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Shall We Dance: Fred Astaire’s “Early Days at RKO” Collects Vintage Sides On 2 CDs

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Fred Astaire - RKOToday, more than 25 years after his passing, the name of Fred Astaire still instantly conjures up a world of top hat, white tie and tails; of sheer elegance, easygoing charm and abundant grace.  His enduring talents have recently been celebrated by Sony’s Masterworks label and Turner Classic Movies on the latest in their series of joint CD releases, Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO.  (Previous titles have been dedicated to Doris Day and Mario Lanza.)  This 2-CD, 37-song anthology spans the period between 1932 and 1938 during which time the Omaha, Nebraska-born Astaire (1899-1987) established himself as both an artistic innovator and one of Hollywood’s most consistent moneymakers.

The RKO years chronicled on Masterworks/TCM’s new CD, however, were actually part of the legendary entertainer’s second act.  Fred and his older sister Adele Astaire (1896-1981) began treading the boards in vaudeville at the ages of five and eight, respectively, with their brother-sister dance act.  Despite some fallow periods, they played in vaudeville through 1917, including tours on the fabled Orpheum Circuit.  In 1917, the lights of Broadway beckoned to the Astaires, and their performances in the revue Over the Top at the Roof Garden of the onetime Weber and Fields’ Music Hall led to a series of acclaimed musicals on both sides of the Atlantic.  Fred and Adele starred in musical comedies by George and Ira Gershwin (Lady Be Good, Funny Face) in both New York and London, and Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (The Band Wagon) in New York alone.  Astaire, who never thought of himself as much of a singer, introduced such future standards as “Fascinating Rhythm” and “Funny Face” while burnishing his reputation as the premier dancer in America and beyond.  In 1930, Robert Benchley quipped, “I don’t think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world.”

Following The Band Wagon’s run at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre (soon to be the home of Disney’s Aladdin), Adele announced her retirement from show business to marry Lord Charles Cavendish.  Astaire pressed on, starring opposite Claire Luce in both New York and London in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce, in which he introduced the immortal “Night and Day.”  He then pursued a career in Hollywood at RKO Radio Pictures, but before RKO placed him in a film, the studio lent him to MGM for a role as himself opposite Joan Crawford in the Crawford/Clark Gable starrer Dancing Lady.  Returning to RKO, he took fifth billing in the 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio, just behind the fourth billed Ginger Rogers.  With his future in Hollywood a promising one, Astaire reportedly had just one wish: he was to fly solo, so to speak.  In his book Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films, John Mueller cites a letter written by Astaire to his agent: “I don’t mind making another picture with her, but as for this ‘team’ idea, it’s ‘out!’ I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more!”

But even Fred Astaire couldn’t deny his chemistry with Ginger Rogers, with whom he danced the “Carioca” in their first onscreen pairing.  They would star in eight more films together before splitting in 1939, including such influential pictures as Top Hat (1935, with an Irving Berlin score) and Swing Time (1936, with a Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score).  (In 1949, Astaire and Rogers reunited at MGM one last time, for The Barkleys of Broadway.)  His inventive choreography co-created with Hermes Pan, effortlessly elegant dance style, and unique approach to filming – insisting his directors shoot his routines with one single shot, if possible, rather than the fancy camerawork and multiple angles of, say, a Busby Berkeley – ensured his place in the Hollywood pantheon.  But Astaire also built on his legacy in the Great American Songbook thanks to these films and his first performances of “Cheek to Cheek,” A Fine Romance,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and many others.  Fred Astaire may have introduced more American standards than any other singer…which was no small feat for someone who didn’t care for the quality of his own voice.

After the jump: we’ll take a closer look at what you’ll find on The Early Years at RKO!  Plus: order links and discography! Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Joe Marchese

January 7, 2014 at 10:33