A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS
(director: George Stevens; screenwriters: from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse/P.G. Wodehouse/Ernest Pagano/S.K. Lauren; cinematographer: Joseph H. August; editor: Henry Berman; music: Robert Russell Bennett/George Parrish; cast: Fred Astaire (Jerry Halliday), George Burns (George), Gracie Allen (Gracie), Joan Fontaine (Lady Alyce Marshmorton), Constance Collier (Lady Caroline), Reginald Gardiner (Keggs), Ray Noble (Reggie), Montagu Love (Lord John Marshmorton), Harry Watson (Albert); Runtime: 100; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Pandro S. Berman; RKO; 1937)
“An Astaire dancing pic without Rogers is like a ham on rye without mustard.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
An Astaire dancing pic without Rogers is like a ham on rye without mustard. The attractive 19-year-old Joan Fontaine, a non-dancer, replaces Rogers after both Swing Time and Shall We Dance? slipped in the box office and the studio, Astaire and Rogers all agreed on a temporary respite in their partnership. George Burns & Grace Allen are around for comic relief, doing their usual shtick of dumb Gracie routines ad nauseam. The musical comedy is adapted from the novel by P.G. Wodehouse, who also turns in the script with Ernest Pagano and S.K. Lauren. Though the plot is slight and quite annoying with its fake Anglican pretenses, it nevertheless has its endearing moments featuring the music & lyrics from George & Ira Gershwin. There were eight of their songs including “A Foggy Day,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “Things Are Looking Up” and “I Can’t Be Bothered Now.” George Stevens (“Swing Time”/”Vivacious Lady”/”Something to Live For”) directs; unfortunately he has no knack for spontaneous comedy and no particular skills for directing a musical. The creative fun house dance sequence called “Stiff Upper Lip,” performed by Astaire, Burns & Allen, earned Hermes Pan’s choreography an Oscar for Best Dance Direction; in addition the trio successfully danced together in a number with them all holding whisk brooms called “Put Me to the Test.” The film was also nominated for Best Art Direction.
At palatial Totleigh Castle, the staff are taking bets on who is to be the future husband of young Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine). To win a marriage “pool” that has been suggested by head domestic Keggs (Reginald Gardiner), Albert (Harry Watson), the youngest servant of the estate, draws no name and convinces Keggs to let him take Mr. X–standing for the field. Albert then forges a love letter from Alyce to American musical comedy star Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire), whom she had accidentally met briefly in a London taxicab. Jerry is an American dancer living in London, who has received unwanted publicity due to his publicist’s campaign to paint him as a lovelorn heart-breaker–which has him running away from the girls chasing him. The publicist George (George Burns), his screwball dim-witted secretary Gracie (Gracie Allen) and Jerry believe the love letter and trek to the castle to meet Lady Alyce only to discover Alyce is in love with an absentee American skier she met on a holiday in Switzerland. Alyce’s kindhearted father Lord John Marshmorton (Montagu Love) is confused about the identity of her lover and mistakes Jerry for the skier and gives him his blessing to pursue his daughter. At the fairgrounds Jerry woos Alyce but gets his face slapped when he kisses her. Keggs, who had bet on Reggie, Lady Caroline’s simple-minded stepson, forces Albert to exchange betting sheets with him when he realizes Reggie is not the man. In retaliation, Albert turns Alyce against Jerry by showing her a newspaper headline about Jerry’s conquest of her, which had been tipped to the papers by an overzealous George. An irate Alyce now maintains that she no longer loves him. But Lord John comes to the rescue and encourages the relationship. As expected, Jerry eventually wins the lady.
Damsel was Astaire’s first box-office flop, and deservedly so despite the good dance numbers by Astaire. Unfortunately Fontaine couldn’t dance at all, and in their one big dance number, “Things Are Looking Up,” Astaire dances circles around her in the woods while she tries to hide behind the trees to not show her inadequacy as a hoofer.
George Gershwin died of a brain tumor on July 11, 1937, making these songs the last he wrote.
REVIEWED ON 2/23/2007 GRADE: C+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/