May 10, 2008

That Astounding Astaire

  When Fred Astaire, a man who came to epitomize a kind of homespun, effortless, comically-endearing glamour so appealing in grand escapist films in the 1930's and 40's - and who elevated dance to a veritable art form to be devoured by enthralled moviegoers of that time - was viewed in his first screen test, studio executives decided, "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little."

  And so began the post-vaudeville chapter of the Nebraska-born hoofer who became known and loved as Fred Astaire. Born on this day in Omaha in 1899, Astaire, nee Frederic Austerlitz, entered show business with sister Adele at the tender age of 5, and the duo was well-received on Broadway and the vaudeville circuit. It wasn't until Adele's 1932 marriage that the act split up, and Astaire's star status began to rise as the film industry took off. His film career spanned an impressive four decades, linked him inextricably to numerous Porter- and Gershwin-penned American Standards songs, and paired him, as the perfectionist half of the duo, with the effervescent Ginger Rogers, though he also took the lovely likes of Eleanor Powell, Judy Garland, Rita Hayworth, and Cyd Charisse for a spin on the dance floor, as well.

  As popular as Astaire became, though - he was one of only two male lead dancers in major motion pictures of his day, so assumed dozens of prime roles that called for his nearly exclusive talents - he never seemed to grasp the enormity of his contributions to movies, to pop culture, to the lives of those who were enchanted with his lithe and joyful movement on the silver screen. Upon receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981 at the age of 71, Astaire, gray-haired and awed, professed shock at seeing a montage of his dancing work, proclaiming, 'My gosh, I didn't know it was that good. It really looked good to me.'

Oh, to us, too, Mr. Astaire. To us, too.

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