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Damsel in Distress, A (DVD Review)

18 Jul, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine.

Except for Fred Astaire’s one-shot 1933 specialty number when making his screen debut in producer David O. Selznick’s all-star Dancing Lady at MGM, all but one of the dance deity’s movies from the 1930s were opposite Ginger Rogers at RKO. The lone exception, an RKO as well, is among the most surprisingly overdue releases in all of the DVD nation, given Astaire’s never-waned popularity and the movie’s on-paper pedigree.

Damsel selling points: a George and Ira Gershwin score that introduced at least two standards; a screenplay co-written and adapted from a novel by famed comic novelist P.G. Wodehouse (Anything Goes); George Stevens direction from early in his career — but after what the future two-time Oscar winner had already made what is usually cited as the greatest of the Astaire-Rogers teamings (the previous year’s Swing Time); and a wild amusement park fun house production number that won an Oscar for perennial Astaire choreographer Hermes Pan in the short-lived “dance direction” category.

There are also some debits charged to one of the relatively few Astaire movies to lose money at the box office. These include a haphazard structure that leads to a surprising number of dead spots, especially early on — and the rather rigid participation of the young (19) Joan Fontaine — who, though undeniably lovely, couldn’t dance much. (Ironically, though, her “Things Are Looking Up” number with Astaire is one of the movie’s highlights). Not that the transparently American Rogers could have ever been cast as a British castle dweller who seems more anxious than necessary at her age to be finding a husband. Rogers would have been chewing gum or something.

Astaire plays a professional American dancer and minor celebrity who lands in the middle of Fontaine’s love complications — one who’s managed by a pair of press agents played by George Burns and malapropism-prone Gracie Allen, who has never ceased being funny to me since their earliest days (which were my earliest days) of their CBS-TV show. Allen is constantly butchering logic here — or, more precisely, inventing her own. And though her banter with Burns is delightful by itself, it does contribute to a talk-heavy atmosphere that doesn’t mesh too well with the laborious amount of time it takes to establish Fontaine’s castle life (lots of top-heavy comedy involving servants here).

Early in the movie, on the streets of a foggy London town, Astaire performs “I Can’t Be Bothered Now” — the one time the dance program bows to unencumbered Astaire tap. But not until nearly the 40-minute mark is there a second number (Astaire-Burns-Allen, for comic effect) — which is soon followed by the funhouse sequence. This makes for an odd rhythm, to be sure, though the latter number hasn’t lost anything. Oddly, the two musical all-timers for which the movie is best known come late in the picture, which helps accelerate the pace in the second half. “A Foggy Day” is an unfussy Astaire solo (classy and effective), but “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is all but thrown away by a chorus in a party sequence. Given how few years in recent decades there has been a truly memorable Oscar nominee for best song, can you believe there was a time in the movies when a tune of such stature could be simply tossed off? It wouldn’t last forever, on any level. By the time Damsel opened in November of ’37, George Gershwin had been dead four months.

A spotty curio with big league compensations, Damsel merits at least mild affection — not too arguably superior to the lesser Astaire-Rogers movies, which include the three that would follow (two at RKO and a reunion many years later at MGM). By my accounting, its belated “on-demand” release means that the only two Astaire dancing features not yet on DVD are 1943’s The Sky’s the Limit (the RKO that introduced the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer heavy lifter “One for My Baby” and the underappreciated “My Shining Hour”) and 1950’s unambiguously titled Betty Hutton teaming at Paramount: Let’s Dance.

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