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Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire

Joseph Epstein
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 224
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  • Book Info
    Fred Astaire
    Book Description:

    Joseph Epstein'sFred Astaireinvestigates the great dancer's magical talent, taking up the story of his life, his personality, his work habits, his modest pretensions, and above all his accomplishments. Written with the wit and grace the subject deserves,Fred Astaireprovides a remarkable portrait of this extraordinary artist and how he came to embody for Americans a fantasy of easy elegance and, paradoxically, of democratic aristocracy.

    Tracing Astaire's life from his birth in Omaha to his death in his late eighties in Hollywood, the book discusses his early days with his talented and outspoken sister Adele, his gifts as a singer (Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern all delighted in composing for Astaire), and his many movie dance partners, among them Cyd Charisse, Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell, and Betty Hutton. A key chapter of the book is devoted to Astaire's somewhat unwilling partnership with Ginger Rogers, the woman with whom he danced most dazzlingly. What emerges from these pages is a fascinating view of an American era, seen through the accomplishments of Fred Astaire, an unassuming but uncompromising performer who transformed entertainment into art and gave America a new yet enduring standard for style.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-17352-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  4. ACT ONE Like Kissing Your Sister
    (pp. 1-20)

    Astaire—something in the name suggests brilliance, dazzle. Astaire implies “a star”; so, too, a stairway, perhaps one leading to Paradise (“with a new step every day”); Astarte is also, the mythologies report, the name of a minor goddess, one of high and productive energy. The name Astaire enlivens even the otherwise somewhat stodgy name of Fred. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Academy is proud to honor that greatest of all dancers, male or female, classical or modern, ballet or ballroom, rap or tap, break or flake, highbrow or low, Mr. Fred Astaire.” Thunderous, nearly unrelenting applause follows.

    In fact, Fred...

  5. ACT TWO Peculiar Looking
    (pp. 21-34)

    This mystery is heightened in the case of Fred Astaire, who may be said to have done extraordinarily well what may not have been all that much worth doing in the first place—at least not until he came along and did it with a hitherto unimagined brio. But what, really, did he do? He frisked about in tap shoes, he twirled beautiful women around waxen floors, he sang in a less than commanding voice songs other people wrote. From this, as the old Jews used to say, he made a living? He did indeed, and a very impressive one;...

  6. ACT THREE Man Makes the Clothes
    (pp. 35-44)

    Despite the little catalogue I’ve just compiled of the oddities of Fred Astaire’s physique, his charm was preponderantly physical, deriving from the way he moved, especially, of course, the way he moved on the dance floor, though not there exclusively. The dancer and choreographer Bob Fosse claimed that he could spot Astaire from a distance by the rhythm of his walk. The way he talked, his gestures, and not least his clothes and the way he wore them were also distinctive. Clothes make the man, an old haberdasher’s slogan had it, and they went a long way toward making Astaire,...

  7. ACT FOUR A Litvak Passes Through
    (pp. 45-52)

    A group of songs and more or less energetic dances strung out over a generally preposterous plot, such is musical comedy, a purely American art form. Along with jazz, it is one of the few original American contributions to the world’s stock of entertainments. From the 1920s through the 1950s, it flourished, owing to a small number of talented and prolific songwriters, some of whose names, it may well be, will live longer than those of the country’s greatest poets: Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein, the brothers Gershwin, and a small number of...

  8. ACT FIVE Charmed, I’m Sure
    (pp. 53-60)

    Gifts come from God, presents from men and women. Serious talent is largely a gift from God. Charm is a present men and women bestow upon one another. No one is born charming, though charm comes fairly easily to some and is apparently quite impossible for others.

    Charm has to do with pleasing, light-handedly, sometimes to the point of fascination. He or she “turned on the charm,” we say, by which we mean that a man or woman cast a spell, however fleeting. Temporary enchantment is the state to which a charming person brings us. Charm is a performance of...

  9. ACT SIX The Other Guy
    (pp. 61-74)

    Hard today to grasp that tap dancing, a minor art now lapsing into a disappearing one, was once not only vastly admired but also widely taught and practiced. In the 1940s, tap dance lessons were offered, for twenty-five cents a shot, in the public schools of Chicago and no doubt in other public school systems. I took them; or, rather, I took one such lesson: shuffle step, step, shuffle step, step, heel toe, heel toe, step, shuffle step, step, step, step. The prospect of tap dancing, at least for this failed hoofer, was much more delightful than the drudgery, the...

  10. ACT SEVEN What’s It Their Business?
    (pp. 75-86)

    Vast differences there were, too, between the offscreen personalities of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Kelly was aggressive, argumentative, sometimes in the name of good causes, such as his wanting to attempt aesthetic effects in movies that Hollywood producers, in their innate financial conservatism, were nervous about trying. A strong liberal, he was also a more openly political personality than Astaire, who never made his politics known, but whose temperamental disposition was conservative: he was churchgoing, patriotic (he did lots of work entertaining troops during World War II), and dismissive of the new music and the more open sexiness of...

  11. ACT EIGHT Who Needs a Partner?
    (pp. 87-98)

    Beaumont and Fletcher, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Rodgers and Hart—Fred and Ginger qualify as another of these famous pairings, with one proviso. Although in their splendid movie performances they never gave any sign of it, neither was entirely content to be linked with the other. Astaire felt he had had the great partnership of his career with his sister Adele; and Ginger Rogers, though hers would probably by now be a less luminous name but for her partnership with Fred Astaire, sensed that he somehow eclipsed her; what’s more, she wished to be thought, more than a...

  12. ACT NINE Change Partners
    (pp. 99-130)

    Arlene Croce, author of the excellentThe Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, underscores the point that Ginger Rogers was as eager to leave the Astaire-Rogers partnership as was Fred Astaire. Rogers thought herself, rightly, a performer of wider talent than was made use of in her movies with Astaire: talent as a dramatic actress, an ingénue, a solo comedienne, all going to waste. She feared—rightly, again—being smothered under Astaire’s brilliance.

    Owing to Astaire’s perfectionism, which required weeks and weeks, sometimes months, of rehearsals before a movie could be shot, Ginger Rogers couldn’t take on as many new...

  13. ACT TEN Must You Dance, Every Dance
    (pp. 131-150)

    Which brings us back to Ginger Rogers. Why should this actress, a Hollywood type not far off the standard, with no special training as a dancer, have been the best of all Fred Astaire’s partners, in many ways the making of his film career and perhaps the chief guarantor of his place in the history of entertainment and, many would say, of terpsichorean art?

    In the reality of Hollywood, all of Astaire’s objections to being teamed with Ginger Rogers were finally beside the point. The television sports producer Don Ohlmeyer, when approached by a young reporter saying that he had...

  14. ACT ELEVEN And I Trust, You’ll Excuse My Dust
    (pp. 151-166)

    InA Mathematician’s Apology, the Cambridge don G. H. Hardy, justifying his life as a mathematician, writes: “It is a tiny minority who can do anything really well, and the number of men [today we should of course add ‘and women’] who can do two things well is negligible.” Underscoring Hardy’s last point, Oscar Levant, in his day the wittiest man in Hollywood, informed of Marilyn Monroe’s decision to divorce Joe DiMaggio, is said to have remarked: “I guess no one can expect to excel at more than one national pastime.”

    Fred Astaire turns out to be a man who...

  15. ACT TWELVE Dancing on Radio
    (pp. 167-188)

    Style, true style, always outlasts fashion, because style is finer, richer, deeper than fashion. Fashion is by its nature ephemeral; style, if it is genuine, pleases at all times. Fashion goes out of style, yet style never goes out of fashion.

    A word of many meanings,style. For some people to beinfashion is to beinstyle. Some people usestyleto refer to attractive ornament, or flourishes of manner or dress—style, in this definition, is a matter merely of decoration. Art and literary historians often use the word to refer to the common qualities binding artistic...

  16. Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 189-192)
  17. Index of Names
    (pp. 193-198)