Fred Astaire | by Joseph Epstein | Yale University Press | 2008 | 224 pages | £14.99/US$22
In case readers of this review think I am being incurably frivolous, writing about the world’s greatest tap dancer at a time of global economic depression, I can only respond that Fred Astaire made his most memorable films during the Great Depression and its aftermath. His gift was to lift people’s spirits from their drab circumstances into a realm that was entirely magical. In this Yale series on ‘Icons of America’, Joseph Epstein, with erudition, wit and panache, sets out to explore the magic and how it was achieved.
When you’re down in the depths of despair,
And grumbling that life is not fair
There is one DVD
You must watch on TV:
‘Top Hat’ with the great Fred Astaire.
Astaire was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899 to a stage-struck mother and a largely absentee father. If these facts are not enough to alert child experts, his mother then dragged the small boy and his sister, Adele, to New York and put them into music halls to earn the family income. Adele was the more talented dancer while Fred was the more serious and hard-working. His later leading ladies would complain about his perfectionism; Ginger Rogers, his most celebrated partner, once said, “How do you think those routines were accomplished?” adding ruefully that Fred was never satisfied “until every detail is right.”
There is an (apocryphal) Hollywood anecdote that Fred’s first screen test was labelled, “Balding. Can’t sing. Dances a little.” Hollywood was only right about the first. Epstein disappoints fans (me included) by revealing the need for hair-pieces; apparently Fred’s search for the perfect toupee eluded him “just as the perfect society eluded Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.” One of the delights of this entertaining book is the author’s laconic asides; mentioning Coleridge’s theory of the “willing suspension of disbelief”, he adds that when speaking of musical comedies, this theory “must not be merely suspended but hanged by the neck until dead.” The point of Fred’s films was not their plots, which were absurd “well before Samuel Beckett”, but to show his superb talent. As an aristocrat of his art he always made it look effortless.
Compared with other stars such as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper and Cary Grant, it will be agreed that Astaire was neither conventionally sexy nor good-looking. This didn’t matter; as Audrey Hepburn, who co-starred in Funny Face, remarked, he was good-looking “because he had charm and charm is the best-looking thing in the world.” Even Barack Obama, wearing look-alike white tie and tails at his inaugural ball, cannot compete.
Fred was lucky with his song-writers – the Gershwins, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin – and to perform at a time when 90 million Americans went to the movies once a week. Outside of work he enjoyed gardening and golf; “I’m just a hoofer” he would say modestly. We know differently; his real life lay in those amazing feet with their flawless routines. My mother is 85; she grew up in the 1940s watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. When she needs a lift I give her a sherry and put on a DVD of Top Hat. Try it and see.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.