fred astaire danced with the greatest prom stars of classic hollywood. and as they danced with him they were dressed by some of the studio’s top costume designers. His dance partners have included ginger rogers , with whom he has danced in several films: rita hayworth ; eleanor powell; judy garland; vera-ellen; cyd charisse, leslie caron; and audrey hepburn, and even teamed up with gene kelly in ziegfeld follies.
fred astaire was born to entertain. he and his older sister adele started a vaudeville act when he was 7 years old. Fred met George Gershwin in 1916 and they remained friends for the rest of George’s short life. The Astaires were on Broadway in 1917. They performed in several musicals that brought them to London. There, Adele was courted and married by Lord Charles Cavendish. Along with her natural grace, Fred picked up the impeccable style of the British upper class. but now he was without a partner and his act fell apart. he managed to find himself in another successful broadway musical, gay divorce (1932-1933) , with the dance partner clare luce, with music by cole porter including the catchy number, night and day. after closing the show he went to hollywood with a contract at rko pictures.
david o. Selznick was the head of production at the time, with Pandro Berman serving as lead producer. Fred’s first screen test for the studio didn’t bring the house down. According to Fred Astaire’s later recollection, he summed it up as “I can’t act. slightly bald also dances.” But all Fred needed was a dance partner. however, rko’s first role wasn’t quite ready for him, so mgm loaned him out for a role starring himself with a less than up-to-date dance partner: joan crawford, in dancing lady (1933) . but lightning struck when fred was paired with ginger rogers in rko’s flying to river. ironically, future dance dynamos weren’t even the best. the stars of the film were dolores del rio and gene raymond. fred and ginger had smaller parts, especially ginger, but they smoked the floor when they danced “la carioca”. they stole the show, as they say in show business. dolores del rio was a huge star at the time and he used his favorite designer irene (lentz gibbins) to design his costumes for the movie . walter plunkett was the costume designer for rko and designed the costumes for ginger rogers and the backing vocals.
rko realized they had something special with fred and ginger, and when the broadway gay divorce was turned into rko’s 1935 film the gay divorcee (according to censorship, it’s not gay divorce possible), the studio realized they had gold. This musical film launched something different: Fred insisted that the cameras roll on Ginger and he danced his entire body across the studio floor. no jump cuts or close-up edits of feet or headshots would be used until they were finished. They were also smiling as they danced, looking like they were having a great time. deep in the depression, this was a winning combination for the audience. Fred’s first screen test meant nothing now, especially with his and Ginger Rogers’ chemistry. as someone said about the duo, “he taught her and she gave him sex”.
Her dancing was contagious to look at, a symbol of the romance that always simmered as part of the plot. And a plot that became a standard with RKO’s Fred and Ginger movies. They apparently meet by accident and although there is attraction, things go wrong and keep going wrong until they finally come together in the end.
walter plunkett designed gay divorcee and with his first two rko films he set the standard for her ballgowns: a cut at the waist and a bodice that accentuated her beautiful figure, and a flowing dress skirt that twirled while dancing with fred.
walter plunkett’s costume sketch below shows the costume worn by the choirs (the white version, there was also a black one). the ruffles at the elbows were brought to the shoulders.
when the third fred and ginger movie top hat (1935) was being made, walter plunkett had left rko due to salary . dispute. New York fashion designer Bernard Newman had been hired and given choice assignments and it didn’t please Walter. But Newman’s designs for the ginger became flashier and she became more involved in the designs. Newman’s famous light blue “feathered” dress for top hat was a good example. it was made of silk satin with ostrich feathers on the skirt and shoulders. It became something of a battle between Camp Astaire and Camp Rogers as to whether he would stay in the movie. The problem, unresolved to the end, was how to keep the feathers from coming loose when Ginger danced with Fred. Even after re-sewing individual ostrich feathers by hand, they can still be seen flying in the “dancing cheek to cheek” number, irritating Fred to no end. but what a magnificent scene. my great-aunt was also irritated. As the head cutter and fitter at RKO Wardrobe, she didn’t have to sew, but she did have to supervise the process. Fred made fun of the whole thing afterwards. she gave ginger a gift of a gold feather for her bracelet.
follow the fleet followed top hat, and bernard newman followed his ginger ball gown with another. the star dress in this film was made entirely of silver bugle beads, adorned with a fox collar. the dress weighed about 30 pounds. the bugle beaded skirt was translucent so you could see his figure backlit from him. But once again, Fred wasn’t happy. her flared sleeves were heavy, too, and when she twirled in the first few takes, her sleeves hit his cheeks. But then again, Irving Berlin’s resulting number from “Let’s Face Music and Dance” has to be the most beautiful (below). it was filmed in one take.
Swing Time followed, considered by many to be the best of the Fred and Ginger movies (although nearly equaled by top hat). bernard newman redesigned ginger’s wardrobe, though there were no over-the-top dresses. at this point, he didn’t need them to get noticed in a movie, as all eyes were frequently on her. the usual plot line of the difficult encounter, the sudden attraction, and then the roller coaster road to a relationship is presented again. and there are the dances, always sublime.
when they first meet, ginger is a dance instructor and fred pretends he can’t dance (at first). For the scene she wears a simple black dress with a white peter pan collar pleated with a bow. the full pleated skirt is designed to flow as she dances.
The climactic dance is the number “I’m never gonna dance,” the song by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field written for the film. bernard newman’s design for ginger was a beautiful flowing gown with a low back and beaded crisscross straps. This dress is also translucent, as is the detachable cape. the dance number was the highlight of his partnership.
fred and ginger created shall we dance in 1937 and carefree in 1938, but their films were not as popular as before. America was slowly coming out of the depression, and movie audience expectations were changing. A drama magazine had just listed a number of actors as “Box Office Poison,” and among them were huge stars like Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, and Fred Astaire. bernard newman had just left rko. While his designs were impressive, he couldn’t keep up with working in a Hollywood studio. howard greer, formerly of paramount pictures, completed the design of ginger’s wardrobe for carefree. She had opened her own fashion business in Beverly Hills and was doing quite well. After finishing this film, Edward Stevenson, with years of experience going back to the first National, took over most of the design duties at RKO. Below is a howard greer costume sketch for ginger in carefree. fred and ginger’s last film in rko was the story of vernon and irene castle. as the studio wanted, this would be a departure from their usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl story. it was based on the true story of the once very famous castles dance team. but the problems started early. Vernon was already dead and Irene wanted the film to be very accurate in its portrayal of them, right down to the plot, the dance steps, the costumes, and their resemblance. it is still a mystery who designed the costumes. walter plunkett, who had returned to rko, said he backed out when irene castle became so rigid in her demands. the costume sketches themselves are different from those done by the regular cartoonists at rko. In any case, the film was not a success and while ginger stayed on at rko to win an oscar for kitty foyle, fred’s contract ended and he moved on.
Fred wasn’t exactly the box office poison the article made him out to be. mgm, paramount and columbia wanted me to make movies for them. MGM came first with the 1940 Broadway tune, performed in 1939, which was later followed by a long-term contract. In this film, he more than met his rival in tap dancing: the incredible Eleanor Powell. when the two danced in the number from begin the beguine, it was introduced years later by frank sinatra for that’s entertainment! He said, “You can wait and wait, but you’ll never see anything like this again.” But in the photo below, they’re dancing to Eleanor’s favorite tap number, the “jukebox.” they’re both having fun with this one.
the costume designer for this film was adrian, and while all of eleanor’s costumes move well while she dances (and don’t bother fred), he adds whimsy with the Cossack accents.
fred moved to paramount pictures, where in 1942 he made what would become a classic, holiday inn(along with its sequel), as it was titled by complete: irving berlin holiday hotel. he was joined here by bing crosby and marjorie reynolds. and while fred dances marjorie reynolds around the floor (at one point on the floor when he’s playing drunk), it’s when bing sings “white christmas” to marjorie, and then they sing a duet, that musical history is made.
edith head designed the costumes for marjorie reynolds. Although the movie was in black and white, one of the costumes was made of gold beads. The costume sketch below (shown with Fred as a dance partner) was slightly altered in the film as an embroidered silk gown. the signature on the sketch is that of director mark sandrich.
The photo below shows Marjorie in her gold beaded gown.
fred did a couple of movies at columbia pictures after talking to producer gene markey. he would star with the daughter of an old vaudeville dancer friend of his, eduardo cansino. His daughter was Rita Weary, now known as Rita Hayworth. their first film together was a success: You’ll Never Get Rich(1941) , but their second film You Were Never Kinder(1942) was a blow. Music was by Jerome Kern and Johnnie Mercer. Here Fred woos Rita, but her Argentine father disapproves.
The photos above and below show fred and rita dancing in you were never cuter. Rita’s beautiful wardrobe was designed by Irene (Lentz Gibbons), who was designing for Bulluck’s Wilshire at the time. irene frequently freelanced studio jobs for stars who demanded her services, as she had done with dolores del río. this dress had embroidered sequins on the bodice and skirt, with an illusion top. it flowed beautifully as you can see in the bottom photo. unfortunately, while fred was singing the song “you were never cuter” to rita, the dance scene was cut from the final film.
fred astaire had achieved an enviable career in his first decade in hollywood. but much more was to come. more of his movies, dance partners and his costumes are covered in part ii of this blog here