Thursday, May 10, 2012

It's Fred Astaire's Birthday!

I posted this piece last year on Fred Astaire's birthday, and I planned to do something similar this year. But then I thought, hey, that one was pretty good. Why not put it up again? So here you are -- a repeat of "Happy Birthday, Fred Astaire!" with a tweak here and there, because I can't stop myself from the occasional edit.

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 Ann Austerlitz's plan to achieve stardom for her children.

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 decorated in wonderful Art Deco style. 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, like “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 last year that my husband’s grandfather, Carl Frick of St. Charles, Illinois, was born on 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.

If you're looking to start your own Fred Astaire film collection, I highly recommend the Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collectors Edition, released in 2006. It has all ten Astaire/Rogers pics on DVD, plus extras like trailers and ads, vintage shorts and cartoons, and behind-the-scenes "featurettes." It's a lovely set, and perfect for the completist.


  1. A most timely post! (But then, when is it NOT timely to sing Fred's praises?)

    I second the recommendation for the Ultimate Collectors DVD box at the end. I'll also add that "A Damsel in Distress" is now available, and that was made in the middle of the Ginger Rogers series by the same production team, so Fred is in top form. And though it's true we don't get Ginger in it, we DO get George Burns and Gracie Allen, and they're delightful.

    In fact, I just did a quick search and found that with the relatively recent release of that one and "The Sky's the Limit." we now have all of Fred Astaire's movie musicals available on DVD!

    Except for one: "Let's Dance." I've never seen it, so I may be being unjust, but my feeling is "I never need to see Betty Hutton again in my life." (I should note the presence in the Amazon customer reviews of someone who says "Betty is so good in this, you watch her instead of Fred." I'll leave that one to Julie's ministrations.) Even this one appeared on VHS, so it may be along eventually too, for the completists.

    Among the non-Ginger titles, I especially enjoy "Broadway Melody of 1940" (that's the one where he and Eleanor Powell do that amazing "Begin tghe Beguine"), "You Were Never Lovelier" (Rita Hayworth was indeed enchantingly lovely in this, she could certainly dance, and they get some nice Jerome Kern songs), "The Band Wagon," and "Funny Face" (the age difference with Audrey Hepburn can be disquieting, but they're both so charming in it and the Gershwin songs are so great, I'm happy).

  2. Hahahahahahahahaha. I *have* seem "Let's Dance." It's the only Fred Astaire movie I can't stand to watch. Never mind the fact that Betty ("More bounce per ounce") Hutton is a terrible match with Fred. Never mind the fact that cast opposite someone whose persona is somewhat low-key, she seems even more frenetic and crazed by comparison. But THEN you have to factor in the material in this particular movie, and her performance of such gems as "Can't Stop Talking," with lyrics like talkinaboutimtalkinaboutimtalkinaboutimtalkinaboutim (huge gasp of breath) THEMANTHATIADORE.

    It's so awful. It kept me up night as a child while "talkinaboutimtalkaboutimtalkinaboutim" and the HUGE caterwaul at the beginning of the song raced through my mind with a picture of Betty Hutton and her exaggerated facial expressions, mouth agape, eyes bulging. Thank you to whoever decided to take a pass on that one at the DVD factory.

    I think Betty Hutton may've been the original No Talent Turnip, although she did have talent. It's just extremely annoying, over-the-top, nails-on-chalkboard talent.

    Aside from the Fred and Ginger movies, I would recommend both films with Rita Hayworth ("You Were Never Lovelier" and "You'll Never Get Rich") mostly because Rita is so beautiful and charming, the wonderful "Funny Face," with its attendant fashion show and beatnik milieu, and "The Bandwagon," just for Fred's numbers and "Dancing in the Dark," because the Triplets thing with Nanette Fabray is another horror story for me. And maybe even "Silk Stockings," which is pretty darn odd, but you get Peter Lorre in support and this number "Too bad, we can't go back to Moscow nooooow..." that always amuses me.

  3. Hah! The song (along with others from the movie) is on YouTube! I just watched it. You didn't exaggerate a bit. Especially the way it starts. With a lady who would benefit from careful treatment on film in order to (I want to be nice about this) bring out and perhaps enhance her attractiveness (I mean, stars are supposed to be appealing), wouldn't one choose closeups other than ones with mouth so wide open as to render face invisible, and eyes bulging, and the manic exertion evident at every moment? Good grief.

    I remember in one of our very first communications, before we'd even met in person, you casually referred to her as Betty Horrible Cretin Hutton, and I knew we were likely to become friends. Because even on relatively little exposure at that point, I couldn't figure out what she was supposed to be about, or why I was supposed to like her. Do check out those reader reviews of this flick on Amazon, with everyone talking about how she outdoes him in this, and is so beautiful and amazing.

    OK, I don't want my whole comment to be on the negative. Rita Hayworth is a knockout (I love her in "Cover Girl" with Gene Kelly and Phil Silvers too). Eleanor Powell is superhuman as a dancer. Cyd Charisse is a joy to see. Audrey Hepburn melts me every time (as long as she doesn't have to be Eliza Doolittle...). There.

  4. Ah yes. Betty Horrible Cretin Hutton. That's right. You know, she is at least somewhat acceptable in Annie Get Your Gun.

    Somewhat. And Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Maybe those directors knew how to sit on her. Or as another friend would say, tell her to divide by five.

  5. You know, between Betty Horrible Cretin Hutton and the No-Talent Turnip, someone else reading this exchange could rationally infer that we speak our own completely made-up language.

    I did recently see Annie Get Your Gun (it was included in one of those cheap TCM boxes), and... she was totally OK. If I saw that performance at the local playhouse I would give her her due applause at the end, conceding that she did her best and didn't let the show down.

    And I have no complaint about her contribution to the wonderful craziness of Miracle of Morgan's Creek. That role calls for just what she had to offer. So, full marks there.

    And I'm deeply sorry for having taken what should have been an in-depth conversation about Fred Astaire and turning its focus onto B---- H-----.

  6. It's my blog and I can bash B---- H----- if I want to!

    Since we are remembering old times, I will tell the story of when *I* knew we were destined to be friends. It was the old "Filmnotes" forum on Plato, and people were listing their ten favorite movies. My list was full of "Top Hat" and "Shall We Dance" and other such choices, as was yours (although perhaps "Swing Time" instead of "Shall We Dance"), while every other list was all Star Wars, Close Encounters, blahblahblah. I believe I "p-noted" you to note this occurrence. Or maybe you "p-noted" me. But I know we were the only ones cool enough (or uncool enough) to have (old) Fred Astaire movies on our lists. Which brings us back to the subject o' the day!

  7. I remember that! All the lists were based on the idea that movies didn't exist more than 5 years ago, and was this person in Illinois recalling "Shall We Dance" and such. (And yes, I probably would put "Swing Time" atop my own list.)

    OK, some Sublime Fred Numbers on film (not necessarily solo):

    "Night and Day" with Ginger (The Gay Divorcée)
    "Cheek to Cheek" with Ginger (Top Hat)
    The dance contest ("Let Yourself Go") with Ginger (Follow the Fleet)
    "Pick Yourself Up" and "Never Gonna Dance" and the finale, with Ginger (Swing Time)
    "They All Laughed" with Ginger (Shall We Dance)
    "Begin the Beguine" with Eleanor Powell (Broadway Melody of 1940)
    "You're All the World To Me" dancing on the ceiling! (Royal Wedding)
    "Dancing in the Dark" with Cyd Charisse (The Band Wagon)
    "Something's Gotta Give" with Leslie Caron (Daddy Long Legs)

  8. Yours are indeed sublime. I would add "The Girl Hunt" ballet with Cyd Charisse (in The Band Wagon) and the otherwise silly "Yam" that includes a lift (a lift!) with Ginger in "Carefree," as well as the Shorty George in "You Were Never Lovelier" (Rita Hayworth is SO cute in her little outfit and it's a fun number) and "Puttin' on the Ritz," which is such a signature solo, in "Blue Skies." I also have a love for "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" the duet with Jack Buchanan in The Band Wagon for reasons I can't fully express. It's not that great as a dance number, but it really defines Fred's character in that movie for me.

  9. I like all of yours. I should have included more of his solos. And I had originally had "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plan," but deleted it because it's so short -- maybe 45 seconds as part of a montage. Still, utterly memorable.

  10. How do you feel about his "Babbit and the Bromide" with Gene Kelly? I feel like I should love it more than I actually do. Also his pairing with Judy Garland ought to be classic, but somehow it isn't quite that for me (partly it's that I hate hobo numbers, but it's not just that) -- she's better with Gene, I think.

    Also, I've never seen Second Chorus. I understand that Artie Shaw and Burgess Meredith are more important in it than Paulette Goddard, but that she does have one number with Fred. Does she survive?

  11. Are you thinking of "By Myself" (at the beginning of "Band Wagon") instead of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" (nearer to the end)? I don't recall a montage in "Plan."

    It's been a long time since I saw Second Chorus, and I mostly recall thinking that Paulette Goddard was sweet and fun and very likeable, but not a good enough dancer for Fred, plus the movie itself wasn't a good vehicle for him. I thought at the time that Fred was better suited to the swellegant, elegant 30s than the "hep to that jive" 40s, and I still pretty much think that. It's like the difference between his characters in Gay Divorcee and Roberta. He's a better Guy Holden than Huck Haines.

    And I don't like The Babbitt and the Bromide. It just seems kind of awkward, as if their styles don't mesh and it was all a cludge to get the two top dance stars in a number together. I have trouble sometimes with the patented Gene Kelly athleticism. I prefer swellegant/elegant. I like swoony and romantic "There may be trouble ahead...") more than Golden Retriever puppy ("Moses supposes his toeses are roses...")

  12. // Are you thinking of "By Myself" (at the beginning of "Band Wagon") instead of "I Guess I'll Have to Change My Plan" (nearer to the end)? I don't recall a montage in "Plan." //

    No, I did mean "Change My Plan," he and Jack Buchanan dancing all suave together. That's part of a long montage of all the new numbers going into the show one by one. Some are full length, but "Plan" and "New Sun in the Sky" seem shorter than the others, Just 1.5 refrains or something like that. Or maybe it's just that I want more, whereas I don't want any more (maybe even less) of 'Triplets" and "Louisiana Hayride."