By Susan M. Kelly
With grace, flare and a touch of elegance unlike any other, Fred Astaire changed the face of Hollywood. Universally recognized as the greatest dancer to ever work on film, Astaire brought innovations to the silver screen along with his extraordinary talent and left the world of cinema forever changed.
Born Frederic Austerlitz, Jr., Fred came into the world in Omaha Nebraska in 1899, the son of Austrian immigrants. Fred was born just 18 months after his sister Adele and he would follow her footsteps, quite literally, into the world of entertainment. It was Adele who first showed a propensity for dancing and soon she and her brother were working as a team, goaded on by their mother who longed for something beyond the life of a hard working brewer’s wife.
In the early 1900’s the family moved to New York to try and further the career of the children, who by this time had taken the more marketable name “Astaire”. The duo appeared on vaudeville stages until they broke into Broadway in 1917’s “Over The Top”. Throughout the 1920’s the pair appeared on Broadway and the London stage in various productions. By 1930 Fred had already been recognized as being among the best tap dancers in the business. In the early 30’s, the Astaire’s took their act to Hollywood for a screen test but they were rejected.
In 1932 Adele Astaire retired to marry and Fred went on to forge a solo career. After a couple more years of stage success, Fred returned to Hollywood. His initial solo screen test has become something of a Hollywood legend, spurring the supposed response “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” There is no proof that the story is true, but fortunately for the film loving public Fred was able to impress the executives at RKO Pictures. RKO initially lent him to MGM where he made his screen debut as himself opposite
Joan Crawford in 1933’s “Dancing Lady”.
Upon his return to RKO he was cast in “Flying Down to Rio”, (1933). Though the film was a vehicle for Dolores Del Rio, it was Astaire, paired with a lovely young actress/dancer by the name of
Ginger Rogers, who stole the show. Astaire and Rogers quickly became the toast of Hollywood and remain arguably the greatest dance partners to ever grace the silver screen. They would eventually make a total of ten films together including “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), “Top Hat” (1935), “Follow the Fleet” (1936) and “Shall we Dance” (1937).
During his time with Ginger Rogers, Astaire began to flex his muscles as a choreographer as well as a performer. He introduced several innovations in the production of film musicals, including the use of a single camera to film dance sequences in a wide shot, rather than several cameras moving with the performers. As Astaire put it, “Either the camera will dance or I will.” He also insisted that
all dance numbers be seamlessly integrated into the storyline of the film rather than used as stand alone pieces. He was helped in this area by Rogers, whose tremendous acting ability allowed for an easy marriage of the two.
Eventually, Astaire grew tired of being part of a duo and sought to make a name for himself on his own. His first attempt, in 1937’s “A Damsel In Distress” was a critical flop and Astaire returned to make two more pictures with Ginger Rogers, “Carefree” (1938) and “The Story of Vernon And Irene Castle” (1939). As the 40’s began, Astaire left RKO and went out on his own as a freelance talent. He starred opposite most of the great dance talents in Hollywood, including Eleanor Powell, Cyd Charisse and Leslie Caron but still longed to be seen as a talent on his own.
In 1946, Hollywood’s two greatest dance talents came together for the first and only time as Astaire teamed up with
Gene Kelly in “Ziegfeld Follies”. Their number in the movie, called “The Babbit and the Bromide”, was an instant classic and the two formed a lifelong respect. They would team again in the “That’s Entertainment” series in the 70’s. After "Ziegfeld”, Astaire moved on to film “Blue Skies” (1946), in which he performed to what had become his signature piece, “Putting on the Ritz”. In the midst of production, Astaire shocked everyone by announcing his retirement to pursue his love of horses and racing.
The retirement was short lived as he returned to replace the injured Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in 1948’s “Easter Parade”. After appearing one final time with Ginger Rogers in 1949’s “The Barkley’s of Broadway”, Astaire would chalk up a string of performances throughout the 50’s in films such as “Royal Wedding” (1951), “Silk Stockings” (1957), and “Funny Face” (1957). “Royal Wedding” featured one of his most famous solo pieces, when he danced on the walls and ceiling of a room in one of the greatest pieces of camera trickery ever captured on film.
During the 60’s and 70’s, Astaire branched into straight dramatic acting, culminating with his first and only Academy Award nomination, for Best Supporting Actor in “The Towering Inferno” (1974). He continued acting on TV and in film into the early 80’s, when he made his final appearance in the film “Ghost Story” (1981). He retired shortly thereafter and spent the remaining years of his life living quietly with his second wife, Robyn, a former jockey 45 years his junior. He died peacefully of pneumonia at the age of 88 in 1987 but for millions of film lovers, the image of Fred Astaire in his white tie and tails will forever live on as the ultimate in Hollywood class.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan is a regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Fred Astaire Pages:
An Evening With Fred Astaire -- Wikipedia page dedicated solely to the 1958 television special.
Fred Astaire at Reel Classics -- Includes a biography and filmography and more.
Nosliwland Salutes Fred Astaire -- Includes a Showography listing not just movie appearances of Astaire, but also television, and live stage performances.