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Sunday, 5 July 2009

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Director: H C Potter

TCM is highlighting 1939, Hollywood's greatest year, and I was surprised to find that I hadn't seen all the films they're showing. Here's one that I'd missed and it's surprising because it would appear to be a Fred and Ginger film that contains not just what they all have (amazing dancing) but what they tend to lack (a plot). The reason for this is because it's a biopic, the Castles of the title being a dancing couple who popularised dancing in the early 20th century in much the same way as the couple playing them here did a little later on.

As we begin, Vernon Castle is a comic who sits at the bottom of the bill and just about gets by on next week's wages. He's the professional butt end of another comic's routines, getting abused on stage for pay by Lew Fields, playing himself. Irene Foote isn't really anyone, until the two of them meet at the New Rochelle beach in New York where she lives. They literally swim into each other trying to save a dog from drowning. He ends up at her place to get dry where she puts on a horrendous vaudeville performance to impress him. In a clown outfit.

Needless to say, he isn't impressed in the slightest but she's thoroughly impressed with him, especially after his impromptu dance off on the New Rochelle train platform against a Brooklyn Bachelor returning from a night out. After all, Fred Astaire had roughly the same impact on a dance scene as Bruce Lee had on a fight: the worst thing the other guy could ever do is simply to turn up. So, as the pair of them fall in love and get married, she persuades him that he's wasting his time on comedy and should concentrate on his dancing. In return he teaches her how and they rehearse a routine together.

Of course it doesn't quite work out that smoothly. They try out for Lew Fields, who can't fathom why anyone would want to pay to see a man dance with his wife. Luckily they get hired by a couple of French producers instead, but unluckily the show isn't for six more weeks so they run out of money waiting only to find that they weren't hired for dancing anyway but for Vernon's barber chair comedy routine. Just as they hit rock bottom, broke and painfully behind on their rent in a foreign country, they get discovered by Maggie Sutton, an entrepreneuse as pushy and capable as you'd expect someone played by Edna May Oliver to be.

So suddenly they're a hit, dancing at the Cafe de Paris for Grand Dukes. Suddenly money isn't an issue, and the world is buying Vernon and Irene Castle gowns, shoes, hats, even cigars. They even change fashion trends, not just in clothes but in hairstyles too: 'Irene Castle Cuts Her Hair' is a front page headline and America's women switch to the Castle Bob. They become household names doing whirlwind tours and performing everywhere. Only the First World War can interrupt their work, as Vernon Castle was born an Englishman and so signs up for the Royal Flying Corps.

This is an interesting film. Perhaps the dances aren't as spectacular or memorable as those in other Fred and Ginger movies, but I'm not the best qualified man to judge. It has Edna May Oliver, so is incapable of being entirely bad, regardless of whatever else happens. It has Walter Brennan too, though he's a strange choice to play the Castle's butler/manager/whatever given that the real Walter was black. Above everything else though, this is valuable because it has far more of a plot than any of the other films Fred and Ginger made together, a real one to boot.

It's always annoyed me that their films had so little substance to them. I understand that people paid to see them dance and they got very much what they paid for; but unlike many performers primarily known for one thing, they had a lot of talent beyond what they were famous for. Fred Astaire was a solid actor, as he'd prove later in his career in films like On the Beach; and Ginger Rogers had a flair for comedy that outshone many professional comediennes. These aren't the deepest roles either would play but they're far more notable than anything else they did together. And yeah, there's some dancing too.

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