Next up from 1939, we have the final Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers pairing for the RKO studio, The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle, also starring Walter Brennan.
The movie starts in 1911, as Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) is trying to win the affections of the leading lady in the show he is appearing in. When he tries to follow her to the beach in New Rochelle, he ends up meeting Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) when they both try to save a drowning dog. Irene, an aspiring actress herself, discovers that Vernon can dance. However, she is disappointed when she comes to the show that he is in and finds out that he is only a comic actor. They start courting, and they also start rehearsing a dance routine together in the hope of being in the show. After they get married, however, they are turned down. They are offered a job over in France, but they learn too late that it was only for Vernon to do his comedy routine again. They meet an agent, Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver), who gets them a job at a restaurant. Once they dance there, they become quite famous, resulting in a lot of people doing ballroom dancing their way. After a while, they decide to retire, but then World War I starts up, and Vernon, who hails from England, joins the Royal Flying Corps, while Irene, who had tried to keep him from it, has to keep going on.
While considered a musical by some, I would say that it barely qualifies. I know one complaint I have heard, particularly aimed at a lot of the early film musicals, is when the movies just stop to have the stars do a song and/or dance that doesn’t advance the story or work for the character. But this movie doesn’t really do that. Being that it is a biopic about a pair of ballroom dancers, and makes use of a lot of period music (with maybe ONE new song written for the movie), I would say that doesn’t quite apply here.
I do enjoy a lot of the music, but there are two moments that stand out for me more than the others. First, I would say I enjoy Fred’s tap solo to the instrumental version of the song “By The Light Of The Silvery Moon.” He does it while is waiting for the train leaving New Rochelle, and it is the moment that Ginger’s Irene discovers that Vernon can dance. I have heard this music many times, both before my first viewing of this movie, and since, but, whenever the song gets stuck in my head, I inevitably have this version replace it, and I can see quite clearly Fred dancing to it. Obviously, I might get different mileage out of it than others, but it is still a wonderful song. The other one is a waltz medley near the end of the movie, that includes “Missouri Waltz,” “Cecile Waltz” and “Nights Of Gladness,” according to IMDB (although I don’t know the music enough to know in what order). I really enjoy the orchestration here, and it just gets me every time. The dancing is simple, but really effective in combination with the music. Again, these are some of the standout moments for me.
As you can tell, I really like this movie. I know it’s not perfect historically, with Walter being played by Walter Brennan, a white man, when the real Walter was black (and so were the orchestras providing music for the Castles). As far as I know, this was done for Southern audiences, in an attempt to get those audiences to come to the movie. I disagree with it completely (especially since Gone With The Wind from that same year was really successful), although I can partially see where they were coming from, as the Astaire/ Rogers movies weren’t doing as well by this time (a combination of the fact that this was their ninth movie together since 1933 and the fact that Fred had been labeled as “box office poison” after his solo attempt, A Damsel In Distress, had failed, with Carefree also struggling). Still, I don’t like it, although I think Walter Brennan still gives a wonderful performance, as seems to be the case in those of his films that I have seen. Other incorrect historical problems couldn’t be helped by the filmmakers, as they had to deal with the strict censors of the time. Still, I would recommend this movie, especially to those interested somewhat in the history of ballroom dancing!
The movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 33 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
*ranked #4 in Top 10 Movies Watched In 2019
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Walter Brennan – Nice Girl? (1941)
Marge Champion – Show Boat (1951)
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