Friday, December 20, 2013

A Damsel in Distress (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I did another one of my TV movie veg-outs this morning, watching three films in succession on Turner Classic Movies, only one of which was a bona fide classic: the 1937 Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress — and even this was weakened by the casting of the young Joan Fontaine (in only her second film) as Astaire’s co-star. (He twirls her around in an English country setting to the strains of George and Ira Gershwin’s beautiful ballad, “Things Are Looking Up,” in what Arlene Croce called “her one nondance with Astaire.”) Fortunately the film also cast George Burns as Astaire’s manager and Gracie Allen as Burns’ secretary — and Burns and Allen proved not only verbally witty but surprisingly adept on the dance floor (well, maybe not so surprisingly now that I know one of the jobs Burns had before he met Allen was as a tap-dance instructor in New York). The film’s best sequence is the big production number Astaire, Burns and Allen dance in an art deco funhouse, which (praise be) reproduces the famous “runaround dance” Astaire used to do with his sister Adele (with Gracie Allen in Adele’s place and adding her own ditziness to it — she gets stuck in the circular step and keeps doing that throughout the funhouse until Astaire and Burns come up on either side of her and catch her). While it’s tragic that the great British dancer Jessie Matthews was not available to be Astaire’s co-star — the movie was written with both of them in mind and with her it would have been a masterpiece, but her British producer, Michael Balcon, was too scared to loan her out to an American studio because he feared that once she got a taste of the technical precision of American filmmaking she’d never want to go back home — A Damsel in Distress is still an entertaining movie, with great Gershwin songs (the film introduced “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” both of which became standards), a fine supporting cast (Reginald Gardiner at his most unctuous, Constance Collier at her most imperious, Ray Noble at his prissiest and Montagu Love at his most down-to-earth), acceptable direction by George Stevens and a genuinely witty (though somewhat contrived) script by P. G. Wodehouse. — 12/17/97


Charles and I watched the 1937 RKO musical A Damsel in Distress, the first film Astaire had made without Ginger Rogers as his co-star since his debut in MGM’s Dancing Lady (1933). Both Astaire and Rogers wanted to establish themselves independently of each other. Arlene Croce, in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, explains why: “Personal enmity was not the reason; professional pride was. The same pride that kept them locked together in a cycle of hits, their teamwork getting better and better, made each of them more eager to succeed without the other.” Rogers was also put off because it took so long to make a musical — particularly the long, arduous rehearsals required to perfect the big dance numbers (during a break from rehearsing Follow the Fleet Rogers told a reporter, “After this, I’d like to take a vacation … digging mines!”) — she was losing out on the big non-musical roles she wanted to other actresses, so in 1937 the team broke up for a year and a half, during which time Rogers made three films (Stage Door, Vivacious Lady and Having Wonderful Time) to Astaire’s one. A Damsel in Distress was also the second film George and Ira Gershwin wrote songs for under a two-film contract with RKO after making the Astaire-Rogers Shall We Dance, though according to the American Film Institute Catalog George Gershwin had already been dead for two months by the time Damsel went into production. (He’d lasted long enough to compose about half the songs needed for Samuel Goldwyn’s The Goldwyn Follies; Vernon Duke, who’d already written the hit song “I Can’t Get Started” with Ira Gershwin, stepped in and finished the score.)

A Damsel in Distress began life in 1919 as a novel by P. G. Wodehouse, who’s also a credited screenwriter on the film — though I suspect his credit was simply an acknowledgment that he provided the original story and the other two credited writers, Ernest Pagano and S. K. Lauren, actually did the script — and it’s a pretty typical Wodehouse plot, set (mostly) in an English country estate and dealing with the class differences between the masters and the servants. The scummiest character, though, is the head butler, Keggs (Reginald Gardiner), who has organized a pool among the staff to bed on whom young Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine) is going to marry. Keggs has fixed it so he draws Reggie (Ray Noble), the favored suitor by Alyce’s fearsome Aunt Caroline (Constance Collier, who was also in Stage Door), sister of her easygoing father Lord John Marshmorton (a charming character performance by Montagu Love). Albert (Harry Watson), a prepubescent boy on the service staff, horns in on the raffle by demanding a ticket for “Mr. X,” which will win if Alyce marries someone who isn’t on Keggs’ list. Albert has inside information that Alyce is sneaking off to London and dating an American — a man we never meet and who exists only as a character when Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire), an American dancer starring in a London musical, is mistaken for him when Alyce gets into his taxicab while fleeing from the spying Keggs. Halliday’s press agent, George (George Burns), has built up an image for him as a dancing Casanova in whose arms (and legs) women are like putty. Needless to say, Halliday is disgusted by this image and wants to get away from it, so he decides to take a break from his hit show and hang out in the English countryside. Albert forges a letter, ostensibly from Alyce, imploring Jerry to rescue her from her distress at being forced into a marriage she doesn’t want. Jerry, George and George’s ditzy secretary Gracie (Gracie Allen), rent a house nearby to Totleigh Castle, ancestral home of the Marshmortons, and what follows is a predictable series of complications, including shifting loyalties as Keggs manipulates the raffle, an up-and-down relationship between Jerry and Alyce, Reggie’s sudden interest in Gracie as the woman he really loves, and of course a finale in which Jerry and Alyce get together, as do Gracie and … George. (Well, audiences in 1937 knew full well that George Burns and Gracie Allen were married for real, so they wouldn’t have had it any other way!)

Joan Fontaine was RKO’s third choice for the role; their first choice was the superb British dancer Jessie Matthews, who’d always wanted to work with Astaire — they were personal friends — and would have been absolutely wonderful in the part. But Matthews was under contract to Michael Balcon at Gaumont-British, and he — knowing full well that once she did a film in Hollywood the chances of getting her back to work in the much less developed British film industry were slim to none — wouldn’t loan her out. Then RKO thought of Ruby Keeler, who’d just run out her contract at Warner Bros., and actually signed her to a one-film contract; she would probably have seemed too “American” for the role (though she was actually Canadian, which made her at least technically a subject of the British monarchy), and it’s hard to imagine her rather jerky style working together with Astaire’s fabled smoothness, but at least she could dance. Ultimately, RKO used up their contract with Keeler on a nonmusical film called Mother Carey’s Chickens which both Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn turned down, and they put Fontaine in A Damsel in Distress because she was British and, as Croce explains, “as a nondancer she wouldn’t invite comparisons with Rogers.” You can say that again; aside from both being young, female and blonde they had almost nothing in common. Rogers was an accomplished comedienne, while at that time Fontaine acted only marginally better than she danced; RKO had put her under contract and given her a buildup but it hadn’t taken, largely because their photographers didn’t seem able to light her in a way that didn’t make it look like she had a flashlight bulb at the end of her nose. They dropped her in 1939 and then Fontaine landed one of the plum roles of the time, the unnamed heroine in David O. Selznick’s production of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, where she not only had Alfred Hitchcock directing her (and getting a great performance out of her by keeping her off balance psychologically to reflect the discontent of the character) but George Barnes as cinematographer, who made her look far better than anyone else had.

It’s indicative of RKO’s estimation of the performers’ appeals that they billed Astaire, Burns and Allen above the title and Fontaine at the top of the miscellaneous performers’ list below, and they give Fontaine only one number with her ostensible co-star: a dance in the woods around Totleigh Castle to one of Gershwin’s most beautiful and haunting songs, “Things Are Looking Up.” (A Damsel in Distress generated two songs that became standards, “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It”; “Things Are Looking Up” didn’t, but should have.) Arlene Croce snippily calls this “her one nondance with Astaire” and adds, “The director, George Stevens, hurls so many tree trunks between her and the lens that she looks even worse than she is, and as she and Astaire cross a pond, he cuts away from her in mid-leap, so that she appears to be taking a header into the water.” Aside from the clunky casting of Fontaine — who did say in her autobiography that Astaire and Charles Boyer were her favorite co-stars because when they made suggestions, they were ideas that would improve the entire film rather than fatten their parts (her least favorite co-star, not surprisingly, was Orson Welles) — and the creakier aspects of Wodehouse’s plot, A Damsel in Distress is a marvelous film, due largely to the superb comedy of Burns and Allen and their ability to hold their own on a dance floor with Astaire. The three get to do two numbers together, “Put Me to the Test” (a dance with whiskbrooms in the living room of the cottage Jerry has rented to be near Alyce, set to a song for which Ira Gershwin wrote a lyric that wasn’t used here, but was seven years later in the Rita Hayworth-Gene Kelly musical Cover Girl to a new melody by Jerome Kern) and “Stiff Upper Lip,” an elaborate production number choreographed by Astaire’s assistant, Hermes Pan, set in a fun house full of distorting mirrors, slides, revolving barrels and two giant turntables, rotating in opposite directions, on which Astaire and Gracie Allen do the trademark dance he had done in virtually all his stage shows with his sister Adele. Variously called the “nut dance,” the “runaround dance” and the “oompah trot,” it’s a simple walking step set to a 2/4 march on which the band just vamped for as long as Fred and Adele Astaire felt like keeping it going. This had been a major part of Fred Astaire’s stage act but he hadn’t done it in a film until this one because he hadn’t thought Ginger Rogers was right for it.

A Damsel in Distress was a commercial flop, and the reviewers at the time savaged it — the general tenor of the critics was, “Fred, get thee back to Ginger — if she’ll still have you!” — and one aches at the thought of what this film could have been with a fabulous dancer like Jessie Matthews in the female lead instead of Joan Fontaine — but it’s still a great movie, powered by Gershwin’s great songs, Astaire’s performances of them (particularly the final “Nice Work If You Can Get It” number, a solo for Astaire amidst a large and heavily equipped drum set — Astaire was a fully professional musician on both piano and drums, and he played drums again in Easter Parade and Daddy Longlegs) and the almost surreal humor of Burns and Allen. Though they anticipated Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the ditzy-wife-drives-exasperated-husband-almost-insane genre (and of course both were couples off-screen as well!), whereas Lucy got her laughs mostly from slapstick Burns and Allen were dialogue comedians, and many of Allen’s lines here make you laugh and then leave you scratching your head at the sheer bizarreness of them — which is also how the characters in the film react to them; at times Gracie will toss off a line, the people in the movie will laugh, and so will you, then as the oddness of what she just said registers the people in the movie, including sometimes Gracie herself, will scratch their heads and whine, “I don’t get it.” — 12/20/13