Welcome to the wonderful world of Fred Astaire. Whether you're five or ninety-five, there's always something to enjoy about Fred. His wonderful dancing, his skilled acting, his delightful singing, or the oceans of ink that has been spilled about him all hold appeal for both the casual fan or the serious devotee.
This guide has been written with the assistance of the Fred Astaire Mailing List, especially Michael Russell, The Ace, and Sallyann Halstead. Thanks to all of you for providing input, criticism and an unbiased, balanced opinion!
Who is Fred Astaire, and why is he so important?
He sounds like a terrific guy. Where can I learn more about Fred?
I'd like to watch a movie of his. Which one would be a good one to start with?
I've seen all his movie musicals. What else is there?
I'd like to read more about Fred. What books are worthwhile?
I'm having problems obtaining something. Where can I do so?
I'm now a fan! I'd like to talk to or meet other fans. Where can I do so?
1. Who is Fred Astaire, and why is he so important?
Fred Astaire (1899-1987) is, by common consensus, the greatest dancer to ever grace the silver screen, and has been hailed as an American icon, a genius, grace personified, and simply the best dancer ever. His tremendous popularity and the continued popularity of his movie musicals attest to his appeal to people of all ages.
Fred successfully combined different forms of dancing into a unique, highly artistic, expressive and technically flawless individual style. Admired by ballet dancers and hoofers alike, he broke down barriers between so-called 'high' and 'low' art, refusing to obey artificial boundaries in his constant quest to create beautiful, entertaining dances.
He also revolutionised the art of the movie musical, moving it away from the 'backstage musical' stories and the marching ensemble choreography of Busby Berkeley, to more intimate movies with greater variation in storyline, where the dancing was integral to plot development and advancement. Dancing became more than just entertainment; it instead spoke more about people, places, emotions and thoughts than could be expressed via speech. If a picture speaks a thousand words, then imagine the impact of 24 pictures per second, each profound and deeply moving, accompanied by music.
Behind the camera, Fred also overturned conventional wisdom. His dances spoke strongly for themselves, and so he did away with the cuts, edits, transitions and reaction shots that characterised musical numbers up till then, and showed his dances in continuous shots with little editing.
His great timing and his creative mind also dreamed up numerous special effects that enhanced his dancing, enabling him to express the impossible. Thus, we see him outdancing his own shadows in Swing Time, dancing with an entire chorus of himself in Blue Skies, in perfect timing with live firecrackers in Holiday Inn, with animated shoes in The Barkleys of Broadway, and in midair in The Belle Of New York. In one of his most famous sequences, he defies gravity to dance on the walls and ceiling in Royal Wedding.
Fred Astaire was, however, more than just a dancer. He was a skilled actor, garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in A Supporting Role in The Towering Inferno, winning several Golden Globes, among them Best Actor for Three Little Words, winning numerous Emmy Awards for various television shows and movies (1959's An Evening With Fred Astaire still holds the record for most Emmys for a single show), as well as Academy Awards from many other countries such as Britain and Italy.
He also introduced more standards than probably any other singer, and had many hit singles, including several #1 hits. At one point in 1936, he occupied all three top spots in the list of best selling records!
Fred was also a wonderful songwriter (one composition, "I'm Building Up To An Awful Let Down" reached #4 on the charts), a stylish trend-setting dresser and a best selling author with his autobiography, Steps In Time, which he personally wrote in longhand.
Most of all, he is remembered as a gentleman, with absolute humility, free of airs, and never saw himself as anything more than just a man who made his living dancing. He was, by all accounts, a devoted husband and a wonderful father who kept his private life private and his family out of the intense scrutiny of the public spotlight. Even now, so many years after his death, there has never been even a hint of scandal involving his name, although his decision near the end of his life to marry a woman less than half his age created controversy and dissension within the family. The worst that has ever been said of him was that he was a tireless perfectionist who demanded as much from his co-stars as he did from himself, often reducing them to tears.
Perhaps the most important thing about Fred is his position today, many years after his passing: that of a role model. He was a man born with immense talent, who had an equally immense willingness to work hard to succeed; a man who had the world at his feet but was completely unconscious of his own greatness; one of the most recognisable faces in the world but intensely private and humble; a man who was on first name basis with royalty but whose closest friends were commoners; and a human being, who despite his flaws and failings, through hard work came to epitomise all that is beautiful about the human spirit with style, grace and humanity. For this alone, Fred is worth celebrating.
2. He sounds like a terrific guy. Where can I learn more about Fred?
Browse this website for a start. For example, to learn more about Fred's life, visit the biography page. You can also learn about his performances, especially his movie musicals, his music, and the many people who worked and starred with Fred. Links to other pages will enable you to gain other perspectives and learn more about Fred.
There are also many books on Fred. Read question five for more information.
Of course, the best and most fun way to learn about Fred is to watch the movie musicals. Go check out your local library or any video rental store: they should have most of his titles. Read the next question for more information on where to start.
3. I'd like to watch a movie of his. Which one would be a good one to start with?
That depends on your own preferences on movies.
| |For a more specific introduction to Fred, you can watch "A Salute To Fred Astaire", the AFI's Lifetime Achievement Award presentation. It not only contains wonderful clips from all of Fred's movies, you get to see so many famous co-stars, collaborators, friends and others praise Fred as he cringes in embarrassment! However, this tape is out of print and very hard to find. You should either hunt down a Fred fan and beg, or go to ebay and cross your fingers.
For some incredible use of colour, set design and cinematography, see Funny Face (with Audrey Hepburn) or Yolanda and the Thief. Funny Face also has some wonderful dancing and Fred has a talented cast and crew around him, making it a delightful movie to watch. Yolanda is more uneven in terms of quality, with some great moments and some bad ones.
If you want to take a risk and watch something different, you can try Ziegfeld Follies. It has no plot- it is a sequence of skits, sketches and musical numbers starring a number of great stars. It has three numbers with Fred, one of which is his only duet with the other great dancing star of the movies, Gene Kelly. It's near the end, so be prepared to wait (or fast forward).
You can also read through my opinions in my Best of Fred section to give you an idea, but remember those are my opinions and there are many who disagree with me. You can also try look through the movies individually.
4. I've seen all his movie musicals. What else is there?
Wow, congratulations. There are many other avenues for you to continue down:
- Movies: Fred has a strong supporting performance in On The Beach, which is a dark, depressing drama about a post apocalyptic world. There's also the famous The Towering Inferno, where Fred got his Academy Award nomination, but his role is small.
- Television: Fred made history with his TV specials, An Evening With Fred Astaire, Another Evening With Fred Astaire, Astaire Time and the Fred Astaire Show. The first won nine Emmys, more than any other show in history with Fred winning best performance. Also, Fred won an emmy for his acting in A Family Upside Down, a made for TV movie. All of the above are a bit hard to find, but you can try eBay.
- Music: Fred had lots of great songs written especially for him, and he's a great vocalist. He had a good number of hits and a small number of #1 songs. For a good starting album, you could try Cocktail Hour: Fred Astaire, a two CD set with many of his studio recordings on the Brunswick label, among which are most of his #1 hits. He also recorded a fantastic album of his songs with a small combo that included Oscar Peterson, Charlie Shavers and other distinguished artistes, The Astaire Story. You can also get soundtrack recordings with Fred Astaire At MGM and Fred and Ginger at RKO. See my page on obtaining the recordings for more info.
- Books: See the next question.
And you can always go watch the musicals again. You might have missed something!
As we sit peering intently at the fuzzy scene on screen, I turn to Susan Z and say "You know, Susan, between the two of us we've probably seen this dance 500 times, and yet here we are..."
"Enthralled?" Susan interrupts. "But Luann, we might see something we never noticed before!"
- Luann Wilkins Abrahams, Fred Astaire Mailing List member, on watching the 'coatrack' dance from Royal Wedding for the umpteenth time.
5. I'd like to read more about Fred. What books are worthwhile?
A more detailed treatment should be up at the Fred in Print page soon, but here's a brief rundown of the starting points and highlights:
- Steps in Time Fred's autobiography. Fred writes with his typical warmth and self-deprecating humour. It's a wonderful inside look at his life and his movies and a must-have for any fan of Fred's- or movies in general.
- Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk It's hard to find anyone who had anything bad to say about Fred. As noted in question one above, the worse thing that was said about him was how hard he worked and how hard he worked his colleagues when making movies. This book by Sarah Giles is full of stories, tributes and anecdotes about Fred from the people who really knew him. It's wonderful to read so many people from so many different backgrounds attest to his greatness.
- Fred Astaire Written by Stephen Harvey, and part of the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies series. Nicely written and succinct, and is recommended by quite a few Astaire fans on the Fred Astaire Mailing list. A good place to start in terms of biographies.
Once you're ready to get serious, get these two books:
- Fred Astaire by Larry Billman. Part of the Greenwood Press Bio-Bibliography Series. Exhaustively researched by a man who knew Fred and was a fan of his. This book is the most comprehensive of all the Fred biographies. Almost everything you need to know about Fred is here in this tome. What isn't is on this website (I hope)!
- Astaire Dancing : The Musical Films John E. Mueller's book is the best book to won and a must-have for the serious Fred fan. It breaks down every single one of Fred's 31 musicals, dance by dance, sequence by sequence, step by step. With hundreds of stills and fantastic commentary, this book is vital to understanding Fred's movies.
6. I'm having problems obtaining something. Where can I do so?
Unfortunately some of Fred's movies are out of print, as well as many other things. If you've tried my Buy Fred pages with no luck, here's what you can do.
- Movies/TV Shows: If you're in the USA and have cable, be patient. Almost all of Fred's movies are shown on Turner Classic Movies or American Movie Classics. You can always write in and request a show of his. Occasionally, other channels carry his shows, for example Fox. His television appearances may turn up on TVLand. Try this page for a list of his appearances on TV this month. To purchase, or if you're impatient, try Collector's Choice Video, which has a greater range, but at higher price. And there's always ebay. For PAL format, try Blackstar
- Music: If you've exhausted used CD and record stores, you can give Collector's Choice Music a shot, but chances are low. Otherwise, I can only suggest ebay.
7. I'm now a fan! I'd like to talk to or meet other fans. Where can I do so?
Join the Fred Astaire Mailing List, and say hello, and tell us about yourself and how you discovered Fred! We'd be happy to have you.
You can also drop Fred's name into conversations or whereever. I've made a number of friends just by mentioning his name. It's amazing!