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Top 10 Fred Astaire Films

Lindsay is a working actress and honors graduate of Texas Christian University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre: Film/TV.

Fred Astaire, a portrait of grace and perfectionism

Fred Astaire, a portrait of grace and perfectionism

Who Was Fred Astaire?

Fred Astaire remains one of the most influential and well-respected dancers in film history. Radiating a natural grace and class, Fred Astaire could make even the most difficult dance moves look easy. A perfectionist by nature, Astaire's precision and attention to detail in his routines is unmatched. In fact, he believed he "never got anything 100% right."

Beginning his career at age five dancing with his older sister Adele, Fred didn't pursue a solo career until Adele married the son of the Duke of Devonshire and retired to Ireland. Up until then, his sister was thought to be the more talented dancer of the two. Astaire ended up starring in many popular films on his own, but his name also became eternally linked with his most frequent onscreen dance partner, Ginger Rogers. With their unmatched onscreen chemistry, Fred and Ginger created a magic in their dance scenes that has never been duplicated, making it no surprise that they still remain the most iconic dancing duo in film history.

Although he rarely took credit for it, Fred was the lead choreographer for most of his onscreen dances. And even though we don't usually think of Astaire as a singer, he actually originated many songs we now consider standards. He starred in musicals until well into his 60s, even pursuing dramatic acting roles in his later years to critical acclaim. So, if you have yet to witness the elegant and quick-footed Astaire in action, prepare to be amazed.

A Note on This List's Order

I chose the order of the top ten films by considering their importance in Fred’s overall career, as well as, the size/importance of his role in them. I, also, took into account their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top ten). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.

Top 10 Fred Astaire Films

  1. Top Hat
  2. Swing Time
  3. The Band Wagon
  4. The Gay Divorcee
  5. Shall We Dance
  6. Easter Parade
  7. Holiday Inn
  8. Broadway Melody of 1940
  9. Follow The Fleet
  10. The Barkleys of Broadway

1. Top Hat (1935)

The movie that forever linked Fred Astaire with a top hat and tails, Top Hat is the fourth (and most iconic) movie Fred made opposite Ginger Rogers. In fact, this light musical comedy was the first film to be written specifically as a vehicle for Fred and Ginger.

Fred plays the role of Jerry Travers, a famous American dancer who has traveled to London to appear in a show produced by his friend, Horace Hardwick. While in London, Jerry meets and immediately falls for a lovely American expatriate named Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers). Thanks to an unfortunate misunderstanding, Dale mistakes Jerry for the married Horace, which puts a bit of a damper on the couple’s burgeoning romance.

The score for Top Hat was written by legendary composer Irving Berlin, marking his first complete film score in five years. Astaire and Berlin actually became lifelong friends and Fred sang his songs in five more films over the course of his career (more than any other composer).

Without question, the most famous Berlin song from Top Hat is the beautiful "Cheek To Cheek." Behind the scenes, though, the number caused headaches for Fred and choreographer Hermes Pan thanks to Ginger Roger's heavily feathered gown. Rogers chose the dress herself since she knew the flow of the dress would look beautiful on film (Fred later admitted to her that she was right about that).

However, the dress shed feathers relentlessly, getting into Fred's eyes and mouth during the sequence. Rogue feathers can still be seen in the final film and it's been said that Fred continued to call Ginger "Feathers" long after filming was finished. (He also gave her a feather charm as a gift.)

2. Swing Time (1936)

The sixth movie to pair Astaire opposite Ginger Rogers, Swing Time contains the best and most technically complex dances in their partnership. The movie stars Fred as John “Lucky” Garnett, a professional dancer and lifelong gambler. On the day that he’s supposed to get married to his fiancee Margaret, Lucky is tricked by his fellow dancers into missing the ceremony. Although Margaret is fairly understanding when Lucky finally shows up, her father is not.

Lucky is able to convince his future father-in-law that he’s working on a lucrative new business venture, which puts him back in his good graces (for now). Margaret’s father then advises/orders Lucky to work on his business and only return once he’s earned $25,000 (enough to pay for the wedding and prove that he can earn a solid living). So, Lucky leaves for New York City to “work on his new business,” which does not actually exist.

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While aimlessly wandering the city streets, he meets (and immediately offends) lovely dance instructor, Penny Carroll (Rogers). In an effort to make things up to her, Lucky books a dancing lesson at her studio and makes her look good in front of her boss. The two end up making such a good team, they’re soon offered an audition at a popular NYC venue. But, as Lucky and Penny grow closer, Lucky will have to decide whether he still even wants to earn that $25,000 to get married.

Although all of the music in Swing Time was composed by the talented Jerome Kern—best remembered for composing the musical Show Boat—its most famous number ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, “The Way You Look Tonight.” It was the most successful recording of Fred’s career and remains a popular standard.

3. The Band Wagon (1953)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, this classic backstage musical is loosely inspired by the Broadway musical revue of the same name. The original stage version of The Band Wagon was actually the last Broadway show Fred and Adele appeared in together. Although the movie is not specifically based on any of the sketches in the original revue, a number of songs from the Broadway musical make an appearance, most notably a beautiful instrumental version of “Dancing in the Dark.”

The film tells the story of Tony Hunter (Fred), a Hollywood film star whose career has hit a rough patch. Tony travels to New York City to meet with his friends, Lester and Lily Marton, in the hopes of revitalizing his career on Broadway. Lester and Lily have written a light musical that they believe will revive Tony’s career. In order to give their musical prestige—and hopefully, good press—they ask renowned director/actor/playwright, Jeffrey Cordova, to direct. Jeffrey loves the Martons’ pitch for the play and even convinces famous prima ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to play the female lead, despite her previous insistence that she would never appear in a Broadway musical.

However, Jeffrey’s vision for the musical differs quite a bit from the Martons’ original intention. As rehearsals go on, the play becomes darker and more pretentious than either the Martons or Tony anticipated. Of course, the show must go on, but it becomes increasingly questionable whether this show can possibly come together before opening night.

Many of the characters in The Band Wagon were inspired by real people. The character of Tony Hunter was partially based on Fred himself, with many references to Astaire’s “top hat and tails” movie persona. The characters of Lily and Lester Marton were based on the film’s screenwriters, Betty Comden and Adolph Green (although Comden and Green's real-life relationship was strictly professional). Finally, the character of Jeffrey Cordova was inspired by Jose Ferrer, an Oscar- and Tony Award-winning actor, who was also an accomplished director and producer. At the time The Band Wagon was made, Ferrer was actually producing four Broadway shows, while starring in a fifth!

4. The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Although Fred first appeared opposite Ginger Rogers in a supporting role in Flying Down To Rio, The Gay Divorcee was their first official pairing together as film leads. Based on the Broadway musical, Gay Divorce, the film tells the story of Mimi Glossop (Rogers), a woman seeking a divorce from her geologist husband, Cyril. Although the two have been separated for some time, Cyril stubbornly refuses to grant her a divorce.

On the advice of her Aunt Hortense (who has been married and divorced multiple times), Mimi comes to England to consult with Egbert Fitzgerald, a lawyer and former fiancé of her aunt. While in England, Mimi briefly meets Egbert’s friend, Guy Holden (Fred), who is immediately besotted with her. While Guy is pining over Mimi, Egbert sets up a plan to hire a “professional co-respondent” so that Mimi will be “caught” having an affair and her husband will finally grant her a divorce. But, when Mimi accidentally mistakes Guy for her “hired lover," it puts a damper on Guy’s earnest attempts to seduce her.

Initially, Fred was hesitant to be paired with Rogers for more than one movie. After his dancing partnership with his sister ended, he was hoping to start a solo career. However, audience reactions to their chemistry in Rio proved too big to ignore. Fred actually originated the role of Guy on Broadway and on London’s West End, making him an obvious choice for the role in the film version. In fact, Gay Divorce was Fred’s last Broadway musical before he came to Hollywood and the only one he had done without his sister.

Most of the Cole Porter songs from the original musical were not used in the film but the one that remains is unquestionably the best: the now classic “Night and Day.” Another standout number is “The Continental,” which won the very first Oscar for Best Original Song at the following year's ceremonies (1935).

5. Shall We Dance (1937)

Made to capitalize on the success of the Broadway ballet musical On Your Toes, Shall We Dance marked Fred’s seventh pairing with Ginger Rogers. Fred stars as Pete Peters, a celebrated ballet dancer known professionally as “Petrov.” While working in Paris, Pete develops a crush on another American performer, famous tap dancer Linda Keene (Rogers). Desperate to get to know her, he buys a ticket on the same ship back to NYC that she’s traveling on. After a rough start, the two begin to grow closer, but their relationship gets complicated when a rumor spreads that the two of them are secretly married.

Fully scored by celebrated songwriting team George and Ira Gershwin, Shall We Dance is, somewhat surprisingly, only the second Hollywood musical on which the Gershwins worked. George Gershwin actually passed away only two months after the film’s release, making this one of the songwriting team's very last scores. All of the songs in Shall We Dance were written for the film, making it even more impressive how many standards this movie contains. Along with the title track, the film’s score includes “You Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “They All Laughed," “Slap Dat Bass," and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.”

Without question, Shall We Dance has the best soundtrack of any Astaire/Rogers film. Arguably, it's also the one film featuring songs tailormade to complement the pair's strengths. It’s even been said that Ira Gershwin was inspired to write “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” when he began to notice that Fred and Ginger pronounced the word “either” differently from each other.

6. Easter Parade (1948)

My personal favorite of Fred’s movies, Easter Parade marks the first and only time Fred ever worked with the incomparable Judy Garland. The film is also notable for pulling Fred out of retirement, resulting in another decade’s worth of successful films. Set in 1912, the film stars Fred as Don Hewes, a dancer enjoying a very successful dance partnership with the object of his affection, Nadine Hale (Ann Miller). However, on Easter morning, Nadine announces that she has been offered an opportunity to go solo and she intends to take it, leaving Don suddenly without a partner.

Bitterly, Don rants to their mutual friend, Johnny (Peter Lawford), that Nadine was only successful because he taught her everything she knows and he could turn any girl into a successful dancing partner. So, while drowning his sorrows at a bar, Don tries to prove his point by impulsively offering the job to Hannah Brown (Judy Garland), one of the dancers in the bar’s floor show. But, the down-to-earth Hannah is the very opposite of the glamorous Nadine, forcing Don to re-evaluate his definition of a “perfect partner.”

Like Top Hat, Easter Parade’s score was provided by the talented Irving Berlin. Berlin originally wrote several of the film's songs in the 1910s, which actually makes them historically accurate to the film’s setting. Originally, Gene Kelly was going to play Don, but when he broke his ankle, he begged Fred to come out of retirement to fill in. Thank heavens he did. Fred and Judy not only have beautiful chemistry, Easter Parade was the biggest box-office success in both of their careers.

7. Holiday Inn (1942)

Once again pairing Fred with an Irving Berlin score, this charming perennial favorite is the movie that introduced the Christmas classics, “White Christmas” and “Happy Holidays.” It's also coincidentally the first film Fred appeared in featuring the song “Easter Parade”. The movie stars Fred and Bing Crosby as Ted Hanover and Jim Hardy, respectively. Jim and Ted—along with Jim’s fiancée, Lila—work as a popular nightclub act in New York City and have been doing so for some time. Jim is the singer, and Ted and Lila are dancing partners.

Tired of the nonstop grind of performing, Jim intends to retire to the countryside with Lila as soon as they’re married. However, Lila is not quite ready to give up her dancing career and on Christmas Eve leaves Jim for a relationship with Ted. Despite Lila and Ted’s betrayal, Jim follows through with his plans to retire and moves into his new farmhouse. But, after a year of farmwork, he realizes he needs a middle ground to truly be happy.

So, Jim comes up with the radical idea of turning his farmhouse into “Holiday Inn,” an inn and supper club only open on national holidays. The first performer Jim hires for his show is singer/dancer Linda Mason, who is just starting out in show business. Jim finds himself falling for Linda, so when Ted shows up after being dumped by Lila (both personally and professionally), it becomes Jim’s mission to keep Ted from ever meeting Linda. He doesn't want history to repeat itself.

With the exception of “Easter Parade” (which was originally written for the Broadway musical As Thousands Cheer), all of the songs in Holiday Inn were composed specifically for the movie, with “White Christmas” winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. Originally, there was even going to be a Labor Day number called “This Is A Great Country.” The sequence was cut, but Irving Berlin held on to the song and used it in his very last Broadway musical, Mr. President (1962).

8. Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Broadway Melody of 1940 is the fourth and final film in the “Broadway Melody” film series and generally considered to be the best. It is also the only movie to ever team Fred opposite dancer Eleanor Powell. At the time, the two were considered to be the greatest tappers in Hollywood and their dance sequences together in this film are electric.

The film’s story centers around down-on-their-luck dancing team, Johnny Brett (Fred) and King Shaw (George Murphy). When Broadway producer Bob Casey (Frank Morgan) sees the pair’s act, he immediately wants to cast Johnny as the leading man in his latest Broadway show, which happens to star Johnny’s celebrity crush, Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell). But, when Casey approaches Johnny after the show, Johnny mistakes him for a bill collector and gives him his partner’s name instead of his own to throw him off the scent. This ends up leading to King mistakenly being cast in the show in Johnny’s place. Even when Johnny realizes his mistake, he can’t bring himself to rob his friend of his big break.

Featuring a Cole Porter score, Broadway Melody of 1940 was Fred’s first movie after officially making the move to MGM from RKO and Eleanor Powell’s last major success before she retired in 1944. It’s been said that Fred was actually intimidated to meet Eleanor Powell for the first time since her skill as a dancer was already legendary. But, after the initial nerves on both sides wore off, the two got along famously. Supposedly, they would rehearse their numbers together so vigorously that they wore out their rehearsal pianist.

Given the film’s fantastic use of black and white cinematography, it might be a bit surprising to learn that Broadway Melody of 1940 was originally planned to be filmed in full color. The looming threat of World War II convinced the nervous studio to film in black and white instead, making it the very last black and white movie musical MGM ever made.

9. Follow the Fleet (1936)

Based on the play Shore Leave by Hubert Osborne, Follow The Fleet is the fifth musical that Fred made with Ginger Rogers. Once again featuring a score by Irving Berlin, the film stars Fred as Navy Seaman, “Bake” Baker, a former dancer who joined the Navy after breaking up with his girlfriend/dance partner, Sherry Martin (Rogers). While on shore leave in San Francisco, Bake unexpectedly runs into Sherry at the club where she’s now working. Desperate to get back together with her, he tries to win her over in various ways, but Sherry is hesitant to start things up again (both personally and professionally).

Although Fred and Ginger are clearly the stars of Follow The Fleet, a great deal of screen time is also given to Sherry’s sister, Connie (Harriet Hilliard). A mild-mannered and somewhat frumpy music teacher, Connie has been feeling lonely, so Sherry and her friend Kitty (Lucille Ball) give her a makeover to cheer her up. That allows Connie to finally get the attention of a man with whom she was flirting: Bake’s freewheeling shipmate, Bilge Smith. Connie and Bilge definitely spark during their first date, but when Connie innocently mentions getting married one day, Bilge freezes her out in favor of someone “less serious.” So, in between dealing with their own relationship issues, Sherry and Bake take it upon themselves to help Connie with hers.

Originally, the role of Connie was intended for Irene Dunne, who had previously co-starred with Fred and Ginger in the film Roberta. But, when Dunne proved to be unavailable, the role was given to Harriet Hilliard instead, marking her film debut. Hilliard would later become much more well-known under her married name, Harriet Nelson, one of the stars of the successful tv show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.

10. The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)

Reuniting Fred with Ginger Rogers after ten years apart, The Barkleys of Broadway proved to be the duo's last film pairing and the only color film they ever made together. Originally, the film was conceived as a follow-up to Easter Parade with Fred and Judy Garland. However, when Garland’s health took a turn for the worse, producer Arthur Freed suggested to Fred that Ginger be her replacement.

In the film, Fred and Ginger play the roles of Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple enjoying long-term success as a dancing duo on Broadway. However, when the respected French playwright, Jacques Pierre Barredout, suggests to Dinah that she would be better suited for dramatic work, it opens up a can of worms that could lead to not only the break-up of the Barkleys’ professional partnership, but possibly their marriage, as well.

Taking advantage of Fred and Ginger’s long history as dance partners, The Barkleys of Broadway incorporates many aspects of their real-life partnership. Most notably, the film features a reprise of “You Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Fred sung to Ginger twelve years earlier in Shall We Dance. Both Astaire and Rogers named that song as one of their favorites and were happy to perform it again, this time extending it into a dance number.

Of course, the chemistry between Fred and Ginger is as potent as ever in this fun musical-comedy. One of their biggest showcases is “Bouncin’ The Blues,” which features Josh and Dinah doing a casual and effortless rehearsal of one of the numbers from their upcoming musical. The sequence really shows what made Astaire and Rogers a legendary team: effortless chemistry, timing, and ease.

Honorable Mention: Royal Wedding (1951)

For my honorable mention this time around, I went with the film that has two of the most famous dance sequences of Fred Astaire’s career. Directed by Stanley Donen (who would later direct Singin’ in the Rain and Charade), Royal Wedding was only the director’s second film and his first time ever directing alone. The film is set in 1947, around the time of the historic wedding of the future Queen of England, the then-Princess Elizabeth to Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh.

Fred stars opposite Jane Powell as Tom and Ellen Bowen, a famous brother-sister dancing team currently starring in a hit Broadway musical. To capitalize on the fervor surrounding the upcoming royal wedding, it's suggested that the Bowens bring their show to London’s West End, which they readily agree to. But, things get complicated when Ellen meets a charming English lord on the ship to London and Tom meets a pretty English dancer who happens to be engaged to another man.

Of course, the brother-sister dancing team of Tom and Ellen echoes the dance partnership Fred had with his sister Adele early in his career and many of the scenarios in Royal Wedding are based on similar events in Fred and Adele’s working relationship. Interestingly, given the film’s British setting, Fred’s love interest in Royal Wedding is played by none other than Sarah Churchill, daughter of former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. (Churchill would actually get re-elected as Prime Minister later that same year).

The real highlights of Royal Wedding are Fred’s solo dance numbers, “Sunday Jumps” and “You’re All The World To Me.” “Sunday Jumps” famously features Fred using a hat rack as a dancing partner, while the legendary “You’re All The World To Me” has Fred dancing on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room. The ceiling dance was accomplished by filming in a rotating room with the camera (and cameraman) strapped to the floor, so the film equipment rotated with the room. Combined with Fred’s skill at hiding the gradual change in gravity, the effect is magical.

Fred Astaire, the greatest dancer in film history

Fred Astaire, the greatest dancer in film history

Further Reading

If you would like to learn more about the effortlessly elegant Fred Astaire, I highly recommend Fred’s autobiography, Steps in Time (2008).

© 2018 Lindsay Blenkarn


Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on December 28, 2018:

Fred Astaire was certainly a very talented actor. I love Easter Parade. That is such a classic.

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