Fred Astaire: A Dazzling Legacy of Timeless Talent and Effervescent Charm

Fred Astaire

Introduction of Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire: (Frederick Austerlitz. Born 10 May 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska, died 22 June 1987 in Los Angeles). American dancer and choreographer. He was a master choreographer. He worked in vaudeville, revue, musical comedy, television, radio, and Hollywood films.

He achieved admiring recognition not only from his peers in the entertainment world but also from major figures in ballet and modern dance. He appeared in 212 musical numbers, of which 133 contain fully developed dance routines, an amazingly high percentage of which are of the highest artistic value. In quantity and especially in quality, his contribution is unrivaled in films and dance. He worked mainly in film.

Fred Astaire

Early life of Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire’s father was an immigrant Austrian brewery employee and a stagestruck amateur musician. His sister Adele showed such prodigious talent in early dancing school recitals. In 1904 their mother took them to New York City for professional training.

Fred and Adele were brought along and enrolled in dancing school. In 1905 when Fred was only six, they began performing together in vaudeville and earning money. In a few years, for two years they stayed out of show business, they are attending regular school sessions in New Jersey. Soon they returned to vaudeville and following the advice of another vaudeville dancer.  

Impactful people for Fred Astaire

Aurelio Coccia whom Fred Astaire considered the most influential man in his dancing career. Among those with limitless admiration for he was Serge Diaghilev, the Great Russian ballet impresario, who was particularly impressed by the dancer’s charm and musicality. Particularly influential on his outlook on dance at this time were, besides Coccia, the great Danish ballerina Adeline Genée and three dancing teams: Vernon and Irene Castle, Eduardo and Elisa Cansino, and Bert Kalmar and Jessie Brown.

He was very impressed also by a black tapper, John W. Bubbles, whose sense of invention never seemed to flag. By the influenced of these people Fred Astaire learns to dance.

In 1932 Astaire’s sister retired from show business to marry a British aristocrat, Astaire sought to reshape his career. He settled on the featured role in the show Gay Divorce, a “musical play” with songs by Cole Porter. This show was important because it proved that he could flourish without his sister and it helped to establish the pattern of most of his later film musicals a light, perky, unsentimental comedy largely uncluttered by subplot and built around a love story for Astaire and his partner.

That time he asserted famous dialogue scenes like “Saying ‘I love you’ was the job of our dance routines”. These scenes gave him lots of publicity.

Fred Astaire’s married life

Fred Astaire married Phyllis Livingston Potter (1933). She came from one of Boston’s most aristocratic families and had never seen him on the stage. He had two children: Fred, Jr., born in 1936, and Ava, born in 1942. To Astier’s great despair, his wife died of cancer in 1954 at age forty-six. Shortly after his marriage, he went to Hollywood.

First stage of career

From 1917 to 1932 was the struggled and empowering period for Fred Astaire. In 1917 he moved from vaudeville to the musical stage. From then until 1932 he appeared in ten musical productions on Broadway.

A few were flops, but most were hugely successful, in particular, two musical comedies with songs by George 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). As his stage careers progressed, he became more and more involved in the choreography for the routines. He started performing in solo numbers devised primarily by himself.

Struggling to moneymaking.

Fred Astaire worked at Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer (MGM), he had a dancing bit in the Joan Crawford film Dancing Lady (1933), and then he went to the financially shaky RKO, where, under contract, he was fifth billed in the exuberant, fluttery Flying Down to Rio (1933), in which he mostly kept the characterization as a juvenile he had used on Broadway with his sister. Flying Down to Rio was a massive hit and his performance was obviously a major factor in that success.

The clearest trumpeting of his potential and the reasons for it came in the review in Variety: 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. The message was the thin, balding, self conscious, ingratiating, romantically unimpressive tap dancer from the New York stage was a moneymaker.

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).

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Rogers was an outstanding partner for Fred Astaire, because as a skilled, intuitive actress. She was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when the dancing began. The dramatic import of the dance and without resorting to style shattering emoting, she cunningly contributed her share to the choreographic impact of their numbers together.

The Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee (1934), a film version of Gay Divorce, was the first of the major Astaire-Rogers pictures, and it scored even better at the box office than had Flying Down to Rio. Despite Astaire’s reservations about being tied into another partnership, the Astaire-Rogers team was an almost overnight success, and exhibitors would seek to book all of RKO’s pictures just to be assured of the Astaire-Rogers films-nine in all.

Roberta (1935), with music by Jerome Kern, followed, out grossing The Gay Divorcee and firmly establishing Astaire and Rogers as the 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, and the romantic compatibility are all there in full measure.

Astaire’s lone effort without Rogers during this period, the delightful. A Damsel in Distress (1937) was his first film to lose money overall. By the end of the 1930s the revenues of his films with Rogers also had begun to fall; after a disagreement over fees with the studio Astaire left, dissolving his partnership with Rogers, at least temporarily. Fred and Rogers are not lovers.

Style of Fred Astaire's dances

Fred Astaire’s dances are stylistically eclectic. He called his “outlaw style” is an odd and singularly unpredictable blend of tap and ballroom with bits from other dance forms thrown in. The casual sophistication, the airy wit, the transparent rhythmic intricacy, the apparent ease of execution, the consummate musicality qualities apparently inbred in his most natural dance. Distinctive style and sensibility was appear in his dance.

He was perfectly content to work within the considerable restraints posed by the types of films in which he was presented. Although the creation of many of his dances involved a degree of collaboration with another choreographer, dance director or dance assistant the most important of whom was Hermes Pan-Astaire himself was the guiding creative hand and the final authority on his solos and duets some of which were filmed in one shot.


His choreography is notable for its inventiveness, wit, musicality, and economy. Characteristically, each dance takes two or three central ideas, which might derive from a step, the music, the lyrics, the qualities of his partner or the plot situation and carefully presents and develops them. Astaire spent weeks working out his film choreographies. He was a remarkably efficient planner and worker when the costs were highest; some of his most complicated film routines, planned for months, were shot in a day or two.

Dance in Hollywood

Once in Hollywood, after a vastly successful stage career with his sister Adele as partner, Astaire quickly focused his attention on the problems and prospects in the filming of dance. He soon settled on the approach he was to follow throughout his career, one that was to dominate Hollywood musicals for a generation; both camera work and editing are fashioned to enhance the flow and continuity of the dances, not to undercut or overshadow them. The dances are captured in a small number of shots.

His approach was fundamentally cautious and conservative, he was open to new ideas and to development. Once he had gained control over the filming of his numbers in the 1930s, and once he had firmly established his basic aesthetic for filmed dance, he began to open out, to expand, to make wider use of the medium but always with an eye toward putting the medium at the service of the dance. The Belle of New York he seems to have relished the opportunity to choreograph for a dancer who could comfortably keep up with him.

Films in 1940 and beyond.

The next years were nomadic ones for Fred Astaire. He wandered from studio to studio, appeared with a variety of partners and prospered. Between 1940 and 1946 he made three films at MGM, two at Columbia, three at Paramount and one back at RKO. The dances in these films retain the usual high quality. Major musical contributions in these films also came from several onscreen bands whose sounds Astaire often found choreographically invigorating: Artie Shaw, Freddie Slack, Chico Hamilton, Xavier Cugat, and Bob Crosby.

Duets and Solo

His tap duets with Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) may be emotionally unevocative but are brilliant nonetheless, as are several of his other duets with Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1941), Rita Hayworth in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Virginia Dale in Holiday Inn (1942), Joan Leslie in The Sky’s the Limit (1943), and Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946).

In his solos he often seemed to be seeking to expand the tap vocabulary, in part by capitalizing on its capacity for sheer noisemaking, an effect maximized in his solo with firecrackers in Holiday Inn. This quality was used for emotional purpose as well, to express giddy joy in You’ll Never Get Rich, rage and frustration in The Sky’s the Limit, and an arresting sense of audience confrontation in Blue Skies (1946).

Comedy Films

All these early to mid 1940s films are comedies and the first few mostly seek to emulate the breezy insouciance of Fred Astaire’s earlier films with Rogers. 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 over calculated, opulence  and most of the numbers have an arrestingly hard edge.

He seems to have found the latter’s precedent-shattering revue form liberating, creating a duet for himself and Bremer that evokes a kind of extravagant, highly charged lovemaking that he had never before explored so richly. Yolanda and the Thief attempted to achieve vaporous fantasy, while in the two films with Bing Crosby, Holiday Inn and Blue Skies, Astaire is content to be a romantic also ran.

Dancing school

Fred Astaire decided to retire in 1946 from motion pictures, his films had created a boom in the dancing school business, so he began what turned out to be a difficult but ultimately successful venture to establish his own chain of dancing schools. He made the investment in part because he had no desire to experience a long, pathetic period of decline as an aging dancer. After that Fred Astaire stop dancing.

Fred Astaire's Partners

Astaire’s participation certainly contributed to both the earnings and the reputation of the Freed musicals. Easter Parade (1948), co-starring the affectingly vulnerable Garland was a major hit.

Most of his 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).  Jane Powell a singer-actress was paired with Astaire in Royal Wedding (1951); and Betty Hutton, a bombastic comedienne, played opposite him in Let’s Dance (1950).

Occasionally he had difficulty using his partners’ various talents to advantage but, for the most part, he did quite well.

Once again in the movies

In 1947 Gene Kelly, who was scheduled to appear opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade at MGM, broke his ankle and was unable to work. At Kelly’s suggestion, producer Arthur Freed approached Astaire about taking over and found himself once again in the movies.

Career in television

Fred Astaire had a highly successful career in television, where he appeared on numerous shows as host performer he produced four carefully crafted, multiple-award-winning musical specials between 1958 and 1968. His partner in the specials was Barrie Chase, a limber young dancer who had had bit dancing parts in two of his films in the 1950s. Major contributions to the television choreography were made by Hermes Pan and Herbert Ross. With some important exceptions the choreography was not of as high a quality as in his films.

Latter life

In 1968 Astaire appeared as dotty title character in Finian’s Rainbow and in the 1970s he helped to host That’s Entertainment, two compilation films by MGM to salute its by then vanished golden age of musicals. He also tried his hand at straight acting roles with considerable success.

In films he played a misanthropic scientist in On the Beach (1959), an irrepressibly 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), a con man in both 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).

He also appeared in numerous dramatic specials and series on television, usually playing a suave gentleman.

Robyn Smith

Astaire also explored other fields. Shattering Hollywood tradition, he wrote his autobiography himself. As he entered his eighties Astaire, a lifelong horse racing enthusiast, romanced and in 1980 married Robyn Smith, a successful, thirty-seven-year-old jockey who had never seen any of his films.

Awards and Conclusion

Fred Astaire was so famous because he helped enormously to define and develop a motion picture genre; he brought out the best in many composers and lyricists; he influenced a generation of filmmakers and choreographers; he inspired quite a few people to take up dance as an avocation or a profession; and he activated the fancies and fantasies of millions in his audiences and will continue to do so as long as films are shown.

Astaire’s musicality and the fact that his films had class and were highly profitable, attracted many of the top popular song composers of the day. As Irving Berlin said to George Gershwin in 1936, “There is no setup in Hollywood that can compare with doing an Astaire picture.” The result was a series of films whose musical values often matched their choreographic splendor.

Astaire honored and feted him for his achievements at glamorous celebrations held in New York City, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. His courtesy, enormous professionalism, and tireless struggle for improvement earned him the devoted admiration of his co-workers, even if his perfectionism, propensity to worry, shyness, self-doubt, and rages could make him difficult to work with at times.

Fred Astaire died of pneumonia on June 22, 1987, at the age of 88. His body was buried at Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth,California.

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