A Damsel in Distress


1h 38m 1937
A Damsel in Distress

Brief Synopsis

An American dancer on vacation in England falls for a sheltered noblewoman.

Photos & Videos

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Romance
Musical
Release Date
Nov 19, 1937
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel A Damsel in Distress by P. G. Wodehouse (New York, 1919).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 38m
Sound
Mono (RCA Victor System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
11 reels

Synopsis

The romantic life of Lady Alyce Marshmorton is the subject of much gossip and wagers among the servants of Totleigh Castle, the Marshmorton estate. To win a marriage "pool" that has been instigated by head domestic Beggs, Albert, a young servant of the estate, forges a love letter from Alyce to American musical comedy star Jerry Halliday, whom she had met briefly in a London taxicab. Jerry, believing the letter's declarations of love, leaves London with his publicist, George, and dim-witted stenographer, Gracie, to join Alyce at Totleigh Castle. However, Alyce, who actually loves an American skier and consequently is being guarded closely by her disapproving, stuffy aunt, Lady Caroline, is confused by Jerry's arrival and sudden devotion to her romantic "cause." Aided by Alyce's equally confused but kindhearted father, Lord John, Jerry woos Alyce at a carnival and unwittingly wins her heart away from his absentee rival. At this point, Beggs, who had put his money on Reggie, Lady Caroline's simple-minded stepson, senses defeat and forces Albert to exchange betting sheets with him. In retaliation for Beggs's subterfuge, Albert turns Alyce against Jerry by showing her a gossip column about Jerry's love life, which had been concocted by an overzealous George. Hurt by the column, Alyce informs Jerry at a Marshmorton ball that she no longer loves him. Once again, Lord John provides the young lovers with counsel and encouragement, and just as Reggie proposes to Gracie, Jerry finally convinces Alyce of his own sincere love and desire for marriage.

Film Details

Genre
Comedy
Romance
Musical
Release Date
Nov 19, 1937
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Distribution Company
RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel A Damsel in Distress by P. G. Wodehouse (New York, 1919).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 38m
Sound
Mono (RCA Victor System)
Color
Black and White
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.37 : 1
Film Length
11 reels

Award Wins

Best Dance Direction

1937

Award Nominations

Best Art Direction

1937

Articles

A Damsel in Distress


"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
A Damsel In Distress

A Damsel in Distress

"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

Quotes

Trivia

Ruby Keeler, 'Lombard, Carole' and British musical star 'Matthews, Jessie' were each approached to play the role of Alyce, but were unavailable, and it went to Joan Fontaine.

When Fred Astaire learned that Gracie Allen was nervous about dancing with him onstage, Astaire reportedly made a point of tripping and falling in front of her, the first day on the set to put her at her ease.

Notes

P. J. Wodehouse's novel was first serialized in The Saturday Evening Post. A stage version of the story was written in 1928, but information concerning its production has not been found. A Damsel in Distress was the first RKO film that Fred Astaire made without Ginger Rogers. In his autobiography, Astaire notes that, because both he and Rogers were growing restless with their teaming, they agreed after Shall We Dance to pursue separate projects. (Rogers then appeared in RKO's 1937 film Stage Door.) According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, producer Pandro S. Berman purchased the rights to Wodehouse's novel in November 1936 as a vehicle for Astaire. RKO borrowed George Burns and Gracie Allen from Paramount for the production. Hermes Pan won an Academy Award for his choreography on the picture's "fun house" sequence, which was performed in the carnival setting by Astaire, Burns and Allen. In addition to his singing and dancing, Astaire performs a long drum solo in the film. Hollywood Reporter production charts add Mickey Rooney to the cast, but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Composer George Gershwin died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937, two months before production on the film began.
       Modern sources add the following information about the production: George Gershwin convinced Berman, with whom he had worked on Shall We Dance, to buy the rights to Wodehouse's story. Berman then used the novel's purchase to persuade the Gershwin brothers to come to Hollywood to write music for the film. Without benefit of a screenplay, the Gershwins completed their songs by May 1937, apparently using the 1928 stage version as their dramatic blueprint. The brothers wrote nine songs for the production, one of which, "Pay Some Attention to Me," was not used in the final film. Ira Gershwin's lyrics to another song, "Put Me to the Test," were dropped, but the song's music was used in one of the dance numbers. (In 1944, the lyrics were used in the Columbia film Cover Girl, set to music revised by Jerome Kern.) Determined that at least some of his music would be performed by proficient singers (which was not the case in Shall We Dance), George Gershwin composed two songs, "The Jolly Tar and the Milkmaid" and "Sing of Spring," for madrigal singers. The script was finished on September 25, 1937. To accomodate the specific needs of the film, Wodehouse's novel was altered in two significant ways. In the novel, "Jerry" and "Alyce" do not get together until the end of the story; the film romance, however, proceeds in a standard boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back format. And in a conscious contrast to the familiar Astaire-Rogers' plots, "Jerry" does not fall in love with "Alyce" at first sight, as he does in the novel.
       One scene in the script, in which "Jerry" forces his way into "Alyce's" sitting room, caused censors much concern. To keep the scene intact, RKO had to make clear that the sitting room was not "Alyce's" bedroom and that the door to the hallway was unlocked. At Astaire's urging, Victor Baravalle was hired as music director, and arranger Robert Bennett, who had worked on Shall We Dance and Swing Time, also was brought on board. (Hal Borne, Astaire's rehearsal pianist, most likely worked on the production as well.) Before Joan Fontaine was selected for the role of Alyce, Ruby Keeler and British musical star Jessie Matthews were considered for the part. Although sufficiently "English" to play the role, Fontaine was not trained as a dancer, except for a few tap lessons she had received from Ruby Keeler's brother, and her one number with Astaire had to be carefully choreographed and filmed to hide her lack of expertise.
       Burns and Allen were paid $10,000 a week for the picture. In his autobiography, Astaire states that "George [Burns] brought along an idea for a dance in which we three would use whisk brooms for props, whisking in rhythm, brushing each other off." In one of his autobiographical books, Burns claims that he had seen the routine executed many years before by the vaudeville team of Evans & Evans and, after buying the rights to it from the surviving Evans, auditioned it for Astaire with Evans and Allen. Hermes Pan's "fun house" number was inspired by a visit to the Ocean Park amusement center in Santa Monica. Impressed with the performance of vaudeville dancer Joe Niemeyer, who appears in one scene as an imitator of "Jerry," Astaire hired him as a stand-in, a job that he continued in for twenty years. According to Fontaine's autobiography, much of the film was shot at the RKO ranch. A Damsel in Distress was the first Astaire movie to lose money at the box office. Modern sources add Pearl Amatore and Jac George (Madrigal singers) and Monte Blue to the cast. Modern sources also list Ralph Brooks's role as (Sightseer). Wodehouse's novel was first filmed in 1920 by Albert Capellani Productions. June Caprice starred in and George Archainbaud directed this silent version (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1911-20; F1.0890).

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1937

Released in United States March 1977

Released in United States on Video February 1988

Re-released in United States on Video April 20, 1994

Formerly distributed by Republic Pictures Home Video.

Released in United States 1937

Released in United States on Video February 1988

Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Mighty Musical Movie Marathon) March 9-27, 1977.)

Re-released in United States on Video April 20, 1994