“A Damsel In Distress” (1937)

Blowhard, Esq. writes:

damseldistress1937

A musical comedy co-written by P.G. Wodehouse, with music and lyrics by the Gershwins, and starring Fred Astaire is pretty much essential viewing for me. Although the film is usually regarded as one of Astaire’s post-Rogers flubs, I enjoyed it despite its weaknesses. Here Astaire, playing an American movie star in England, is paired with a young Joan Fontaine, who couldn’t dance and later noted that the film set her career back a number of years. In Fontaine’s one dance number director George Stevens’ camera tracks her through a wooded glen so she’s mercifully obscured by the occasional tree. Yes, her dancing isn’t that great and her acting isn’t spectacular either, but it’s hard to fault her given that she was simultaneously in over her head and the story doesn’t give her character much to do.

As for the script, it’s not a great Wodehouse vehicle, but it’s a good one. Adapting one of his earliest novels, we’re firmly in his milieu: mistaken identities, grand English estates (Totleigh Castle presided over by Lord Marshmoreton), day trips to London, country carnivals, awful aunts, fickle yet winsome ladies, capable butlers, and jazz-playing bounders. Although it has all the trappings of a Wodehouse classic, except for a few flashes the script lacks his signature absurd dialogue that’s simultaneously sophisticated and blissfully clueless.

Perhaps to make up for the verbal comedy deficit, the film brings in George Burns and Gracie Allen as Astaire’s press agent and secretary. The movie then is an odd, uneven mixture of British farce and Brooklyn vaudeville with Allen spinning out her ditzy malapropisms and Burns trying to keep her in line as the exasperated straight man. But hey, who knew Burns and Allen were also good dancers? They acquit themselves quite well in two numbers alongside Astaire. The dancing is filmed in Astaire’s preferred style — bodies filmed from head to toe with little or no cutting, thereby giving the performances a tension and excitement that contemporary dance editing lacks.

Even if Astaire was on the downslope of his career, he’s still amazing to watch. The last time I was at a baseball game, it was hypnotic watching the players warm-up — just throwing the ball to one another, their movements were so confident and sure. Astaire merely walking around a chair or hopping on a table looks effortless, light, and graceful. It’s the kind of movement that can’t be faked, that only comes from a trained dancer who has put in his 10,000 hours. Combined with Wodehouse’s silliness and songs by the Gershwins, you can’t help but be transported.

Here’s Astaire’s closing number, “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” which prefigures Stomp.

A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS is available for rental on Amazon Prime.

About Blowhard, Esq.

Amateur, dilettante, wannabe.
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5 Responses to “A Damsel In Distress” (1937)

  1. Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

    Is this the one with the scene in the amusement park? That’s about all I remember.

    Like

  2. lloydville says:

    Good piece — must revisit this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. peterike2 says:

    Astaire was terrific as a singer, too. This description from the rock critic Robert Christgau is very apt.

    “Pushing 40, Astaire still sounds boyish–his perilously slender voice embodies the naive sophistication he invented, and from it he extracts a wealth of true notes and meanings. For all his commitment to pitch, there’s something very rock and roll about the way he transcends his disadvantages with smarts, personality, and rhythmic savvy. No wonder Berlin and the rest preferred him to the orotund competition–with no tonsils to show off, he devotes himself to the songs, and he owns them.”

    Well said. And it’s embodied here (to say nothing of the amazing tap bit at the end).

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Faze says:

    Agree with you that Damsel in Distress suffers from inconsistentcies in tone and pacing. But its impossible not to enjoy — even the incongruous Burns and Allen. We forget that Gracie Allen was a sexy young thing in her day. In one her movies from this era (wish I could remember which) she steps out of a car in the countryside and performs an Irish step dance. It’s a transcendent moment that stops the otherwise routine comedy in its tracks.

    Liked by 1 person

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