Fred Astaire dancing to tunes by George and Ira Gershwin and partnered with George Burns and Gracie Allen, Gracie-isms galore, a nineteen-year-old Joan Fontaine, the snootiness of Reginald Gardiner, impressive art direction and available in HD – all reasons why I so enjoyed watching George Stevens’ A Damsel in Distress (1937) on Warner Archive Instant this weekend.
When I saw A Damsel in Distress was available for streaming on Instant I tweeted it was news right up my geek alley and I was right. The plot is silly, I’ll give you that, but it’s the parts, rather than the whole, that make this movie worth your time.
The story goes…
Word is out that Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine) will soon be choosing a husband. Apparently the intended groom could be any one of several individuals so the staff of Tottney Castle, where Lady Alyce resides with her family, lay bets on who she’ll choose. Most interested in winning the wager are Keggs (Reginald Gardiner), the Castle majordomo and young Albert (Harry Watson) whose money is on “Mr. X,” the American he knows Lady Alyce is in love with but whom nobody has seen.
One day Lady Alyce manages to get away from the Castle and her strict Aunt Caroline (Constance Collier) to go to London where she plans to meet up with the mysterious American. As she tries to escape Keggs who’s following her to avoid the meeting, she comes across Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire), a dancer and suspected womanizer. Naturally, both Keggs and Albert assume that Halliday is Mr. X. and the madcap ensues. Albert plots and succeeds in getting Halliday to the Castle in hopes of furthering the love affair between he and Lady Alyce so he can win the wager while Keggs does all he can to sabotage it. And vice versa for the rest of the movie with the course of true love prevailing despite the confusion.
Now to the fun – playing Larry Halliday’s publicity agent is George Burns, playing George Burns the publicity agent. Playing Burns’ secretary Gracie is Gracie Allen as astute a secretary as you’ll ever see and hear…
Gracie: [Gracie to George as she answers the telephone] It’s a Hawaiian.
George: A Hawaiian?
Gracie: Well he must be. He says he’s Brown from The Morning Sun.
I can’t get enough of her! And there’s plenty of her here – George too, of course – but Gracie impresses, especially in the musical numbers the pair take part in. In his book, Gracie a Love Story, George Burns discusses how excited and nervous Gracie was at the prospect of dancing with Astaire and according to IMDB, Astaire knew of her nerves and executed a trip and fall just to put Gracie at ease. How the numbers came to be is of little consequence, however, because the end results are charming and entertaining. The first is a sweet soft-shoe routine that features whisk brooms reportedly brought over from an old vaudeville routine by George Burns. The other number, “Stiff Upper Lip” is a grand spectacle that takes place in a fun house and won Hermes Pan an Oscar for Best Dance Direction. Who would’ve thought Gracie would play a central part in an Oscar-winning dance number? I’ll add that Fred Astaire does a solo tap number with a drum set that for my money bests the better known one he performed in Easter Parade years later.
A Damsel in Distress also won an Oscar for Best Art Direction (for Carroll Clark) and it’s easy to see why when watching the movie in HD. There’s a particularly gorgeous sequence accompanying Astaire singing “A Foggy Day (In London Town),” that feature lots of…um…fog, but also beautiful lighting. Cliche but pretty, c’mon!
By the way, Joan Fontaine also dances with Astaire in A Damsel in Distress although it’s clear she wasn’t comfortable doing so. Fontaine would joke that this movie set her career back four years and according to IMDB she overheard a woman at the film’s premiere exclaim, “Isn’t she awful!” I wouldn’t go that far and no one should feel bad about dancing with Astaire even for just the experience of it. But Fontaine is no Gracie Allen! How often can someone say that?
A Damsel in Distress was the first Fred Astaire film at RKO not to feature Ginger Rogers and, I’m sad to learn, also the first Astaire film to lose money at the box office. However, despite 1937 audiences not showing up to see it, Damsel is fun and not a bad way to spend 101 minutes. I didn’t stop smiling for the whole of it, which is enough to make the monthly fee for Warner Archive Instant streaming well worth it. That’s all I’ve got to say about that. Keep ’em coming!