Category Archives: Fred Astaire

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.

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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)