”Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” This inauspicious quote about Fred Astaire’s early foray into Hollywood has been talked about for years. Fred, himself, said the quote was “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.” This obviously was not a good beginning for this extraordinarily talented man who helped lift the spirits and rescue the world from the Great Depression in the 1930s.
With various partners, including the immortal Ginger Rogers, Fred’s movies lit up the lives of the people who struggled at that time. It was David O. Selznick, the great producer of Gone with the Wind, who had the greatest faith in Fred. Personally, I love Fred’s singing. He could sing a romantic song like Cheek to Cheek and make you feel like he really meant it. Gene Kelly, another great film dancer, said that the history of dance on film begins with Fred Astaire. He ranks #5 in American Film’s Institute 100 Years . . . 100 Stars.
Fred was born on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. It was Fred’s sister, Adele, who early on proved herself to be an instinctive singer and dancer. She planned a whole brother and sister act. Fred refused to take dance lessons at first, but he was adept at mimicking Adele. Oddly enough, they both acknowledged that he had the greater durability and she had the greater talent.
The Astaires broke into Broadway in 1917, and they also performed for the United States and allied troops. Fred met George Gershwin and it was to be a mutual admiration relationship. Fred ultimately proved to be the greater dancer and many would speculate that he was one of the best tap dancers in the world.
Fred and Adele’s partnership was over in 1932 when Adele got married. Fred went on to perform in The Gay Divorcee on stage. After the very successful partnership with his sister, Fred did not want to be tied to another dance partner. But the magic of Fred and Ginger and the choreography of the wonderful Hermes Pan made them the most popular dance team in the world. They went on to make 10 films together. Six of their films became the biggest money makers for RKO Radio Pictures. One of the funniest quotes about Fred and Ginger comes from the extraordinarily talented Katherine Hepburn. “He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.”
His collaboration with the stunning Rita Hayworth in 1941’s You’ll Never Get Rich catapulted Hayworth to stardom. One of my personal favorites is his second film with Rita, 1942’s You Were Never Lovelier. They danced two numbers to Jerome Kerns I’m Old Fashioned and the breathtaking Dearly Beloved.
Once Fred became a star, he never stopped dancing and he was productive long into old age. He danced with Judy Garland, Jane Powell, Vera-Ellen, Leslie Caron and he even danced with the exquisite Audrey Hepburn. What many may not realize is that he performed in the drama, On The Beach, in 1959, and he got great reviews. From the late 50s to the early 80s, he performed in television specials.
Fred Astaire made dancing look easy. While more talented than most people in the world, he never had a lot of confidence. He would never go to see the “rushes” (what he had filmed that day). Mikhail Baryshnikov called him “a genius” . . . . “a classical dancer like I never saw in my life.”
Although many have questioned Fred’s singing abilities, Irving Berlin considered him as good as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. It was not necessarily because of his voice, but because of how he could project a song. Jerome Kern considered him the best interpreter of Kern’s songs. Although his voice was light, Fred’s lyricism and phrasing were unsurpassed.
On Friday, April 24th at 1pm Eastern Time / 10am Pacific Time, Movies Broadway Singers and Beyond will give you a sample of Fred’s singing talent. You will hear songs from composers and writers like Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. I love singing along with Fred. I only wish I could dance with him.
In 1981, Fred received The Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. He was also the first recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Thank you, Fred, for all of the memories, for all of your talent, for all of the music. I sing with you in my art room and you have been a major part of my life. I hope all of you out there enjoy this wonderful music.