Fred and Adele Astaire (1899-1987, 1896-1981)
All history is archaeology; every investigation of the past requires that holes be blasted in the solid ground our present lives are built on, that the accretions of the intervening years be sifted through and done away with, that all understanding will only ever be an incomplete and contingent reconstruction, never a return.
The advent of sound film at the end of the 1920s was, in twentieth-century entertainment, the equivalent of some great prehistoric seismic or climactic shift that buries everything that went before it in rubble and ashes. The survivors had to evolve or die; and the memory of what they were before will always be incomplete and hollow compared to the living, breathing imago that resides eternally upon the screen.
That is, we remember Fred Astaire for what he was in the Thirties and Forties with Ginger Rogers, for what he remained for twenty years after that, for the cinematic prodigy he was, the suave picture of elegance despite a balding, homely face, never as convincing when seducing a woman as he was when seducing the viewer with his pristine, wonderfully accurate motion.
But what we do not remember, because on some level we suspect that whatever is not on film has no true existence, is that his real partner was never Ginger, a self-made and deeply ambitious woman twelve years his junior who could act him under the table but struggled to keep up when dancing. It was his older sister Adele, who was the naturally gifted dancer in the family, who pushed him to dance so that she could have a partner when she was eight years old and he was five, whose sharply-observed imitations of society WASPs transformed them from the German-Jewish Austerlitzes of Omaha, Nebraska to the polished cosmopolitan Astaires of Anywhere, America.
They received training in both ballroom and show dancing, and were touring vaudeville by 1905. In 1917 they began to play legitimate theater, generally appearing as parts of piecemeal revues. Theatrical reviews went bananas for Adele’s witty, vivacious dancing and personality; on his feet, Fred could keep up with her, but his comparatively wooden demeanor and antisocial streak meant that he was always overshadowed on stage or off.
But while she was the comedian of the act, he was more musically inclined, and spent time seeking out jazz musicians and studying the work of great black tap masters like Bill Robinson and John Sublette. He struck up a friendship with another Jewish boy fascinated by black music, George Gershwin, when they were both in their teens, and Fred began to take control of the act’s musical direction and choreography, keeping abreast of fast-changing tastes in music as ragtime shifted to jazz and Broadway learned to shimmy, shake, and tap.
In 1920, the pair appeared in their first musical comedy, Apple Blossoms (Fritz Kreisler wrote the music). After that they opened a show a year, until the annus mirabilis 1924 saw them reunited with their old pal George and his brother Ira for Lady, Be Good!, probably the greatest musical comedy of the 1920s, where they played a brother and sister (naturally) forced out in the street and who sang and danced about it anyway. Fred was the put-upon, exasperated straight man; Adele was the winsome, effervescent ingénue, specialty singer and ukelelist Cliff Edwards was the comedian, and Norman Bel Geddes did set design. It was a massive hit on Broadway, then was another massive hit in the West End. The Astaires were legitimate stars, having reached the pinnacle of success that could be won in theater in the 1920s.
They went on to further triumphs, working for Florenz Ziegfeld and starring in two more smashes with Funny Face (1927) and The Band Wagon (1932), and then, within the space of a year, Adele met the youthful, handsome, and loaded Lord Charles Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, married him, and retired. Fred, who had by now established himself as one of the greatest tap dancers in the world and one of the most inventive and forward-thinking popular dancers in the US, had a few more Broadway hits, and then wandered to Hollywood. “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” You know the rest.
But as wonderful as his movies would be — and they were wonderful; Top Hat and Swing Time are two of the finest musical comedies ever made, and musical comedies are an essential form — there were always old duffers who remembered 1924 and sighed nostalgically, “but you should’ve seen Adele.”
None of us can now. When she retired, she stayed retired, and only those who were lucky enough to know her in private life caught a glimpse of what had been one of the great personalities of the Twenties, self-made indeed but without ambition — or without the ambition that drove her brother and his later partners. Show business tends to eat people up from both inside and out; perhaps a genuine star who could and did walk away without once looking back was more successful than any, and on her own terms.
Yes! I’ve been waiting for another one of these.