“Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little.”
In case you don’t recognize the above quote, it’s what a talent scout wrote about the great Fred Astaire after his first screen test.
It’s often cited as an example of why we need to keep trying. It also shows how wrong the gatekeepers can be when it comes to talent.
But the story is more complicated than the quote would suggest. Yes it’s true that the scout wrote this. But it didn’t matter. Astaire still managed to impress David O. Selznick, who was at the time head of production at RKO Radio Pictures.
Selznick saw something in Astaire that the underling had missed.
“I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test,” wrote Selznick in a memo.
Astaire wasn’t movie star material in any obvious way. He didn’t have the classic good looks of a Hollywood leading man like Douglas Fairbanks or Clark Gable.
Yes, he could dance—no one yet understood just how great a dancer he was, but never mind.
Still. He did have big ears. And well, he wasn’t that great an actor either. His singing voice turned out to be perfect for musical films, but that wasn’t obvious in 1933. Selznick went out on a limb when he signed him, because his instincts told him to.
Astaire himself admitted he wasn’t sure he could make it as a movie actor. By the time he started working in Hollywood, he was already 34 years old. He’d been a working entertainer for almost his entire life, starting as a child touring with Vaudeville shows.
Films weren’t the same as stage shows. The transition was daunting.
But despite it all, he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a smallish part in the movie Flying Down to Rio.
This film was a hit thanks to the Astaire and Rogers’ onscreen dynamism. It launched him into the big time.
Selznick put the Astaire and Rogers together in nine films, six of which were the studio’s highest grossing of those years. The pair thrilled audiences with their chemistry and great dancing. The Fred and Ginger mystique is still with us today—even those who have never seen their movies know who they were.
So what to take from the story of that screen test? First, there’s an element of luck in success. Selznick might not have watched the screen test, and instead taken the other guy’s word for it.
Or, he too might’ve made the wrong call–though his later career showed he had spot on instincts. As studio head, he churned out some of the biggest movies in Hollywood history, including Gone With the Wind.
The fact is, plenty of aspiring performers get some kind of break, but they still don’t make it.
As Jerry Seinfeld said, “…If you’ve got talent, it’s unmistakable. No one misses it and you don’t have to wait around for a break. It’s very easy to get a break. It’s very hard to be good enough.”
Astaire wasn’t going to be left behind. He was too driven.
He made what he did look easy, but that was a facade. In reality he was a perfectionist and a workaholic. Rogers said that working with him was harder than with anyone else. Fortunately, she was just as much of a perfectionist as he was.
Take the video clip above from their big break. They did so many takes of that number that she bled through her shoes and her white satin shoes turned pink.
In 1986, Astaire gave an interview in which he said, “All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No no, Ginger never cried.”
Astaire wasn’t just a great dancer, however. He revolutionized the way movie musicals were made. He was determined that dance numbers should be a way of moving the plot forward rather than a break from the action. This was in contrast to the style of the day.
He also wanted the dancing to be the action rather than the camera work. This meant no quick cuts or fancy overhead shots. Dance scenes were all done in one take.
The technique he perfected required a special dolly, which became known as the “Astaire Dolly.” Unlike most stars even today, he had a strong hand in how the camerawork was done.
The Keys to Success
So success isn’t what it looks like from afar. It often means pushing the art form you’re in, transforming it in some way.
Not every successful person is a perfectionist of course. But most are willing to keep going until they’ve met their own high standards.
Finally, it shows that success is almost always collaborative. Fred needed Ginger. She was an accomplished actor, who added depth to their characters. She also provided sizzle by playing off him and turning him into a believable romantic lead.
When you think about your own chances for success, here are the lessons of the Astaire story:
1. Don’t worry about the gatekeepers. Don’t worry you’ll be overlooked. Just focus on what matters.
2. Stay true to your vision and believe in your unique take on the art form.
3. Be willing to be the one who works the hardest. That alone will set you apart from the pack.
4. Forget the lone genius image. Most successful people are collaborators. Find people who are willing to help you get where you need to go–and remember to give them credit where it’s due.