Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are universally known for being one of the best partnerships in dance. But at first, Fred Astaire did not plan on dancing professionally. It all started by accident when he began to imitate the students’ movements in his sister Adele’s ballet class. His parents realized they could put together a brother and sister vaudeville act featuring the two singing, dancing and acting. They were called “The Astaires.”
After years of Fred appearing with his sister, Adele married, and Fred was left on his own. He decided to head toward Hollywood. Despite the rumored lackluster reports of his RKO screen test being, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little,” Astaire made his first appearance dancing with his first on-screen partner, Joan Crawford, in “Dance Lady” (1933).
It was in “Flying Down to Rio” (1933) that Fred was paired with Ginger Rogers for the first time and started a phenomenon. Though they seemed to float as one across the dance floor, Fred had admitted, “Ginger never danced with a partner before. She faked an awful lot. She couldn’t tap or do this or that...But Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along.” Their second film, “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), was based on a stage musical by the same name which Fred had performed in on Broadway. Astaire and Rogers continued to dance their way through eight more popular musical films together. Although they separated after “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (1939), Fred credited their success to Rogers: “She made everything work for her...She made things very fine for the both of us.”
In 1941, Fred Astaire’s career was due for a big comeback, as it was somewhat failing since his split with Rogers. In “You’ll Never Get Rich” (1941), Astaire danced with darling newcomer Rita Hayworth and thanks to the film’s great popularity, it thrust both of them into the limelight. “I guess the only jewels in my life are the pictures I made with Fred Astaire,” Hayworth would remark in her golden years. Astaire is on record as considering Hayworth to be his best and favorite dance partner because she “danced with trained perfection and individuality.”
Fred Astaire went on to dance with Lucille Bremer, Joan Leslie, and Gene Kelly in “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946). Fred’s thoughts on working with Gene, “He’s just terrific...I really am crazy about his work.” In 1948, Fred would dance with Judy Garland, replacing an injured Kelly, in “Easter Parade” (1948). And for one last time, Astaire and Rogers danced in “The Barkleys of Broadway” (1949) – a year before Rogers presented him with a special Academy Award. Another string of musical films followed with co-stars such as Cyd Charisse in “Silk Stockings” (1957) and Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face” (1957).
“Finian’s Rainbow” (1968) was Fred Astaire’s last musical film. The film was not a box office success, due in part to inexperienced directing by a young Francis Ford Coppola, who did not understand the mechanics of directing the dance sequences, shooting silly close-ups of Fred’s footwork.
Though Fred Astaire continued to act in film and television, it is his illustrious body of work as the top hat, white tie and tails sophisticate that has immortalized him as the supreme dancer of his era.