*Includes quotes about both men’s lives and careers.
*Includes bibliographies of both men.
*Includes a table of contents.
Virtually all famous actors are regaled by the public, but even still, Fred Astaire occupies a privileged position in American pop culture. The specific films in which Astaire acted may not be especially famous in their own right – most people likely cannot recall the title of Top Hat (1935), his most decorated film – but Astaire’s dancing prowess invariably creates a lasting impact on viewers. Instead of tying his fame to a single film, Astaire’s genius lay in constructing his star persona around a specific set of iconographic imagery that has become embedded within American culture. Across his films, the recurring iconic images of the top hat, cane, and coat tails, as well as the image of Astaire dancing with Ginger Rogers, all constitute a timeless symbol for elegance that continues to captivate viewers who are unfamiliar with the plots of his films. There have been other film musical actors who were proficient dancers, Gene Kelly chief among them, but none were able to perform with the seamless elegance of Astaire, and none have been remembered nearly as well.
Astaire’s popularity can in large part be tied to the escapism that his films offered to impoverished Depression-era American audiences, and yet Astaire was a working man, albeit one who labored in the studios of Hollywood rather than the factories of America. Considering the quiet life that he led off the movie set, it can be difficult to disassociate Astaire from his films, and while he may have attempted to project the same image off the screen, the era and his personal background were extremely important. As someone who was born just before the start of the 20th century, Astaire’s life sheds light on the developments that occurred in American entertainment, from the stage (where he first performed during his youth) to cinema (the site of his greatest triumphs) and finally to television (a medium Astaire entered at the end of his career.) Astaire’s career tends to obscure his all-American success story, one in which hard work transformed a Nebraska boy from a working-class family into America’s most prominent symbol of grace.
Although they did collaborate on two occasions, in many ways Gene Kelly’s rise to popularity in the 1940s amounted to a changing of the guard, because Astaire’s career had begun to wane by the mid-1940s. For film historians and fans of the musical, however, even if they weren’t contemporaries, Astaire and Kelly will forever be viewed as rivals, with each having left an indelible stamp on the genre that defined their careers. Regardless of which dancer viewers film, there is no denying the cultural significance of some of Kelly’s most famous films, including An American in Paris (1949) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), movies that occupy a central position within the pantheon of Hollywood musicals.
While it is true that a comparison between Astaire and Kelly is indispensible to any study of Kelly’s life, much can also be gained simply by focusing mostly on his life and career. What made Kelly unusual for actors of that era is that he did not actually arrive in Hollywood until he was nearly 30 years old, so his early life and work before film had a crucial influence on his star image. Furthermore, given that he came to prominence after Astaire, Kelly’s career offers a valuable lens through which to chart the evolution of the musical genre, as well as a look at the prevailing standards of masculinity within Hollywood at the time.
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly examines the lives and careers of two of Hollywood’s most iconic dancers, tracing their rise to stardom and the forces within Hollywood and American popular culture that would ultimately lead to the end of their careers.
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