Movie Stars: Astaire, Fred–Dance Musicals and Beyond

The perspective of auteurism, which is usually applied to directors, has also led to a series of studies of actors-stars as auteurs, namely performers who have had unusual control over their careers and screen images.

The scholar Richard Dyer has proposed a useful classification of movie stars along the following dimensions:

1. Actors who controlled their image, such as Fred Astaire or Joan Crawford.

2. Actors who contributed actively to their persona, such as Marlene Dietrich and Robert Mitchum.

3. Actors who were just one disparate voice among others in the construction of their screen images, such as Marilyn Monroe.

4. Actors who were totally the product of the studio machine, such as Lana Turner.


Astaire: Hollywood’s Greatest Dancer

band wagon

band wagon






Born on May 10, 1899, Omaha, Nebraska, Astaire began touring the vaudeville circuit at the age of seven with his sister Adele as a dancing partner. In 1917, they made their Broadway dancing debut in the musical “Over the Top,” followed by their first big success, “The Passing Show of 1918,” after which they became favorites on Broadway and in London. After some stage hits, including “Lady Be Good” (1924), “Smiles” (1930), and “The Band Wagon” (1931), the partnership was dissolved when Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish.

Astaire was given a Hollywood screen test, resulting in the famous verdict: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Nevertheless, he got a small part opposite Joan Crawford in “Dancing Lady” (1933). He was then paired with newcomer Ginger Rogers, a partnership that was to last through 10 films and produced some of the most magical moments in musical history. When Rogers turned to dramatic roles, Astaire continued to dominate the musical film scene with Lucille Bremer, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, and Cyd Chariss, and others. In 1946, with Gene Kelly fast becoming his heir apparent, Astaire announced his retirement, but two years later, he replaced the ailing Kelly as Judy Garland’s partner in “Easter Parade,” in a triumphant comeback.

v2ta7d7o3ahAstaire restyled the song and dance film, leaving his graceful mark on all musical movies. His own films always included solo dance numbers, in which he skillfully improvised in his free, easygoing style, charming audiences with relaxed exuberance and sophistication. Astaire also introduced many hit songs, written specifically for his pleasant, if untrained, singing voice. In 1949, Astaire received a special Oscar Award “for his unique artistry and his contributions to the techniques of musical pictures.” In 1981, he was honored with the American Film Institute’ Life Achievement Award.

Mark Sandrich and George Stevens allowed Astaire to devise his own routines and photographed them as unobtrusively as possible. In contrast, directors like Minnelli, Donen, and Charles Walters, who had extensive experience in both the theater and the movies, exercised their right to shape the material with their own imprint. One of the most delightful qualities of Astaire’s RKO work was his sense of impromptu spontaneity. In later years, clever scenarios, lively pacing, and Technicolor visual dazzle couldn’t compensate for the demise of composers like Kern and Gershwin, and the decline of Porter and Berlin.

Astaire’s musicals show why he was the most remarkable figure in the American screen musical, a true master and most enduring presence. Like Chaplin, Astaire had a trademark, a prop and costume to identify him simply and immediately: Top hat and cane, icons that feature prominently in the beginning of “Top Hat and in The Band Wagon.

In “Swing Time,” Astaire is broke but he’s taken to be rich and proper, because he wears a top hat and tails. Astaire flaunted natural elegance–he knew how to war clothes–that was both physical and spiritual. Rather unusually, he was a dancer who smokes (in both “Top Hat” and “Swinging Time” (in the latter, he puffs on a pipe). The smoking means he’s capable of casual, spontaneous, and unpredictable, doing something he’s not supposed to.

What distinguishes Astaire is not the way he looks, but the way he thinks. For Astaire, a person is defined not by his physical appearance but by mental quality. Which means that dancing is not so much a physical was an emotional and mental activity.

Revisiting the Astaire-Rogers collection, one is struck by the gallery of stock comic types, the ensemble of types and performers that recur from film to film, and includes Edward Heverett Horton, Eric Blare, Helen Broderick, Eric Rhodes, and others. Take Rhodes, for example, who typically played a European gigolo, oily and effete, concerned with clothes, “almost gay.” Most of the secondary characters are not very young, attractive, or sensual. As such, their main function is to make Astaire look younger, more attractive, and the proper partner for Rogers.

The romantic couple that Astaire and Rogers played so well, as Gerald Mast has noted, is unique, separate, and distant from society. They enter a private (magical) physical space when they dance, with no other dancers in the background. The goal is for the romantic couple to get married and integrate into mainstream, bourgeois society, though without losing completely their individuality and vitality.

To that extent, the musical numbers are also metaphoric. They are not decorative epilogue to the narrative, as in Busby Berkeley’s musicals. Nor do they sing of plot and character overtly, as in the more dramatic musicals. Their duets are about Astaire’s invitation and Rogers’ initial resistance before succumbing to his charm.

The dances typically begin tentatively after solo singing, usually by Astaire. At first, Rogers observes and copy his gestures, then, she dances with him, and finally, she no longer needs to watch him since she can anticipate his steps even before he does them. Should you wonder how they dance together so perfectly without any rehearsal, the answer is simple: They belong together. They know the step because intuitively they already know each other.

These metaphors are reflected by the style of the camera. Resisting montage, Astaire refuses to chop the dance into pieces, the way Berkeley does in his spectacular montages. If the dances seem similar, despite being directed by different filmmakers, it’s because Astaire was in control to provide continuity. The camera simply provides a clear, intimate yet unobtrusive view of the dance. It emphasizes the wonder of movement by maintaining the stability of space

Rick Altman has astutely observed that the Astaire-Rogers films differ from their predecessors in their energy, elegance, and durability, a function of making many movies together. The initial contact between simultaneously gives Rogers reasons to fall in love with Astaire and to reject him. Suave and talented, he’s different from the other men, but he’s also self-satisfied, flippant conceited, and disrespectful. For instance, in “Swing Time,” Astaire nearly causes Rogers to lose her job as a dancing teacher.

Whereas most musicals in the 1930s either borrowed pre-existing music or produced new music for a yet to-be-determined cast, the music for RKO’s Astraire-Rogers musicals, from Top Hat to Carefree, was commissioned, developed and tailored for them. Consider Irving Berlin score and lyrics for Top Hat, Follow the Fleet,” and Carefree; Jerome Kern score and Dorothy Fields lyrics for Swing Time Gershwin numbers for Shall We Dance.

One effect of this collaboration was a sense of integration, reducing the distance between narrative and musical numbers. The other effect is the increased emphasis on the quarrelsome relationship between the principals, which was borrowed from the popular screwball comedies of the era, those directed by Capra, Hawks, Cukor, and McCarey. As Andrew Sarris has suggested, these comedies succeed when the principals are effective opponents, like Astaire and Rogers.

Top Hat

the_gay_divorcee_3_astaire_rogersWith over $3 million in grosses, “Top Hat” was RKO’s biggest moneymaker of the decade. Top Hat defines Astaire as a modern American Dancer, even though the film is set in London. The story in fact begins in a stuffy club founded in 1864, the Thackeray, named for a Victorian novelist.

The fourth pairing of Astaire and Rogers and the first with a script written specifically for them, “Top Hat” is a quintessential musical, with its rather silly plot, romance, dapper outfits, art deco sets, and wonderful songs and dance numbers. Set in London (i.e. Hollywood’s mythical Astaire and Rogers land), “Top Hat”‘s tale of mistaken identity concerns American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers, who becomes enamored of Dale Tremont. The problems arise, however, when Dale comes to believe that Jerry is the husband (whom she’s never met) of her good friend Madge (Broderick) and rebuff his advances.

This effervescent musical was the perfect panacea for Depression-era audiences, with its whimsical reworking of 1934’s “The Gay Divorcee,” whose leading players are reunited here. The musical offers the most famous Astaire-Rogers duet, “Cheek to Cheek,” wherein the dancers shift from effortless gliding to dazzling exuberance. Rogers was right about refuse to change her famous feathered dress–it moves beautifully—even if it created problems for the crew. Built around Irving Berlin’s hit score, “Top Hat” boasts Astaire’s brilliant solo number, “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.

The supporting cast is uniformly good, even though Rhodes’s Italian caricature so offended Italian officials and Mussolini himelf that “Top Hat,” just like “Gay Divorcee,” in which Rhodes played a similar character, was banned in Italy.

Follow the Fleet

The best RKO musicals in the series are: “Top Hat,” “Swing Time,” and “Shall We Dance.” “Follow the Fleet” has a rather bland plot: Astaire and Randolph Scott play sailor buddies on leave, and Rogers and Harriet Hilliard are the sisters with whom they become involved.

Consigned to second-lead status, Astaire and Rogers fittingly play a couple that already knows each other, and they banter their way through the dialogue with great rapport. Their range and talent as dancers is on display, from their explosive romp to “Let Yourself Go,” to Astaire’ blazing nautical tap to “Id Rather Lead a Band,” to Rogers’ solo, the first in the series.

They are hilariously out of synch with each other in a comic cut-up routine to “Im Putting All My Eggs in One Basket,” and resume their after-dinner reunion in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” This glamorous number is the closest they ever got to playing Garbo, with sumptuous poses and an unforgettable finale.

Oscar Nominations and Awards for Astaire-Rogers musicals in this collection:

Top Hat

Nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture, winning none

Swing Time

Two Oscar nominations, one award for the song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The other nomination is for Hermes Pan’s Dance Direction, a category that existed only several years

Shall We Dance

One Oscar nomination, Song, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” music George Gershwin, lyrics Ira Gershwin.

Follow the Fleet

No Oscar nominations

The Barkleys of Broadway

One nomination, for Harry Stradling’s color cinematography