Fred Astaire’s contribution to the film genre: Musicals

Fred Astaire was known as a man of talent, he was an American film star, a Broadway stage dancer and a choreographer. Fred Astaire was born in Omaha, Nebraska on May 10, 1899. His parents were Frederick Austerlitz an Austrian brewery employee and her mother Ann Geilus. Fred was regarded as a talented stage dancer of all time. He has been featured in many successful musical films starring with Ginger Rogers. Her sister Adele Astaire was the first to show her musical talent with dancing school recitals. Her mother therefore decided to take her to New York for professional training together with Fred who was only four at the time. Ann wanted Fred and her sister to work together which was a common trend in vaudeville at that time. Though at first Fred was reluctant to attend the dance lessons, he eventually began imitating his sister’s steps and movement and took up playing accordion, piano and clarinet. The two children started serious performances when Fred was only seven in 1905 under the name “Astaire”. Astaire was a family name attributed to “L’Astaire” their uncle.

Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty was Astaire’s first performance in a try out theater in Keyport, New Jersey[1]. In this performance, which turned out to be very successful, Fred wore different attires that included tails and top hat in the first half of it and in the second half a lobster outfit. The Astaires were named Vaudeville’s ‘Greatest Child’ act after this performance. Astaires shortly landed in a good contract where they played the Orpheum circuit in United State’s cities and the surroundings. In order to avoid trouble from the child labor laws and the Gerry Society, the family decided to take a break from the show business. When they later resumed after two years they started incorporating new dancing styles like tap dancing, which were inspired by Bill Robinson and Sublet John. They also learned other routines like waltz, tango and ballroom dances taught to them by their mentor Aurelio Coccia a Vaudeville dancer. The Astaires were said to appear on Fanchon the Cricket a 1915 film with Mary Pickford starring, a rumor they denied.

Fred Astaire who by this time had gained interest in his music career started hunting for new dancing ideas and new music. It was while in this hunt that he met George Gershwin who was working in Remick’s as a song plugger. Their meeting consequently had significant consequences in their careers later. In 1917 with their perfect steps and originality, the Astaires’ broke in to Broadway with their patriotic revue known as Over the Top. From 1917 to 1932 when their music career entered the musical stage, they performed more than ten productions both in Broadway and in London, some of which were a failure but most of them were a complete success. In 1918, they performed in The Passing Show, after which Heywood Broun a newspaper columnist praised the Astaires for their good dancing skills and named Fred as an outstanding dancer. By this time, Astaire’s dancing skills were much better than her sister’s but Adele too had an edge in attracting the audience through her sparkle, her good tone in the act and her strong sense of humor. Their perfect combination of character coupled with Astaire’s skills in choreography and his careful preparation made them give outstanding performances. Their most popular shows were “George and Ira Gershwin’s show” known as Lady Be Good in 1924, Funny Face in 1927 and The Band Wagon in 1930[2]. This 1920’s performances gave them popularity with the theatre crowd and other film actors like Robert Benchley .Benchley in 1930 commented by naming Fred as the greatest top dancer in the world.

The Astaires parted ways in 1932; Adele got married to Lord Cavendish while Fred continued on his own with the film Gay Divorce on Broadway and in London. He was still considering offers from Hollywood though the end of their partnership did not work well for him. He later collaborated with Claire Luce and together they created a romantic dance to the song Night and Day by Cole Porters written by “Gay Divorce”. Since Astaire was used to acting with his sister he had hard time acting romantically with Luce. They created a new film version of ‘The Gay Divorce’ and called it The Gay Divorcee in 1934. The new film contained Astaire’s tap dancing skills and as Rusty said in his book, The greatest tap dance stars and their stories, 1900-1955, “through the Astaire-Rogers movies, to the intricate artistry of bebop, tap has dominated American dance with its rhythm, originality, and humor” [3]. Their new film gained success in the stage play and created a new era in filmed dance. The earliest existing performance footage of Astaire was the one taken in New York by Fred Stone in 1933 in the show Gay Divorce where he was performing with Dorothy Stone, Luce’s successor. Astaire married Phyllis Livingstone Potter in 1933 and shortly thereafter ventured in to Hollywood. The same year he danced in Dancing Lady under MGM and later got a contract with RKO, a company that was a bit shaky financially at the time. Though his contract started with controversy on his screen test report, RKO supported him. On his return from MGM, he was fifth-billed in the lively Flying down to Rio alongside Ginger Rogers. In the film Flying down to Rio, he used juvenile characterization to act. The film became a hit – a success all attributed to him. “Variety magazine” trumpeted his potential stating that he was likable on the screen, had a kind voice and was an outstanding dancer. Astaire became a popular name in Hollywood circles.

Astaire was not excited about the idea of being in another partnership when her sister Adele returned, but since the public liked the Astaire-Rogers pairing, he did not object. The partnership was a huge success and it made dancing a major part of film musical in Hollywood. Rogers and Astaire performed Roberta in 1935, which made them the queen and the king of RKO. This partnership brought about team spirit and development that made them achieve improved features like emotional richness, romantic compatibility, sparkling sense of comedy and high spirits. Through the partnership, they performed in six films, Top Hat in 1935, Swing Time and Follow the Fleet in 1936, Shall we Dance in 1937, Carefree in 1938 and The story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939[4]. Alder stated in his book, Fred Astaire: a wonderful life that, “the elegant movements of Astaire and all the energy of Kelly” meaning that partnership brought best attributes of Astaire together with the other partners like Kelly. Astaire created an array of imaginative solos and playful duets for these films and continued to learn and develop his screen person that eventually developed to give him depth, security, sexual definition and eventually maturity. Astaire had a bargaining edge both financially and creatively, he had complete freedom on dances and had no difficulty requesting for higher fees from studio powers. Rogers was considered by many people Astaire’s greatest dancing partners. This is because she was skilled and spirited as both a dancer and an actor and made people think that dancing with Fred was an amazing and thrilling experience. Though Astaire confessed that she had many faults, he also said that she had style and talent that kept on improving and made everyone else who danced with him incompatible. Rogers on the other hand described Astaire as unpredictable and uncompromising, always coming up with fresh ideas and dumping the old ones. Astaire made the first film alone without Rogers called A Damsel in Distress in 1937, which was the first of his films to lose money. After making the last two films Carefree and The story of Vernon and Irene Castle with Rogers, Astaire left RKO after these films had large production costs that made them lose money. Rogers still remained and worked to become a popular in early forties. They were later to reunite at MGM in 1949 in The Barkleys of Broadway[5].

After his exit from RKO, Astaire started moving from studio to studio-pursuing new film opportunities. He had some successful outcomes through his links with choreographic collaborators who made him to be continually innovative. He performed in Cole Porter’s Begin of the Beguine with Eleanor Powell the finest female tap dancer as her dancing partner in 1940. In 1941, he played in Holiday Inn together with Bill Crosby and Blue Skies later in 1946. “Holiday Inn” was remembered for his Let’s Say it to Firecrackers virtuoso solo dance while “Blue Skies” for Puttin’ on the Ritz, a dance routine and innovative song associated to him. Though both films were a financial success, he was dissatisfied with his roles. He also worked with Paulette Goddard in the dance Second Chorus in 1940, which was performed in Artie Shaw orchestra. In 1941, he made a picture with Rita Hayworth called You’ll Never Get Rich and in 1942, he made a second one with her known as You Were Never Lovelier featuring “I’m Old Fashioned” – a duet to Kerns. The film You Were Never Lovelier was successful and became a centerpiece in 1983 compliment to Astaire.

Rita Hayworth was a professional Latin dancer and she taught Astaire Latin American dance idioms, which he incorporated in to his style. Astaire also appeared in the wartime drama in 1943 opposite Joan Leslie in The Sky’s the Limit where he danced a troubled routine One for My Baby on a bar counter while introducing Arlen and Mercer[6]. This film, which Astaire choreographed alone, became a huge success in modest box office and marked an end to his charming happy and lucky screen persona. He later on featured in two lavish vehicles, Yolanda and the Thief and Ziegfeld Follies in 1946, with Lucille Bremer as his partner. The former was a fantasy featuring a surrealistic ballet while the later was a music revue featuring him teaming with Gene Kelly in the making of the Gershwin song The Babbit and the Bromide that he introduced to Adele in 1927. Follies became a hit and complete success but Yolanda failed miserably an action that made Astaire insecure and worried that his career was falling apart. In 1946 during the production of “Blue Skies”, he announced his retirement from motion pictures and shocked his audience. He chose his farewell dance to be “Puttin on the Ritz.”

In 1947, a year after his retirement he formed his own chain of dancing schools called Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which he later sold in 1966 after some difficulties. He returned to movies in 1947 to replace Kelly in Easter Parade alongside Judy Garland. When Garland got sick, Astaire replaced him in the film The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949 where he performed with his longtime partner Rogers. Throughout the 1950’s, he made many musicals alongside his previous partners like Betty Hutton Lets Dance in 1950, Jane Powell Royal Wedding in 1951, Vera-Ellen Three Little Words in 1950 and The Belle of New York in 1952. Others were Cyd Charisse’s The Band Wagon in 1953 and Silk Stockings in 1957, Leslie Caron Daddy Long Legs in 1955 and with Audrey Hepburn Funny Face in 1957[7]. Astaire then recorded a quintet album called The Astaire Story, which contained an overview of his music career. The album was led by Oscar Peterson and produced by Norman Granz. In 1999, the four-volume album won his a Grammy Title known as the “Grammy Hall of Fame Award”. The award was given to him after qualitative musical performances of 25 years where he had made 30 musical films. Astaire announced his second retirement to concentrate on the nuclear war drama On the Beach in 1959.

Later after his second retirement, Astaire ventured in to other fields like television where he hosted and performed in many shows. During the period of 1958 to 1968, he created and produced four musical specials with Barrie Chase a young dancer who had previously appeared in two of his films. These four films, which won him Emmy awards, included An Evening with Fred Astaire produced in 1958 that won him nine awards among them “Most outstanding Single Program of the Year” and “Best Single Performance by an Actor”[8]. The film became the first one that time to be prerecorded on color videotape and later on won another award in 1988 when it was put in modern format. In 1962, he performed in The Notorious Landlady and The Midas Run in 1969 among others. The musical film Finian’s Rainbow that was produced in 1968, in which he played as an Irish rogue burying gold in Fort Knox’s shadow, was his last major production. In the film, he played with Petula Clark who was acting like his cynical daughter.

The film that was directed by Coppola Francis was a failure to him and had many flaws like; he was nervous singing with Petula and Petula was uneasy dancing with him too. He continued to work on other films in 1970’s like the It Takes a Thief, where he was acting as Wagner’s father and in The Towering Inferno in 1974 dancing with Jennifer Jones. In The Towering Inferno, he won the Best supporting Actor Academy Award. In 1970,’s he also narrated Santa Claus Comin’ to Town, an animated classic film and appeared in two documentaries called That’s Entertainment with Kelly performing a number of song dance routines. In 1975, he made three albums, They Cant Take This Away From Me, Attitude Dancing and A couple of Song and Dance Men. In the cult movie, The Amazing Dobermans he played a dog owner’s role alongside James Franciscus and Barbara Aden. In 1978, he acted in the television film A Family Upside Down along with Helen Hayes, a film that was successful and well received that it won him another Emmy award. Astaire featured as a chameleon in Battlestar Galactica, a science fiction TV series. He also appeared in The Man with Nine Lives where he adapted the role he had on the Galactica. He performed his last role in Ghost Story from a novel written by Peter Straub[9].

In conclusion, Astaire was a talented performer, choreographer and dancer in musical circles. He spent his whole life pursuing his musical career, majority of his work still preserved to date. Astaire worked through collaboration with dancers, choreographers and though he needed their assistance, he made the final decisions on his own especially when it came to solos and duets. Astaire was known to be a perfectionist who would do something repeatedly until he got the required outcome. He was a devoted choreographer who spent most of his time struggling to improve by being innovative. He leaves a legacy of dancing in the music genre through his work. He defined and developed greater heights in filmmaking and choreography. He also inspired a dancing trend to people and continued to entertain his audience with his outstanding films. His dancing styles were articulate built upon ideas that were inspired by his own steps or the music he was dancing to. It is told that you could tell the mood of a song by just looking at his dancing steps. Astaire was good at show preparations and he would go for many rehearsals where he would repeat the sequence until it was perfect before the actual recording. Though he was a talented choreographer, Astaire lacked confidence and admitted failure too easily. Bawden shows the perfectionist side of Astaire in her book The Oxford companion to film where he was quoted saying, “I don’t want to be the oldest performer in captivity. I don’t want to look like a little old man dancing out there.”  He was quoted saying that he was never perfect in anything to get it 100% right even after his nomination and awards.



Adler, Bill. Fred Astaire: a wonderful life. New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987

Bawden, Liz-Anne. The Oxford companion to film. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976.

Frank, Rusty E. Tap! The greatest tap dance stars and their stories, 1900-1955. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 1994

Monush, Barry. Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors. Oxfordshire: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003



[1] Liz-Anne Bawden. The Oxford companion to film. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976)

[2] Bill Adler. Fred Astaire: a wonderful life. (New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987)

[3] Rusty E. Frank, Tap! The greatest tap dance stars and their stories, 1900-1955. (Cambridge, MA Da Capo Press, 1994)

[4] Bill Adler. Fred Astaire: a wonderful life. (New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987)

[5] Bill Adler. Fred Astaire: a wonderful life. (New York, NY: Carroll & Graf, 1987)

[6] Barry Monush. Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors. (Oxfordshire: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003)

[7] Barry Monush. Screen World Presents the Encyclopedia of Hollywood Film Actors. (Oxfordshire: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2003)

[8] Liz-Anne Bawden. The Oxford companion to film. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976)

[9] Rusty E. Frank, Tap! The greatest tap dance stars and their stories, 1900-1955. (Cambridge, MA Da Capo Press, 1994)


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