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Fred Astaire - Star of the Month
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Fred Astaire Profile

Noel Coward called him "the greatest dancer who ever lived," and Oscar Levant considered him "the best singer of songs the movie world ever knew." Fred Astaire was also a charming light comedian and a convincing actor, but it was in his musical numbers that he became a sublime presence on the screen. His great dedication, discipline and simple hard work obviously figured into Astaire's superlative performances, but perhaps even more important was the emotional commitment to his material; no less an authority than Irving Berlin recognized that "First he knew the value of a song, and his heart was in it before his feet took over."

The man who would become the movies' personification of grace, elegance and gentle humor was born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska, to an Austrian immigrant in the beer business. Fred began dancing lessons at age five and soon was performing with his sister, Adele, at church events. Their mother took the youngsters to New York City in 1905 for further training and experience in vaudeville. They played the famed Orpheum Circuit throughout the country, learning various dances and performing tricks from their coworkers. Fred and Adele made their Broadway debut in a patriotic review called Over the Top in 1917 and followed up with other appearances in New York and London including George and Ira Gershwin's Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927). By 1930 Robert Benchley was calling Fred Astaire "the greatest tap dancer in the world." Fred and Adele ended their professional pairing in 1932 when she married her first husband, the British nobleman Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish.

After a movie contract with Samuel Goldwyn that lasted only a few months and resulted in no films, Astaire signed with RKO. The fabled reaction to his screen test there: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Dances a little."

His feature-film debut came on loan-out to MGM, playing himself in the Joan Crawford vehicle Dancing Lady (1933). Then lightning struck: Astaire was cast opposite another recent RKO contractee, Ginger Rogers, as the second leads in Flying Down to Rio (1933), the nominal stars of which were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. The musical was a huge smash, and the Astaire/Rogers version of the "Carioca" became a national dance sensation.

There followed eight more Astaire/Rogers hit musicals from RKO: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat(1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). Katharine Hepburn famously analyzed their partnership: "He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal." Despite their delightful pairing on screen, Astaire and Rogers were not always in harmony as collaborators; their producer, Pandro S. Berman, described their working relationship as "six years of mutual aggression."

Astaire, who had teamed with non-dancer Joan Fontaine in A Damsel in Distress (1937) during the ongoing Rogers partnership, later turned to a series of new costars at various studios: Eleanor Powell (another Grade A dancer) in MGM'S Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), Paulette Goddard in Paramount's Second Chorus (1940), Rita Hayworth (reportedly named by Astaire as his favorite dance partner) in Columbia's You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Joan Leslie in RKO's The Sky's the Limit (1943).

Astaire settled in at MGM in the mid-1940s, turning out a delightful series of musicals with a variety of partners. He performed with Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1945); the latter film also marked his only full-out onscreen number with Gene Kelly. Astaire called his teaming with Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948) one of the "high spots of enjoyment" in his career; he may have been less thrilled when Ginger Rogers replaced Garland in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), although they once more created an entertaining film. He teamed to great effect with ballet-trained Vera-Ellen in Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952). He had fun with Jane Powell in Royal Wedding (1951), which includes the famous "dancing on the ceiling" solo, and formed a spectacular team with sexy Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957).

Astaire's final film musical was Warner Bros.' Finian's Rainbow (1968). Meanwhile he had built a career in straight comedies and as a secondary actor in dramatic films, culminating with an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for The Towering Inferno (1974). In addition to some 40 films, he also enjoyed award-winning careers in recording and on television, including a series of critically praised dance specials. His final feature was Ghost Story (1981); he died in 1987.

Also screening is Carson on TCM: Fred Astaire (2013), a 1979 television interview with Johnny Carson, who described Astaire as having "truly achieved immortality in motion pictures."

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