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Archive for the ‘MUSIC BY George and Ira Gershwin’ Category

A Damsel In Distress

03 Apr

A Damsel In Distress — directed by George Stevens. Musical. A fan-plagued hoofer seeks refuge in an English castle with two chums and falls for the lady of the manor. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.

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Everyone badly wanted Joan Fontaine fired from this, and one wonders why they cast her to begin with if she could not dance, but George Stevens put his foot down, and he was right. Fontaine was young and vulnerable, only 19, and she and her career would have crumbled. As it is, she said that the film set it back four years. Actually she dances well enough in the one number she has with Astaire, but it is carefully staged on woodland turf where Hermes Pan’s choreography has an excuse to be limited. Otherwise she’s rather dear. The difficulty is that Astaire’s partners always needed to dance comic turns as well as romantic ones because that’s where the love-drama was stated and resolved, and this could not happen with Fontaine or later with Joan Leslie or Paulette Goddard. Comic dance was Astaire’s forte. He had come from many Broadway years in a brother/sister act whose dances were not romantic but comic. When you look at Astaire’s solo turns in film you can see that most of them are humorous in energy and, when partnered, necessary to the love story. Recall how Ginger Rogers supplied the dance argument that set up the dramatic foundation of their courtship. With Rogers and Astaire, romance begins with comic dance bickering. George Stevens had already directed Rogers and Astaire in Swing Time, their best musical, but Astaire wanted to make a musical without her. He was tired of and afraid of fixed partners, such as his sister Adele had been and Rogers was becoming, and Rogers wanted to do her own films too, so Astaire made Damsel, and it was a financial failure, his first. but it’s too bad it is not more often seen. It failed perhaps because it needed an American girl: Rogers is ur-American but Fontaine is English; Rogers also is classless because she is show-biz, while Fontaine is clearly UC.  Also the love plot is thin, made up for by excellent supporting people, including Reginald Gardiner who at one point hilariously sings grand opera.  The Gershwins wrote the score, which gives us  “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “A Foggy Day In London Town,” and spiffy comic numbers. These Astaire dances with two very experienced vaudevillians, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the three of them are super together, particularly in a production number in an amusement park, which won Hermes Pan the Oscar that year for Dance Direction. Gracie Allen was that punned combination of innocence and an empty head that produced unintended wisdom, such as would later become Marilyn Monroe’s stock in trade, and George Burns is the studio couch on which she bounces. Stevens’ skill in direction is seen right away in the most exuberant dance Astaire ever filmed, actually performed in moving traffic – and later in the moving traffic of a party as Astaire and Montagu Love sit on castle stairs strategizing the love-plot. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the book, for in those days he did libretti (even, if you will, that for Showboat). The most interesting aspect of the picture in a way is the most relaxed and natural performance of Astaire’s career. This means that he is more internally visible and does less mugging, a holdover from his long-installed stage technique, such that his presence on the screen is humanly comic. Stevens had a way with actors, which was mainly to leave them alone and let them do what they really wanted. This gave all his many comedies a free-and-easiness priceless to this day. The movie is a charmer. Give yourself a treat.

 
 
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