Classic Hollywood boasted plenty of song and dance men, especially in the early days of the talkies, but few rose to the iconic heights reached by Fred Astaire. The slender, elegant leading man floated through musicals with a variety of onscreen partners, although he was most famous for his many films with Ginger Rogers. Astaire might not have had the looks commonly associated with a romantic lead, but he made up for that with his charisma, grace, and affable grin. The Nebraska native, born in 1899, originally struggled to get into pictures, but once he arrived he enjoyed a career that spanned five decades. He made his final screen appearance in “Ghost Story” in 1891 and died in 1987.
Here are ten of Fred Astaire’s most important movie roles.
1) “Dancing Lady” (1933) – This Joan Crawford picture proved to be Astaire’s big break, although he appears only in a small role as himself, teaching Crawford’s character a dance. In spite of his brief time on screen, Astaire proves that he can hold the audience’s attention, even when competing with an established star like Crawford.
2) “Flying Down to Rio” (1933) – As musicals go, this South American romance isn’t particularly good, but it does feature the first onscreen pairing of Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s no surprise that those two are the best thing happening in the picture, which stars Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond in the leading roles.
3) “Top Hat” (1935) – Astaire and Rogers are in top form in this outing, which employ the romantic set-up used in most of their films together. Their love affair gets off to a rocky start, but when they dance together we know it’s destiny. With hilarious supporting performances from Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and Erik Rhodes, this is one of the first Astaire pictures a newcomer should see.
4) “Swing Time” (1936) – Rogers and Astaire give another signature performance in this story of a dancing gambler who has to earn enough money to impress his bride’s father after he stands her up at the altar. The movie won an Oscar for Best Original Song for “The Way You Look Tonight,” and it also includes memorable performances from Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, and Eric Blore.
5) “You Were Never Lovelier” (1942) – Astaire returns to South American territory to woo the gorgeous Rita Hayworth in this romantic comedy directed by William A. Seiter. Adolphe Menjou stars as Hayworth’s father, the patriarch of a wealthy Argentine family. Although Hayworth is mostly remembered as a femme fatale, she was a talented dancer who also starred with Astaire in “You’ll Never Get Rich” (1941).
6) “Easter Parade” (1948) – Judy Garland plays Astaire’s love interest and dance partner in this memorable classic, which also stars Peter Lawford and Ann Miller. Great songs from Irving Berlin and wonderful performances from the stars have made this musical a lasting favorite with fans of the genre.
7) “Royal Wedding” (1951) – In real life, Astaire’s early dance partner was his sister, Adele; in this movie, Jane Powell plays the sister who dances with Astaire’s character. The two travel to London during the titular event, where romance inevitably blooms. Astaire performs one of his most celebrated dance numbers, which involves literally dancing on the ceiling. Peter Lawford, Sarah Churchill, and Keenan Wynn also star.
8) “The Band Wagon” (1953) – The fantastic Cyd Charisse dances with Astaire in this Broadway story from director Vincente Minnelli. There are plenty of great songs and dances throughout the picture, but the highlight might be the bizarre “Triplets” number performed by Astaire, Oscar Levant, and Nanette Fabray.
9) “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968) – In this musical fantasy, Astaire plays an Irishman who arrives with his daughter in a small Southern town. Petula Clark stars as Sharon, and Tommy Steele appears as the leprechaun whose gold Finian has stolen. The movie, oddly enough, was directed by Francis Ford Coppola, and it serves as an endpoint for Astaire’s musical career.
10) “The Towering Inferno” (1974) – Although he is remembered today for his musicals, Astaire earned the only Oscar nomination of his long career for this 1970s disaster flick, which includes Paul Newman, Steve McQueen, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, and Jennifer Jones in its huge all-star cast. Robert De Niro, however, beat Astaire for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in “The Godfather: Part II” (1974).
Learn more about Fred Astaire by watching the video at the top of this article. For even more films from the dancing star, try “Shall We Dance” (1937), “Carefree” (1938), and “Ziegfeld Follies” (1945). You can also read Astaire’s autobiography, “Steps in Time.”
Jennifer Garlen writes as the Huntsville and National Classic Movie Examiner. Her book, “Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching,” is available in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon.