Thursday, October 22, 2009

'Damsel' Distressed

"A Damsel in Distress" is the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musical that Ginger never made.

Not that it was meant for the two of them originally. It's just that this otherwise-bubbly 1937 film contains all of the elements of a Fred/Ginger musical except for her. And boy, is she missed, because without her what's left is a romance that's short on ... well, romance. In fact, the leading lady -- a very young Joan Fontaine, who turned 20 one month before the film's release -- is billed fourth and really a supporting player. In a romantic comedy, in which the title refers to her, how can this be?!?

That's one of the big head-scratchers in this movie. The other is why Fred would use his time away from Ginger to make a film just like the ones he was making with her.

A little history: When "Shall We Dance?" was released in early 1937, it was Fred and Ginger's seventh movie together in a little more than four years. They then embarked on what would be an 18-month sabattical from each other. Ginger, yearning to start a non-musical phase in her career, made three non-musicals during this time -- "Stage Door," "Having Wonderful Time" and "Vivacious Lady." Although she starred in the latter two, it was her supporting role in the critically acclaimed "Stage Door," featuring Katharine Hepburn," that proved she could mix strong drama with musical comedy.

As for Fred, he made one film during this break: "A Damsel in Distress." Yet this musical relied on the talents of those who had participated in past Fred/Ginger films -- director George Stevens ("Swing Time"), choreographer Hermes Pan, the Gershwin Brothers ("Shall We Dance?"), producer Pan Berman. It's no wonder that you expect Ginger to waltz out as the damsel rather than Joan Fontaine.

The plot is lightweight nonsense about British Fontaine to marry, the household betting on whom she'll marry, and Astaire the visiting American who falls for her. Because the plot is thin, it requires instant chemistry between Fred and Joan -- which sadly doesn't happen.

I like Joan (above), yet this is very early in her career. In fact, she'd made mostly B movies up until this point, and her acting isn't where it would be three years later. Watching this film makes her triumph in "Rebecca" even more stunning. Plus she's not a singer or a dancer, so why she ended up in a musical is beyond me. Joan's one musical number with Fred is a stroll through a park, in which she is given simplistic movements such as dashing up a hill or around a tree.

Pairing them is like pairing caviar and a Ritz cracker.

Fred instead spends his time dancing either by himself or with other people, who turn out to be the film's other stars, George Burns and Gracie Allen (above). And thank goodness for them. While Gracie's schtick can be annoying at first, I found myself looking forward to her crazy one-liners at the expense of George's perfect straight-man routine. The two also acquit themselves nicely in several musical numbers with Fred.

In fact, the musical numbers in this film are quite good. Hermes Pan' work on the "Fun House" number, featuring Fred, Gracie and George, is so exhuberant that it won an Oscar (back when Oscars were awarded for Best Dance Direction). Add in some classic Gershwin songs like "Nice Work If You Can Get It" and "Foggy Day in London Town," and you have top-notch music in the film.

So you have all of these super elements in place. But when a musical is called "A Damsel in Distress," and said damsel is played by a non-musical actress still learning her craft and has less screen time than her co-stars, you can see why this can be a disappointing affair.


  1. I like this film a lot more than you do. There's a certain whimsical air about it that I find very appealing.

    I wonder if the Fontaine choice was deliberate in an attempt to see if Fred Astaire could perform as a solo act and to show he did not need a partner. He was originally skeptical about partnering with Ginger Rogers after his long and succesful theatrical partnership with his sister Adele. He didn't want to be known as simply the male half of a dance team.

    So "A Damsel in Distress" was RKO's trial attempt to see if Fred could hold a picture on his own sans a strong partner.

    Still, I do remember reading Astaire desperately wanted English musical star Jessie Matthews for the role, but she didn't want to travel to America. She would have been fabulous in the role and would have more than held her own with him. So that blows my theory out of the water.

  2. I know Fred wanted to break from being with a partner, but the formula is too much like a Fred and Ginger movie. That, in itself, makes it an odd selection. For Fred to carry a film on its own, it needed to be completely different. To make a romantic musical, he needed a stronger partner. However, I didn't know about Fred wanting Jessie Matthews. You're right ... she would have been great.