Filmmaker Spotlight: Fred Astaire (1899–1987)
20th century dancing started with one man, Fred Astaire. The great Gene Kelly once said that “the history of dance on film begins with Astaire”. Without this tall, nimble man, modern dancing wouldn’t exist in its present form today. Many classical dancers and choreographers have acknowledged his importance and influence.
Fred Astaire was born on May 10, 1899 as Frederick Austerlitz and began dancing in a vaudeville act. His family changed their last name to Astaire, as Austerlitz sounded like “the name of a battle.” Astaire eventually transitioned to Broadway and London before moving to Hollywood and teaming up with Ginger Rogers in a series of successful musical films including Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance. He was also featured in the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, dancing alongside Gene Kelly.
A legendary Hollywood story goes that, during his screen test for RKO Pictures, the report read: "Can’t sing. Can’t act. Can dance a little."
The movies of Astaire represented the best of the Golden Age of Hollywood when movies were thought of only as great escapism. In particular, the films of Astaire and Rogers were so successful because they were made during the Great Depression, when audiences needed a diversion from the troubles of real life.
Fred Astaire made tap-dancing famous. His sense of rhythm and technical control were astonishing, yet it always seemed as though he was doing it effortlessly. Whereas Gene Kelly’s dancing was athletic and muscular, Astaire remains elegant, graceful, and precise. Simple as it may look, he had to rehearse for weeks before he could completely perfect his routines
He said of dancing:
"Working out the steps is a very complicated process—something like writing music. You have to think of some step that flows into the next one, and the whole dance must have an integrated pattern. If the dance is right, there shouldn’t be a single superfluous movement. It should build to a climax and stop!"
Furthermore, he was responsible for two dancing innovations in musical films. 1) Keeping a camera stationary while the performer dances and making the cuts as seamless as possible (usually with long shots), and 2) Integrating the song-and-dance routines into the story, progressing the narrative.