Fred Astaire, original name Frederick Austerlitz, (10 May 1899 – 22 June 1987), American dancer onstage and in motion pictures who was best known for a number of highly successful musical comedy films in which he starred with Ginger Rogers. He is regarded by many as the greatest popular-music dancer of all time.
Astaire studied dancing from the age of four, and in 1906 he formed an act with his sister, Adele, that became a popular vaudeville attraction. The two made their Broadway debut in Over the Top (1917–18). They achieved international fame with stage hits that included For Goodness Sake (1922), Funny Face (1927–28), and The Band Wagon (1931–32). When Adele retired after marrying Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932, Astaire made a screen test, reportedly receiving an unencouraging verdict from executives: “Can’t act, can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” He was nevertheless cast as a featured dancer in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production Dancing Lady (1933), which starred Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, and the Three Stooges.
Also in 1933, Astaire was paired with Ginger Rogers in the RKO Radio Pictures production Flying Down to Rio. They were a sensation, stealing the picture from stars Delores del Rio and Gene Raymond. Public demand compelled RKO to feature the pair in a classic series of starring vehicles throughout the 1930s, with The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936) often cited as the best of the lot. Although Astaire worked well with several leading ladies throughout his career, his partnership with Rogers had a special chemistry. Their respective elegance (Astaire) and earthiness (Rogers) rubbed off on one another, and it has often been said that he gave her class and she gave him sex appeal. Their dance routines, often in the midst of sumptuous Art Deco settings, were intricate tap or graceful ballroom numbers that served as sophisticated statements of romantic love. Only once – in Carefree (1938) – did Astaire and Rogers share an on-screen kiss, and then only in a dream sequence.
Astaire’s immensely popular dancing style appeared relaxed, light, effortless, and largely improvised. In reality, he was a hardworking perfectionist who tirelessly rehearsed routines for hours on end. Working in collaboration with legendary choreographer Hermes Pan for his films with Rogers, Astaire eschewed the then-popular Busby Berkeley approach to filmed musicals and its emphasis on special effects, surreal settings, and chorus girls in ever-changing kaleidoscope patterns. Instead, Astaire revolutionised the movie musical by simplifying it: solo dancers or couples were shot in full-figure, and dances were filmed with a minimum of edits and camera angles. He is regarded as a pioneer in the serious presentation of dance on film.
After the last RKO Astaire-Rogers film, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Astaire appeared with various other partners, such as Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth, and Lucille Bremer. He retired temporarily in 1946 but returned to the screen in 1948 and appeared in a series of Technicolor musicals for MGM that.
Several of Astaire’s most-famous dance routines appear in these films, such as the slow-motion dance in Easter Parade (1948), which also featured Judy Garland; the dance with empty shoes in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), which was his 10th and final film with Rogers; the ceiling dance and the duet with a hat rack in Royal Wedding (1951); and the dance on air in The Belle of New York (1952). The best of Astaire’s films during this period was The Band Wagon (1953), often cited as one of the greatest of film musicals; it featured Astaire’s memorable duet with Cyd Charisse to the song “Dancing in the Dark.”
Astaire’s run of classic MGM musicals ended with Silk Stockings (1957), after which his screen appearances were mostly in non-dancing character roles. He continued to dance with new partner Barrie Chase for several Emmy Award-winning television specials throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and he danced again on-screen in Finian’s Rainbow (1968) and for a few steps with Gene Kelly in That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976).
In addition to Astaire’s immeasurable contributions to the art of dance, he was noted for his quintessentially American vocal style. Although possessing a rather thin-toned tenor voice, Astaire received much praise from jazz critics for his innate sense of swing and his conversational way with a song. Several compilations have been issued of Astaire songs from film soundtracks, but his best vocal recordings were those he undertook in the early 1950s with jazz combos led by pianist Oscar Peterson. They were released under several titles over the years.
Awards And Other Films
Astaire’s most-notable dramatic roles were in On the Beach (1959); The Pleasure of His Company (1962); The Towering Inferno (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor; and Ghost Story (1981), his final film. He was awarded an honourary Academy Award for his contributions to film in 1950, and he received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1981.
Despite the many accolades for his unquestionable greatness, Astaire remained as modest and elegant as the characters he portrayed. As he said in his autobiography, Steps in Time (1959), “I have no desire to prove anything by it. I just dance.”
Fred & Ginger
The iconic dance duo, who made ten films together from 1933 to 1949, were Hollywood’s favourite dance partnership. They were both stars in their own right before they joined forces on the dance floor.
Fred’s early life
Born Friedrich Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899, to an Austrian immigrant father and an American mother, a teacher suggested that young Fred and his sister Adele were talented enough to have a career on the stage, if properly trained.
The family moved to New York and the children attended the Alviene Master School of Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts. Establishing themselves as young vaudeville dance stars in 1905, they used the stage name “Astaire” because it sounded more American.
They continued with vaudeville until 1917 and then began appearing in musical theatre on Broadway. In 1923, they also had a stint appearing in London theatrical shows. Returning to New York, they again played on Broadway, where their dance routines were legendary.
In 1930, reviewers hailed 31-year-old Fred as “the best tap dancer in the world”. Adele gave up her theatrical career when she married Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932.
Fred was invited for a screen test at RKO. Producer David Selznick signed him to the studio but reportedly had reservations because the young Astaire wasn’t the usual Hollywood heartthrob and hadn’t done a particularly good screen test. However, he was noted as having “tremendous charm” that would carry him through.
In 1933, RKO loaned Astaire to MGM, where he made his Hollywood debut in Dancing Lady with Joan Crawford.
Ginger’s early life
Ginger was born Virginia McMath in Independence, Missouri, on 16th July 1911.
She had a rather traumatic childhood, as her parents separated soon after her birth. With her father’s attempts at reconciliation being unsuccessful, he kidnapped his daughter twice.
Back with her mother, Ginger was never to see her father again and her parents divorced soon afterwards. She became known as Ginger after her young cousin, Helen, couldn’t’t pronounce Virginia and shortened it to Ginger. She took the surname Rogers after her mother remarried John Rogers and the family moved to Fort Worth.
Ginger had aspirations to become a teacher, but her mother Lela was interested in Hollywood and was on the stage herself. As a child, Ginger would wait in the wings of the Majestic Theatre while her mother performed, and soon she was joining the artists to sing and dance on-stage herself.
She married Jack Culpepper at 17 and they formed a vaudeville act called Ginger and Pepper, but their marriage lasted only a few months and she went back to touring with her mother. When they reached New York, she bagged herself a role on Broadway in the musical, Top Speed, in 1929.
How Ginger met Fred
Ginger was snapped up within two weeks to star in the top Broadway show, Girl Crazy, with music by George and Ira Gershwin. It was during rehearsals for the show that Ginger and Fred met for the first time. He was already 30-years-old and an established Broadway dance star when he was hired by the show’s producer to help the dancers with their choreography. Ginger was only 19 at the time and it was her first major show.
However, at this point they had absolutely no idea that they were to become the biggest dance duo on the planet. The show was a big hit and Ginger’s appearance made her an overnight star, but it was going to be a few years down the line before they met again.
Ginger’s stage success led to a role in the Paramount Studios’ film, Young Man of Manhattan, in 1930. She also starred in the famous role of Anytime Annie in the musical 42nd Street and appeared in Gold Diggers of 1933 in the famous opening scene, singing We’re in the Money.
Starring roles together
Four years after their initial backstage meeting during the Broadway musical, Girl Crazy, Fred and Ginger appeared in their first film together – the RKO musical, Flying Down to Rio.
Ginger played singer Honey Hales and Fred played assistant band leader Fred Ayres. The duo’s chemistry on-screen was obvious and the film was a huge success, earning $1.5 million at the box office – the equivalent of $100 million today.
A succession of Fred and Ginger musicals followed, all of which were huge box office hits.
The most famous of the next eight box office smashes include The Gay Divorcee in 1934, Top Hat in 1935, Swing Time in 1936 and Shall We Dance in 1937, when they famously tap-danced on roller skates to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.
Their ninth and final film for RKO was The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939.
Ginger was said to be Fred’s greatest ever dance partner because she always remembered not to stop acting when the dance routines began, slipping them seamlessly and comfortably into the plot.
Unfortunately, due to the depression of the 1930s, RKO was facing bankruptcy by the end of the decade and could no longer afford to stage the lavish musicals that provided a vehicle for Fred and Ginger. Their dance partnership came to a temporary end and they both went on to star separately in other films throughout the 1940s.
In 1941, Fred starred opposite Rita Hayworth in You’ll Never Get Rich – the film that rocketed her to stardom. He also starred with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn in 1942 and in Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies in 1946.
Then, in 1949, the famous dance partnership of Astaire and Rogers was reunited one final time for The Barkleys of Broadway, which is an MGM musical and their only film shot in glorious technicolour. Ironically, they played a pair of Broadway stars who broke up the partnership, only to realise they needed each other after all. It was hailed as their greatest ever film.
Top 10 Films
Flying Down to Rio 1933
Cast: Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Raul Roulien, Fred Astaire
The first film to team up Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers, the plot of the film follows the love triangle between band leader Roger Bonds, Belihnda de Resendeand and her Brazilian fiancé Julio. Set in the city of Rio, the band is supposed to play at the opening night of the Hotel Atlantico but rivals to the hotel’s manager won’t let the opening happen. The American musicians will have to find a new way to perform.
Top Hat 1935
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick
A bout of mistaken identity makes Fred and Ginger’s path to true love via London and Venice a little more circuitous than they might have liked, but there are plenty of classic Irving Berlin numbers along the way to help them keep their spirits up.
Swing Time 1936
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
Fred and Ginger enter into a whirlwind of dance, calamity and hilarity in this sweet and enduring Hollywood musical.
Shall We Dance? 1937
Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore
One of the later efforts in the Astaire/Rogers series at RKO, with the duo playing dancing partners who pretend to be married but are not. The dancing is as special as ever, but by this stage the partnership was beginning to repeat itself.
You’ll never Get Rich 1941
Cast: Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Robert Benchley
Show producer Martin Cortland is a little too sensitive to his dancers’ charms. To win the heart of Sheila Winthrop, one of his dancers, he decides to give her a bracelet. When his wife discovers the bracelet and threatens him with divorce, Martin asks choreographer Robert Curtis to admit that the bracelet is his and that he loves Sheila. Robert wants to give her the bracelet but things get complicated when he learns that Sheila is engaged to an army officer.
Holiday Inn 1942
Cast: Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds, Virginia Dale, Walter Abel, Louise Beavers, Irving Bacon
Two men vie for the affections of a beautiful young singer in this feel-good romantic musical. With music by Irving Berlin, the composer wrote twelve songs specifically for the film, the best known being “White Christmas”. The film features a complete reuse of the song “Easter Parade”, written by Berlin for the 1933 Broadway revue As Thousands Cheer.
Easter Parade 1948
Cast: Judy Garland, Fred Astaire
Astaire, true to type, plays a song-and-dance man on the lookout for a new partner. Enter Garland stage left, and the result is an enjoyable if lightweight musical that brings together Hollywood’s top genre stars for the first and only time. A film that lives for its Irving Berlin numbers.
The Band Wagon 1953
Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan
One of the great Minnelli musicals. Buchannan is a highbrow producer who wants to turn Astaire’s comeback into an arthouse take on ‘Faust’. There are some fantastic Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz numbers and Astaire and Charisse take the opportunity to show off with an array of different dance styles.
Funny Face 1957
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Kay Thompson
Design is to the fore in Donen’s visually brilliant musical fairytale that follows a vaguely Pygmalion structure. Hepburn is the dull bookseller who’s transformed into a model by fashion photographer Astaire. A Gershwin score, some biting wit from Thompson as a magazine editor and Hepburn’s glowing beauty make this an enduring movie that looks terrific.
Silk Stockings 1957
Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Janis Paige
A musical remake of 1939s Ninotchka, three Soviet commissars are sent to Paris to retrieve a talented but straying Soviet composer in Paris. However, an American film producer plies the commissars with wine and women in order to keep the composer for his next movie. Ninotchka, an extremely strict Soviet agent, is sent to complete the mission but falls under the charms of the producer.