He is transfixing just walking across the screen in his first movie, Dancing Lady (1933), where he partners Joan Crawford and looks as if he could fly if he wanted to. When he does his first solo in Flying Down to Rio (1933), his arms, hands, legs, and especially his feet do all sorts of wild things while his torso remains rock-solid as a center of gravity, and he only ever moves his hips as if to say, “Oh, boy!”
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Fred Astaire was a somewhat timid and bashful man except when it came to his work, which consumed him and made him aim for technical perfection to the point of obsession. There are stories in Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (1972), still the best writing on his greatness as a dancer, in which colleagues remember how Astaire could tell if any aspect of picture or sound for his films was slightly out-of-sync and would demand it be fixed. He insisted on complete control of his dances, which he wanted performed in long takes so that the camera caught his full body at all times, with a minimum of reaction shots or cutaways.
Astaire spent weeks with his longtime creative partner Hermes Pan working out every detail of a dance routine, and he never wanted to repeat himself. The movements that Astaire makes as a dancer on-screen are so definite and so gravity-defying that they almost feel unreal, or nonhuman. As an actor he has such a seamless technique that the camera nearly never catches him off guard, and Astaire is willing to be very silly for the often-interminable comic plot scenes in the series of famed musical movies he made with Ginger Rogers in the 1930s. He is so totally stylized that he seems closer to Mickey Mouse or Kermit the Frog than to Cary Grant or Noël Coward, and he is eternally boyish.
Astaire had no pressing need for a dance partner and looks most comfortable with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) because she speaks exactly the same above-it-all and abstract physical language that he does and he doesn’t have to seduce, engage, or worry about her in any way; this is also true for him, to a more limited extent, with Eleanor Powell, with whom he does two tap routines in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) that are a pinnacle for this sort of dance on-screen and an enclosed kind of percussive universe. Astaire’s sweet long face looks lovably delighted when he taps with Powell, radiant with joy, and that sort of joy is what he was after. Remember his barely contained ultra-tickled facial expression when he enters the low-down Bob Fosse-ish café in the “Girl Hunt” number in The Band Wagon (below), where he just about gets away with playing a parody tough guy private eye.
Despair almost always lies outside Astaire’s range, so that the “One for My Baby” number in The Sky’s the Limit (1943) where he breaks up glassware at a bar is accomplished (he takes care to sound drunk when he speaks) but unconvincing. Astaire likes to disrupt the stuffy propriety of people around him and enliven any room he is in with some machine-gun-like taps from his feet, but he doesn’t have it in him to be physically destructive. Only when he sings does Astaire allow himself to be a little melancholy, which can be heard especially on an album he made in 1952 with pianist Oscar Peterson called The Astaire Story. And it is only in the “Never Gonna Dance” sequence from Swing Time (1936) that Astaire looks truly despairing on-screen as he contemplates losing Ginger Rogers forever, and that is a special case because it was such a difficult number to get right and his guard must have been as down as it ever would be.
He is transfixing just walking across the screen in his first movie, Dancing Lady (1933), where he partners Joan Crawford and looks as if he could fly if he wanted to. When he does his first solo in Flying Down to Rio (1933), his arms, hands, legs, and especially his feet do all sorts of wild things while his torso remains rock-solid as a center of gravity, and he only ever moves his hips as if to say, “Oh, boy!” This is the film where he first danced with Rogers, and he would be publicly identified with her for the rest of his career. Astaire was asked many times by reporters to name his favorite dance partner and he always demurred, but he did finally admit in a late-in-life interview that his favorite was Rita Hayworth. That could have been the man talking more than the artist, for in the two movies Astaire made with Hayworth in the early 1940s he seems powerfully attracted to her at moments but then nervous about her swaying hips and overall lusciousness.
Ginger Rogers wrote in her 1991 memoir about dating Astaire when they were both working in the theater in New York, and she remembered one date ending in a very sexy kiss. Some of that initial real-life chemistry does come across in their first movies together, yet it is only when this ebbs away that they did their greatest dances in Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), and Swing Time. Astaire played Svengali with Rogers, and their first romantic dance to “Night and Day” in The Gay Divorcee (1934) has a touching air of slight awkwardness and newness, so that “Will this girl fall for me?” is also “Will Ginger get these steps right?” But this has been totally overcome by the time of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet, where Rogers even outdoes Astaire at the very end with the audaciously stylized lunge that takes them off the stage.
Astaire had spent his youth in vaudeville with his sister Adele, and they had become stars on stage by the 1920s on Broadway but especially in London, where he made some aristocratic friends. The Anglophile Astaire did not want to be tied down to a partnership in movies as he had been on stage until his sister retired to marry Lord Charles Cavendish in 1932, and his enormously popular teaming with Rogers during the 1930s felt like a very mixed blessing for him personally, if not professionally. “She faked it an awful lot,” Astaire said of Rogers later on. “She couldn’t tap and she couldn’t do this and that . . . but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong.”
Rogers does often wear dresses so long that they hide what her feet might or might not be doing, but from the feet up everything she does with Astaire on-screen is sensitive and dramatic in a dry way that suits him perfectly. He did not like some of the dresses she insisted on, such as the very heavy beaded gown for “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” that had sleeves that hit him in the face or the feather dress that molted all over the place for “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat. From Astaire’s perspective, these gowns were somewhat tacky and unnecessary, but Rogers was basically right about them; the effectiveness of those two great dances has a lot to do with the way those gowns move, and of course Astaire could maneuver himself around just about anything and still look elegant, as he does in his famous dance in Royal Wedding (1951) where he partners a coat rack and somehow makes that coat rack look as lovely and glorified as Rogers, Hayworth, or Charisse.
The best partner dances that Astaire did on-screen are always a sort of scene or conversation, and he thrives on dramatic changes in tempo, alternating between fast and slow just as a first-rate singer alternates between loud and soft. In his role as Svengali and hypnotist, Astaire can be surprisingly aggressive at moments and Balanchine-like in his authority, and he isn’t always above outright sexual responsiveness with his beautiful partners. But he feels the need to brush this away as unworthy, whereas his closest rival, Gene Kelly, couldn’t be happier to display himself in a sexual way in his own partner dances and especially in his solos.
Astaire showed himself willing to embrace slangy dance hall movements in the “Let Yourself Go” number with Rogers in Follow the Fleet, which Rogers herself takes to with unalloyed delight, and he often seems to enjoy deliberately un-elegant leg work, particularly when he bends his left knee in a cockeyed way during “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (below), which ruins any “line” for expressive purposes. There is a curious and revealing moment in his tap solo “No Strings” from Top Hat in which Astaire suddenly catches sight of himself in a mirror and shyly looks away that exactly expresses his lack of ego and his lofty emphasis on form over content. He was more like an inventor than like a star who works for personal aggrandizement only, and he was most himself when worrying about details in his rehearsal sessions than in the amazing results he offered on-screen. It can be difficult to focus on these all-important details rather than resorting to all-out gushing over the results.
Astaire is never vain. Unlike Kelly, he doesn’t care how he looks as long as he might get a new dance effect, an innovative movement. It was this emphasis on novelty that likely led him into the blackface number “Bojangles of Harlem” in Swing Time, which is supposed to be a tribute to the great tap dancer Bill Robinson but comes across as something entirely other because of the flashy outfit Astaire wears, which was not Robinson’s own sartorial style. Lyricist Dorothy Fields had worked with Robinson on a movie called Hooray for Love (1935), and so it was her idea to do a Robinson number for Astaire in Swing Time, and it will likely be an increasingly heavy burden to bear for his legacy. I once attempted to defend this number years ago in a review of Swing Time, and Croce tried to defend “Bojangles of Harlem” in her book, and Alastair Macaulay tried to defend it in the New York Times in 2011, and even the provocative African American critic Stanley Crouch generously tried to defend it by grouping Astaire with Louis Armstrong as artists so profound that they both transcended the racism of their era. But such defenses look increasingly unpersuasive to me.
Astaire suffered through some weak partners in the 1940s, and seems particularly horrified by Betty Hutton in Let’s Dance (1950), where her strenuous, effortful dancing nearly obliterates him. But age seemed to make him a little more engagingly human in The Band Wagon, where he sings “By Myself” as he jauntily walks along in a train station with just a hint of the strength needed to endure such aloneness. If the plot of The Band Wagon is anti-pretension, then Funny Face (1957), where he played Svengali to a charmingly enthusiastic Audrey Hepburn, is outright anti-intellectual in its theme, and this could begin to seem more than a little sour. It was as if Astaire’s blithe spirt of the 1920s and ’30s, which turned away from mirrors and self-reflection, was getting reactionary over the overly conscious attitudes of the 1950s.
Astaire had a last hurrah with several specials on television featuring a new partner, the highly sexual and ponytailed Barrie Chase, who stirred him at first as both man and dance master. He seems excited to do some erotic 1950s neck-clutching stuff with Chase during their first special, An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958), but when he has her put her hair up and tries to get her to do grand romantic partner dances on their next two programs Chase does fine, but it doesn’t really suit her. In a way, what happens on these specials with Chase is his Ginger trajectory all over again, but with a partner who is unable to adapt to all of his needs.
Astaire kept dancing well into his seventies, and he unrevealingly played some straight parts in features and on TV. He had worn a magically convincing toupee all through his great years of the 1930s through the 1950s, but after that the toupee got as awkward as the would-be funky music he would try to dance to. At the 1966 Oscars, he came out with Rogers and did a brief whirl around the stage with her that got a big roar of loving approval from the audience, but Astaire rebuffed Rogers so often socially afterward that finally she just didn’t show up for his American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1981. This cast a pall over what was otherwise a triumphant evening for Astaire where even he had to admit to being impressed by his own greatness after watching so many film clips in a row of what he had invented as a dancer: an extra-human figure who had no strings and was free for anything fancy.
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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films discussed.