An early screen test of Fred Astaire’s was marked “can’t sing, can’t act, can dance a little” – well how far did a little dancing skill take this elegant screen legend. Astaire’s Hollywood icon legend was secured in the 1930’s in a series of musicals with Ginger Rogers.
Apart from Rogers, Astaire also danced on screen with such beauties as Rita Hayworth, Audrey Hepburn and Cyd Charise, by the 1960’s his career was slowing down but he made Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 before popping up in such 1970’s movies as The Towering Inferno. A truly lovely actor, here is our pick of five of his best movies.
Top Hat (1935)
Astaire, Rogers, Irving Berlin, choreography by Hermes Pan and Astaire: all the elements that define the classic Astaire-Rogers picture and, therefore, the height of the ’30s musical. When dancer Astaire hits London for the debut of his new show, his tap practice in his agent’s (Horton) hotel room wakes his downstairs neighbor, Rogers. With one look at her face, a smitten Astaire chases her all over London and even to Venice after she believes he’s really married to Horton’s wife, Broderick. Despite her marriage in a fury to an Italian designer, the lovers are reunited in a gondola at the end. The plot’s made meaningless, of course, by the elegance and bravura of the Deco sets, the perfectly integrated musical set pieces, and the justly famous pairing of Astaire and Rogers, including their renowned interpretation of “Cheek to Cheek.” All 5 Berlin tunes, including “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat,” made it to the top of the charts. Selected for the National Film Registry. Academy Award Nominations: 3, including Best Picture; Best Song (“Take My Breath Away”).
Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Edward Everett Horton, Leonard Mudie, Ginger Rogers
Shall We Dance (1937)
Astaire and Rogers pair for the seventh time as dancers (he a Russian ballet dancer, she a Broadway musical star) who feign marriage as a publicity angle and then fall head over heels. Terrific George Gershwin score, including the famous duet “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” the title-song finale, and the wistful melody of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” Typically high-gloss production and haute-Deco trappings make this a high point of the classic-era musical. Academy Award Nomination for Best Song (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me”). George Gershwin’s 1924 composition “Rhapsody in Blue” was so widely known that in the credits of the movie, Gershwin’s name is accompanied by a few bars of his signature composition. Gershwin died only two months after the film’s release.
Director: Mark Sandrich
Cast: Fred Astaire, Jerome Cowan, Edward Everett Horton, Ginger Rogers, Ann Shoemaker
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
This is the stylish second outing for Astaire and Hayworth (following their equally enjoyable You’ll Never Get Rich, 1941). Astaire blows his money on the horses and finds himself at loose ends in Argentina. He pursues Menjou for a booking in his nightclub, and finds himself pursuing his daughter, Hayworth, for her hand. Besides the title song, the film score features “I’m Old-Fashioned” and “Dearly Beloved.” Academy Award Nominations: 3, Best Sound Recording; Best Song (“Dearly Beloved”); Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Director: William A. Seiter
Cast: Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Adolphe Menjou
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Astaire and Rogers, whose last joint project had been made 10 years before, come together one final time for this film. The magical pair play performers Josh and Dinah Barkley, whose act?and marriage?break up when Dinah decides to become a “serious actress.” Among the unforgettable numbers are “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (which Astaire and Rogers first performed in 1937’s “Shall We Dance”), “Shoes with Wings On,” “Swing Trot,” and “You’d Be So Hard to Replace.” The dance performed by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers under the opening credits appears in the MGM compilation That’s Entertainment! III (1994) with credits removed so the dancing can be seen more clearly.
Director: Charles Walters
Cast: Fred Astaire, Billie Burke, Jacques Francois, Oscar Levant, Gale Robbins, Ginger Rogers
Funny Face (1957)
A photographer and a fashion editor, looking for a fresh face to grace the pages of their magazine, discover an alluring, intellectual bohemian in a Greenwich Village bookstore. But both the charming gamine and the cynical photographer are in for the surprise–and the romance–of their lives as they discover that they’ve jumped to some wrong conclusions about themselves and others…and that Paris in the springtime is delightful indeed. This Gershwin musical was to be produced by MGM but was given to Paramount so that Audrey Hepburn could star. Academy Award Nominations: 4, including Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography.
Director: Stanley Donen
Cast: Fred Astaire, Michel Auclair, Robert Flemyng, Audrey Hepburn, Suzy Parker, Kay Thompson