A Tap Dancer Named Fred: Astaire Survived His Infamous Screen Test: "Can't Act. Can't Sing. Balding. Can Dance a Little."

By Barnes, Clive | Dance Magazine, May 2008 | Go to article overview
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A Tap Dancer Named Fred: Astaire Survived His Infamous Screen Test: "Can't Act. Can't Sing. Balding. Can Dance a Little."


Barnes, Clive, Dance Magazine


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The name Austerlitz sounds more like a Napoleonic battle than a name fit for a great dancer. As a matter of fact, in 1805 it was a Napoleonic battle! But dancer Fred Austerlitz was born in Omaha some 94 years later, on May 10, 1899. The family moved to New York in 1904, and when he and his sister, Adele (a year older), both with relatively little formal training, were started on a boy-and-girl vaudeville act in 1906, someone had the sense to change their name to Astaire. The two of them made their Broadway debut in 1917 with the musical comedy Over the Top, but had their first big success a year later with The Passing Show of 1918.

It was during the 1920s and '30s that they placed an indelible mark both on Broadway and London's West End. Such shows as George and Ira Gershwin's Lady, Be Good/(1924), another Gershwin musical Funny Face (1927), Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz's revue The Band Wagon (1931), and then, after Adele's marriage into English society and her subsequent retirement, Fred's first show without her, Cole Porter's musical The Gay Divorce in 1932.

Despite the show's modest success (it did include "Night and Day" among its numbers), things soon started to look down for Fred. He was like a Laurel without a Hardy, as one unkind Broadway wit put it. There was an unpleasant truth in this: Unlike his later rival, the 13-years-younger Gene Kelly, Astaire was never really comfortable as a solo act.

After the advent of the talkies in 1927, Hollywood became fair game for musicals. But the first throw of the movie dice was definitely loaded against Astaire. It was the celebrated screen test that year, probably the most infamous of all time, for a movie of Funny Face that resulted in Adele being dismissed as "lively," and the unforgettable verdict on Fred: "Can't act. Can't sing. Balding. Can dance a little." Fortunately, our Fred could dance rather more than "a little."

Still, with Adele retired, now forced to go solo (his temporary partner in The Gay Divorce was Claire Luce, an actress who really couldn't sing or dance!), Astaire trekked westward to Hollywood. In 1933 he picked up a small part in a Joan Crawford backstage movie in which he--clad, of course, in top hat, white tie, and tails--played himself in a couple of numbers.

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