“The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” is very different from the other films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together.
In this, their ninth film, they are appearing for the first time as a married couple. They also are playing real characters. Gone too is a story that revolves around the pursuit of romance – the boy meet girl/mistaken identity plotlines. And an original score is replaced with period music, while Fred and Ginger dance in the style of the Castles.
Instead, this is a look at the impact of the Castles, the first famous dancing duo of the 20th century, and it combines romance, humor and drama – more drama than any previous entry in the series.
But too often people dismiss this film because of these many differences in tone and style, when the film itself is a solid biography, well-made and well-played by the two stars. It’s more cohesive than some of the other Fred and Ginger entries, and while film fans may dismiss this as a lesser entry from the golden year of 1939, it’s much better than people think or remember it to be.
In short, Fred and Ginger play the title characters – he a vaudeville comedian who yearns to be a dancer, and she a young woman who wants to break into show business. A romance develops, as does their dancing partnership, and soon they marry. In hopes of developing their act, the Castles accept a job in Paris that unfortunately does not pan out. But a chance meeting with an agent lands them a trial dancing gig at a local club – and they become a sensation as they perform the new American social dances – the Turkey Trot and the One-Step, the latter which they developed into the Castle Walk. Back in the U.S., the duo’s popularity spreads across the country as the Victorian-era dances give way to something new, and they help popularize these dances across all age and societal dividing lines.
It makes sense that the reigning dancing royalty of the screen would play the reigning dancing royalty of the 1910s. In fact, Fred fondly remembered seeing the Castles and their inspiration upon him.
RKO contracted with Irene Castle, and she became a consultant on the film – a very pushy and demanding one to the point that studio production head Pan Berman had to refocus her interests elsewhere in order to usher her away from the set. While Irene had few complaints about Fred, she was constantly upset with Ginger over everything from clothes to hair. Castle even claims that Fred begged her not to let Ginger play the role, which seems ridiculous. In fact, before Fred and Ginger were cast, Castle wanted a nationwide search to find someone to play her, much like the search for Scarlett O’Hara, even though the Castles’ story was bought specifically for Fred and Ginger.
The only valid complaint that Castle levied is that several key people in the Castles’ lives who were African American were missing from the story or incorrectly cast, as in the case of their family servant, played by Walter Brennan.
As for the numbers, they are first-rate. “The Yama Yama Man” is a Ginger solo dressed as a clown in the style of Bessie McCoy, an actress who first performed it. At this point, Irene is a breathless amateur, excited to be performing before Vernon, whom she thinks is a big-time stage talent. Thanks to Ginger, it’s simple and charming.
“By the Light of the Silvery Moon” gives Fred his solo. It’s a hybrid of Vernon Castle’s style and Fred’s own distinctive movement, and as usual it is hypnotic. “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” is based on a dance of the era, the Texas Tommy, and it’s a breezy duet that the two perform as an audition number. The dance moves in circles, both across the stage and within the steps. My favorite is when she pushes her legs together, and while he turns her around he steps over her. It’s acrobatic yet smoothly done, all exuberantly presented.
“Too Much Mustard” presents the famous Castle Walk. As Irene Castle explains, “Instead of coming down on the beat as everybody else did, we went up. The result was a step almost like a skip, peculiar looking I’m sure, but exhilarating and fun to do.” I’m not sure anyone could have reproduced this as convincingly as Fred and Ginger. Instead of it feeling like an old dance, they present it freshly, even though it’s not a style that audiences were accustomed to seeing from the pair.
What I love about this film is a sequence that presents several dances, representing the Castles’ rise to stardom, including the tango and a magnificent dance called the Maxixe. Finally, in a marvelous bit, the Castles are dancing across a large map of the U.S., whirling about and, after passing major cities, other dancing couples materialize to demonstrate their impact.
The supporting cast is first-rate. Edna Mae Oliver and Brennan play roles that aren’t too far from their usual supporting personalities – and that’s just fine. Lew Fields is played by … Lew Fields. Fields was the producer and star of one of Vernon’s first shows.
If there is one flaw in “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (SPOILER ALERT), it comes during the latter half hour. It seems like the story becomes nothing more than a death watch, as Vernon died in a training plane crash during his World War I service. Every time the couple separates, it’s presented like “the one,” until it finally happens.
Otherwise, “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” is an entertaining treat. Ginger wrote in her autobiography that both she and Fred knew this was their last pairing together, as did everyone at the studio. She said visitors were frequent on the set to watch them perform. And the movie ends with the two of them together, slowly fading away, a fitting end to a nine-film series. Except it wasn’t the end. They would reunite one final time a decade later.