A Damsel in Distress
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"I wasn't going to lose a chance to work with Fred Astaire. Look what it did for Ginger Rogers." - George Burns
After seven musicals in three and a half years, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers decided in 1937 to take a break. Swing Time (1936) and Shall We Dance (1937), their previous collaborations, had taken slight dips at the box office, and Astaire, Rogers and RKO all agreed, amicably, that a temporary break might do some good. As Astaire later wrote, "The signs that the cycle was running out its course were beginning to show. I asked for, and all hands at the studio agreed to, a picture away from Ginger, to keep us from falling into a rut. Ginger was for it, too. We had not announced any permanent dissolution. In fact, we had our next [picture] all planned to follow this slight intermission." That was Carefree, to be shot in 1938.
And so, on October 8, 1937, moviegoers could see Ginger Rogers in the actress-laden Stage Door, while a month later came Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress. Adapted from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse (who also served as one of the screenwriters), Damsel is the story of an American musical star (Astaire) who on a visit to England falls in love with Lady Alyce (Joan Fontaine). Alyce lives on a manor with her stuffy family and in fact is virtually trapped there until Astaire comes to the rescue.
Unfortunately, Astaire could not rescue the movie. Damsel was his first box-office flop, a strange outcome considering the picture had so much going for it: Astaire at his peak, the zany antics of George Burns and Gracie Allen, a witty P.G. Wodehouse story, and absolutely superb Gershwin songs. On the other hand, the film paired Astaire with young Joan Fontaine, whose limitations as a dancer were painfully obvious.
The idea of making A Damsel in Distress began with George Gershwin. He urged RKO producer Pandro Berman to acquire the rights to the book (previously mounted as a 1919 film and a 1928 play), and Berman in turn used the property as a way of luring George and Ira Gershwin to Hollywood. The Gershwins completed the songs by May 1937 even though the script was barely written by that point. They wrote nine songs. Eight were used, including "A Foggy Day," "Nice Work If You Can Get It," "Things Are Looking Up" and "I Can't Be Bothered Now." There was also a comic madrigal, "The Jolly Tar and the Milkmaid." In a letter to a friend, George Gershwin explained that he worked the madrigal into Damsel because he was frustrated that Astaire and Rogers were singing all the songs in their previous films. "The amount of singing one can stand of these two is quite limited," he wrote. "In our next picture we have protected ourselves in that we have a Madrigal group of singers and have written two English-type ballads for background music so the audience will get a chance to hear some singing besides the crooning of the stars." George Gershwin never heard the finished numbers or saw the finished film. He died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937. The film was shot in the fall and released in late November.
Joan Fontaine was 19 when she made Damsel, and she was not a dancer. RKO (and Astaire) thought this was good because it wouldn't invite comparisons between her dancing and Rogers'. That's probably the kindest assessment one could give. In her number with Astaire, "Things Are Looking Up," director George Stevens and choreographer Hermes Pan were forced to cover up her dancing problems by placing trees between her and the camera. Also, Fontaine performed very simple steps while Astaire danced circles around her. Pan described her as "terrified." Fontaine's career would soon soar into the stratosphere with Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but she later told Astaire that this film set her career back four years.
The inspired nonsense of George Burns and Gracie Allen, however, is one of the great pleasures of A Damsel in Distress. On loan from Paramount, the duo essentially replaced Astaire's usual comic supporters Eric Blore, Edward Everett Horton and Helen Broderick. Both were fine dancers, especially Allen. One number, "Put Me to the Test," in which Burns, Allen and Astaire are all armed with whisk brooms, was even designed by Burns. Remembering a show-stopping vaudeville act which used whisk brooms, he found its originator and bought the rights to the routine. He showed it to Astaire, who loved it, and Burns taught it to him. Joked Burns: "He picked it up real fast, that boy's a pretty good dancer."
The fun house number "Stiff Upper Lip" is even more inventive, with distorting mirrors, treadmills, and revolving staircases galore. At one point Allen jogs on a turning disc - a nod to the trademark exit Fred and his sister Adele had used in their vaudeville act years earlier. Hermes Pan's choreography of "Stiff Upper Lip" won the Oscar® for Best Dance Direction (a category that existed for three years). The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction.
Burns and Allen told jokes on their radio show for weeks about working on Damsel. When asked how she rated herself as a dancer, Allen replied, "I'd say I'm between the world's best dancer and the world's worst cluck. I have to dance between Fred Astaire and George."
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: P.G. Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano, S.K. Lauren
Cinematography: Joseph H. August
Film Editing: Henry Berman
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Robert Russell Bennett, George Parrish
Cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Halliday), George Burns (George), Gracie Allen (Gracie), Joan Fontaine (Lady Alyce Marshmorton), Reginald Gardiner (Keggs), Ray Noble (Reggie).
BW-101m. Closed Captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold