The Sky's the Limit
In The Sky's the Limit (1943), Astaire gave audiences a different type of character from the one they'd seen before, perhaps in an attempt to distance himself from the earlier films. John Mueller, in his book Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, calls it "Fred Astaire's dark comedy". In it, he plays a Flying Tigers ace pilot who is "awaiting reassignment, and, in order to avoid war talk, he changes to civilian clothes. Prowling [New York City], he soon encounters an attractive magazine photographer, played by Joan Leslie. He pursues her, but things quickly get out of hand: they fall in love and become engaged when she proposes. Knowing he will soon have to return to the war, Astaire declines, on bitter reflection, that he is unwilling to commit himself to anything permanent, and he breaks off with Leslie. However, there is a reconciliation at the end, Just as he is about to fly back to the war."
Rather than pursue the reluctant girl and marry her, Astaire makes it as clear as he could in a 1940's movie that something else is on his mind and it isn't marriage. The usually sunny Astaire disposition is replaced by cynicism and rage as expressed in the dance number "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)" (a song that Astaire later called "one of the best pieces of material that was written especially for me") in which he proceeds to get drunk and then smashes up the bar in his anger at both having fallen in love with Leslie and at the war itself. Ironically, when the film premiered, RKO received a letter from the owner of a theater in San Francisco asking for the scene to be cut on the grounds that it was "unpatriotic" to waste all that glass during wartime, a sentiment that was shared by several members of the preview audience. As Mueller writes, "As it happened, real glass was used in the scene, though, as much for economy as for patriotism, RKO purchased factory rejects for the occasion. Ironically, in peacetime, breakaway glass made of sugar would have been used, but sugar was rationed in 1943. Astaire cut his shins and ankles doing the number, and the dance was dangerous in other ways as well: the bar was slippery, and the choreography called for Astaire to slide and sway his way along the edge. Two nurses stood by throughout the filming of the number, as well as Astaire's concerned wife." The number took two and a half days to shoot and the prop men needed a half an hour just to reset the glasses for another take.
Co-starring with the forty-four-year-old Astaire was eighteen-year-old Joan Leslie, who had already starred opposite much older men like James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), Gary Cooper in Sergeant York and Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (both in 1941). Because she turned eighteen during filming, she was obligated by California law to continue attending the studio school until her birthday, prompting Astaire to remark "Gosh, the older I get, the younger they get."
In The Sky's the Limit Leslie introduced the song "My Shining Hour" although she was dubbed by singer Sally Sweetland, who would dub Leslie in at least seven films, including Yankee Doodle Dandy, Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) and Rhapsody in Blue (1945).
Audience reaction to The Sky's the Limit was mixed. Preview audiences reacted favorably although some seemed to be confused over whether it was a "war" film or not. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times dismissed the songs as "few and undistinguished: one number My Shining Hour is fair." He did not have kind words for Astaire, writing "Fred Astaire is a very thin fellow, but why emphasize it in a film so thin that daylight shows all around him just daylight and Joan Leslie, that's all" and "Mr. Astaire does one solo which is good but a bit woebegone and the rest of the time he acts foolish and rather looks it in his quick-fitting clothes." Leslie fared no better "Mr. Astaire and Miss Leslie, in two dances, work hard for slight effect. For the simple fact is that Miss Leslie, while a gracious and neatly attractive miss, is not a Ginger Rogers when she tries to make with her feet."
Time and record sales have proved Mr. Crowther wrong on at least one point: the songs from the film, "One for My Baby (and One More For the Road)" and "My Shining Hour" with music by Harold Arlen and lyrics by Johnny Mercer, would become standards. "One for My Baby (and One More For the Road)" would be a big hit for Frank Sinatra in the 1950s and recorded by no less than Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, and Rosemary Clooney among many others. "My Shining Hour" was not only nominated for an Academy Award but became a number one hit a few months after The Sky's the Limit was released.
Producer: David Hempstead, Sherman Todd
Director: Edward H. Griffith
Screenplay: Frank Fenton, Lynn Root
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Film Editing: Roland Gross
Art Direction: Carroll Clark, Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Fred Astaire (Fred Atwell), Joan Leslie (Joan Manion), Robert Benchley (Phil Harriman), Robert Ryan (Reginald Fenton), Elizabeth Patterson (Mrs. Fisher), Marjorie Gateson (Canteen Hostess).
BW-90m. Closed captioning.
by Lorraine LoBianco
Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films by John Mueller
The Internet Movie Database