"For composers and lyricists from Cole Porter and Rodgers and Hart to Barry Manilow, the name of Fred Astaire is an apt metaphor for all that is graceful and stylish in the world of Broadway, the West End and Hollywood. Fred was not merely the greatest dancer the screen has ever seen, he also introduced more great classic songs than any other performer.
Fred was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska on 10th May 1899. His sister Adele was the older of the two (born 18th September 1896). Both displayed a notable talent for performing, and in 1906, after training in New York, they made their debut in Keyport. The Astaires scored great personal success in 'The Passing Show of 1918'.
The Astaires came to London to repeat their Broadway success in 'For Goodness Sake' renamed 'Stop Flirting' for British audiences. A year later, their first Gershwin musical 'Lady Be Good' enjoyed huge success as did the follow up 'Funny Face'. Both were recorded in London with the participation of the composer George Gershwin himself. The last show in which the Astaires appeared together was a lavish and successful revue, 'The Band Wagon'. Adele Astaire then retired from the stage, and married the second son of the Duke of Devonshire.
In 1930 Fred Astaire's path first crossed that of Ginger Rogers. When the producers were having difficulty with Ginger's number 'Embraceable You' in the show 'Girl Crazy' they called on Fred to stage it. His last stage show, 'The Gay Divorce', partnered him with Claire Luce. In between the Broadway and London runs of the show Fred made a guest appearance in the film 'Dancing Lady' as himself, and in 1933, in a featured role, the first under his new contract with RKO pictures, in 'Flying Down To Rio'. There were four names billed above him on the posters - Dolores del Rio, Gene Raymond, Raul Roulien - and Ginger Rogers. Ginger - Virginia Katherine McMath - adopted her stepfather's surname, Rogers, in her teens, when taking up a career in vaudeville.
Fred Astaire was in London when the film 'Flying Down To Rio' opened in America. Despite their lowly billing, it was the team of Astaire and Rogers that had the critics reaching for their superlatives and the picturegoers buying tickets. The peppy, exciting Ginger, and the slim, stylish Fred made box office dynamite. Their first starring film was 'The Gay Divorcee' (note the extra e!) which jettisoned all of Cole Porter's stage score except 'Night And Day'. After 'Roberta', the film version of the Jerome Kern stage show, the pair were given their first totally original musical assignment. This was 'Top Hat', a light, frothy confection that is one of the greatest of all pre-war musicals. The dance director was Hermes Pan, who was to work closely with Astaire on many memorable film musicals. Van Nest Polglase's art direction set the chic black and white style that would be a hallmark of the RKO musical. Crowning the achievement were the music and lyrics - by Irving Berlin.
Jerry Travers, a dancer (Fred Astaire) is to star in a new musical for his friend Horace (Edward Everett Horton). Back in his hotel, Jerry improvises a new dance step, but the noise disturbs the occupant of the room below, Dale (Ginger Rogers). So he sprinkles sand on the floor and continues - but in a quieter mood (No Strings). Next day, Dale's off to the riding stables, in a hansom cab - but unknown to her, Jerry is the driver. During her ride, there is a sudden thunderstorm and Dale takes refuge in a deserted bandstand. Jerry joins her (Isn't This A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain?)
It is obvious they are smitten with each other. Dale's full time occupation is as a society mannequin - and she is soon off to Venice's Lido. Before she departs, she meets up with her old friend Madge Hardwick, producer Horace's wife, who wants her to meet her friend Jerry. The trouble is, Dale has mistaken Jerry for Horace and slaps his face for the philanderer she thinks he is! In Venice Jerry sweeps her onto the dance floor (Cheek To Cheek) and proposes marriage again. He gets another slap for his pains. Eventually the plot unravels, and Jerry and Dale lead the carnival revels in The Piccolino, a superbly lavish finale.
'Top Hat' opened at the Radio City Music Hall on 16th August 1935 and broke all existing box office records. Fred's insistence on being photographed full-figure during his dances proved that one expert dancer could be just as effective as squadrons of massed dancers in formation. His singing, as light and ethereal as his footwork, proved timeless - as enjoyable as it was to prove influential.
After Fred in top hat and tails F35came Fred in Navy uniform. A hoary old plot that had already done service as a play, 'Shore Leave' and a musical, 'Hit the Deck', both filmed, was dusted off again with a new score by Irving Berlin. The happy result was called 'Follow the Fleet'. The rousing opening number, We Saw The Sea expresses the frustrations of life seen from a battleship. However, ashore, the Paradise Ballroom beckons with Ginger Rogers as Sherry and the chance to Let Yourself Go. Back on ship, her ex-partner Bake Baker (Fred Astaire) performs a speciality number (I'd Rather Lead A Band) for a visiting British Admiral. Bake wants to put on a charity benefit show and in a twinkling, Sherry and he are trying out the lively I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket. Later on, the highspot of the gala itself is Let's Face The Music And Dance, one of Berlin's very greatest creations and a definitive example of Fred's dancing and wooing.
For some of us, 'Swing Time' is the finest Astaire/Rogers film of all. With a dazzling score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, it finds Fred as Lucky Garnett, a dancer and gambler who visits a dance studio run by Penny (Ginger) and proves her most successful pupil in Pick Yourself Up. Because of his gambling he misses an important audition, but he woos her unsuccessfully with The Way You Look Tonight. They visit a deserted resort in the snow and Fred tries again in A Fine Romance. In one of the nightclub sequences of the film, Fred appears for the first and only time in blackface - in a tribute to the great dancer Bill Robinson (Bojangles Of Harlem).
'Shall We Dance' boasts a classic score by the Gershwins. Fred's a ballet dancer this time and has already fallen in love with Ginger even before they've met. I've Got Beginner's Luck at the beginning is followed by Slap That Bass, a vigorous tap number for Fred in the engine room of a mighty ocean liner bound for New York. Later, in the ballroom of a New York hotel, Fred and Ginger dance together for the first time in the film to They All Laughed. They escape the press and land at the roller skating rink in Central Park - cue for Let's Call The Whole Thing Off. Later, after going to New Jersey to get married so they can divorce (it's that sort of picture), they take a ferry back to Manhattan where Fred confides They Can't Take That Away From Me. In an intriguing and inventive finale, Fred dances with dozens of masked Gingers before the real one reveals herself - and then it's Shall We Dance?
Fred was without Ginger in 'A Damsel In Distress'. RKO chose an adaptation of a P G Wodehouse-Ian Hay play, and sought Jessie Matthews to co-star, but eventually selected Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland - better known as Joan Fontaine. She was no dancer but made an attractive titled English lady. The Gershwin's came up with a fine score with a distinctly English touch - A Foggy Day (In London Town) was sung not in that great city, but in the grounds of a castle with Fred in white tie and tails. Things Are Looking Up celebrated Fred's discovery that Lady Alyce (Joan Fontaine) was in love with him. Nice Work If You Can Get It appeared twice - once as a vocal trio featuring Fred, and at the end of the film in a percussive drum dance. I Can't Be Bothered Now found Fred with characteristic insouciance in a paean of praise to dancing performed while surrounded by London traffic.
Fred Astaire's film musicals are amongst the finest films of all. Their songs are amongst the best ever written. No-one has yet sung them with the style and elegance of their first interpreter - Fred Astaire.