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The last, and least representative, of the musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made for RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) is unusual in that the pair play real-life characters in a down-to-earth story that even includes the death of the Astaire character. To soften this ending, the team of screenwriters (which included Oscar Hammerstein II) concluded the movie with a dream sequence in which the dancing lovers waltz through heaven.
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, based on the memoirs of Irene Castle, tells of her great love for her husband and ballroom dancing partner, Vernon. After achieving spectacular success in the days preceding World War I, the couple sees their happy, glamorous life torn apart when Vernon is called to action and killed in a training accident. Before that happens, Astaire and Rogers have a chance to perform a dozen or so numbers including "The Yama Yama Man," "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee," "Too Much Mustard" and a "medley montage" with Fred and Ginger literally dancing across a map of the U.S. as they demonstrate how the Castles launched a nationwide dance craze with the Tango, the Polk and the Maxixe.
Astaire, who first saw the Castles dance in a silent movie when he was only 14, idolized Vernon Castle and was thrilled to play the dancer onscreen. The fact that Castle was British created no problem for the American Astaire since audiences never heard Castle speak. Irene Castle, still only 46, served for a time as technical consultant on the RKO production, with approval of script, cast, direction and costumes. "I'm sure they were rather I had been dead," she told a reporter. "They even waited two years for me to kick off, I suspect, after I had sold them the story." Out of deference to the Castles, Astaire and choreographer Hermes Pan were content to stage the dances in the Castle manner, with limited creative input of their own.
Rogers, however, chafed at what she saw as interference by Mrs. Castle, beginning with the suggestion that Rogers dye her hair brunette to resemble her more closely -- then to cut it into the famous "Castle bob." Mrs. Castle, who had wanted RKO to mount a Scarlett O'Hara-type search to find an actress to play her, had never liked the idea of Rogers stepping into her shoes. "I felt that Irene Castle looked down her nose at me," Rogers wrote in her autobiography, Ginger: My Story. "I certainly wasn't going to have my hair bobbed for this lady, when I could easily pin it up to look more in the period of that day."
A fashion trendsetter in her day, Mrs. Castle was credited as Rogers' costume designer and wanted to dictate every detail of the star's clothes, right down to the ribbons on her shoes. Rogers balked, maintaining that she wasn't "an Irene Castle clone." Because she was passionately involved in animal rights, Mrs. Castle soon abandoned the production to join a campaign opposing vivisection -- much to the relief of director Hank Potter, who had been faced with resolving the Rogers-Castle disputes.
Although it wasn't definite at the time that this would be the last teaming at RKO for Astaire and Rogers (and they would be reunited a decade later at MGM for The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949), the two stars and their coworkers approached the filming of the final number, "The Missouri Waltz," with a certain sadness. "People were coming from far and wide, even nearby Paramount and Columbia, along with employees from the front office and other stages in production, to see this last dance," Rogers wrote. "It even got to me -- I sort of teared up as we were dancing our last waltz together."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman (Executive Producer), George Haight
Director: H.C. Potter
Screenplay: Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Yost, Richard Sherman, from memoirs My Husband and My Memories by Irene Castle
Cinematography: Robert De Grasse
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Original Music: Shelton Brooks, Con Conrad, Harry Ruby, Herman Ruby
Editing: William Hamilton
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett, Irene Castle, Edward Stevenson
Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Vernon Castle), Ginger Rogers (Irene Castle), Edna May Oliver (Maggie Sutton), Walter Brennan (Walter Ash), Lew Fields (Himself), Etienne Girardot (Papa Aubel), Marge Belcher (later Champion as Irene's girlfriend).
BW-94m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe