Today's #Throwback Thursday is going to be a little different. Instead of ballet, today I'm going to focus on tap legends Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 'Swing Time'
Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Nebraska, America, on May 10 1899. When still quite young, Fred and his elder sister Adele began to show signs of natural musical talent. Though Fred initially refused to take dance lessons, he took quickly to the piano, accordion and clarinet. When Fred's father lost his job in 1906, the family moved to New York. Fred and Adele started classes at the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts, in preparation for a 'brother and sister act' that was common in vaudeville at the time. The siblings changed their name at this point, at their mother's suggestion; a family legend attributes the new name to an uncle known as 'l'Astaire'.
Their first act, Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty, was a success and the siblings soon landed their first major contract. Soon a major height difference made the routine appear comical, and the siblings took a two year break. When they returned, they began to incorporate tap and popular ballroom dancing into their routine. Fred's style was inspired by Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson and John 'Bubbles' Sublett. He first met influential songwriter George Gershwin in 1916, and the siblings broke into Broadway in 1917 with a patriotic number entitled Over the Top.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele performed in numerous shows such as The Bunch and Judy (1922), George and Ira Gershwin's Lady Be Good (1924) and Funny Face (1927), and also in the later Band Wagon (1931). Fred was starting to outshine his sister with his dancing. In 1930, Robert Benchley wrote, 'I don't think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world.'
Fred split with Adele when she married her first husband, and working with his new partner Claire Luce allowed him to broaden his repertoire. He created a romantic partner dance to Cole Porter's 'Night and Day', which had been meant for another Broadway show Fred had performed in called Gay Divorce.
Fred then turned to Hollywood, accepting a contract with RKO Radio Pictures despite a slightly disappointing screen test, which read, 'Can't act. Slightly balding. Also dances.' RKO leant him to film giant MGM, where he made his Hollywood debut with Joan Crawford in the musical Dancing Lady. On his return to RKO, he was reluctant to take up a new partnership suggested by the management: with Ginger Rogers.
Ginger Rogers had been born Virginia Katherine McMath in 1911. Her nickname, 'Ginga', was given to her by a younger cousin unable to pronounce 'Virginia'. Her parents had separated before she was born, and in 1915, she moved in with her grandparents while her mother successfully applied for a job writing scripts for Fox Studios. Ginger later took the last name of her stepfather, John Rogers.
She, too, started in vaudeville, when a travelling vaudeville troop needed a quick stand-in one night. Ginger then entered a Charleston dance contest, which she won, allowing her to tour for around 18 months. At the age of 17, she married Jack Culpepper, a singer, dancer and comedian who went by the stage name 'Jack Pepper'. However, the marriage was over within months. Ginger then went on tour to New York, where she stayed, doing radio singing jobs until she made her Broadway debut in the 1929 musical Top Speed.
Within two weeks of the opening of Top Speed, Ginger was chosen by George and Ira Gershwin to star in a new musical entitled Girl Crazy. It made her an overnight star at the age of 19, and is also where she first met Fred Astaire, who had been hired to help the dancers with their choreography. Ginger then turned to film, first appearing in a series of three short films in 1929 - Night in the Dormitory, A Day of a Man of Affairs, and Campus Sweethearts. She accepted a seven year contract with Paramount Pictures. Despite making five pictures with the company, Ginger soon got herself out of the contract and moved, with her mother, to Hollywood. She made feature films with Warner Bros., Monogram, and Fox in 1932, and was named one of 15 'WAMPAS Baby Stars'. Her big breakthrough came in 1933 in the Warner Bros. film 42nd Street.
Fred and Ginger made nine films together, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine musicals were huge successes, and became the biggest moneymakers for RKO. Fred received a 10% cut of the profits from the films, something extremely unusual for an actor of that period. Ginger, however, was often paid less than supporting actors and fought hard throughout her time at RKO for better salary rights.
Carefree was filmed after the pair had been 15 months apart; with the RKO facing bankruptcy in the face of the Great Depression, it was an attempt to capitalise on the popularity of Fred and Ginger and save the company. It failed rather miserably. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle received an even worse response; people simply didn't have the money to go to the pictures anymore. Fred, however, is credited with two important innovations for film musicals. He insisted that the camera should remain stationary and keep the dancers in full view through the entire number, famously saying, 'Either the camera will dance, or I will.' Fred also insisted that all the dance numbers should be integrated with the plot of the film, rather than used purely for spectacle. The dances were choreographed by Fred himself and Hermes Pan, though he later acknowledged that Ginger had had some input. Most of the Astaire-Rogers musicals feature at least three dances: Fred's solo, a comedic partner dance, and a romantic partner dance.
Fred and Ginger reunited in 1949 at MGM for their last and only technicolour picture, The Barkleys of Broadway, mainly because Judy Garland had been unable to appear. Both had pursued separate careers following the end of their partnership. Ginger had starred in several non-musical movies, including Stage Door (1937), alongside Katharine Helburn, and Fifth Avenue Girl (1939), which were quite successful. While Fred left RKO after being labelled 'box office posion', Ginger stayed and became their most successful actress. She enjoyed considerable success in the 1940s, but had peaked by 1949. Though she starred in several other movies, her next big success came in 1965, when she played the lead in the Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!
Fred, meanwhile, had become a freelance choreographer. He had appeared in Broadway Melody of 1940 with Eleanor Powell, considered the best female tap dancer at the time. He made two successful films with Bing Crosby, Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946), which featured the famous Puttin' on the Ritz.
His extensive list of films before his first retirement includes: You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), with Rita Hayworth; The Sky's the Limit (1943), with Joan Leslie; and Yolanda and the Thief and Ziegfeld Follies (1943), with partner Lucille Bremer (Ziegfeld Follies presented the memorable duo of Fred and the equally talented Gene Kelly). After his surprise retirement in 1946, he founded the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which he later sold in 1966.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly
He came out of retirement for MGM in 1948, making several successful musicals such as Easter Parade (1948). However, his later films began to lose revenue at the box office, and with the advent of television, MGM let him go. His later efforts at 20th Century Fox, hampered by the sudden death of his wife, failed to make money at the box office. He announced his retirement from dancing to focus on dramatic acting, though he still made one last musical film in 1968, Finian's Rainbow. Fred and Ginger remained on good terms until his death in 1987. They were co-presenters at the 1967 Academy Awards, at which they performed an impromptu dance and received a standing ovation.
The technical brilliance and depth of emotion which the pair display during their partnership has influenced generations of dancers and choreographers. Modern choreographer Jerome Robbins has commented on the deceiving simplicity of Fred's choreography, which has influenced not only tap and musical theatre, but ballet as well - Jerome Robbins choreographed a tribute to Astaire for the New York City Ballet. Fred was admired by many of his contemporaries - Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, the Nicholas Brothers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael Jackson, and Bill Robinson. Balanchine described him as 'the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times.' His partnership with Ginger Rogers has become nostalgically iconic. Fred died on June 22, 1987 from pneumonia, aged 88. He has famously requested never to be portrayed on film: 'I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be.' Ginger, younger than Fred, outlived him. She died on April 25, 1995 of a probable heart attack, aged 83.
Here's Rogers and Astaire in Swing Time (1936):
And Fred dancing with Gene Kelly in Ziegfeld Follies (1943):
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