The nine films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together at RKO between 1933 and 1939 are some of the most magical and sublime movies ever made. They’re also among the wittiest. If you remove all the musical numbers, you still have some of the most sparkling comedies of the era. They also boast, no surprise, some of the greatest dance numbers ever put on screen.
Their last film at RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), may be the most underrated film in the series of 10 films Astaire and Rogers made together. (A reunion occurred at MGM in 1949 with The Barkleys of Broadway). It may not be their wittiest film, feature members of the Astaire-Rogers stock company, or showcase their best dance routines. Still, there’s a special glow about the film that I find very appealing.
It’s also the odd man out in their films, being not a musical comedy, but a period film, a biography of the famous pre-World War I dance team. World War I plays an important role in the story – is this the first time an ugly reality such as war found its way into the world of Astaire and Rogers?
Before Fred and Ginger, Vernon and Irene were the pre-eminent dance team of the early 20th century. Their dances, including the famous Castle Walk, swept the world. They were equally known for their fashion sense. When Irene Castle bobbed her hair, millions of women around the world did the same thing. It’s a nice film, and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Vernon and Irene like each other from the start, and even when facing career lows they are always there for each other.
Irene Castle was a technical consultant on the film and, from all accounts, was a holy terror on the set (Ginger was a special target of Irene’s wrath. It all started when Irene insisted Ginger darken her hair to match Irene’s brunette shade. Ginger refused.). I’m guessing that the real Vernon and Irene relationship was not always so carefree and the lack of drama was necessary to placate Irene. There would be no disparaging Vernon’s memory if Irene had anything to do with it. Irene was also somewhat taken aback at the casting of Walter Brennan as Walter, their servant, confidante and biggest fan. The real-life Walter was black.
Still, Irene must have been pleased with the many re-creations of the famous Castle dance routines. Not only do we get the Castle Walk, and a tango to die for, but the film features one of the loveliest moments in the Astaire Rogers catalog. It’s World War I and Vernon is flying planes for the British Army and is expected to meet Irene for a Paris reunion. He’s late and she’s distraught as she stands on the dance floor alone, wondering what to do until Vernon walks in. They start dancing – perhaps gliding is a better word – and it’s just beyond lovely.
All the music is period, save for one song written for the movie, the lovely “Only When You’re In My Arms” written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar. Coincidentally, Fred Astaire would play Kalmar in the 1950 Ruby-Kalmar biopic Three Little Words, a personal favorite of mine. Also a nice movie.
Movie audiences that year were lucky to see some of the great love stories of all time. Of course there’s Gone With the Wind and Wuthering Heights. There’s also Love Affair (later remade as An Affaior to Remember), with Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer; Deanna Durbin getting her first screen kiss, courtesy of Robert Stack, in the thoroughly charming Cinderella re-tread First Love; lonely schoolteacher Robert Donat meeting a radiant Greer Garson on vacation and enjoying a few years of happiness with her until her premature death in Goodbye Mr. Chips; Bette Davis nobly fighting blindness in Dark Victory; Cary Grant and Jean Arthur arguing and loving in Only Angels Have Wings; and Melvyn Douglas wooing and charming staunch Communist Greta Garbo in Paris in Ninotchka. In addition to Fred and Ginger, other legendary screen teams that year included William Powell and Myrna Loy who gave us Another Thin Man, and Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland helping take Dodge City. These are all fondly remembered to this day. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle should be part of that list for many reasons. Not only as the final RKO film of the greatest dance team in film history, not only as one of the most charming films of 1939, not only as one of the best musical biopics of the era, but a combination of all three. It’s a wonderful movie.
Kevin Deany is a lifelong movie buff residing in Chicago’s western suburbs. When not watching and writing about movies, he works as an account supervisor for a public relations agency in Chicago. For more information, visit Kevin’s Movie Corner.