Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Happy Birthday, Fred Astaire!

May 10th used to be a holiday in my household, as I always tried to celebrate the birthday of my favorite film star, Fred Astaire. I remember taking a cake with 80+ candles on it to my office one May 10th in the 80s, with co-workers fearing we were going to set off the sprinkler system if we actually lit it up to attempt to blow it out.

Now that my beloved Fred has been gone for awhile (he died in 1987, at the age of 88) I no longer send him a birthday card (obviously) or eat cake in his honor, although I still try to celebrate in my own way. This year, that way is to talk about him on my blog, to let everybody who reads this in on the significance of May 10th in our cultural landscape. And also, of course, to let myself wallow in a little Astaire-o-rama just for fun.

Frederick Austerlitz was born in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899, as the world was moving from horse-and-buggy thinking into automated everything. Movies, cars, radio, music coming from your very own Gramophone or Victrola... The world was breaking wide open.

As America entered the 20th Century, Fred Austerlitz and his older sister Adele were taking dance lessons at the behest of their mother, who hoped to create a brother-and-sister act for the vaudeville circuit. By 1905, they had moved to New York and adopted the name Astaire as part of their mom's plan to achieve stardom.

Everybody thought Adele was the one with the talent, while Fred was clever and creative, picking up dance styles easily as well as noodling on the piano and other instruments. Their brother-and-sister act did very well pretty much from the start, landing a spot on the Orpheum circuit, and eventually getting themselves into a Broadway show, a Sigmund Romberg revue called "Over the Top," in 1917.

From there, they got larger spots in bigger shows, and were quite the splash in a show called "Stop Flirting!" in London in 1922. The show didn't do much in New York under the name "For Goodness Sake," but additional Gershwin songs were added for London, boosting the Astaires' role. Suddenly they were the toast of London, and "Stop Flirting!" ran for an amazing 418 performances.

After that, "Lady Be Good," with hits like "Fascinating Rhythm" in the score, was created just to showcase Fred and Adele in New York. It was the biggest hit yet for George and Ira Gershwin, as well as the perfect mix of song, dance and romantic comedy to highlight the charms of the Astaires. And if I ever run into anybody who has perfected time travel, I plan to request December 1, 1924, so I can walk into the Liberty Theatre on Broadway and see Fred and Adele open in "Lady Be Good."

Fred found movie stardom on his own, after Adele had decided to drop out of the act to marry Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, in 1932. At first, Fred continued on stage by himself, with Cole Porter's "Gay Divorce" and the hit song "Night and Day" paving the way for his solo career. Then Fred made his way to Hollywood, like so many stage stars before him, to see what he could do on the big screen.

Supposedly, some bigwig or other watched his screen test and concluded, "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." That's the story, anyway. At any rate, Fred got a walk-on in an otherwise dreadful Joan Crawford pic called "Dancing Lady" in 1933, and from there, danced into history at RKO Studios when he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a fizzy, fun picture about airplanes and romance in Brazil called "Flying Down to Rio."

Although neither Astaire nor Rogers was keen on being part of a team, their success in the filmed version of "Gay Divorce," now called "The Gay Divorcee," as well as "Top Hat," "Shall We Dance" and "Swing Time," pretty much assured their names would be linked forever. They were huge for RKO, they were huge for Hollywood, and they were huge for the development of musicals on film.

Astaire was more than just a gifted dancer and charming performer. He sweated every detail of every dance, rehearsing and re-rehearsing until every step, every turn was sheer perfection. There are all kinds of famous stories about chicken feathers and beaded sleeves and bloody shoes getting in their way when they danced, but on screen, Astaire and Rogers look like La Belle, La Perfectly Swell Romance.

For me, Fred Astaire represents the best of what Hollywood can do (or could do, back in those early days of movie technology). Astaire-Rogers Land is a world where everybody can sing and dance (and does, whenever they feel like it), with beautiful music accompanying them as they and their fabulous costumes waft in and out of swanky (and enormous) black-and-white rooms. Fantasy, sure. But what a fantasy.

With or without Ginger, Fred is my idea of swoony, swell romance. He projects a certain gentility and sweetness along with all that easy elegance; his on-screen persona suits the tinkly tunes as well as the funny novelty numbers and the dramatic, romantic ballads. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” “One for My Baby.” “Cheek to Cheek.” “The Way You Look Tonight.” And my absolute favorite song of all time: “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.”

Nobody did it better. Ever. Yes, with Ginger, but also with Rita Hayworth and Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire made you believe that people can fall in love when they’re dancing. Isn't that a lovely thing to believe in, just for an hour or two?

As it happens, I discovered on this Mother’s Day weekend that my husband’s grandfather, Carl Frick of St. Charles, Illinois, was born the exact same day as Fred Astaire. As far as I know, Carl Frick wasn’t a dancer and he never considered leaving St. Charles for fame and fortune on the vaudeville circuit. Two men, born the same day in different Midwestern towns. One stayed in the Midwest and raised a dancing daughter, who had a decidedly non-dancing son (my husband) and very much dancing granddaughter (our niece). The other went east with his sister, developed a whole new style of dancing on film, and became an enduring screen legend as well as an example and inspiration to pretty much every dancer who came after him. Whether that was fate, destiny, or just the roll of the die, I'm glad Carl Frick stayed in St. Charles to raise his daughter June, and I'm glad Fred Austerlitz became Fred Astaire.

As Fred says in “The Gay Divorcee,” “Chance is the fool’s name for fate.” Or “Fate is a foolish thing to take chances with.” Or something.


  1. WONDERFUL article, Julie! Thanks so much for sharing it with us.

    A music-critic friend of mine talks about the rare performer (less than once in a generation) who can show us "the perfectibility of human endeavor" -- convince us that dancing (or acting, or classical singing), within the stylistic givens at hand, cannot be done any better than this. And Fred does this. He was a perfectionist, relentlessly so, and it resulted in filmed dance that will never lose its stature.

    True though it is that he convinces us that people can fall in love while dancing, he sometimes goes even further and persuades us that people can fall in love BY dancing. There are lots of examples; a well-remembered one is "Dancing in the Dark" with Cyd Charisse in THE BAND WAGON (they're distrustful acquaintances before it starts, afterward they're dreamy with the bliss of falling in love). Sometimes those who make the movie are all but winking at us about the subtext of the dance -- I love that after the bliss of "Night and Day" (THE GAY DIVORCEE), Ginger sinks back on a settee, unable to move, and Fred offers her a cigarette.

    Don't you wish we had some film of Adele? Everyone agrees that she was marvelous (some considered her the star of the two), the team lasted just into the era of talking pictures -- why didn't someone film THE BAND WAGON then?!? We have a handful of audio recordings of her but they really convey nothing of why she was a star. (By contrast, Fred's recordings show why all the great songwriters preferred to have him introduce their songs; he was a musician through and through.) I just discovered that she was on the verge of trying to make movies in the 1930s, but decided against it.

    You'll be happy to hear that I use LADY, BE GOOD! in my History of Musicals class to illustrate typical (but top-quality) 1920s musical comedy.

    By the way, it's always said that because they were siblings, Fred and Adele never played a romantic couple onstage. But in fact they did, twice (in now-forgotten shows). That suggests how innocently "romance" was portrayed in musicals in 1920.

    And now I'm going to mark the day by watching "Pick Yourself Up." Each time I see it, I gasp at seeing Fred (and this time, Ginger as well) not only conceive something on this level, but bring it off. Perfectly.

  2. Thanks for recreating your comment, Jon. I would love to see Adele on film. Come ON. Somebody had to have filmed her somewhere. I read this at Wikipedia (on the subject of Fred on film) recently: "Recently, film footage taken by Fred Stone of Astaire performing in Gay Divorce with Luce's successor, Dorothy Stone, in New York in 1933 was uncovered by dancer and historian Betsy Baytos and now represents the earliest extant performance footage of Astaire." Yeah, I wanna see THAT, too.

    Sorry I left the ! off "Lady Be Good!" It probably needs a comma, too, doesn't it?

    And back on the subject of the perfect numbers, I lovelovelove "Pick Yourself Up," but I am surprised you didn't pick "Never Gonna Dance." So perfect. And you are absolutely right about the difference between falling in love WHILE dancing and falling in love BY dancing. Yep. That's the key.

    I find it very difficult to express what it is that's so unique and amazing about Fred Astaire. It just IS. (Did I say this once before?)

  3. It's a hard choice, but I'll try to defend it:

    "Never Gonna Dance" is peerless in its context, because it's the summation of the movie -- it gathers together all the other songs and dances, shows us the road they traveled, takes them even further, and then dissolves it all as she spins out of his life. Incredible.

    "Pick Yourself Up" can stand by itself, it's just such joy to watch. All the details just click together like the perfect construction it is: little story links (their hopping step is the one she was teaching him in the previous scene), use of the space (the dance studio floor with that little fence around it), teasing our expectations (we can sense when they're going to finish, we're sure there's not enough time for them to reach where they're going, but they do). Plus... I just love the way Ginger picks up the hem of her skirt while she dances. Sometimes it comes down to silly things like that.

  4. I love the way they hop over the little white fence. I also love Ginger's dress with the white collar and her shoes.

    For me, "Never Gonna Dance" is celestial or something, it's so perfect. "Pick Yourself Up" is just delightful. I tend to fall on the side of delightful if I have to make a choice. So... "Pick Yourself Up" for me.

  5. Delightful! Loved seeing you dance with Fred in the blog entry, Julie, and enjoyed this little pas de deux with JAC in the comments!!