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Sky’s the Limit, The (DVD Review)

16 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$17.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Fred Astaire, Joan Leslie, Robert Benchley, Robert Ryan.

By itself, Fred Astaire’s supporting actor Oscar nomination for 1974’s The Towering Inferno rates fairly high on the gonzo meter — but not when we’re looking, as we are right now, at a screen premise where this most dapper of all screen history’s dancers is cast as a nationally famous bomber pilot first seen shooting down Japanese planes in World War II. We’re also looking at, by my count, the next-to-last Astaire musical to make its DVD premiere, leaving only 1950’s Let’s Dance remaining (though many years ago, Paramount issued it on both VHS and laserdisc).  

Like that Betty Hutton co-starrer, this is a minor affair with compensations — in this case, a cute leading lady (Joan Leslie) and the surprise appearance of two introduced pop tune standards by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer from what is otherwise not a particularly voluminous score. Most movies could take their place in history for having simply introduced “My Shining Hour,” a song very much admired by Mel Torme and also the jumping-off point for Our Shining Hour, a pleasing Sammy Davis Jr.-Count Basie album from the mid-1960s. By the number of times it’s reprised throughout here (Leslie and Astaire have separate vocals of it just for starters), it appears that “Hour” was the tune intended to be the movie’s main event. But near the end, Astaire performs a solo number of what turned out to become the greatest saloon song of all time: “One for My Baby” (followed by one more for the road) — which, though Frank Sinatra owns it, has been a perennial shot-glass lament for all kinds of singers for almost 70 years.

Astaire, it has been said, introduced more musical standards to the screen than any other vocal artist, though this is a case where the vocal part of Baby is subordinate to his dancing — and besides, tying one on while lamenting a lost love to a bartender doesn’t quite play to Fred’s vocal strengths. But again, the number comes near the end, just before the guy he’s playing flies off to incinerate a few cities. The bulk of the picture has to do with furloughed Fred striving to keep his true identity away from a pert photographer he is trying to woo without any fuss — even to the point of renting a spare room in her apartment building so that he can be there when she comes downstairs each morning for coffee in a common kitchen.

Before appearing in this studio loan-out to RKO, Leslie already had several still memorable Warner Bros. releases to her credit, including High Sierra, Sergeant York, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Hard Way. And although she could easily have passed for older, the actress was even by now only 18 — and thus not far removed from getting someone Astaire’s age sent up the river if the two of them had amorously shared even a shining minute (for the road). On the other hand, Astaire was cast opposite the much younger Leslie Caron and Audrey Hepburn as late as the mid-1950s, and danced romantically with Barrie Chase when she was about 25 on Emmy-winning TV specials even after that. What’s more, a Fred-Joan pairing doesn’t seem particularly outlandish here because Leslie is also being pursued by her boss, who’s played by a then 53-year-old Robert Benchley (who looks older), just a couple years before he died.

Somewhere around the two-thirds mark, the movie goes into time-out mode for a Benchley monologue routine that plays like one of the humorist’s prized MGM shorts from the ’30s. What works beautifully in the former context simply stops the picture here, and some of the Astaire-Leslie goodwill established in the movie’s opening half is diminished. What we’re left with is a diminutive and rather odd trifle with sporadic appeal — a movie that was sandwiched between, on one end, big Astaire productions such as Holiday Inn and You Were Never Lovelier, and Yolanda and the Thief, Ziegfeld Follies, and Blue Skies (these three in Technicolor) on the other. Just when you wonder what else can materialize, there’s the unexpected reappearance after a brief show-up at the beginning of Robert Ryan as one of Astaire’s pilot buddies. Within four years, Ryan would be one of the kings of RKO noir and the greatest actor ever at playing sociopaths, racists, anti-Semites and the like. He doesn’t sing or dance here, but it’s still disorienting to see him as one of the guys.

About the Author: Mike Clark

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