Fred Astaire a song and dance man? No Fred Astaire
is THE song and dance man. George Balanchine and Rudolph Nureyev
called him the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and it is
acknowledged that he was the most influential dancer in the history
of film and television musicals. The American Film Institute named
Astaire the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time – only the fifth?
Born in Omaha, Nebraska, his mother took Fred and his
sister on the road – Adele showed an early talent for dance while
Fred refused lessons but he mimicked his sister and soon the act was
known as Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing
Novelty. Incorporating tap dancing into their act, Astaire was
inspired by Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (whom he celebrated in Jerome
Kern’s song Bojangles of Harlem (the only time Astaire appeared
in blackface, in the film Swing Time)) and John “Bubbles” Sublett
(who Gershwin chose to create the role of Sportin’ Life in Porgy
and Bess) from whom he took lessons in 1920.
Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and in London’s
West End in shows by Gershwin and others and in 1930 American humourist
Robert Benchley wrote, "I don't think that I will plunge the
nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap–dancer in
the world.". The partnership broke up on Adele’s marriage to
Lord Charles Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire.
As would be expected, Fred found himself in Hollywood
where a report on a screen test (now lost) is supposed to have contained
the comment, “Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.”
No matter what it said, David O Selznick, one of the great Hollywood
producers and the man who had signed Astaire to an RKO contract wrote,
"I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous
ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes
through even on this wretched test." Astaire’s debut came in
1933 when he danced with Joan Crawford in the MGM film Dancing
Lady. His RKO debut came when he was fifth billed, alongside Ginger
Rogers, in the film Flying Down to Rio – the stars being Dolores
del Rio and Gene Raymond – where Variety noted, “The main point of
Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire ...
He's assuredly a bet after this one, for he's distinctly likeable
on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains
in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the
profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where
the others stop hoofing."
Despite Astaire not wanting another partnership, with
Ginger they produced nine more films together and achieved stardom,
causing Katharine Hepburn, supposedly, to say, "He gives her
class and she gives him sex." After The Story of
Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) the partnership ended, but Fred
and Ginger made one more film, The Barkleys of Broadway ten
years later, but more by accident than production.
danced with many other partners, Eleanor Powell (Broadway Melody
of 1940), Paulette Goddard (Second Chorus (1940)) Rita
Hayworth (You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never
Lovelier (1942)) Joan Leslie (The Sky’s the Limit (1943)),
Lucille Bremer (Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld
Follies (1946)) and Cyd Charisse (Silk Stockings (1957)),
and good as many of his partners and their films together were it’s
the partnership with Ginger which is remembered.
really no matter who Fred danced with, for he was always partnered
with music by some of the greatest composers at work at the time –
Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter,
Harry Warren, Vincent Youmans – and the number of standards introduced
by Astaire is astonishing, One for My Baby, A Fine Romance,
Cheek to Cheek, The Way You Look Tonight, They Can’t
Take That away From Me, A Foggy Day in London Town, A
Couple of Swells, to mention but a few. Moreover, were it not
for Fred Astaire some of the greatest love songs ever written would
never have come into being.
loved writing for Astaire because they knew that he would not add
anything to the song, no crooning, no overt emotion, he’d just sing
it and make magic with it. On this fantastic compilation we are given
most of the songs from the films, but not in the soundtrack performances,
in studio recordings, many made at the time of the film (so Fred sings
Music Makes Me from Flying Down to Rio whereas it was
Ginger’s song in the film) and he’s accompanied by some of the best
bands of the time. Just about everything swings here, even the ballads,
and when Fred dances, oh yes he does, you can hear him, he really
swings. Astaire’s voice comes across as the very pleasant light tenor
we know and his personality shines through each track. The transfers
are excellent, you can hear every department of the various bands
quite clearly, and there’s a rich bloom to the sound. Of course, the
wonderful period feel is there and surely that’s how we remember both
the music and Astaire.
wrote, in his song, and sings “If Swing Goes, I Go Too” but
it won’t as long as we have such enjoyable re–issues to help us swing.
Maybe “I’m Old Fashioned” but, “Dearly Beloved” with
“A Couple of Swells” like this I’ll be kept very happy.