
Marjorie Reynolds (born Marjorie Goodspeed) 1917-1997)
She was an American film/television actress and dancer, who appeared in more than 50 films, including the 1942 musical Holiday Inn in which she and Bing Crosby introduced the song “White Christmas” in a duet, albeit with her singing dubbed.
Holiday Inn (1942)
Virginia Dale (born Virginia Paxton) 1917-1994
She appeared in a number of movies in the late 1930s and 1940s, including Holiday Inn (1942), in which she dances and sings with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby, and she became particularly associated with musicals. Holiday Inn (1942)
Ann Miller (born Johnnie Lucille Collier) 1923-2004
She was an American actress, dancer and singer. She is remembered for her work in the Classical Hollywood cinema musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. Her early work included roles in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and the Marx Bros. film Room Service 1938). She later starred in the movie musical classics Easter Parade (1948), Stanley Donen’s On the Town (1949) and Kiss Me Kate (1953). Drive (2001).
Easter Parade (1948)
Judy Garland (born Frances Gumm) 1922-1969
She was an American actress and singer. While critically acclaimed for many different roles throughout her career, she is widely known for playing the part of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz (1939) She attained international stardom as an actress in both musical and dramatic roles, as a recording artist and on the concert stage. Renowned for her versatility, she received an Academy Juvenile Award, a Golden Globe Award and a Special Tony Award . Garland was the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year, which she won for her 1961 live recording titled Judy at Carnegie Hall. She is considered one of the greatest performers of the 20th Century/
Easter Parade (1948)
Vera-Ellen (Born Vera-Ellen Rohe) 1921-1981
She was an American dancer and actress. She is remembered for her solo performances as well as her work with partners Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and Donald O’Connor. She is best known for her starring roles in On the Town (1949) with Gene Kelly and White Christmas (1954) with Danny Kaye.
Three Little Words (1950)
The Belle of New York (1952)
Betty Hutton (born Elizabeth June Thornburg) 1921-2007
She was an American stage, film, and television actress, comedian, dancer, and singer. She rose to fame in the 1940s as a contract player for Paramount Pictures, appearing primarily in musicals, and became one of the studio’s most valuable stars of that decade. She was noted for her energetic and sometimes manic performance style
Let’s Dance (1950)
Jane Powell (born Suzanne Lorraine Bruce) 1929-2021
She was an American actress, singer, and dancer who first appeared in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer musicals in the 1940s and 50s. With her soprano voice and girl-next-door image, Powell appeared in films, television and on the stage.
Royal Wedding (1951)
Cyd Charisse (born Tuka Finlea) 1922-2008
She was an actress and a dancer in films in the 1940s. Her roles usually featured her abilities as a dancer, and she was paired with Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly; her films include Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Band Wagon (1953), Brigadoon with Gene Kelly and Van Johnson (1954) and Silk Stockings (1957)
The Band Wagon (1953)
Silk Stockings (1957)
Nanette Fabray (born Ruby Theresa Faberes) 1920-2018
She was an American actress, singer, and dancer. She began her career performing in vaudeville as a child and became a musical-theatre actress during the 1940s and 1950s, acclaimed for her role in High Button Shoes (1947) and winning a Tony Award in 1949 for her performance in Love Life, In the mid-1950s she served as Sid Caesar’s comedic partner on Caesar’s Hour for which she won three Emmy Awards.
The Band Wagon (1953)
Leslie Caron 1931-
She is a French and American actress and dancer. She is the recipient of a Golden Globe Award, two BAFTA Awards and a Primetime Emmy Award, in addition to nominations for two Academy Awards. She is one of the last surviving stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. Caron began her career as a ballerina. She made her film debut in the musical An American in Paris (1951)
Daddy Long Legs (1955)
Audrey Hepburn (born Audrey Kathleen Ruston) 1929-1993
She was a British actress and humanitarian. Recognized as a film and fashion icon, she was ranked by the American Film Institute as the third-greatest female screen legend from the Classical Hollywood cinema and was inducted into the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Funny Face (1957)
Janis Paige (born Donna Mae Tjaden) 1922-
Is an American retired actress and singer. She began singing in local amateur shows at the age of five. After high school, she moved to Los Angeles, where she became a singer at the Hollywood Canteen during WWII, as well as posing as a pin up model.
Silk Stockings (1957)
Barrie Chase 1933-
She was a dancer on live television programs such as The Colgate Comedy Hour and The Chrysler Shower of Stars. While working as Jack Cole’s assistant choreographer at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, she was asked by Fred Astaire to be his dancing partner on An Evening with Fred Astaire She made four appearances as Astaire’s partner in his television specials between 1958 and 1968. The two danced on Hollywood Palace in 1966.
An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958,9,60) (TV)
Hollywood Palace (1966)
Fred Astaire Show (1968)
Barbara Hancock 1949-
Is an American actress and dancer. While she was a dancer with the Harkness Ballet, she appeared as a dancing character in five productions in television and film. She was nominated for the 1968 Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture for her role as Susan the Silent in Finian’s Rainbow.
Finian’s Rainbow (1968)
Bing Crosby (born Harry Lillis Crosby) 1903-1977
Was an American singer and actor. The first multimedia star, he was one of the most popular and influential musical artists of the 20th century worldwide He was a leader in record sales, radio ratings, and motion picture grosses from 1926 to 1977. He was one of the first global cultural icons. He made over 70 feature films and recorded more than 1,600 songs.
Blue Skies (1946)
Holiday Inn (1942
Selected Great Songs from the Astaire films:
A Foggy Day– 1937- The Gershwins
A Coupe of Swells-1948-Irving Berlin
A Fine Romance– 1936- Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields
Cheek to Cheek– 1935- Irving Berlin
Fascinating Rhythm– 1924- The Gershwins
Funny Face-1927- The Gershwins
I’ll Build a Staircase to Heaven -1922- The Gershwins and Buiddy DeSylva
I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck-1937- The Gershwins
Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off-1937- The Gershwins
Let’s Kiss and Make Up – 1927- The Gershwins
My One and Only– 1927- The Gershwins
Nice Work If You Can Get It– 1937- The Gershwins
No Strings– 1935-Irving Berlin
One For My Baby-1943- Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer
The Way You Look Tonight-1936- Jerome Kern –Dorothy Fields
They Can’t Take That Away From Me-1937- The Gershwins
Top Hat, White Tie and Tails- 1935- Irving Berlin
You Were Never Lovelier-1942- Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer