THE COMPLETE ASTAIRE COLLECTION
A visual love letter to Fred Astaire
For two years I have worked on a Fred Astaire project that I finally finished today. I call it The Complete Astaire Collection, a tribute video I put together from clips from every single dance number he did for the big screen between 1933 and 1968, and they’re presented in chronological order. The music is provided by Astaire’s second biggest fan and friend Michael Jackson.
After an almost 30-year-career on the stage, Fred Astaire made his film debut with Dancing Lady in 1933, introduced by Clark Gable and dancing his first routine with Joan Crawford, who took a cast off a broken ankle for a day just so she could dance with him. Watch him as he dances his way through the decades, in top hat and tails, with rolled-up sleeves and an old tie around his waist, or that one time he wore blue denim jeans. Dancing over chairs and tables, gliding over the ceiling or skidding around on his knees, on top of a roof or under a gazebo in the rain, dancing as a sailor or a soldier, a shoemaker or a king, a fake Russian or a guardian angel, incorporating his talents as a drummer and golfer, chewing gum or with a cigarette dangling from his lips, dancing with his own shadow or surrounded by firecrackers, on ships and in barns, in toy stores and fun houses, in the woods and at the gym, on roller-skates or in cowboy boots, in numbers that are romantic and elegant or comedic and eccentric, but always inspired and innovative, in a manner that was neither tap nor ballroom nor ballet, but distinctly his own ‘outlaw’ style, as he liked to describe it. Movements that look completely effortless and spontaneous when in truth there wasn’t a single move that he made that wasn’t written down in his notebook and planned with the precision of an engineer (often at 4 o'clock in the morning), and rehearsed with the tireless drive of a perfectionist to the point of bleeding feet and sweaty tears.
When working on a film, he prepared for months, often working sixteen hours a day and never eating during rehearsals. ‘Moaning Minnie’ was his nickname given by his sister, because he was constantly worried about his work. Full of self-loathing and insecurity, he was his own worst critic. “He was a very worried man”, remembered one of his leading ladies. You wouldn’t know it when you watch him dance—like all great artists, he was transformed when he did what he was meant to do. When he dances he seems so carefree he’s barely touching the ground, unless of course he’s ‘beating the floor to a pulp’, with an intensity and a deeply masculine anger that is rarely talked about. People prefer to call him ‘debonair’, quite possibly his least favorite word and one he never identified with.
Another thing he hated was sentimentality and repetition. Ever the innovator, he never looked back, refused to talk about the past and had a keen interest in new technologies and sought to incorporate them in his choreographies. Already as a teenager he had ideas how dance should be filmed—ideas that have endured and still inspire filmmakers today. Many people don’t know that Astaire was the director of most of his dances on film.
His final years weren’t particularly happy—ironically he began struggling with his balance and couldn’t turn his head to the left anymore or he’d get really dizzy, but he could look back on an extraordinary career that spanned almost 80 years—one of the longest careers in show business. There’s a reason why it lasted that long, and why he will never be forgotten. To me he’s the greatest artist of the 20th century (Buster Keaton being a close second), a man of generous spirit, boundless creative energy and limitless inner strength, a man who brought and still brings healing and joy to millions of people around the world, and who can pick you up with just his smile. More than anything, Astaire was a hypnotist, and his true genius was not so much his technical brilliance but his ability to feel profound joy and letting you in on it. All of this can be seen in my tribute.
Watch him dance alone and with his many partners, some of them dancers, some not, and how he held them in his arms in the way only he could—so loose and yet so completely in charge, with his big hand almost entirely covering the small of their backs. Several of his dancing partners have said that all he had to do was to put his hand on your back, and you knew just what to do and where to go—he was that good at leading. They compared it to telepathy. His musical career ended with Finian’s Rainbow in 1968, the first major film by director Francis Ford Coppola, who later admitted that the film wouldn’t have been such a flop if he had listened more to Astaire.
(If you’re not in the US, you can also watch the video on YouTube, or via my Google Drive which also allows you to download the file. I recommend these two options over Vimeo, since I had to compress the video there a bit.)