Fred dies, Ginger cries
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is the not very graceful swan song of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals of the thirties.1 Carefree, their previous film, was an ambitious failure. Story, on the other hand, just doesn’t have much spark.
Vernon and Irene Castle, a husband and wife dance team, were a true sensation of the American vaudeville circuit in the years immediately prior to World War I, but their career was cut short by Vernon’s death in the war. By 1938, when production on the film started, most people didn’t know who the hell they were, suggesting that the suits at RKO were beginning to run awfully short on ideas for Fred & Ginger.2
To save money (both Fred and Ginger were getting very expensive), the studio decided to use period music instead of paying for new tunes.3 Unfortunately, despite the use of dozens of pre-war classics, none of the performances really stand out. Musically, this is the least interesting of the Fred & Ginger musicals.
The film is further hurt by the fact that, in the thirties, the pre-war era was considered hopelessly innocent and quaint, rather like the way we think of the fifties today.4 Men wore straw hats and women wore ankle skirts, and no girl ever got kissed before she was engaged. The end result is a well-scrubbed, wholesome film with approximately zero pizzazz. As critic Cecelia Ager remarked at the time:
In The Castles everyone knows who everyone else is. Everybody’s identity is clearly defined and completely understood from beginning to end and nobody is mistaken for somebody else, even on the telephone. . . . Miss Rogers does not get mad at Mr. Astaire ever. She likes him from the first moment she sees him and never pretends that she doesn’t . . . They’re married right off, and nobody has to wish to God they would.
In fact, the film gives us the straightest possible story. Vernon and Irene meet, fall in love, become a dance team, and take the world, or at least the civilized part of it, by storm. When World War I breaks out, Vernon, a British subject, enlists in the English army and becomes a pilot. Shortly before the war ends, he’s killed in a crash. End of story.
There isn’t much to the dancing either. Fred takes a short soft shoe cum tap solo early on (showing up a tubby amateur in a rather tasteless bit), and the two stars have both a rehearsal dance (“Waiting for the Robert E. Lee”) and a “big break” dance (“Too Much Mustard”), but the picture never really comes alive until late in the film. Ginger’s in Paris, waiting for Fred to meet her on leave from the front. He’s late, of course, and she fears the worst (and so do we, because we know that Fred’s going to die). But he does make it, for “the last dance,” a waltz medley. Ginger’s wearing a very unfortunate gown, with long, drooping fur sleeves, but if you can get past that, we do get more than a glimpse of the old magic, and of the almost desperate longing and release of two reunited lovers.5
Except for her 1949 reunion with Fred in The Barkleys of Broadway, Ginger Rogers never appeared in a “real” musical again. She achieved her goal of establishing herself as a dramatic actress, winning an Oscar in 1940 for her role in Kitty Foyle.6 Her income in 1945 of about $300,000 made her the highest-paid performer in Hollywood. But her career faded in the fifties, and none of the films she made post-Fred are terribly well known today. She was interviewed endlessly once the Hollywood nostalgia boom began in the seventies, and always expressed polite (usually) frustration over the fact that people only wanted to talk about the musicals.
Astaire, of course, continued in musicals until 1957. Like Ginger, he was clearly determined not to have an established partner, and he worked successfully with a variety of actresses and dancers. These films will be reviewed in forthcoming issues of Bright Lights.
Check the “Afterwords” section of the review of Roberta for links to web pages for Fred and Ginger. For plenty of information on the Castles and their era, go to the excellent site maintained by the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra.
- The two reunited (for the last time) more or less by accident in the 1949 film The Barkleys of Broadway. Fred’s previous film, Easter Parade with Judy Garland, had been one of the most successful musicals ever, and the two were scheduled for The Barkleys as well. But Judy, who was going through some hard times, dropped out of sight and Ginger was hired. [↩]
- As a teenager, Astaire had been on the same bill with the Castles and certainly was influenced by their work, though they weren’t his favorites. [↩]
- “Old time music,” dating from about 1890 to 1920, was “good time music” from the thirties through the fifties, much as fifties and sixties rock and roll is today. Several of Judy Garland’s most successful films, like For Me and My Gal (1942, with Gene Kelly) and Meet Me in St. Louis (1946), relied heavily on this ambience. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, perhaps because it was so closely tied to a real story, could not find similar energy. Irene Castle, who served as story consultant, had many clashes with Ginger (unsurprisingly) over clothes, hair length, etc. Her presence also probably helped keep the story wholesome and dignified, although apparently the Castles were more rambunctious than either Fred or Ginger. [↩]
- Actually, we seem to have two competing fifties myths these days: the sexless, suburban “Ozzie and Harriet” fifties and the swinging Rat Pack fifties, when a guy could pinch a broad on the butt without everyone and his sister making a federal case out of it. [↩]
- Maybe I’m projecting. So sue me! [↩]
- The film was based on a huge bestseller of the same name by Christopher Morley. I’ve never seen the film or read the book, so I can’t comment on the quality, but both versions are available. [↩]