That Old Feeling: A Stellar Astaire

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Fred Astaire

They were all dancers. James Cagney propelled himself through space like a bullet or a bull terrier, his torso a few seconds ahead of his legs; anyone without a dancer's equilibrium would have fallen on his face. Henry Fonda was just the opposite: a triumph of convex geometry, his thin body a question mark that ambled at Stepin Fetchit pace toward a girl or a cause. Katharine Hepburn seemed always on the ascendant, scaling the invisible ramp of her own confidence. But of all the Golden Age Hollywood stars it was Fred Astaire who defined screen movement, for the 30s and forever. With athletic nonchalance, he showed moviegoers how the human body could express strength, savoir-faire, rapture, amazing grace.

Astaire died 15 years ago today, and kept busy in films until his last decade. But his prime stretched for about 35 years, from the 1922 Broadway show "For Goodness' Sake" (his first Gershwin musical) to the 1957 "Funny Face" (his last original film musical, also with songs by George and Ira). He danced for 10 years on Broadway with his sister Adele, and in 10 Hollywood movies with Ginger Rogers. But in his signature tune from the show and film "The Band Wagon" he sang, "I'll go by way by myself" (available on the CD "Fred Astaire at M-G-M"). His achievement was solitary and unique — extensive and varied enough for the most esteemed practitioners of high, middle and low art to declare him the best.

On the high end, Mikhail Baryshnikov hailed him as the dancer of the century, and Jerome Robbins created a ballet in tribute to Astaire's "I'm Old Fashioned" dance with Rita Hayworth. Starchy Teutonic theorist Siegfried Kracauer praised him for injecting realism in Hollywood films by "dancing over table tops and down garden paths into the real world." Kracauer was totally wrong — Astaire didn't bring realism but rather a nonchalant nobility to movies — but it's touching that the nutty professor bent his theory to accommodate a tap dancer he loved.

Astaire, who made his name on the stage, just below that of his dancing sister Adele, inspired a recycled Broadway hit spun two generations later from his 20s Gershwin show "Funny Face" ("My One and Only" in the 80s). And on the low end, in the 1974 "Young Frankenstein," Mel Brooks duded up his monster (Peter Boyle) in top hat, white tie and tails to sing an Astaire favorite, "Puttin' on the Ritz."

Anyone with eyes can tell why Astaire was considered the great American dancer. He was the first with the most — the pioneer who was also the supreme refiner. Tap dancing had traditionally been all legwork, with the upper body stationary (think Gene Kelly). Astaire, as his teacher Ned Wayburn noted, "was the first American tap dancer to consciously employ the full resources of his arms, hands and torso for visual ornamentation." Then he integrated ballet and ballroom dance into his style. He wasn't grounded, in the old tap fashion; he floated, soared like Nijinsky. The mood of his dances also went beyond the comic energy of tap; his were stories of romance won and lost. Add to this his gorgeous poise and his teeming ingenuity as a choreographer (he was, essentially, the author of his dances) and you have a snapshot of dancing Fred.

There is also Astaire the singer; that takes some getting used to. His voice was thin, reedy, not quite suited for the high notes or large gestures of the standard tenor. But that was his genius: even before Bing Crosby, Astaire democratized singing. "Almost every great male icon of the art — Crosby, Sinatra, Tormé, Bennett — takes from Astaire," writes Steve Schwartz on Classical Net. "The male pop singer B.F. (before Fred) sounded something like an Irish tenor. ... The limitations of Astaire's voice forced him to find another way — deceptively casual, never oversold, and at home with the American vernacular. Astaire moved the 'scene' of the singer from the center of the great hall to just across the table, in effect replacing the Minstrel Boy with Ordinary Guy, U.S. version." Whereas Louis Armstrong abstracted a song's lyrics into a plangent growl, Astaire mined their meaning with mediocre vocal equipment. It's a coin toss to determine which one was the first modernist pop singer.

Granted, Astaire had some pretty good songs to sing. In the 30s, eight of his recordings went to #1 on the pop charts: Cole Porter's "Night and Day," Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," "I'm Putting All My Eggs in One Basket" and "Change Partners," Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields' "The Way You Look Tonight" and "A Fine Romance," the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away from Me" and "Nice Work If You Can Get It." He had 18 other top 10 hits from these composers, and eight more in the top 20. In a genial symbiosis of creator and interpreter, Astaire inspired these giants to give him A material, which he then sold ever so suavely. As Schwartz notes, "Just about all the major American songwriters from the 20s on had written their best songs for Astaire. Astaire, in turn, gave them in many cases their best performances and in the process redefined pop singing."


A half-century of Astaire in the movies has made his achievement seem both ineffable and inevitable. But back in 1932, when Fred came to Hollywood, moguls could be forgiven for not spotting a potential movie star. He and Adele had danced through hit Broadway shows for a dozen years, but Adele was the star; Fred was "and." In "Make Believe: The Broadway Musical in the 1920s," Ethan Mordden passes along a typical notice for the sibs' "Lady, Be Good": "Stark Young spent the first half of his Times review entirely on her — 'Adele Astaire Fascinates,' ran the headline — and could say no better of Fred than that he 'participates enthusiastically and successfully in most of Miss Astaire's dance offerings'." When audiences looked at Adele and Fred, they certainly thought she was fascinatin' with 'im, and probably without 'im too.

I know of no film documentation of Adele's work. She didn't make movies, and in 1932 she retired when she married Charles Cavendish, an English lord. She can be heard, though, on the CD "A Portrait of Fred Astaire," an invaluable compilation of his recordings from 1926 to 1938. In these duets with Fred, from their hit shows, Adele has a tweety soprano with no special warmth or color; maybe, those who saw her on Broadway might have said, you had to be there. What's beguiling about these early sides is Fred's attempt to find a style. The voice never grew, but his knowledge of lyric reading eventually did. (A few of the songs also have a chorus or two of Fred's tap dancing, which doesn't record well; to the great public outside New York, it sounded cold and clangorous, like late-night mischief in the back alley.)

To a Hollywood skeptic, appraising Fred for the first time, the Astaires' stage stardom could be attributed to snob appeal and second-balcony myopia. The fuss must have been about Adele. Look at her brother. In long shot Fred's body photographed small, fragile, bewildered. In close-up he looked — and, in moments of earthbound repose, acted — like Stan Laurel. Thus the famous pronouncement on Astaire's first screen test: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." But oh, how he danced! That was evident from his second film, "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), when he was paired with a perky chorine named Ginger Rogers. Between then and 1939 Astaire and Rogers made eight films — and movie history.


It was Hepburn who said of Astaire-Rogers: "He gives her class. She gives him sex." Truth to tell, Fred gave Ginger more class than she gave him sex. Rogers was a showbiz cutie, just 21 when they were first paired (he was 33), and radiating healthy self-awareness more than eroticism; as Arlene Croce wrote in her vibrantly evocative critique "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book," Ginger was "like a clever puppy who knows it's being watched." And, except metaphorically, there was no sex in their films; they typically played lovers who never got to kiss (except in the dream dance in "Carefree"). Yet they live in romance, on their flying, gliding feet.

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