In October, 1947, Easter Parade was in rehearsal at M-G-M with Gene Kelly and Judy Garland and experiencing difficulties. Garland's frail mental health was causing problems with her husband, Vincente Minnelli, who finally withdrew from directing the film on the advice of Garland's psychiatrist. Charles Walters, a former Broadway performer and film choreographer, was then given the plum assignment. Producer Arthur Freed felt that all the proper pieces were finally in place for a smash hit, when Gene Kelly broke his ankle. Astaire read about it in the trade papers and phoned Kelly to offer sympathy.
An hour later, Kelly phoned back and asked Astaire to come out of retirement and take his role in the film. At first, Fred tried to convince Kelly that he would quickly recover and the production schedule could continue. When Kelly told him that it would be atleast five months before his ankle could heal sufficiently to dance on it, and after another call from L.K. Sidney, the vice- president of M-G-M, Astaire agreed. The prospect of finally working with Garland to lrving Berlin's music was too promising to pass up.
"A Couple Of Swells"
Fred and Judy
Three days later, Astaire was back at M-G-M adapting the choreography that Robert Alton had originally created for Kelly for himself, while the writers revised the script to lessen the romance and strengthen the mentor/pupil aspects in the relationship between his and Garland's characters. The film was filled with another Berlin hit-filled-score and ample helpings of Astaire Magic ("Steppin' Out with My Baby" - a slow-motion dance in front of a regular speed chorus and "Drum Crazy" in which he displayed the amazing expertise of his drum-playing hobby) but it also introduced an unseen side of his talent. Hoping to duplicate the success of Kelly and Garland's rendering of "Be a Clown" from The Pirate released the previous year, Fred and Judy comically clowned as Hobos in "A Couple of Swells." It was an Astaire movie audiences had never seen him before: broadly performing slapstick and easily kidding his debonair image.
Even before the film was released in 1948, M-G-M realized the box office magic that Astaire and Garland were capable of and announced their next project. The Barkleys of Broadway, original screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, about a show business couple whose marriage begins to disintegrate when the wife forsakes a musical comedy partnership for a solo dramatic career. Successful movie songwriter Harry Warren was signed to compose the score, with Ira Gershwin hired to write the lyrics.
Although Robert Alton collaborated with Astaire to choreograph the bulk of the film's musical numbers, Hermes Pan rejoined Fred to create another landmark concept with "Shoes With Wings On," in which Fred, as a cobbler, would dance with dozens of pairs of shoes: a "First" in technical achievement in its time. Garland was beginning to behave erratically and did not want Pan to create her numbers, preferring the comfort of having Charles Walters, the film's director, stage them. As her weight drastically ballooned and she began arriving late, leaving early, or not appearing at all, Judy Garland was released from the film.
The news sent shockwaves through Hollywood. Ginger Rogers had sent a congratulatory telegram to Arthur Freed after seeing Easter Parade, so she was fresh on his mind. Freed realized what a publicity coup it would be to reunite Astaire and Rogers after ten years! Ginger eagerty accepted the offer.
The script was revised to display Rogers to better advantage and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" was interpolated into the score to warm the audience with wonderful memories, although it cooled composer Harry Warren to have another (George Gershwin) composer's song stuck into his score.
The film did well at the box office. Seeing the famous pair for the first time in colour was a revelation and their nostalgic dance to "They Can't Take That Away from Me" satisfied most fans and critics with Time magazine stating, "Ginger is still the best movie dancing partner that Astaire ever had". Although Astaire and Rogers would appear at social functions and tributes in the future, this would be their last appearance together on film.
On March 23, 1950, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Fred with a Special Oscar "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of motion pictures." Astaire did not attend the ceremony and the golden statuette was accepted for him by George Murphy.
Fred and Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words
A planned six-month vacation to concentrate on the family, the dance schools and the horses was interrupted when he was called back to work at M-G-M in Three Little Words. Based on the lives of songwriters Ben Kalmar and Harry Ruby, Fred co-starred with Red Skelton and Arlene Dahl and danced for the first time with Vera-Ellen, a well-trained, petite blonde whose idea of perfection matched Astaire's. They rehearsed endlessly, creating memorable dance sequences and the London Evening Standard critic noted, "Vera-Ellen is certainly the best leading lady Astaire has had since Ginger Rogers - with the same grace and much the same sense of humor.
Paramount beckoned with Let's Dance, pairing him with Betty Hutton, the studio's reigning musical star. The Frank Loesser score was not up to his usual standard of "Hit Parade" percentages and the teaming of Astaire and Hutton is considered the biggest mismatch in Astaire's filmography. With her hyper-kinetic energy level, Hutton simply chewed up scenery, howled swigs and stepped all over Fred's literal and figurative feet with Thomas M. Pryor in the New York Times writing upon the film's release, "Of the many partners Mr. Astaire has drawn in the movies. Miss Hutton is the least compatible."
Alan Jay Lerner had created a script specifically for Astaire at M-G-M, Royal Wedding. With echoes of Fred and Adele's real life experiences performing together and the break-up of the team when Adele married Charles Cavendish, Fred began rehearsals with June Allyson. June found herself pregnant and M-G-M put Judy Garland in the role. It didn't take long for Garland to start being a "no-show' at rehearsals due to illness and was fired from the studio which had been her home for nearly fifteen years. Astaire, respecting Garland's legendary talent and deeply fond of the woman, was seriously disappointed. Jane Powell, M-G-M's youngest musical performer, was suggested and Fred pleaded: "Grab her - please!" Meanwhile, after original director Charles Walters left the project, Stanley Donen, a former choreographer and creative collaborator of Gene Kelly's, was given the direction job and the film finally began production.
The second female role, that of Astaire's romantic interest, was suggested for Moira Shearer, an international ballet star due to the success of The Red Shoes (1948). Uncertain of Shearer's height and her ability to loosen her classical style to the dance numbers required, Astaire turned her down, agreeing instead to non-dancer, Sarah Churchill, Sir Winston Churchill's daughter, who was gaining recognition in stage roles. Finally the cast was complete and the cameras rolled.
"You're All The World To Me" from Royal Wedding
Always methodically searching for ways to top himself, Fred created a revolutionary dance sequence with director Donen in which he danced up the walls and over the ceiling of a room. Combining his creative imagination and the "nuts-and-bolts" of continually improving moviemaking technical expertise, the number was the talk of the industry. A comic number, "How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Loved You When You Know I've Been a Liar All My Life?" with the impressively hard-working and professional Powell, allowed Astaire to comically "let his hair down" once again as a gum-chewing, third-class hood. British reviewers were more critical of the film, with one writing, "Despite Mr. Astaire's ingenuity and the familiar newsreel shots of the royal wedding, Wedding Bells (the title in Great Britain) remains a second-rate musical that leaves Anglo-American relations just about where thev are now."
From the pleasures and healthy box office receipts of Royal Wedding, Astaire began a light weight turn-of-the-century picture called The Belle of New York. Originally scheduled for him and Judy Garland before he retired in 1946, the film began production in 1951, reuniting him with Vera-Ellen. Although the musical score by Johnny Mercer and Hairv Warren was cheerful, the dance numbers devised by Astaire and Robert Alton among some of his best, and his partnership with Vera-Ellen providing some incredible onscreen dances, the weak plot (about a Salvation Army Miss saving the soul of a shiftless playboy) and the period setting did not find success with critics or audiences.
Norman Granz, jazz concert and record giant, approached Fred about making an album of most of his signature hits, backed by a combo containing many of the jazz greats of the time: Oscar Peterson, Alvin Stoller, Flip Phillips, Charles Shavers, Bamey Kessel and Ray Brown. The album ("The Astaire Story") was released in 1953 and was a labor of love for all involved. It was an innovative way to interpret great music with Astaire's inimitable singing and tap dancing.
Astaire's next film, The Band Wagon, contained a good script, excellent score and sensational dance opportunities. The property began as an idea with scriptwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green about a musical comedy star facing a decline in his career. Using real-life similarities of Astaire's persona, life and career, they fashioned a sharp scenario that Astaire knew would be a welcome departure from the usual "fluff." Arthur Freed assigned Vincente Minnelli to direct, Broadway sensation Michael Kidd to choreograph and Cyd Charisse to dance with Astaire.
Fred and Cyd Charisse
"The Girl Hunt Ballet"
The supporting cast of Nanette Fabray, Oscar Levant and Fred's old friend, English song-and-dance man Jack Buchanan, was bright and unusual. For the score, Freed approached Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz who had written the music for Fred and Adele's stage success of the same title. Using the title (the original revue was plotless), some of that score and supplementing it with the best of Schwartz and Dietz tunes from other revues, the composers also wrote an original song which would become a new Show Business anthem: "That's Entertainment" The lavish "Girl Hunt Ballet," a spoof of the then-popular Mickey Spillane detective novels with their hard-boiled narrative, successfully climaxed the film.
With The Band Wagon, Astaire completed his commitment to M-G-M and decided to take some time off and enjoy his family. Fred and Phyllis once again discussed retirement, or perhaps his going into producing. Plans were made to enlarge the ranch for the family to make their permanent home there. He now had time to attend to the progress of the dance school chain and observe his horses race.
This nearly two-year period away from the camera was interrupted by a call from Harry Friedman, Fred's agent at MCA. Darryl Zanuck was inviting Astaire to Twentieth-Century Fox to star in a remake of Daddy Long Legs. The property had been in development for many years at Fox and, after seeing Astaire at Romanoffs restaurant one evening, Zanuck knew he had the perfect "Guardian Angel" for his musicalized version of the popular children's story. Leslie Caron, the French gamine who had scored a success in An American in Paris, was promised as Fred's orphaned waif co-star.
During this time, Phyllis complained of dizziness. X-rays revealed that Mrs. Astaire, a long time smoker, had lung cancer. Exploratory surgery was done on Good Friday, 1954, with friends David Niven and Hermes Pan waiting with Fred. After the initial surgery was completed, complications occurred and she went back for a second operation. She was eventually able to return home, but continued to receive radiation treatments five times a week.
Meanwhile, Fred reported to Fox for rehearsals on Daddy Long Legs. Roland Petit, a French choreographer whose first American film Hans Christian Andersen had been a success, was assigned to create the ballet sequences as Leslie Caron had been in his company and requested him. David Robel assisted Astaire on the non-classical dances.
In June, Phyllis returned to the hospital for another operation. She was allowed to come home, but never regained her strength. Astaire stopped attending rehearsals and stayed at her bedside. She slipped into a coma and on September 13, 1954, his beloved life-partner died.
Facing the future alone, the thought of returning to Twentieth-Century Fox seemed impossible to him. He tried to buy his way out of the contract, offering to pay for all of the production expenses so far. Astaire's intense sense of professionalism - and the memory that Phyllis had wanted him to make the film - made him report back for work. The first few weeks were difficult, with most of the time being spent on Leslie's ballets and requiring as little as possible from the grieving man. Caron remembered, "Fred used to sit down during a rehearsal and put his face in his towel and just cry".
As he began creating the choreography for his two major dance numbers with Caron, "Something's Gotta Give" and "Sluefoot," his perfectionism found him diving into the work with zest. The movie was released in May, 1955, and the New York Times said: "It is the ageless and graceful Mr. Astaire and the fey Miss Caron, paired here for the first time, who give this romance its charm and warmth. Daddy Long Legs would be dodder without them."
The film also created a need for him to make television appearances to promote it. Within one week in New York, he appeared on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town, What's My Line? and I've Got a Secret, introducing him to the new medium.
Although he had a commitment for a second film at Twentieth Century-Fox, it was Paramount which beckoned first. Originally signing for two films: one with Bing Crosby, which eventually became White Christmas, and Papa's Delicate Condition (neither of which he did), it was Funny Face which finally brought him back on the big screen.
Fred on the Champs-Elysees during the filming of
The pairing of Astaire and the radiant Audrey Hepburn made Funny Face one of the movie musicals' most elegant entries. Using portions of the Gershwin score from Fred and Adele's stage hit, interpolated songs from other Gershwin Shows and several new tunes by Roger Edens and Leonard Gershe, the film was a musical and visual delight. To promote the movie, Astaire once again travelled to New York to appear on the CBS Ed Sullivan and Arlene Francis television shows.
Fred reported to M-G-M for his next film. Silk Stockings, which had begun life as Ninotchka, Greta Garbo's only comedy film (publicized as "Garbo Laughs!"). A musical stage version had been written by Cole Porter and scored a success on Broadway in 1955. Once again, Cyd Charisse was teamed with Astaire and Eugene Loring created her dance sequences while Hermes Pan was reunited with Fred to co- create his numbers. Rouben Mamoulian would direct and Janis Paige, Peter Lorre, Jules Munshin and George Tobias were the colorful co-stars. Rehearsals began September 1956.
While on a break, Astaire happened to visit jazz choreographer Jack Cole's rehearsals for Les Girls, another Porter musical on the M-G-M lot starring Gene Kelly, Mitzi Gaynor, Kay Kendall and Taina Elg. Astaire became fascinated with one of the female dancers assisting Cole, twenty-two-year-old Barrie Chase. He arranged for her to appear in one of the numbers in Silk Stockings ("Too Bad"). With Phyllis still vivid in Fred's memory, romance was out of the' question, but an admiration for the dynamic young performer and a friendship began.
When the film was released, although the New York Mirror used the pun, "Putting it bluntly, Silk Stockings seems to have a number of runs," most critics welcomed it. No one realised they were seeing the end of the dance musical. Stephen Harvey later wrote, "Astaire and Charisse are really dancing at the wake of the musical genre that Astaire had helped create".
On to Conquering New Fields...