Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly—The Greatest Film Dancers

Mar 26, 2021 | Newsletter

“What do dance scenes add to a movie? Unspeakable bliss, for starters. Dancing starts when dialogue fails. When lovers need to move beyond conversation, when conflicts boil past negotiation, when joy can’t be expressed in any other way than by leaping into the air on a trumpeter’s high note. With the rise of movie musicals in the early part of the 20th century, dancing moved easily from stage to screen, becoming bigger, more potent, ever more spectacular—and a lasting love affair with the moviegoing public was born.”

Sarah L. Kaufman, The Washington Post

In the mid-20th century, many wonderful dancers appeared in films but, film critics and film historians, when challenged, almost unanimously, listed Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to be the greatest. By far! 

Predictably, each spawned a fierce and loyal fan base. Arguments ensued: who is the better performer, Astaire or Kelly? Fred Astaire’s dancing was light and airy, wonderful for ballroom dancing and tap; Gene Kelly’s dancing was more muscular and earthy. Both had thin, high pitched singing voices but composers preferred Astaire to deliver their numbers. Astaire’s film characters were usually charming and affable; Kelly’s characters were more aggressive and brash. And so, the debate of who was the better performer goes on, even to this day.    

In compiling these films, I came to the conclusion that these thrilling dance segments were enhanced because they were integral to the story. Each dance helped develop a romantic relationship. Unlike the Busby Berkeley and Ziegfeld Follies productions, these dances did not “stand alone.”  

SUGGESTION: many viewers have seen some (or all) of these films. I urge you to see them again but this time focus on the dancers. You will not regret it.

I selected four films for each performer and, by design, each film is with a different dance partner. Each extraordinary dance partner contributed mightily to the success of Astaire and Kelly. They deserve full recognition.

 

Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire starred in 31 musical films in a career spanning 76 years. He had an uncanny sense of rhythm, perfectionism, and innovation.   The American Film Institute named him the “Fifth Greatest Star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.” In 1972 he was inducted in the American Theater Hall of Fame;   in 1981 he was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Kennedy Center Honors. 

My four picks, chronologically; four different partners:

 

1. Top Hat (1935)

Dance Numbers to Watch: The dance numbers to the songs “Cheek to Cheek” and “Isn’t This  a Lovely Day” epitomize the elegance and glamour of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Top Hat  received a perfect 100% Rotten Tomatoes score. It was also selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Composer: Irving Berlin
Choreographers: Fred Astaire & Hermes Pan
Dance Partner: Ginger Rogers

Available on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, Vudu

 

2. Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Dance Numbers to Watch: Fred Astaire and Eleanore Powell are exceptional in dancing to “Begin the Beguine” but the highlight is the spectacular finale to “I Concentrate on You.” In this number, Powell begins with a ballet solo; the second half blossoms into a magnificent ballet and tap duet.   Broadway Melody of 1940 is the only on-screen pairing of Astaire and Powell  regarded as two of the greatest film dancers of their day.  In Astaire’s biography, he considered Eleanore Powell his ultimate partner:  “She put ’em down like a man, no ricky-ticky sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”

Composer: Cole Porter
Choreographer: Bobby Connolly
Dance Partner: Eleanore Powell

Available on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu

 

3. The Band Wagon (1953)

Dance Numbers to Watch: One is the magnificent, romantic ballet in Central Park to the song  “Dancing in the Dark.” The other is the “Girl Hunt Ballet,” a breathtaking number that spills over with joy and excitement. The Band Wagon was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Best Music, and Best Costume Design. The film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Composer: Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz (lyricist)
Choreographer: Michael Kidd
Dance Partner: Cyd Charisse

Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, Vudu

 

4. Funny Face (1957)

Dance Number to Watch: Fred  Astaire and Audrey Hepburn are enchanting dancing to  “He Loves and She Loves.” Astaire was thirty years older than Hepburn when the film was made but you’ll never know it when they were  dancing together.  Funny Face received four Academy Award nominations:  Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Art Design.

Composer: George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (lyricist)
Choreographer: Eugene Loring
Dance Partner: Audrey Hepburn

Available on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, Vudu

 

Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly is credited with making ballet commercially acceptable to film audiences. With director Stanley Donen, Kelly opened up the musical form, taking the production from the studio to actual site locations. Donen handled the staging while Kelly was the choreographer. In 1982 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Kennedy Center Honors;  in 1992 Gene Kelly was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

My four film picks, chronologically; four different partners:

1. The Pirate (1948)

Dance Numbers to Watch: Gene Kelly and Judy Garland danced with great wit and originality in the “Be a Clown” number. Although Judy Garland was not an accomplished  dancer, she did perform with joy, excitement and with the antics of a wonderful clown. “Be a Clown” was also performed  thrillingly by the Nicholas Brothers.

Composer: Cole Porter
Choreographer: Gene Kelly
Dance Partner: Judy Garland

Available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, Vudu 

 

2. On the Town (1949)

Dance Number to Watch: “A Day In New York” finale is a fast-paced, uplifting, duet  performed by Gene Kelly and Vera-Ellen. 

The film won an Academy Award for Best Music and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. 

Composer: Leonard Bernstein and Adolph Green/Betty Comden (lyricists)
Choreographer: Gene Kelly
Dance Partner: Vera-Ellen

Available on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNow, Vudu

 

3. An American in Paris (1951)

Dance Number to Watch: The spectacular ballet finale, “An American in Paris,” subtitled, “A Tone Poem for Orchestra.” The ballet was filmed on 44 sets in MGM’s back lots. The sets and the costumes referenced the French painters Dufy, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec.  An American in Paris  won the Academy Award for Best Motion Picture; Gene Kelly won an Honorary Oscar that year primarily for his work as choreographer on this film. 

Composer: George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin (lyricist)
Choreographer: Gene Kelly
Dance Partner: Leslie Caron (her first screen role, 19-years-old)

Available on Amazon Prime

 

4. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) 

Dance Numbers to Watch: “Good Morning” is a jovial trio  performed by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.  “Singin’ in the Rain,” performed as a solo by Gene Kelly, is incredible. Although Kelly choreographed and danced   dazzling numbers in other films, none is more uplifting and enduring as this one. The film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Composer: Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (lyricist)
Choreographer: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Dance Partners: Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds

Available on AppleTV+, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, Vudu, FandangoNow, HBO Max

 

BONUS: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly together

Fred and Gene danced together in  film only once doing “The Babbitt and the Bromide” number in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1945.

 

 

My best,

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