Fred's next movie was M-G-M's Broadway Melody of 1940. It flanked Astaire with fellow-dancers Eleanor Powell and George Murphy. As a partner, Powell was too much of a soloist and the London Daily Express critic voiced what many felt, "There's no Ginger. Eleanor Powell is his dance partner. She's a nice, good-tempered girl from out of town who keeps superb time. But she looks so strong and confident on her own, you just don't care whether Fred gets her or not."
Cole Porter wrote the film's original score but it was an old song, "Begin the Beguine," that received the most attention and captured all of the praise. In it, Astaire and Powell performed a show-stopping challenge tap dance that still thrills when viewed today.
Second Chorus, an independent film to be released by Paramount, was next. For one number, Fred partnered Paulette Goddard, who was more good sport than dancer. The pleasures of the film for Astaire, however, included being around clarinetist/bandleader Artie Shaw and the members of his band. The critics who had complained about the Astaire-Rogers formula becoming tiresome now grouched that he was not being supported by the right partner, nor lifted by quality scripts. They clamoured for Ginger. In the first slump of his career, Astaire pondered his future. Offers for stage, radio and personal appearances kept coming in, but he was determined to continue in films, the venue he preferred. Answers came all at once when both Columbia and Paramount contacted him about upcoming projects: two films at Columbia with their budding star Rita Hayworth, and a movie with his golfing buddy, Bing Crosby, at Paramount.
Fred and Rita Hayworth
Knowing Rita's father, Eduardo Cansino, since their days together in vaudeville, made Fred's upcoming Film with her. You'll Never Get Rich, something to anticipate. Although basically trained in classic Spanish dance, her fresh, sensuous beauty was complimented by Astaire's elegance and maturity. Cole Porter supplied the score and the Armed Forces background made the film especially timely for World War II audiences. The critics raved about his new partner, and audiences formed the old familiar lines around the block. Fred's post-Ginger slump was over.
As he began Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby, Phyllis announced that she was expecting a second baby the following March. Fred hoped for a girl.
Holiday Inn turned out to be another triumph. With a story line suggested by lrving Berlin to frame fourteen of his songs, the movie introduced the unique chemistry between Astaire and Crosby, gave Astaire the impetus to create a sensational dance with firecrackers "White Christmas." Dancing with two newcomers, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale, Astaire's "Partner" in this film was truly Crosby. Comparisons to Ginger Rogers were impossible.
Fred had wanted to make a tour of Europe to entertain the troops stationed there, but with only a month before rehearsals would start at Columbia for his next Rita Hayworth co-starrer, he instead made military camp appearances within the United States. Holiday Inn was released and was a box office and critical success and on March 28, 1942, Phyllis Ava (simply called "Ah-va"), the daughter he had hoped for, was born. The only negative aspects of his life were now mentions by critics of his age in generally glowing reviews.
Joining Hungarian actress-singer Ilona Massey and comedian Hugh Herbert on a War Bond tour of Ohio, Astaire put his patriotic efforts into raising money by selling bonds. Making twenty to thirty appearances each day within the two-week tour, the film stars raised much-needed funds.
Since their first film together, Rita Hayworth had become "The Love Goddess." A dazzling photograph of her in Life magazine in 1941 had made her, along with Betty Grable, one of the top pin-ups of World War II service men when Astaire joined her for their second motion picture. Her new maturity and allure added to the success of You Were Never Lovelier. As one of the films influenced by Rockefeller's "Good Neighbour" policy, it had a Latin American locale complete with Xavier Cugat and his band, a wonderful Jerome Kern-Johnny Mercer score and fanciful, romantic dance numbers.
Fred and Joan Leslie
The camp shows and War Bond appearances continued and he began filming The Sky's the Limit, with another young but extremely promising actress, Joan Leslie. About to reach eighteen, Leslie had to attend school on the set, which made Astaire a bit uncomfortable. "Gosh, the older I get, the younger they get," he said. It was becoming more difficult for the screenwriters to fashion a love story which would be acceptable to audiences. Passionately physical love scenes had never been an issue with Astaire, but now his on-screen persona was moving more toward "Mentor" and away from desirable man-about-town. Despite an excellent score from Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and one classic routine to "One for My Baby," The Sky's the Limit was burdened with unrealistic expectations. The public wanted Astaire in a light hearted musical comedy, not a serious, thought-provoking wartime drama with musical numbers.
At this juncture, Arthur Freed, the M-G-M producer who was responsible for some of the best musical films of the 1940s and 1950s, contacted Astaire and asked him to sign a term contract. Fred's first assignment was to be Ziegfeld Follies but, as it was postponed, he joined the Hollywood Bond Cavalcade, a coast-to-coast train tour featuring almost twenty major stars (among them Judy Garland, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Greer Garson) who performed in large auditoriums and stadiums to raise more money for War Bonds. As Phyllis was handling all of their business affairs, Fred talked with her about fulfilling a dream and buying some thoroughbred horses. They purchased two horses. Triplicate and Fag, and a ranch in Escondido, California, and the Astaires were in the racing business. The much-delayed Ziegfeld Follies finally went into production on March 1, 1944 (but not released until 1946), and Astaire was delighted to be on the M-G-M lot and Finally making his first movie in colour.
Rehearsals began and Fred met Lucille Bremer, an accomplished dancer from Broadway, who would dance with him in two spectacular narrative sequences, "This Heart of Mine" and "Limehouse Blues." With Vincente Minnelli directing the sequences and Robert Alton doing the dance direction, the innovative dance dramas were swathed in rich colors and elegantly staged. Fred composed, choreographed and shot "If Swing Goes, I Go Too" with a male chorus (which would eventually be deleted from the film) and also got the opportunity to sing and dance with Gene Kelly to "The Babbitt and the Bromide," a number he and Adele had done in Funny Face. As Kelly's career began to rise, the Hollywood Gossip factory tried to start a rivalry between the two men, but privately they admired each other and realized that their styles were so completely different that comparisons were fruitless. When the film was finally released in 1946, one critic wrote, "But the dance act for the archives is The Babbitt and the Bromide,' the George and Ira Gershwin song to which Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly trade taps and double-takes to a photo finish. It will be a long time before the screen sees its likes again."
News arrived from Europe that Charles Cavendish, who had been suffering from a lingering ailment for over a year, had died on March 23, 1944 in Ireland. With Delly doing volunteer work at the American Red Cross Rainbow Corner in London, mother Ann had been at Charles' side. Fred felt that a trip to Europe to see and comfort Delly was definitely in order. The moment Ziegfeld Follies was over, Fred left for a USO tour in Europe, with a short stopover in New York, to see Triplicate run at Belmont Park. Although the horse did not win, Fred sensed that the beautiful animal was not far away from success.
Fred entertains the troops at Versailles in 1944
Upon arrival in London, Fred's reunion with Delly was an emotional one. He then moved across Europe for six weeks from August to September, 1944: England, France and the Netherlands, performing for the personnel in the First Army Division. At times, he would join up with other celebrities such as Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Broderick Crawford and the English "Fred Astaire," Jack Buchanan, for major shows. He entertained the homesick and wounded men in camps, hospitals, kitchens and vacant theaters. The experiences he had drove him even harder to bring a touch of home to the troops. When he returned home to his family, he and Phyllis decided to sell the ranch in Escondido and buy a larger one for their horses, adding brood mares and enlarging their stock. Horses were now a major part of their lives and energies. The new Blue Valley Ranch in Chatsworth was only an hour's drive from their home so they could visit on weekends and Holidays with the children sharing the (then) open land.
For his next film, he was re-teamed again with Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief, a fanciful tale directed by Vincente Minnelli and incorporating inventive dance sequences co- created and staged by Eugene Loring, a promising new choreographer from contemporary ballet. As Agnes DeMille had recently created a sensation with her dream ballet in the revolutionary stage musical Oklahoma!, Astaire and Loring were encouraged to stretch the Film musical with a haunting psycho-drama in dance. Unfortunately, most audiences and critics did not appreciate the efforts and the film was a financial loss.
Paramount suddenly called with an offer for Astaire to re-team with Bing Crosby in another lrving Berlin tune-laden film. Blue Skies. The movie had begun filming with Paul Draper, an interpretive tap-dancer who had gained popularity in nightclubs and was being given a chance to get a film career. Unfortunately, Draper allowed his contempt for the female lead, Joan Caulfield, to show. He complained about her dance ability and his anxiety caused him to stutter, a speech impediment which proved to be the "last straw" for Crosbv. Draper was fired and Fred was offered the job on a Friday and arrived for work the following Monday.
Feeling confident that it had the ingredients to be another hit, Astaire decided that Blue Skies would be his Grand Finale in films. He was forty-five years old and had been working non-stop for nearly forty of those years. He felt it was time for a change and Phyllis agreed. He announced his retirement to the press.
Bing and Fred
Letters of protest arrived by the thousands. The press and the public could not believe that they would be deprived of seeing the debonair star on the silver screen again. Agent Leiand Hayward managed to get Astaire out of his M-G-M contract, with the stipulation that should he return to films, M-G-M would get first call. Astaire agreed, since he believed that would never happen. He looked forward to the challenges of this new "retirement" life. The filming of Blue Skies went smoothly. He danced with two new female co-stars, Caulfield and Olga San Juan, and the on-screen chemistry with Crosby worked again. For his solo, "Puttin' on the Ritz," Astaire created a show-stopping number dancing with a chorus of eight duplications of himself. The number was filmed the final week of October, 1946, and dubbed as "Astaire's Last Dance" by the press in attendance.
The idea for a chain of Fred Astaire Dance Studios had been in his head for awhile and now seemed the time to inaugurate them. With business partner Charles Casanave, he began to plan for a new career running his Dance Studios.
But fortunately, Astaire's retirement was not long-lasting. Dancing around the house to a Lionel Hampton record, he realized that he had not lost the urge to express himself. He allowed himself to imagine going back to work and the energy must have helped the chain of events which would bring him back to the screen.
On to The Return...