Monday, January 10, 2011

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

The nine films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together at RKO between 1933 and 1939 are some of the most magical and sublime movies ever made. They’re also among the wittiest. If you remove all the musical numbers, you still have some of the most sparkling comedies of the era. They also boast, no surprise, some of the greatest dance numbers ever put on screen.

Their last film at RKO, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (1939) may be the most underrated film in the series of 10 films Astaire and Rogers made together. (A reunion occurred at M-G-M in 1949 with “The Barkley’s of Broadway”). It may not be their wittiest film, feature members of the Astaire-Rogers stock company, or showcase their best dance routines. Still, there’s a special glow about the film that I find very appealing.

It’s also the odd man out in their films, being not a musical comedy, but a period film, a biography of the famous pre-World War I dance team. World War I plays an important role in the story – is this the first time an ugly reality such as war found its way into the world of Astaire and Rogers?

Before Fred and Ginger, Vernon and Irene were the pre-eminent dance team of the early 20th century. Their dances, including the famous Castle Walk, swept the world. They were equally known for their fashion sense. When Irene Castle bobbed her hair, millions of women around the world did the same thing.

It’s a nice film, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Vernon and Irene like each other from the start, and even when facing career lows they are always there for each other.

Irene Castle was a technical consultant on the film and from all accounts, was a holy terror on the set. (Ginger was a special target of Irene’s wrath. It all started when Irene insisted Ginger darken her hair to match Irene’s brunette shade. Ginger refused.) I’m guessing that the real Vernon and Irene relationship was not always so carefree and the lack of drama was necessary to placate Irene. There would be no disparaging Vernon’s memory if Irene had anything to do with it.

Irene was also somewhat taken aback at the casting of Walter Brennan as Walter, their servant, confidante and biggest fan. The real life Walter was black.

Still, Irene must have been pleased with the many recreations of the famous Castle dance routines. Not only do we get the Castle Walk, and a tango to die for, but the film features one of the loveliest moments in the Astaire Rogers catalog. It’s World War I and Vernon is flying planes for the British Army and is expected to meet Irene for a Paris reunion. He’s late and she’s distraught as she stands on the dance floor alone, wondering what to do until Vernon walks in. They start dancing - perhaps gliding is a better word - and it’s just beyond lovely.

All the music is period, save for one song written for the movie, the lovely “Only When You’re In My Arms” written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Ironically, Fred Astaire would play Kalmar in the Ruby-Kalmar biopic “Three Little Words” (1954), a personal favorite of mine. Also a nice movie.

Not only is it their most underrated film, but it’s also underrated when it comes to the miracle movie year of 1939.

Movie audiences that year were lucky to see some of the great love stories of all time. Of course there’s “Gone With the Wind” and “Wuthering Heights.” There’s also “Love Affair” with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, the original “An Affair to Remember” (1958); Deanna Durbin getting her first screen kiss, courtesy Robert Stack in the thoroughly charming Cinderella re-tread “First Love”; lonely schoolteacher Robert Donat meeting a radiant Greer Garson on vacation and enjoying a few years of happiness with her until her premature death in “Goodbye Mr. Chips”; Bette Davis nobly fighting blindness in “Dark Victory”; Cary Grant and Jean Arthur arguing and loving in “Only Angels Have Wings”; and Melvyn Douglas wooing and charming staunch Communist Greta Garbo in Paris in “Ninotchka.”

In addition to Fred and Ginger, other legendary screen teams that year William Powell and Myrna gave us “Another Thin Man” and Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland helped take “Dodge City.”

These are all fondly remembered to this day. “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” should be part of that list for many reasons – not only as the final RKO film of the greatest dance team in film history. Not only as one of the most charming films of 1939. Not only as one of the best musical biopics of the era. But a combination of all three. It’s a wonderful movie.

Preview of Coming Attractions: On January 17, 2011 I’ll be participating in the Classic Movie Bloggers Association’s annual blogathon event. This year the blogathon is devoted to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. I’ll be writing about his daring experimental film “Rope” (1948). I hope you can check back.


Classicfilmboy said...

Great recognition for this film. I was planning on blogging about it later this year, so I'll throw my two cents in at that time. It's too bad it's overlooked, particularly when so many films are discussed in relation to 1939.

Kevin Deany said...

Thanks. I'm looking forward to what you have to say about it.

watch movies online said...

Very nice post.Looking more about it.Very nice concept of musical comedy.I also loved because my favorite director directed this "H.C. Potter"

Kevin Deany said...

I should have mentioned Potter as the director, my mistake. Ginger Rogers speaks very well of him in her autobiography.