It’s hard to list the greatest entertainers of all time without mentioning Fred Astaire. He was one of best performers and dancers of his time, and there are few others throughout history or the present who can match his showmanship and talent. Whenever you watch him dance in one of the clips from his prime, you can see he definitely deserves the fame he continues to demand to this day. However, throughout his impressive tenure as a performer, he encountered a single dance partner with whom he could never work again.
The reason for his decision wasn’t based on the woman’s lack of skill. It wasn’t based on her attitude or the way she looked. Astaire couldn’t stand to work with this particular dancer because she was too good. She was so good, in fact, that she stole focus from him.
The actress in question was named Eleanor Powell, and she was a budding performer trying to find a place in Hollywood, but she was having trouble getting started. Her problem was an unlikely one, but it was a reality for the time period. She was far too talented for her own good. In the 1940s, when she was in her prime, it was the woman’s role to make the man look good. Unfortunately for her, she instantly became the focus of any dance in which she partook, simply because of her natural talent and grace. The result was that she couldn’t find continuous work in the male-dominated industry.
The single instance of her partnering with Fred Astaire took place for a movie called Broadway Melody in 1940. The sequence turned out to be one of the greatest dance performances ever caught on film.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the short clip is that it is narrated by Frank Sinatra. The routine performed by Astaire and Powell is more than two minutes long, and the scene is shot in one continuous segment. The impressive single shot shows how the skilled performers were capable of handling the immense pressure of such a complex routine. A mistake would force them to redo the entire scene, and as the sequence unfolds, you can tell the two dance masters are playing off of each other quite well.
After the scene was over, it was clear to all those involved that they had just created history. However, there was a problem for the male ego of Astaire. He wasn’t accustomed to being compared equally with his dancing partner, so he decided he would never work with her again. He opted for a dancer of less talent so he could remain in the spotlight while his partner merely acted as a prop.
Eleanor Powell was a victim of the patriarchal industry of the Hollywood movie industry in the 1940s. Had she been born in a more modern century, she would undoubtedly be a star of unprecedented skill. The fact that Fred Astaire admired her skill so much that he refused to allow her to overshadow him on film shows exactly how much she would shine if given the opportunity.
The video of Astaire and Powell showing off their skills is an example of what could be produced if the industry had evolved a bit earlier on. It is clear the Astaire was right, and that Powell does indeed outshine him on film. The fact that he had to suppress her talent to keep his own at such a high level goes to show just how much has had to change in the entertainment industry in the last 70 years. Hopefully the industry will continue to evolve to reflect the reality of the time.