Sunday, August 23, 2015

Astaire Way To Heaven

In the centennial year of the birth of Frank Sinatra, many bloggers are listing their favorite Sinatra songs. The lists usually include "Night and Day," "One For My Baby," and "They Can't Take That Away from Me." Those three and a score of other songs by Sinatra share something in common.

Fred Astaire debuted them on stage or on screen.

That's right. In the heyday of the Broadway musical, the greats wrote for Astaire. Even "One For My Baby" was a hand-me-down from the 1943 musical, "The Sky's the Limit." The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and all the other great songwriters from the 1930s and 1940s wrote for Astaire. Indeed, it was Sinatra's rendition of "Night and Day" that got him the gig with Harry James that turned the saloon singer into a national star.

This is not to say Astaire was the better singer. There is Sinatra and then there is everybody else. I mention this to show the power of Astaire's dancing, which turned this thin-voiced tenor into the man who introduced the music of the great American songwriters to the masses. For when it comes to dancing, there is Astaire and everyone else. And as in the case of Sinatra, the present tense is correct.

His career began in Omaha, Nebraska, where he refused to take dance lessons despite his mother's insistence.

Born on May 10, 1899, the son of Johanna and Frederic "Fritz" Austerlitz, Astaire's family included his older sister, Adelle. Their mother wanted them to pair up as a brother-and-sister dancing act, but Astaire refused to take dance lessons. However, he copied his sister's dancing. He also learned piano, accordion, and clarinet. At 6, his family moved to New York City to launch their children's show business career. To make him look taller, he wore a top hat. They debuted in Keyport, New Jersey, and a newspaper critic declared: "The Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville."

Who said newspaper critics are always wrong?

The family adopted the surname Astaire -- Austerlitz sounded like a battle -- and converted to Catholicism from Judaism. His father worked to get them booked, and his mother worked on their choreography.

Their act took off, but child labor laws forced them to shutdown for two years. At 12, Astaire learned to tap dance by watching Bojangles Robinson. Nearly two decades later, critic Robert Benchley wrote, "I don't think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world."

At 14, Astaire met George Gershwin, who at the time was merely hawking songs, not writing them. The friendship helped each boy become a great man.

Astaire worked hard. While his style looked simple and easy-going, he was a perfectionist who put in many hours of rehearsal. He had a good ear for music. By 18, he was on Broadway as part of a patriotic review. Throughout the 1920s they appeared in musicals with music by George and Ira Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and others. Their musicals also played in the West End.

Hollywood was their next logical move. He signed with RKO, but he flunked the screen test, with a report tersely writing him off, "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances."

But David O. Selznick, head of production at RKO, did not write the dancer off, noting in a memo, "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test."

To the rescue came Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, who broke up the act by marrying Astaire's sister. His new partner, Claire Luce, encouraged him to be a little more romantic, telling him, "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know."

They starred in "The Gay Divorcee," whose centerpiece was Astaire dancing to and singing "Night and Day" by Cole Porter:
Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom tom
When the jungle shadows fall
Like the tick, tick, tock of the stately clock
As it stands against the wall
Like the drip, drip, drip of the rain drops
When the summer showers through
A voice within me keeps repeating
You, you, you
Hollywood beckoned and this time Astaire was ready for the closeup. RKO loaned him out to MGM for his debut in"Dancing Lady," in which he played himself. Joan Crawford played a stripper who became a Broadway star under Clark Gable. The Three Stooges made their film debut in that film, too, with Julius Howard -- Curly -- filling in for his older brother, Shemp. Nelson Eddy also was in it, albeit without Jeanette MacDonald. The film's highlight was Joan Crawford appearing "nude" beneath a gossamer nightgown in the pre-Hays Code film.

Astaire took fifth billing in his next film, "Flying Down To Rio," but Astaire and Ginger Rogers (fourth billing) stole the film with their first on-screen dance, "Carioca," which featured them forehead-to-forehead at the beginning. They took top billing for their next film, "The Gay Divorcee."

Hollywood was awash in musicals but Astaire stood out by being the best dancer. He could do nothing about his ears or weak chin, and his voice was never going to get stronger. But he could dance and he had charm. They say his partnership with Ginger Rogers made him, but his partnerships with songwriters were just as important. Three-quarters of the songs he sang were forgettable, but the ones we remember became standards because they had to be written simply for a good singer who danced like an angel. In the hands of masters such as Ella Fitzgerald and of course, Sinatra, these songs sparkled like diamonds.

But he was a good singer. Perry Como also sang soft. Both men had a singing style that was casual and even conversational.

When they appeared together, Astaire and Rogers always looked like they were having a lot of fun. The audience connected with that. Fred and Ginger shared 33 dances in 10 movies over the years. In May 1982, cartoonist Bob Thaves had a female character say of Astaire, "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards, and in high heels."

Actually not. No one could do what Fred Astaire did. That is a misunderstanding of what was going on. Astaire used the musical numbers not as showstoppers, but to advance the story. Rogers was not a great dancer but she was a terrific actress. He was not a great actor but he was a terrific dancer. The dancer and the actress made a good team. Astaire said, "Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success."

Leave it to Irving Berlin to write the song that best described this on-screen pairing in teh song "Cheek To Cheek" from the film "Top Hat":
Heaven, I'm in heaven
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak
And I seem to find the happiness I seek
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek
Astaire's other screen partnerships included Rita Hayworth (his favorite), Judy Garland, Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn, with whom he brought "Funny Face" finally to the screen. "Bandwagon" in 1953 with Cyd Charisse is considered his best musical. He also teamed with Bing Crosby for two Irving Berlin musicals, "Holiday Inn" in 1942 and "Blue Skies" in 1946, which was billed as Astaire's last film. "Blue Skies" featured him singing, "Putting On The Ritz," in a fun dance number.

But dancing is hard work and after "Funny Face" in 1957, the 58-year-old dancer concentrated on singing and acting, receiving his only Academy Award nomination for his acting in "The Towering Inferno."

His first wife, socialite Phyllis Baker Potter, died in 1954. In 1980, Astaire stunned everyone by marrying a woman half his age, jockey Robyn Smith, with whom he shared a love of horses. He died at 88 on June 22, 1987, in Los Angeles, California, of pneumonia. People remember him for his dancing and Ginger Rogers. But his music was great, and he worked his tail off to make everything look easy.

I have decided that I don't do entertainers; I do cultural icons. Astaire created the high-class man who never saw anyone as being beneath him. The top hat was designed only to make him look taller, not to pretend he was better than anyone else.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.

Volume 2's publication will be on September 1, my 62nd birthday. It will be available here, and on Amazon and Kindle.


  1. No, there was Dean Martin, then everybody else.

  2. Dean Martin: "It's Frank's world, we're all just livin' in it."

  3. I didn't know of Dancing Lady. I'll have to watch for that one.

  4. I think Mel Torme said that Astaire was his favorite singer. Check out this video from the 1970 Academy Awards of Fred Astaire dancing at the age of 71. (You can skip the first two and a half minutes.)

    1. Yes, In 1956 he recorded the album "Mel Torme sings Fred Astaire"

  5. Besides enjoying his dancing and singing (I have a CD of some of his better-known songs), I was impressed when he broke his wrist skateboarding in his 70s.

  6. Lovely, lovely homage to an American treasure.