- John Mueller
Astaire, Fred (10 May 1899–22 June 1987), dancer, film star, and choreographer, was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Frederick Austerlitz, an immigrant Austrian brewery employee, and Ann Geilus. Astaire’s sister, Adele Astaire, showed unusual talent in early dancing school recitals and was taken to New York in 1904 by her mother for professional training. Her brother, younger by a year and a half, was enrolled in dancing school with her. In 1906, when Fred was only seven, the two children began performing successfully in vaudeville.
In a few years they outgrew their material and could no longer get bookings. For two years they stayed out of show business, attending regular school sessions in Highwood Park, New Jersey. But they soon returned to vaudeville, and with the advice of vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, whom Astaire considered the most influential person in his dancing career, they developed a show-stopping act. By their last season in vaudeville, still in their mid-teens, they had become featured performers earning $350 a week.
In 1917 they moved up to the musical stage. From then until 1932 they appeared in ten musical productions on Broadway and in London. A few flops were among these, but most were hugely successful, particularly two musical comedies with songs by George Gershwin 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). Astaire tended to be self-effacing around his talented sister, whom he adored, but his own gifts did not go unnoticed.
As his stage career progressed, Astaire became increasingly involved with the choreography for the routines. Beginning with Lady, Be Good!, he performed solo numbers, which he mostly devised himself.
When his sister retired from show business in 1932 to marry a British aristocrat, Astaire sought to reshape his career. He performed the lead role in Gay Divorce, a “musical play” with songs by Cole Porter. The show was important not only because it proved that Astaire could flourish without his sister, but because it helped establish the pattern of most of his coming film musicals: a light, unsentimental comedy, largely uncluttered by subplot, built around a love story for Astaire and his partner (in this case, dancer Claire Luce) that was airy and amusing, but essentially serious—particularly when the pair danced together. To the show’s hit song, “Night and Day,” he fashioned his first great romantic duet. However, he never saw himself as a true romantic lead and had an antipathy to “mushy” dialogue.
In 1933 Astaire married Phyllis Livingston Potter, who came from one of Boston’s most aristocratic families and who had never seen him on the stage. They had two children.
Shortly after his marriage, Astaire ventured to Hollywood. He worked a few days at MGM where he had a dancing bit in Dancing Lady (1933), and then, over at the financially shaky RKO, where he was under contract, he was fifth-billed in the exuberant, fluttery Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which he mostly repeated the juvenile characterization he had used on Broadway. Flying Down to Rio was a hit, and it was obvious that Astaire’s performance was a major reason for its success. The most perceptive trumpeting of his potential came in a Variety review: “He’s assuredly a bet after this one, for he’s distinctly likeable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself” (26 Dec. 1933). To Hollywood, the message was clear: the thin, balding, self-conscious, romantically unimpressive tap dancer from New York was a moneymaker.
Joining him was Ginger Rogers, a contract player at RKO, who had performed opposite him in Flying Down to Rio as comedy foil more than anything else. The Gay Divorcee (1934), a film version of Gay Divorce, was the first of the Astaire-Rogers pictures, and it scored even better than Flying Down to Rio. Although Astaire had reservations about being tied into another partnership, the new team was an almost overnight success.
Roberta (1935) followed, firmly establishing Astaire and Rogers as king and queen of the RKO lot. Moreover, in this film they reached their full development as a team—the breathless high spirits, the emotional richness, the bubbling sense of comedy, the romantic compatibility are all there. Six more films followed to make them one of the legendary partnerships in the history of dance: Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938), and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). For these films Astaire created a series of romantic and playful duets as well as an array of dazzling and imaginative solos for himself. Although the films’ plot lines sometimes lurch improbably, Astaire was concerned from the beginning with giving his numbers a motivation in the script. Playing off the feisty, yet arrestingly vulnerable Rogers, his screen persona developed more depth, sexual definition and security, and, eventually, maturity.
Astaire was in an excellent bargaining position, both creatively and financially. The directors of his films were instructed to give him complete freedom on the dances and as much rehearsal time as he wanted, and he had little difficulty convincing the studio powers to accept his requests for higher fees.
Astaire’s lone effort without Rogers during this period, A Damsel in Distress (1937), was his first film to lose money. By the end of the 1930s the revenues of his films with Rogers were also beginning to fall. After a disagreement over fees with the studio, Astaire left, dissolving his partnership with Rogers for the time being.
The next years were nomadic ones for Astaire. He wandered from studio to studio, appeared with a variety of partners, and prospered both financially and artistically. Between 1940 and 1946 he made three films at MGM, two at Columbia, three at Paramount, and one back at RKO: Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) with Eleanor Powell, Second Chorus (1941) with Paulette Goddard, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942) with Rita Hayworth, Holiday Inn (1942) with Virginia Dale and Bing Crosby, The Sky’s the Limit (1943) with Joan Leslie, Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945–1946) with Lucille Bremer, and Blue Skies (1946) with Joan Caulfield and Crosby.
All of these films are comedies, and the first few mostly seek to emulate the zany insouciance of the pictures with Rogers. But other approaches are tried. The Sky’s the Limit is a dark comedy about the impact of World War II on life and love. Ziegfeld Follies presents a sumptuous (if sometimes overcalculated) opulence, and most of its numbers have an arrestingly hard edge.
By 1946 Astaire had decided to retire from motion pictures. His films had created a boom in the dancing school business, and at his wife’s urging and in response to many letters he hoped to cash in by establishing his own chain of schools. The venture proved successful but only after considerable difficulty.
In 1947 he returned to the movies. Of the ten Astaire films released between 1948 and 1957, seven were made at MGM, and six of these were produced by Arthur Freed, the dominant figure in Hollywood musicals in that era.
Easter Parade (1948), with Judy Garland, was a major hit. Because of Garland’s illness, she was replaced in Astaire’s next film, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), by Rogers. Most of Astaire’s other partners in these later musicals were ballet-trained: Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952), Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957), Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957). For variety, there was Jane Powell, a singer-actress, in Royal Wedding (1951), and Betty Hutton, a bombastic comedienne, in Let’s Dance (1950).
This period was marked by a personal tragedy for Astaire. In 1954 his wife died from cancer at the age of forty-six.
By the late 1950s the era of the classic Hollywood musical as Astaire had experienced it—indeed, defined it—was coming to an end. Revenues were declining, costs were rising, the studio system was becoming superseded, competition with television was growing, and popular music had entered the age of rock ’n’ roll. Undaunted, Astaire moved into other fields. He was highly successful in television, where he appeared on many shows as host or performer and where he produced four carefully crafted, award-winning musical specials from 1958 through 1968. His partner in them was Barrie Chase, a limber young dancer who had appeared briefly in two of his films in the 1950s.
In 1968 Astaire appeared in one more musical film, as the gnarled, dotty title character in Finian’s Rainbow. In the 1970s he helped host two MGM compilation films called That’s Entertainment to salute the studio’s by-then vanished golden age of musicals. He also explored other fields. Shattering Hollywood tradition, he wrote his autobiography himself (in longhand). And he tried his hand at straight acting roles with considerable success. In films he played a misanthropic scientist in On the Beach (1959), a debonair playboy in The Pleasure of His Company (1961), a diplomat in The Notorious Landlady (1962), a British secret agent in The Midas Run (1969), con men in The Towering Inferno (1975) and The Amazing Dobermans (1976), a country doctor in The Purple Taxi (1977), and a conscience-stricken murderer in Ghost Story (1982). On television he played a number of characters, usually suave ones, in dramatic specials and series.
As he entered his eighties, Astaire, a lifelong thoroughbred horse racing enthusiast, romanced Robyn Smith, a successful, 37-year-old jockey who had not seen him in films. They were married in 1980. Astaire died in Beverly Hills, California.
During his long performing career Astaire achieved admiring recognition not only from his peers in the entertainment world but from major figures in ballet and modern dance such as George Balanchine, Margot Fonteyn, Serge Diaghilev, Merce Cunningham, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In quantity and especially in quality Astaire’s contribution is unrivaled in films and, indeed, has few parallels in the history of dance. And, since 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 another choreographer, dance director, or dance assistant—the most important of whom was Hermes Pan—the guiding creative hand and the final authority on his solos and duets was Astaire himself. His choreography is notable for its inventiveness, wit, musicality, and economy. Each dance characteristically takes two or three central ideas that might derive from a step, the music, the lyric, his partner’s qualities, or a plot situation and carefully presents and develops them.
A perfectionist who was obsessed with not repeating himself, Astaire spent weeks working out his choreography. His courtesy, professionalism, and tireless struggle for improvement earned him the devoted admiration of his co-workers. From the start Astaire focused his attention on the problems and prospects in the filming of dance, and he soon settled on an approach that he was to follow throughout his career and one that dominated 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 them.
Astaire made an impact in many ways. He helped enormously to define and develop a film genre, he brought out the best in some of the era’s leading composers and lyricists, he influenced a generation of filmmakers and choreographers, and he inspired many people to take up dance. He also activated the fancies and fantasies of millions in his audiences, and he will continue to do so as long as films are shown.
Astaire’s autobiography is Steps in Time (1959). Books focusing on his dancing, effect, and choreography are Arlene Croce, The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (1972), and John Mueller, Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985), which includes an extensive bibliography and filmography. See also Bill Davidson, The Real and the Unreal (1961); Stanley Green, Starring Fred Astaire (1973); and Stephen Harvey, Fred Astaire (1975). For a lively commentary on Astaire by his sister, see Adele Astaire, “He Worries, Poor Boy,” Variety, 18 Mar. 1936. Useful interviews with Astaire are found in Morton Eustis, Players at Work (1937) and Inter/View, June 1973. An obituary is in the New York Times, 23 June 1987.
- Astaire, Adele (1898-1981), musical theater dancer
- Gershwin, George (1898-1937), pianist and composer of popular and classical music
- Gershwin, Ira (1896-1983), song lyricist
- Schwartz, Arthur (1900-1984), songwriter and producer
- Dietz, Howard (1896-1983), lyricist and publicity director
- Porter, Cole (09 June 1891–15 October 1964), songwriter
- Rogers, Ginger (1911-1995), actress, dancer, and musical comedy performer
- Powell, Eleanor (1912-1982), dancer and actress
- Hayworth, Rita (1918-1987), movie actress
- Crosby, Bing (1903-1977), singer of popular music
- Freed, Arthur (1894-1973), film producer and popular song lyricist
- Garland, Judy (1922-1969), movie star and singer
- Vera-Ellen (16 February 1926?–30 August 1981), dancer and actress
- Hepburn, Audrey (1929-1993), film and stage actress
- Hutton, Betty (1921-2007), actress and singer
- Balanchine, George (1904-1983), ballet choreographer
- Pan, Hermes (1905-1990), dancer and film choreographer