Fred Astaire: A Hoofer with a Spare Set of Tails

By Meaghan Walsh Gerard

Legend has it that when Fred Astaire auditioned for his first Hollywood film, the casting agent made a note that said: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Can dance a little. ” That person must have been kicking themselves for the next half a century as Astaire constantly redefined filming techniques, the genre of movie musicals, and what it means to fall in love on the dance floor.

From a young age Fredrick Austerlitz was gyrating around the house, no doubt driving his parents crazy. He and his older sister Adele had a popular vaudeville act that showcased their tap dance and comedy skills. They quickly outgrew the Midwest venues and landed a Broadway show in 1917. She eventually eschewed the stage to marry Lord Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. This left Fred, now renamed Astaire, free to find a new partner and head for Hollywood.

His first movie didn’t give him a major starring role, but it did pair him with Ginger Rogers. The two would make nine smash hits together at RKO studios. The romantic comedy plots varied little – Rogers as the reluctant woman trying to fend off Astaire’s clumsy advances – but they gave ample space for the pair to create some memorable scenes. The combination of stellar choreography, catchy American Songbook standards and gorgeous gowns made for delectable visual candy during the Great Depression.

In 1934, Astaire reprised the popular stage show in The Gay Divorcee. The comedy of errors was nominated for three Oscars marking a watershed moment in musical moviemaking. The following year, the duo returned in Top Hat, another daffy musical comedy. Their “Cheek to Cheek” number and Astaire’s “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” are stunners. There is also a beautiful, wistful number in “Isn’t It A Lovely Day To Be Caught In The Rain” and a small cameo from Lucille Ball.

“Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually, she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success. “

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