Bill Katz: Steps in Time

Occasional contributor Bill Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda. Today he writes in honor of the anniversary of the birth of Fred Astaire:

Today is Fred Astaire’s birthday. Frederick Austerlitz was born this day in 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska. He would have been 112. He actually died in 1987 at the age of 88.
Recalling Fred Astaire reminds us of a golden age of American film musicals that has passed. Not only has the age passed, but the audience is passing. Most young people today have probably never seen an Astaire performance, even on film, and may not even know his name, just as no American under the age of 20 has ever seen Johnny Carson host the Tonight Show.
Astaire was known in Hollywood as a perfectionist, a severe taskmaster, and yet one of the most modest men in the industry. He was the consummate gentleman. If you went around Beverly Hills and parts of Los Angeles as recently as the 1990s, you would hear stories about Fred Astaire walking into stores just to look around and see what was being sold. He especially favored Woolworth’s, where he would hang out regularly.
Barbara Walters said he was almost impossible to talk to because of his modesty and reticence. But Mikhail Baryshnikov said that his dream in life was to dance like Fred Astaire. He could not, because no one could.
Although he was known as one of the great dancers of his time, Astaire was also respected by musicians and songwriters as a superb singer. Irving Berlin loved Astaire’s rendition of Berlin songs, even though Astaire would almost speak the lyrics rather than sing them. Like Sinatra, Astaire studied the words, understood them, and made the audience understand them.
Hollywood came close to rejecting a young Fred Astaire. A talent scout reporting on him wrote, “Sings, acts, dances a little.” And that was that.
Aside from his style, though, it was the Astaire women who kept Astaire’s career going. With one exception, each of the women he danced with became as famous as he was. The Astaire women were Eleanor Powell, the first MGM musical star, whose appeal saved the studio in the 1930s; Ginger Rogers, actually an actress who danced, and who became the partner most associated with Astaire, although she was the weakest dancer among his regulars; Rita Hayworth, who was considered by Astaire one of the greatest dancers in Hollywood before she turned to straight acting; Cyd Charisse, Hollywood’s most famous female dancer, who danced with Astaire in several films of the 1950s; and a young dancer named Barrie Chase, possibly the best partner Astaire ever had, superbly trained, who danced with Astaire in TV specials of the fifties and sixties. The end of the golden age of film musicals suppressed Chase’s career, and limited her fame.
YouTube helps us preserve and understand what Astaire gave us. If you want a real treat, go to these links. Forget everything else, and spend the day:
1. Astaire with Eleanor Powell in one of the best dance numbers ever put on film, introduced by Frank Sinatra. “Begin the Beguine,” from Broadway Melody of 1940. As Sinatra says, you won’t see the likes of this again. It’s here:
2. Astaire with Ginger. “Let Yourself Go,” (by Irving Berlin) from Follow the Fleet, one of the Navy musicals of the 1930s. Ginger Rogers later went on to a career as an Oscar-winning straight actress, and conservative stalwart. “Let Yourself Go” is here:
3. Astaire with Rita Hayworth, showing off Rita’s wonderful style, acquired in part from her father, one of the most respected dance instructors of his day. “I’m Old Fashioned,” from You Were Never Lovelier. Note the part where Astaire describes himself as from Omaha, Nebraska, which he actually was. It’s here:
4. Astaire with Cyd Charisse. “Girl Hunt,” (sometimes called “The Girl Hunt Ballet”) from The Band Wagon, one of the last of the great MGM musicals. Cyd Charisse died recently. This performance defines her, and demonstrates Astaire’s remarkable virtuosity. It’s here:

5. Astaire with Barrie Chase. “That Face,” from an Astaire television special. Astaire was over 60 when he danced this number. Barrie Chase is the only one of the Astaire women who still lives. It’s here:
Now go have a good time. You’ll get hooked.
Happy birthday, Fred. You left us an enormous legacy.

And for Astaire alone, let’s go to the ingenious ceiling dance scene from Royal Wedding (1951), directed by the great Stanley Donen. Astaire sings “You’re All the World to Me,” by Alan Lerner and Burton Lane, a song obviously influenced by Cole Porter. The dance, however, is all Astaire.

Astaire’s autobiography is Steps in Time. Peter Levinson’s homage is Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache.


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