Let’s talk about Fred. And his partners: Rita, Cyd, Paulette, Vera-Ellen, Nanette, the two Powells — Eleanor and Jane — Judy, Leslie, Audrey, numerous couches and chairs, several tables (dining and coffee), a British ceiling and one supremely fortunate coat rack. But mainly, of course, there was the divine Ginger, always magnificently dressed, occasionally, as in “Top Hat,” by three or four well-endowed ostriches.
While the Hays Office in the mid-’30s was in its most censorial early days, its enforcers changing any plotline or dialogue from which they could squeeze sexual innuendo, they managed in their verbal vigilance to, myopically, overlook Fred Astaire’s duets with Ginger Rogers, in which he demonstrates clearly, concisely, even overtly, every move any aspiring lover might do well to adopt. Put down the Kama Sutra and its impossible acrobatics, rent “The Gay Divorcee” and watch Astaire seduce a resistant Rogers, transforming her from a feisty, fast-talking, fast-walking, too-good-for-you dame into a dewy-eyed ingénue. “That? Oh, that was nothing,” his modesty after brilliance his most disarming charm.
Astaire is our American Casanova camouflaged in tux and tails or sailor suit as a clean-cut gentleman, sometimes a naïve goof, zooming about in Hollywood musical fluff. Good, solid, still funny fluff. As “Night and Day” closes, Astaire lands Rogers gently on a steep incline — she’s mesmerized by the magician who just took her on the ride of her life — bends over her suggestively, pulls back and says, “Cigarette?” Mute and dazed, she declines. But we need Paul Henreid to light one for us. Yep, the Hays Office really did miss the dance. Thank God.
Rogers was Astaire’s best partner (the coat rack vying for a close second), though none, not even she, could match him as a dancer — watch how he takes off in his solos like Mercury in winged taps. But it didn’t matter: they were good and gorgeous, and he did the rest. Hermes Pan, Astaire’s longtime choreographic collaborator, said, “Except for times Fred worked with real professional dancers like Cyd Charisse, it was a 25-year war.” So why did these women look like goddesses with Astaire?
Because of Adele.
Adele? Yes, his sister, Adele. For the duration of their astonishing 27-year partnership, the longest in his life — it began when Fred was 5 and Adele 8 — she was the undisputed star of the duo. In her fascinating new book, “The Astaires,” the Australian theater historian Kathleen Riley describes the exploits of this brother-sister team in glorious detail. And it becomes clear that it was behind and beside, but never in front of, Adele that Fred learned not only how to dance, but how to present a woman, honor her and make her glow. It is now a mostly lost art, hard-won equality having removed woman’s pedestal and left her prevaricating in the ditch of parallelism.
He can certainly restore one’s faith in humanity should it, by chance, ever falter — or at least in one extraordinary human being’s capacity for beauty. “He is like Bach,” George Balanchine said. “Astaire has that same concentration of genius; there is so much of the dance in him that it has been distilled.”
Riley performs the great service of giving us the history before the history, of Fred and Adele, the biggest vaudeville and musical theater stars of their time. It’s a love story rarely told, of that between a sister and her brother, one bonded in blood but cemented by hoofing.
When the Astaires crossed the pond for the first time, in 1923, to star in “Stop Flirting” at the Shaftesbury in London, their popularity kicked into a high gear from which it never descended — until Adele retired eight years later to marry. The show ran for 16 months, and each performance included no fewer than 18 dances, a tour de force that left British critics reaching for biblical superlatives: “Nothing like them since the Flood.”
As the toasts of the town they cavorted with Noël Coward, the Prince of Wales (long before Mrs. Simpson) — he saw the show 10 times — and the prince’s three brothers, who ushered the young Americans about town to all the trendiest clubs, where Fred was caught dancing an “inappropriate” Charleston with Lady Edwina Mountbatten. When not dancing, the siblings endorsed shampoo, cold cream, pens, toothbrushes, bronchial pastilles and shoes. “Astairia” was afoot.
J. M. Barrie asked Adele to play Peter Pan (she couldn’t for contractual reasons), while P. G. Wodehouse, A. A. Milne, John Galsworthy, Hugh Walpole and Somerset Maugham became admirers and friends. Cecil Beaton likened Adele, “with her large amusing head on a minute exquisite little body,” to Felix the Cat, while another critic took a more existential tone: “Hers is not only the poetry of motion but its wit, its malice, its humor.”
While there is, sadly, no footage of Fred and Adele dancing together, there is one other way, besides Nathan’s glorious flurries, to reach back in time and touch her, via a handful of audio recordings of the Astaires singing, made in the late 1920s. In “Funny Face” — written for them — they sing to each other, starting with Fred: “You have all the qualities of Peter Pan / . . . You’re a cutie / With more than beauty / You’ve got such a lot / of Personal-i-T-N-T.”
Riley’s book makes clear that during those three decades of dancing with Adele, Fred was driven, in part, by the belief that he was “a detriment to my sister,” and thus honed his craft on so many levels, devising new levels in the process, that he became a creature, like Mayakovsky’s “cloud in trousers,” beyond his sister’s obviously radiant, though possibly only-of-her-time, talent. While Adele charmed them in the spotlight, her brother became an artist of the highest order.
When Astaire was given a Life Achievement Award by the American Film Institute, in 1981, he was 81 years old. As he took the stage a single ring shone on his elegant hands: the gold signet pinky ring that Adele had given him in London over 50 years earlier. This ring can be seen in virtually all his films, circling his finger as he circles the waists of one beautiful woman after another. “My sister, Adele,” he said in his unscripted speech, “was mostly responsible for my being in show business. She was the whole show, she really was. In all the vaudeville acts we had and the musical comedies we did together, Delly was the one that was the shining light and I was just there pushing away.”
Just pushing away. Like Bach.