Top Ten Fred Astaire Films
Fred Astaire: 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 had "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 retired to Ireland to marry the son of the Duke of Devonshire. Up until then, his sister was thought to be the more talented out 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 screen credit for it, Fred was the lead choreographer for most of his onscreen dances and (even though he's not often thought of as a singer) was, also, responsible for introducing many of the songs we now consider to be standards. He would continue starring in musicals 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, be prepared to be amazed.
Keep in mind that 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. If you discover your favorite Fred Astaire film is missing, feel free to post a comment explaining why you would recommend it.
Top 10 Fred Astaire Films
- Top Hat
- Swing Time
- The Band Wagon
- The Gay Divorcee
- Shall We Dance
- Easter Parade
- Holiday Inn
- Broadway Melody of 1940
- Follow The Fleet
- The Barkleys of Broadway
1. "Top Hat" (1935)
The movie that would forever link Fred Astaire with a top hat and tails, Top Hat is the 4th and most iconic of the movies 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). But, 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 entirely by legendary composer Irving Berlin, marking his first complete film score in 5 years. While filming, Fred and Berlin, actually, ended up becoming lifelong friends and Fred would end up singing Berlin’s songs in 5 more films throughout the course of his career (more than any other composer). Without question, the most famous song in Top Hat is the beautiful "Cheek To Cheek". Behind the scenes, the "Cheek To Cheek" dance number caused some headaches for Fred and choreographer Hermes Pan thanks to Ginger Roger's heavily feathered gown. Rogers had chosen the dress herself since she knew the flow of the dress would look beautiful on film (Fred would later admit to her that she was right about that). However, the dress shed feathers relentlessly, even getting into Fred's eyes and mouth during the dance. 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 6th movie to pair Astaire opposite Ginger Rogers, Swing Time is often cited as containing the best and most technically complex dances of any of the Astaire/Rogers films. 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 completely missing the ceremony. Although Margaret is fairly understanding when Lucky does, finally, show up, her father is not. But, 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 he can, actually, earn a solid living). So, Lucky leaves for New York City to “work on his new business” which, naturally, does not actually exist. While aimlessly wandering the city streets, he ends up meeting (and immediately offending) 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 song is the one that ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song that year: “The Way You Look Tonight”. The song became Fred’s most successful recording of his entire 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 very last Broadway show Fred and his sister, 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 do 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 in his advancing years. In the hopes of revitalizing his career on Broadway, Tony heads to New York City to meet with his good friends, Lester and Lily Marton. As well as being a married couple, Lester and Lily, also, work as writing partners and they’ve written a light Broadway musical that they believe will help revive Tony’s career. In order to give their musical the press and prestige it needs to be successful, they decide to ask renowned director/actor/playwright Jeffrey Cordova to direct it. 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, actually, inspired by real people. The character of Tony Hunter was partially based on Fred, himself, with many references being made 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 their real-life relationship was strictly professional), and the character of Jeffrey Cordova was, actually, inspired by Jose Ferrer. Ferrer was 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 had 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 quite some time, Cyril still stubbornly refuses to grant her a divorce. So, on the advice of her Aunt Hortense (who has been married and subsequently 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 bit of a damper on Guy’s very earnest attempts to seduce her. Initially, Fred was hesitant to be paired with Rogers for more than one movie since he had been hoping to start a solo career after his dancing partnership with his sister ended. However, audience reactions to their chemistry in Flying Down To Rio proved just too big to ignore. Fred had, 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 very last Broadway musical before he came to Hollywood and the only musical he had ever 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 stand-out song in The Gay Divorcee is “The Continental”, which ended up winning the Oscar for Best Original Song. The category was brand-new for that year, making "The Continental" the very first Oscar-winning song.
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 7th 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 fast 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 was, surprisingly, only the 2nd Hollywood musical the Gershwins had ever done. George Gershwin, actually, ended up passing away only two months after the film’s release, making this one of the songwriting team's very last scores, as well. All of the songs in Shall We Dance were written, especially, for the film, making it even more impressive how many standards this movie, actually, contains. Along with the title song, 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 strongest soundtrack out of any of the films Astaire and Rogers made together. Arguably, it is, also, the one film that features songs most tailor-made to complement the pair's strengths. It’s even been said that Ira Gershwin was inspired to write the classic “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” when he first began to notice that Fred and Ginger always pronounced the word “either” differently from each other.
6. "Easter Parade" (1948)
My personal favorite out of Fred’s movies, Easter Parade marks the first and only time Fred ever got a chance to work with the incomparable Judy Garland. The film is, also, notable for being the project responsible 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 who has enjoyed 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 make any girl just as successful a dancing partner as her. 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 possibly reevaluate his definition of a “perfect partner”. Like Top Hat, Easter Parade’s score was provided entirely by the talented Irving Berlin. Many of the songs featured are songs that Berlin had originally written in the 1910s which, actually, make them historically accurate to the film’s period setting. Originally, Gene Kelly was the one intended to play the role of Don in the film but, when Kelly broke his ankle, he begged Fred to come out of retirement to fill in for him. Thank heaven he did, for Fred and Judy Garland have beautiful chemistry in the film and Easter Parade ended up being the biggest box-office success of either of their careers.
7. "Holiday Inn" (1942)
Once again pairing Fred with an Irving Berlin score, this charming perennial favorite is the movie that first introduced the Christmas classics “White Christmas” and “Happy Holidays”. It is, also, the first film that Fred would appear in to feature the song “Easter Parade” (though Fred would not be the one singing it in this one). The movie stars Fred alongside Bing Crosby as Ted Hanover and Jim Hardy (respectively). Jim and Ted, along with Jim’s fiancee, Lila, work as a popular nightclub act in New York City and have been doing so for quite some time. Jim performs as a singer, while 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, ends up leaving 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 farm work, he realizes he needs a middle ground to be truly 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 soon 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 in order to prevent history from repeating 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 supposed 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 ended up using it in what would prove to be his very last Broadway musical, Mr. President.
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 just 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, intimated 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 WWII 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 5th movie musical that Fred made opposite Ginger Rogers. Once again featuring a score by Irving Berlin, the film stars Fred as Navy Seaman “Bake” Baker, a former dancer who ran away and joined the Navy after a bad breakup with his girlfriend/dance partner, Sherry Martin (Rogers). While on shore leave in San Francisco, Bake ends up, unexpectedly, running 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 desperately lonely so, Sherry and her friend, Kitty (Lucille Ball), give her a much-needed makeover to cheer her up. After her makeover, Connie is, finally, able to get the attention of a man she’d attempted to flirt with earlier: 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 immediately gets squirrelly and 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, as well. Originally, the role of Connie was intended for Irene Dunne, who had previously co-stared 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, as 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 10 years of working apart, The Barkleys of Broadway proved to be the duo's very last film pairing, as well as, the only color film they would ever make together. Originally, the film was conceived as a follow-up to Easter Parade with Fred, once again, starring opposite Judy Garland. However, when Garland’s health took a turn for the worst, the genius idea to ask Ginger to step in was proposed by producer Arthur Freed. In the film, Fred and Ginger play the roles of Josh and Dinah Barkley, a married couple who have enjoyed longterm 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 the song “You Can’t Take That Away From Me”, which Fred had originally sung to Ginger 12 years earlier in Shall We Dance. Both Astaire and Rogers had previously named that song as one of their favorites and, therefore, were happy to perform it once 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. Arguably, one of the biggest showcases of this is the number “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 this pair legendary with effortless chemistry, timing, and ease.
Honorable Mention: "Royal Wedding" (1951)
For my honorable mention this time around, I decided to go with the film that includes two of the most famous dance sequences of Fred Astaire’s career. Directed by Stanley Donen (who would later go on to direct Singin’ in the Rain, Charade, and many others), 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 is suggested that the Bowens bring their show to London’s West End, which they readily agree to. But, things get complicated fast when Ellen meets a charming English lord on the ship to London and Tom meets a pretty English dancer who happens to already be engaged to another man. Of course, the brother-sister dancing team of Tom and Ellen echoes the real-life 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 royal English setting, Fred’s love interest in Royal Wedding is, actually, played by none other than Sarah Churchill, daughter of then-former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill (Churchill would, actually, end up being re-elected as Prime Minister later that same year). But, 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, it would rotate with the room. Combined with Fred’s skill at hiding the gradual change in gravity, the effect is magical.
And if you would like to learn more about the effortlessly elegant Fred Astaire, I highly recommend Fred’s own autobiography, Steps in Time.
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© 2018 Lindsay Blenkarn