How best to describe the impact of Fred Astaire on film?
Apart from his undeniable charm and way with a song, Astaire fundamentally changed the way dance was portrayed on film. Utilizing extended takes, Astaire — whether solo or with mainstay partners Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse — performed uninterrupted, intricate dance sequences that kept audiences captivated for decades.
It’s hard to believe that after his first Hollywood screen test, the casting director (who must have been drunk) famously wrote, “Balding. Can’t act. Can dance a little.”
In honor of his birthday, we wanted to give you four of his best dance scenes, that really showcase the range and skill of Hollywood's number one hoofer. We could go on and on, but this time, we thought we'd let the work speak for itself:
Top Hat (1935)
What's better than one Fred Astaire? How about a chorus of Astaire look-a-likes supporting the great man himself. This celebrated piece hails from "Top Hat," arguably Astaire's greatest film, along with “Swing Time.” This sequence is so memorable, Hugh Jackman mimicked it while opening the 2009 Academy Awards. Let's just say, he didn't compare. Make sure to stick around for the end of the clip, where Astaire uses his fast tapping as a machine gun to knock out all his imitators. In his iconic top hat, white tie, and tails — there can only be one Fred. Click here to stream "Top Hat" now!
Another highlight of the film is the stunningly romantic sequence where Fred and Ginger dance to Irving Berlin’s classic "Cheek to Cheek," decked out in tuxedo and iconic feather dress that was made to twirl around a dance floor. Astaire hated this gown as it shed feathers all over the set and his tuxedo (NOT good), but boy, oh, boy did it make an impression on-screen. While we think of Astaire as the King of Tap, he knew his way around a ballroom as well – as you’ll see towards the end of the clip, as Fred literally spins Ginger across the floor, swishing her dress in a glorious arc as the trumpets blare their final notes. Romance will never die as long as people are still watching Astaire and Rogers. Click here to stream "Top Hat" now!
Swing Time (1936)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a cinema partnership for the ages. They made 10 movies together, always playing a couple who fall out over a misunderstanding, then end up together when it’s cleared up. But the real magic happened when they danced. Though Astaire tapped and twirled with other famous screen sirens (Rita Hayworth, Eleanor Powell), none were so completely in sync with him as Ms. Rogers. And while often their dances displayed a sort of "call and response" style of performance, this incredible sequence from "Swing Time" really shows the pair in their synchronized glory. Click here to stream "Swing Time!"
Royal Wedding (1951)
Though "Royal Wedding" is certainly not one of Astaire's best films, this famous scene involves one of his most inventive set-pieces. As soon as he starts dancing on the walls you'll see what I mean. Sure, you can tell this employed some inventive camera work and set design, but the ease and grace with which Astaire leaps from wall to ceiling to floor and back is so impressive, you'd guess he'd never had to encumber himself with the pesky laws of physics!