Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was a preeminent dancer and choreographer who worked in vaudeville, revue, musical comedy, television, radio, and Hollywood musicals. He achieved admiring recognition not only from his peers in the entertainment world, but also from major figures in ballet and modern dance.
Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, began performing in vaudeville with his sister, Adele, in 1905. The Astaires eventually became featured performers, and in 1917 they moved to the musical stage where they appeared in ten productions, most of them hugely successful, particularly two musical comedies with songs by George and Ira Gershwin (Lady, Be Good in 1924 and Funny Face in 1927) and a revue with songs by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz (The Band Wagon in 1931).
When his sister retired from show business in 1932 to marry, Astaire sought to reshape his career. He settled on the featured role in Gay Divorce, a "musical play" with songs by Cole Porter. This show proved Astaire could flourish without his sister, and it also helped establish the pattern of most of his film musicals: it was a light, perky, unsentimental comedy, largely uncluttered by subplot, built around a love story for Astaire and his partner (Claire Luce) that was airy and amusing, but essentially serious— particularly when the pair danced together.
Astaire Goes to Hollywood
In 1933 Astaire married Phyllis Livingston Potter. Shortly after his marriage Astaire went to Hollywood. At RKO he had a featured part in the exuberant, fluttery Flying Down to Rio (1933). The film was a hit, and it was obvious Astaire's performance and screen appeal were a major factor in that success. The Gay Divorcee (1934), a film version of Gay Divorce, was the first of Astaire's major pictures with Ginger Rogers, and it scored even better at the box office than Flying Down to Rio. With this and seven more films in the 1930s (the most popular of which was Top Hat of 1935), they reached their full development as a team—one of the legendary partnerships in the history of dance, characterized by breathless high spirits, emotional richness, bubbling comedy, and beguiling romantic compatibility.
For these films Astaire created a rich series of romantic and playful duets for the team, as well as an array of dazzling and imaginative solos for himself. Astaire's musicality, together with the opportunity of working on such a classy, highly profitable project, made his films attractive to many of the top popular-song composers of the day: Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and the Gershwins.
By the end of the 1930s the revenues from the films with Rogers were beginning to decline and, after a disagreement over fees with the studio, Astaire left. The next years were nomadic but successful ones for Astaire. He made nine films at four different studios and continued to fashion splendid dances. He appeared with a variety of partners— tap virtuoso Eleanor Powell, Paulette Goddard, Rita Hayworth, Joan Leslie, and Lucille Bremer—and he also did a pair of films with Bing Crosby. Musically, Astaire continued to attract the best: Porter, Berlin, Kern, Harold Arlen, Harry Warren, and lyricist Johnny Mercer.
Retirement and Creation of Dancing Schools
In 1946 Astaire retired from motion pictures to create a chain of dancing schools, a venture that was eventually proved to be successful. In 1947 he returned to movies to make the highly profitable Easter Parade at MGM, opposite Judy Garland. Nine more musicals followed. His partners in these included Ginger Rogers for one picture, as well as Vera-Ellen, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, and Audrey Hepburn. This period was marked by a great personal tragedy for Astaire—the agonizing death of his beloved wife from cancer in 1954 at the age of 46.
By the mid-1950s the era of the classic Hollywood musical as Astaire had experienced it—indeed, defined it— was coming to an end, and Astaire moved into other fields. On television he produced four multiple award-winning musical specials with Barrie Chase as his partner. He also tried his hand at straight acting roles with considerable success in eight films between 1959 and 1982. Over the years he played a number of characters on television— usually suave ones—in dramatic specials and series. As he entered his 80s, Astaire, a life-long horse racing enthusiast, romanced, and in 1980 married, Robyn Smith, a successful jockey in her mid-30s. He died seven years later.
Ginger Rogers, Astaire's long time dance partner, passed away in April 1995. Rogers is often quoted as having said, "I did everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels." Their partnership lasted sixteen years, from 1933 to 1949.
Over the course of his long film career, Fred Astaire appeared in 212 musical numbers, of which 133 contain fully developed dance routines, a high percentage of which are of great artistic value, a contribution unrivaled in films and with few parallels in the history of dance. And, because he worked mainly in film, Astaire is that great rarity: a master choreographer the vast majority of whose works are precisely preserved.
Although the creation of many of Astaire's dances involved a degree of collaboration with others, the guiding creative hand and the final authority was Astaire himself. His choreography is notable for its inventiveness, wit, musicality, and economy. Characteristically, each dance takes two or three central ideas and carefully presents and develops them—ideas that might derive from a step, the music, the lyrics, the qualities of his partner, or the plot situation.
Astaire's dances are stylistically eclectic, an unpredictable blend of tap and ballroom with bits from other dance forms thrown in. What holds everything together is Astaire's distinctive style and sensibility: the casual sophistication, the airy wit, the transparent rhythmic intricacy, and the apparent ease of execution. Astaire also focused his attention on the problems of filming dance and settled on an approach that was to dominate Hollywood musicals for a generation: both camerawork and editing are fashioned to enhance the flow and continuity of the dances, not to undercut or overshadow it.
A perfectionist, Astaire spent weeks working out his choreography. Although his perfectionism, his propensity to worry, his shyness, and his self-doubt could make him difficult, even exasperating, to work with, he was an efficient planner and worker. His courtesy, enormous professionalism, and tireless struggle for improvement earned him the admiration of his co-workers.
Astaire's legacy continues to be revisited, sometimes with controversy. In January 1997, Astaire's image returned to television through special effects editing when Dirt Devil grafted their vacuum cleaners into dance scenes from Astaire's films for three of their commercials. The advertisements were completed and run with Robyn Astaire's blessing. The commercials, which aired during the Super Bowl, were panned by the press, the general feeling being that replacing Ginger Rogers with a vacuum cleaner was in poor taste.
Further Reading on Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire's autobiography which, shattering Hollywood tradition, he wrote himself (in longhand) is Steps in Time (1959). His work is discussed and analyzed in Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (1972) and John Mueller, Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985). Useful interviews with Astaire are included in Morton Eustis, Players at Work (1937) and in Inter/View (June 1973). Astaire can also be found on the World Wide Web. A listing of his movies can be found at http://dolphin.upenn.edu/~amatth13/fred.html. Information on Astaire can also be found at http://www.mrshowbiz.com/scoop/news/archive/1_9_97_8bogart.html