Few would argue with the opinion that American entertainer Fred Astaire was the greatest dancer ever seen on film. Born to a wealthy Omaha family, young Astaire was trained at the Alvienne School of Dance and the Ned Wayburn School of Dancing. In a double act with his sister Adele, Fred danced in cabarets, vaudeville houses, and music halls all over the world before he was 20. The Astaires reportedly made their film bow in a 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle, same year of their first major Broadway success, Over the Top. The two headlined one New York stage hit after another in the 1920s, their grace and sophistication spilling into their social life, in which they hobnobbed with literary and theatrical giants, as well as millionaires and European royalty. When Adele married the British Lord Charles Cavendish in 1931, Fred found himself soloing for the first time in his life.
As with many other Broadway luminaries, Astaire was beckoned to Hollywood, where legend has it his first screen test was dismissed with "Can't act; slightly bald; can dance a little." He danced more than a little in his first film, Dancing Lady (1933), though he didn't actually play a role and was confined to the production numbers. Later that year, Astaire was cast as comic/dancing relief in the RKO musical Flying Down to Rio, which top-billed Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. Astaire was billed fifth, just below the film's female comedy relief Ginger Rogers. Spending most of the picture trading wisecracks while the "real" stars wooed each other, Astaire and Rogers did a very brief dance during a production number called "The Carioca." As it turned out, Flying Down to Rio was an enormous moneymaker -- in fact, it was the film that saved the studio from receivership. Fans of the film besieged the studio with demands to see more of those two funny people who danced in the middle of the picture. RKO complied with 1934's The Gay Divorcee, based on one of Astaire's Broadway hits. Supporting no one this time, Fred and Ginger were the whole show as they sang and danced their way through such Cole Porter hits as "Night and Day" and the Oscar-winning "The Continental."