“It’s always happy time whenever Fred Astaire does Cole Porter.” – TV Guide Listing for Silk Stockings
“I guess the only jewels of my career were the two pictures I made with Fred Astaire….”
– Rita Hayworth, The New York Times Interview with John Hallowell (10/25/70)
The face of Fred Astaire never graced a cover of Time. However, two of his dancing partners made the cut – each of them precisely because she was his dancing partner: Ginger Rogers in 1939, starring in the Fred and Ginger swan song The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and Rita Hayworth in 1941, Astaire’s newest partner, in You’ll Never Get Rich.
Omaha-born Fred’s first partner, famously, was his sister Adele, with whom he began his professional stage career in 1905 when he was five and she was seven. (Always protective of Adele, in adulthood Fred would refer to her as “my kid sister.”) The duo thrived in vaudeville, and it wasn’t long before Fred began what would turn out to be another important professional association, this time with the wealthy and sophisticated songwriter from Peru, Indiana, Cole Porter. It would be some years before they actually met, but when Fred found a novelty song he considered right for the brother-sister act, I’ve a Shooting Box in Scotland, he acquired the composer’s permission to perform it. In the late 1960s, Astaire sang the song again on one of his TV specials, and as fate would have it, Shooting Box was one of the last songs he ever recorded, on a 1975 album of duets with Bing Crosby.
While slowly rising up the pecking order in vaudeville, Fred and Adele toured on the Orpheum Circuit with husband-and-wife headliners, the dance team of Eduardo and Elisa Cansino. Eduardo was very encouraging in his praise for the siblings’ act, which the bottom-of-the-bill brother and sister very much appreciated. This was well before the birth of the Cansinos’ daughter, Margarita, who would eventually at the age of 12 replace her mother as Eduardo’s dancing partner. Three decades after the Astaires first met her father, the youngster would grow up and find her professional destiny entwined with Fred’s.
The Astaires matured into full-fledged adult stardom, the toasts of Broadway and London in the 1920s, thanks in no small measure to two shows scored by their friends the Gershwin Brothers, Lady Be Good and Funny Face. The comically elfin and delightful Adele was considered the strength of the brother-sister team. Consequently, when, after the triumphant Dietz-Schwartz revue The Band Wagon in 1931, she retired to marry an English lord, Fred’s future as a solo act was far from assured. (Many years later, when Oscar Levant dined with Fred and Adele at the MGM commissary, he asked Astaire, “When did you become a good dancer?” “When Adele retired,” he said.) He had to be careful in choosing his first personal vehicle, but when the producers of a show called The Gay Divorce informed him that they’d engaged Porter to pen the songs, Fred quickly signed on.
When it opened, The Gay Divorce was not an immediate hit, and the perpetually worried perfectionist Fred – Adele always called him “Moaning Minnie” – had reason to fear that he’d not chosen the best possible vehicle. But Porter came to the rescue. One rather long, discursive ballad, which was so rangy that it was not easy for Astaire to sing, was the magic ingredient that saved the day. On its own, the song gradually grew in popularity to such an enthusiastic extent that The Gay Divorce’s box office swelled to the proportions of a genuine smash, a feat it would duplicate the following year in London. Everyone on both sides of the Atlantic, it now seemed, wanted to see “The Night and Day Show.”
Preston Neal Jones is the author of Heaven and Hell to Play With: The Filming of The Night of the Hunter and Return to Tomorrow: The Filming of Star Trek – The Motion Picture. Directed by Sidney Lanfield, You’ll Never Get Rich, starring Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Robert Benchley, John Hubbard, Osa Massen, Frieda Inescort, Guinn (“Big Boy”) Williams and Cliff Nazarro, debuts in shimmering 1080p on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray April 18. Preorders open April 5.