Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Damsel in Distress (1937)

         A Damsel in Distress stars Fred Astaire in a musical without Ginger Rogers. Astaire yet again like he did with Ginger and would continue to do would play the love sick little boy type character chasing after the girl and dancing along the way.
            Astaire plays an American performer named Jerry Halliday who is putting on shows in England. His publicity agent George (George Burns) has made up some wild stories about seeing many women. His secretary Gracie (Gracie Allen) is outrageously ditzy but is only kept on because her father financed one of Jerry’s shows.
            Jerry goes out for a walk around London but is immediately mobbed by a group of women. He gets away in a taxi. Soon he is joined by a young girl named Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine). Alyce is trying to get away from her watcher Kegg. She recently was involved in a little scandal with an American and she is trying to get away from her parents and her castle home where she lives with them. Alyce manages to get away from Kegg and jumps in the cab with Jerry. Now Jerry is totally smitten with Alyce.
            Alyce is finally found and brought back to her home. A young servant finds Jerry and tells him to come to castle… not because Alyce is pinning him but because he will lose out on a bet if Alyce does not marry someone outside of her social circle. The servant has Jerry in a small hunting house on the castle grounds along with George and Gracie.
            Everyone at the castle believes Jerry to be the American that Alyce was involved with. Lord Marshmorton, Alyce’s father, likes Jerry and wants his daughter to marry him.
            After hearing this Jerry now pursues Alyce kind of aggressively. But Alyce sees the article on Jerry apparently being with many women and she does not like that too much.
            If you have seen pretty much any Fred and Ginger film or any Fred Astaire film you know the ending. 
            As I said Fred Astaire played  the same type of character he would play over and over again throughout his career. Before this I had never seen George Burns or Gracie Allen in anything. I liked them a lot I loved Gracie Allen she was hysterical. I cried laughing in one scene when Gracie (the character) is sitting with someone who is not too bright like she is and the guy asks if he could strike a match and she replies “Why would you want to do that? The match didn’t do anything to you.”

            The music numbers were very fun to watch. Fred, George, and Gracie do two great dances called “Put Me to the Test” and “Stiff Upper Lip.” You would never know that George Burns and Gracie Allen were not really dancers they did such a fantastic job next to Astaire. “Stiff Upper Lip” is the best number: Jerry, George, and Gracie dance their way through a funhouse at a fair. Astaire does one really incredible dance with drum sets. He dances to “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and kicks and hits the sets with his feet and sticks. Joan Fontaine gets to do a number with Astaire… poor girl. Fontaine joked that this film set her character back another four years (she was twenty at the time so really she had nothing to worry about). She did not act poorly far from it I enjoyed her; unfortunately she just was not loose enough to look even descent dancing with Astaire. A story about this film from the premier is a woman was sitting behind Fontaine at the premier and at the end the woman commented on Fontaine “Isn’t she awful.” I would not say she was totally awful but she was not too great Fred Astaire could only do so much to make his dance partners look somewhat descent if they could not really dance.
            A Damsel in Distress has its moments where it is fun but other than the few parts the film is ok. The pacing of the story is slow and dull and requires a certain amount of patience. The musical numbers give the film the only really amusing entertainment. Gracie Allen and George Burns are worth sitting through the film they are so good and so funny. Seeing Joan Fontaine not acting all over dramatic and at twenty years old is fun to see as well (she was adorable). A Damsel in Distress is not widely available on DVD I have only seen it online in VHS or on DVD in Europe. I happened to catch this on TCM so if the channel airs it again sit through it just for the experience and to say you have seen it.