Can’t Act; Slightly Bald; Can Dance a Little

Studio Report? David O. Selznick? Apocryphal?

astaire07Dear Quote Investigator: The celebrated movie star Fred Astaire was known for his charm and his extraordinary dancing, but his initial screen test was a disaster. Hollywood legend claims that the studio report evaluating Astaire contained the following line:

Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.

The earliest supporting citations I’ve found were published in the 1970s and 1980s, but the screen test must have occurred in the 1930s. So this information was not persuasive. Is this anecdote accurate? What was in the studio report?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a 1937 newspaper article from an Associated Press reporter. The negative evaluation was not as elaborate as that given in the common modern stories. Bold face has been added to excerpts: 1

Studios often pass up a player who then proceeds to score a hit at another plant. What Metro reported on Deanna Durbin, who clicked at Universal, is not in the archives.

But I think the report card on Fred Astaire (who made his first film at M-G-M) takes the prize for picturesqueness in blundering. “Slightly bald and can dance a little,” said the fellow who is probably an ex-Metroite now.

In August 1939 “Fortune” magazine published an article about the Loew’s company and its studio unit Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. “Fortune” stated that Irving Thalberg was a key decision maker at the studio, but he was absent due to illness when Fred Astaire was being evaluated. The following passage included an instance of the quotation: 2

During his illness, Deanna Durbin and Fred Astaire were tested at Culver City, and turned down. On the subject of Astaire, some hapless underling scrawled on his report card, “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Also in August 1939 “LIFE” magazine ran an advertisement under the title “This Month in Fortune” promoting its sister publication. The quotation was further disseminated by its appearance in the advertisement: 3

Loew’s Inc. . . . which is still the biggest money-maker in the movies despite such boners as rejecting Fred Astaire with a “Can’t act; slightly bald; can dance a little.”

Also in August 1939 the popular syndicated gossip columnist Sheilah Graham wrote on the subject and printed a version of the evaluation: 4

Fred Astaire, who receives $150,000 from Metro for his imminent dancing stint with Eleanor Powell, made a test at this studio several years ago but was turned down via this brief note—“Can’t act. Slightly bald. But can dance a little.”

In 1941 “LIFE” magazine published a cover story about Fred Astaire indicating that the now famous dancer was aware of the contents of the early flawed studio analysis of his career prospects: 5

He disliked his face and feared his fast footwork would blur hopelessly on film. He was depressed by the report of his first screen test on which some ignorant underling had written: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” Hollywood’s huge sets unnerved him. Dancing on them, he said, was like performing in a circus tent.

In 1946 the “Woman’s Home Companion” printed an intriguing note from a Hollywood columnist named Kay Mulvey who stated that Astaire had obtained the critical report and treasured it as a reminder of his past: 6

I watched Fred Astaire’s last dance—Puttin’ on the Ritz. He came out in top hat, striped trousers, white spats, a cane. “This is where I came in,” he said and went into his dance—coattails flying, heels and toes tapping out that wonderful rhythm.

When he cleaned out his dressing-room he showed me his favorite memento. It was a casting director’s report of his first screen test, twelve years ago: “Can’t act; slightly bald. Can dance a little.”

In 1958 the “Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor” printed an interesting note with an acknowledgement to “Cue” magazine stating that Astaire displayed the critical assessment prominently in his home: 7

Over Fred Astaire’s fireplace in Beverly Hills is a yellowed MGM interoffice studio memo—souvenir of the dancer’s first screen test. Dated 1933 and sent by the testing director to his superior, it reads: “Fred Astaire. Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” —J. Z. in Cue

In 1963 the “Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables” printed the following in its profile of Astaire: 8

He still shudders when he remembers his first screen test report (“Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little”), but he and Ginger proceeded to become the biggest money-making team in movie-making history.

In 1972 the book “Memo from David O. Selznick” was published, and it contained a collection of memos written by the powerful movie producer Selznick during his long career. In a note dated January 26, 1933 Selznick championed Astaire despite his perceived defects: 9

Please arrange for the executives, including Brock, to see the test of Fred Astaire. I am a little 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 in this wretched test, and I would be perfectly willing to go ahead with him for the lead in the Brock musical.

[Footnote for memo] Astaire was signed. When Selznick moved to MGM in 1933, he introduced Astaire in Dancing Lady. Astaire’s first RKO picture was Flying Down to Rio (1933).

In 1973 “The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes” by Leslie Halliwell included the following about Astaire: 10

The most famous quote about the screen’s nimblest dancer is the report of the studio talent scout on his first screen test:

Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.

In later years, when he was a household name around the world, he tried to match that for humility:

I have no desire to prove anything by dancing. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself. I just dance.

In 1988 the movie star Debbie Reynolds released an autobiography in which she recounted visiting Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios in 1949 and meeting Burt Grady who was the head of the talent department. Reynolds identified Grady as the man who gauged Astaire’s screen test: 11

It was Grady who made the famous evaluation of Fred Astaire’s screen test: “Can’t act, can’t sing, can dance a little.”

In 2009 a biography “Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache” was published, and it discussed the screen test episode: 12

In January 1933, Selznick assigned Kay Brown—then a RKO executive, later one of the first important female talent agents, who, at MCA, represented many important talents, such as Ingrid Bergman, Arthur Miller, Paul Newman, and Joanne Woodward—to arrange a screen test for Astaire in New York.

For years, the name of the individual who conducted this screen test was never mentioned. Then Debbie Reynolds, in her autobiography, Debbie: My Life, announced that it was Burt Grady. On its completion, Grady sent a wire to Selznick conveying his now infamous appraisal of Fred Astaire: CAN’T ACT, SLIGHTLY BALD, ALSO DANCES.

In conclusion, there is good support for the existence of a dismissive studio evaluation of Fred Astaire written during an early screen test in the 1930s. The precise wording was not completely clear. The version “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little” was given in the 1939 “Fortune” article. This same phrasing was given in the 1946 and 1958 citations about the evaluation document possessed by Astaire. QI thinks this version has the most support.

Image Notes: Studio publicity photo for film Daddy Long Legs. Publicity photograph of Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in 1921. Both images are in the public domain and were obtained via Wikimedia commons. Images have been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Mike for suggesting an exploration of this tale about Astaire. Many thanks to Jerilyn Marshall and the Rod Library of the University of Northern Iowa. Special thanks to the librarian at the main branch of the Jacksonville, Florida library. Top thanks to the staff of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences who pointed out relevant excerpts in the autobiography of Debbie Reynolds and the biography of Astaire by Peter J. Levinson. In addition, thanks to Sue Kamm, Bill Davis, and AC Tomlin for their valuable comments.)

Update History: On August 10, 2014 the 1946 ‘Woman’s Home Companion” citation was added. In addition, the 1988 and 2009 citations were added.

Notes:

  1. 1937 June 16, The Canton Repository, News and Gossip of Stage and Screen by Robbin Coons (Associated Press Writer), Quote Page 9, Column 3, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1939 August, Fortune, Volume 20, Number 2, Loew’s Inc., Start Page 25, Quote Page 104, Column 3, Published by Time, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  3. 1939 August 21, LIFE, Advertisement: This Month in Fortune, Quote Page 68, Column 1, Time, Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1939 August 11, Long Island-Star Journal, Hollywood Today by Sheilah Graham, Quote Page 16, Column 8, Long Island City NY Star Journal. (Old Fulton)
  5. 1941 August 25, LIFE, Volume 11, Number 8, Fred Astaire by Lincoln Barnett, Start Page 73, Quote Page 83, Life is published by Time, Inc., Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1946 November, Woman’s Home Companion, Volume 73, Hollywood by Kay Mulvey, Start Page 10, Quote Page 11, Crowell & Kirkpatrick Co. of Springfield, Ohio. (Verified with scans; thanks to the Rod Library of University of Northern Iowa; thanks also to the Main branch of Jacksonville, Florida public library)
  7. 1958, Reader’s Digest Treasury of Wit and Humor, Selected by the Editors of the Reader’s Digest, Clouded Crystal Ball, Inc., Start Page 531, Quote Page 531, Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1963, Celebrity Register: An Irreverent Compendium of American Quotable Notables, Edited by Cleveland Amory with Earl Blackwell, Profile: Fred Astaire, Quote Page 24, Column 1, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1972, Memo from David O. Selznick, Selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer, (Memo dated January 26, 1933 from David O. Selznick to an assistant named Philip Siff), Quote Page 51, Published by Viking Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1974, The Filmgoer’s Book of Quotes by Leslie Halliwell, Section: Fred Astaire, Quote Page 11, [Reprint of 1973 edition Granada Publishing, London], Arlington House, New Rochelle, New York. (Verified on paper)
  11. 1988, Debbie: My Life by Debbie Reynolds with David Patrick Columbia, Quote Page 60, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 2009, Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache: A Biography by Peter J. Levinson, Chapter 3: In Search of a Partner, Quote Page 64, Published by St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Google Books Preview)