It's time for my annual Fred Astaire's birthday post! I've been missing from the blog for a few days while I finished up my second semester of graduate school, but I knew I had to get back in time for FRED ASTAIRE'S BIRTHDAY, which should totally be a national holiday. Since I don't have control over national holidays, I will keep the tradition alive by reblogging this piece right here, right now!
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). 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.