May 10th, 1899– Fred Astaire:
“I just put my feet in the air and move them around.”
The Husband and I have compared the many attributes of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly over the years. It became a Kelly v. Astaire thing, with my spouse in the Kelly corner. It doesn’t really matter at all, we both love them both. Astaire has been named the favorite dancer and a major influence for Kelly, and also for George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Bob Fosse, Rudolf Nureyev, and Michael Jackson.
One of the greatest artists of the 20th century, a Style Icon, and arguably the finest dancer ever to appear in films, I always have felt he was underappreciated as a singer, with his perfect diction and phrasing, vocalizing with the same casual elegance as his dancing. Astaire introduced the world to some of the greatest tunes of the 20th Century including: Cole Porter‘s Night And Day, Irving Berlin‘s Cheek To Cheek, Jerome Kern‘s The Way You Look Tonight, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off from George and Ira Gershwin, and Johnny Mercer‘s One For My Baby, the best saloon song ever. Amazingly, Astaire claimed that he could not sing.
He was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha. Astaire started in showbiz at four-years-old… by default. He was along with his parents and his sister on a trip to NYC where the sister, Adele Astaire, was starting dancing class. She had an initially reluctant partner in her little brother Frederick. The team gave their first professional performance in 1905 when Fred was six-years-old and Adele was nine-years-old.
The Astaire siblings grew up dancing together in Vaudeville and they were big stars while still in their teens, with smash stage musical hits in NYC and in London. Adele Astaire left the act, giving up the theatre world for good so she could marry rich in 1932. Fred Astaire became a solo act. He soon scored a stunning success in The Gay Divorce (1933) on both sides of the Atlantic.
Hollywood studios showed some interest in him and Astaire agreed to do a screen-test in hopes of having a film career. One studio executive’s now famous report read:
“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”
Astaire’s first film was at MGM, Dancing Lady (1933) with Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. Astaire played himself, introduced by Gable as: “That dancer from New York”.
He went on to make 40 films, 31 of them musicals, although he received an Academy Award nomination for his dramatic turn in the campy disaster flick, The Towering Inferno (1975). He was given an honorary Oscar, presented to him by his frequent song and dance partner Ginger Rogers, in 1950. Astaire’s final musical film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), which I like quite a lot, but many don’t. His last screen appearance was in That’s Entertainment, Part 2 (1976), serving as the narrator and even dancing a little bit. My own favorite Astaire performance would have to be in Shall We Dance (1937), his seventh collaboration with Rogers, and with a sparkling Gershwin score.
Astaire and Rogers had one of the best film partnerships. They made ten movies together, always playing a couple who fall out over a misunderstanding, then end up together when it’s all cleared up, and after a half dozen musical numbers. Unexplained magic happened when they danced together. Astaire tapped and twirled with other great dancers like Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, and Judy Garland, but none had quite that special stardust as Rogers.
Even his walk was like dancing. Academy Award winning choreographer and Astaire collaborator Hermes Pan described Astaire’s everyday walk as:
“A loose rhythmic saunter that looks as if it’s, in a way, dancing. I remember Gershwin wrote music especially for that walk.”
Gershwin had been one of Astaire’s Broadway rehearsal pianists. He was a big fan and admired Astaire’s own self-taught jazz piano style. Astaire was also an accomplished songwriter. He wrote the music for I’m Building Up To An Awful Letdown, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, which reached Number Four in the Hit Parade of 1936. He recorded his own tune It’s Just Like Taking Candy From A Baby with Benny Goodman in 1940.
Astaire remains an incomparable male Style Icon. I can’t imagine any other man today who could get away with wearing a necktie as a belt (well, maybe Justin Timberlake). No matter the plunge, pirouette or position Astaire was photographed, his clothing always fit him perfectly. Astaire always opted for bespoke suits. He made sure that they had the range of motion needed and were never restricting while still holding their form and style. Astaire’s contribution to fashion is sans pareil.
For the Astaire look, a suit was always well tailored and well-fitted. Brightly colored or pattern suits were to be avoided; simplicity and timelessness was the thing. He stayed with brown, beige and grey suits. Tweed and herringbone were fine. The jacket needed to compliment the natural contours of the body, close-fitting, and the trousers needed a high-rise waist with looser, creased legs and cuffed at the ankles. Astaire never ever wore a suit without a pocket square, boutonniere, or both. Shirts were usually plain in a variety of colors. Striped shirts were less favored, but not completely out of the question. Neckties were not always necessary. Ascots and cravats are also encouraged. Astaire reminded men that accent colors make or break an outfit. And, under no circumstance were you ever to forget that every little detail matters… even your socks.
I never got any gay vibe from Astaire. Nothing I have read about him, and the few people that I know that worked with him, have ever indicated to me that he might be gay. Yet, Gore Vidal told someone I know that Astaire may have married twice and had children, but Vidal had seduced the famous actor/dancer/singer when he was working in Hollywood. People have accused me of “making everyone gay”, so… I don’t know. Still, Vidal didn’t lie.
I once spotted Astaire in a vintage Jaguar convertible while driving on Benedict Canyon Drive. In the early 1970s, I loved nothing more than to drive around Bel Air, Beverly Hills, or the canyons, in my 1959 black T-Bird, looking at the fabulous homes and hoping to spot a movie star. Well, you couldn’t get bigger than Fred Astaire! I followed him onto San Ysidro Drive in Beverly Hills and watched him park his car in an un-gated driveway of a very nice, but not ostentatious modern house. To the horror of my passengers, I chose to turn around in Astaire’s driveway in order to get a better look.
“I just dance.”