Nice work if you can get it
When Fred & Ginger went splitsville after Shall We Dance, Astaire decided that he didn’t really need a dame, an idea that tends to work better in theory than practice. Instead of searching for Ginger II, he chose to make his next film, Damsel in Distress, with a leading lady who couldn’t dance, twenty-year-old Joan Fontaine, as Lady Alyce Marshmorton.1 Damsel in Distress, which features a Gershwin score, a script by P. G. Wodehouse,2) and inspired support work from George Burns and Gracie Allen,3 is sumptuous moviemaking, and the film is always firing on at least eight of its sixteen cylinders, but it lacks the dance/romance combo that made the great Astaire/Rogers films the classics they are.
Basically, Damsel in Distress is a Fred & Ginger picture with no Ginger. Fred is Jerry Halliday, an American dancer living in London, embarrassed by the “he’s a heartbreaker” publicity dreamed up for him by flackman George, who in turn is embarrassed by screwball secretary Gracie.4 But while these three American smoothies quibble, a quintessentially Wodehousian plot is brewing in nearby Tottleigh Castle, where staff is making book on the identity of Lady’s Alyce’s husband-to-be. The nefarious butler Keggs5 passes the hat around but carefully palms the slip bearing the name of the acknowledged frontrunner, “Reggie.”6
Last and least of the staff is Albert, a footboy who draws no name at all and so insists on being given “Mr. X,” aka “none of the above.” Albert, of course, has inside information: when Lady Alyce was off skiing in Switzerland last year, she became enamoured of an American and intends to defy Lady Marshmorton – Constance Collier, the Queen Mary7 of battleaxes – who is more or less demanding that she marry Reggie. Lady Alyce splits for London, with both Keggs and Albert in pursuit.
A game of musical taxis in London convinces both Keggs and Albert that Fred is the mysterious American, and Albert convinces Fred via a forged letter that Lady Alyce is pining for his love in Tottleigh. The thought of a high-born babe with the hots for him convinces Fred that it’s time to explore the charms of the English countryside, and he pays a visit to Tottleigh, with George and Gracie along for the ride.
With Albert’s help, Fred makes his way into Lady Alyce’s chambers.8 Obligingly, she tells Fred about the overwhelming love that fills her. Fred, of course, thinks she’s talking about him, when it’s really Jeffery, her skier, that she has in mind. When Lady Marshmorton comes knocking at the door, Fred steps out on Alyce’s balcony and apparently duplicates “Leonard’s Leap,” a legendary act of gallantry performed by a noble Scot, Lord Leonard Strathe-Bungy,9 back in 1787, who jumped from the balcony to the branches of a nearby oak to avoid compromising the then Lady Alyce.
Fred’s derring-do strikes Lady Alyce as perhaps more impressive than mere skiing, and her fascination with Jeffery begins to fade. As she stands on the balcony, marveling at her new hero’s courage, the camera pans upward to reveal – Fred! On the roof! Albert shrewdly foresaw the possible advent of Lady Marshmorton and arranged for Fred to depart from the balcony sans hazard.
To continue the wooing of Lady Alyce, Fred takes a nearby cottage, which, appropriately enough, was once occupied by Lord Leonard himself. Once ensconced, he joins forces with George and Gracie for the delightful “I’ve Just Begun to Live” number, which has no words and no purpose but to entertain, which it does.
At this point, everyone takes a break from the action and heads for the amusement park. Gracie sings “Stiff Upper Lip,” a collection of Ira Gershwin’s favorite English clichés, and the gang engages in a funhouse production number that won choreographer Hermes Pan an Oscar, but which, after a good beginning, runs far too long.10
Fred naturally takes the opportunity to romance Lady Alyce, who still has stars in her eyes over his supposed leap. But when he tries to kiss her, she slaps him, which (of course) causes her to realize that she loves him. Once she apologizes, Fred romances her in a song-and-walk number, “Things Are Looking Up,” which more or less conceals the fact that Fontaine can’t dance.
When Keggs catches wind of this new development, he forces poor Albert to switch candidates. But even the imperturbable Keggs has a chink in his armor, a weakness for singing opera, a vice that Lady Marshmorton finds unacceptable in a butler.
The stage is set for a grand confrontation, a formal dress ball at Tottleigh Castle. Fred, uninvited, wends his way through a misty landscape singing “A Foggy Day (in London Town),” which doesn’t quite make sense, since he isn’t in London, but the atmospherics are great. Lady Alyce, meanwhile, pines by her window. Albert, determined to break up the pair, has shown her publicity releases that George has written, listing her as Fred’s latest victim. Naturally, being exposed to ridicule in the American press has set her aristocratic blood aboil.
Fred gains entrance to the soiree via the back door with the assistance of his new friend Keggs and joins the wonderful close-harmony trio of Betty Rone, Jan Duggan, and Mary Dean in a too-smooth-to-live arrangement of the Gershwin classic “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” But when he slips upstairs to meet with Lady Alyce, she gives him the cold shoulder. Keggs, overhearing, forces Albert to surrender Reggie for Mr. X. In retaliation, Albert gives the bandleader the score for the accompaniment to Keggs’ favorite aria, “Ah! Che a Voi Perdoni Iddio.”11 Overwhelmed, Keggs sneaks out into the garden and gives free rein to his passion. His bravura rendition, dubbed by Mario Berini, is a true comic delight.
Fred has his spine stiffened by a pep talk from Lord Marshmorton (Montagu Love).12 He heads upstairs again and straightens things out with Lady Alyce in her chambers. Unfortunately, Lady Marshmorton gets wind of their rendezvous and once more comes a knocking. There’s a funny bit as Lady Alyce encourages Fred to encore Leonard’s Leap, a prospect he finds less than inviting. Unfortunately, Hollywood wins out, and Fred (or his double) finally does make the leap, grabbing hold of a vine-covered trapeze to break his fall. “What a man!” exclaims Lord Marshmorton, arriving just in time to validate Fred’s manhood, while we in the audience can only cry “oy!”13
When Fred gets back inside the castle, he learns from his lordship that the marriage is set. He celebrates with a percussive solo, alternately dancing and playing a drum kit to “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” The idea is sometimes liberating, particularly when Astaire is kicking the drums, and sometimes inhibiting, because you can’t really dance and play the drums at the same time. As he finishes, Lady Alyce appears, wearing an extraordinary white winter coat that, journalistic integrity requires me to state, bears the earthly remains of at least a dozen seal pups.14 It’s not a bad finish, but it would be better if they were dancing.
Astaire recorded all of the songs from Damsel in Distress at the time the film was released. They are available on the two-CD set “Starring Fred Astaire” from Columbia as well as several other collections.
George and Ira Gershwin probably turned out more first-rate popular songs than any of their competitors, including Irving Berlin. The perfect introduction to their achievement, and itself one of the great achievements in American popular culture, is Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Gershwin Songbooks.” (Producer Norman Granz and arranger Nelson Riddle deserve substantial credit as well.) Important films using Gershwin’s music include The King of Jazz (1929), Shall We Dance (1937, with Fred & Ginger), The Goldwyn Follies15 (1937), Girl Crazy (1943, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland at their best), A Rhapsody in Blue (1945 biopic), An American in Paris16 (1951, as much Gene Kelly, probably, as anyone can handle), and Porgy & Bess.17 Good websites devoted to Gershwin include radio.cbc.ca/gershwin/clips.html and ffaire.com/gershwin/.
- Fontaine was born Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland into a seriously babe family. She was, unsurprisingly, the sister of Olivia de Havilland. [↩]
- If you like the silly-ass tomfoolery of Damsel in Distress, you have a shitload of good reading ahead of you. P.G. Wodehouse was probably the greatest master of light fiction who ever lived. Check out the novels and short story collections devoted to Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves, like Brinkley Manor and The Code of the Woosters. Sure, this stuff is dated, but so is Snoop Doggy Dog. (Several years ago, Masterpiece Theater ran a number of “Jeeves and Wooster” episodes, which weren’t bad. But Wodehouse’s true glory is the printed page. [↩]
- Gen X, Y, and Zers probably don’t know this superb husband-and-wife team, who appeared with W. C. Fields in two wonderful gagfests, International House (1933) and Six of a Kind (1934), as well as many other pictures. Episodes of their black-and-white fifties sitcom are also available. [↩]
- Wodehouse, or someone, came up with quintessentially echt George-and-Gracie dialogue:
Gracie: A reporter from Hawaii called.
George: How did you know he was from Hawaii?
Gracie: Well, he must be. He said he was Brown from the Morning Sun.
If you didn’t think that was funny, you probably won’t like this film. [↩]
- Keggs is played by English character actor Reginald Gardiner, who ended his career in 1967, working with Phyllis Diller in the unlamented sixties sitcom The Pruitts of Southampton. Retirement must have looked awfully good. [↩]
- Reggie, played by Ray Noble, never gets a last name or a title, for some reason. Noble, who was better known for leading a dance band, made a curious contribution to American culture. He wrote a dance tune called Cherokee, which was turned into a huge hit during the Swing era by bandleader Charlie Barnet. Later, Charlie Parker used the chord changes of Cherokee as the basis of his bop composition Ko-ko. Parker’s 1945 recording of Ko-ko is one of the great virtuoso performances of all time, and is available on several CDs. He also performed it live with a quintet at Carnegie Hall featuring Dizzy Gillespie, available on the aptly titled CD Bird ‘n’ Diz at Carnegie Hall. [↩]
- The Queen Mary was a very large boat. [↩]
- Fortunately, her ladyship’s chambers are so extensive that this can be done without obvious impropriety. [↩]
- My knowledge of the nomenclature of the Scottish aristocracy is close to nil, but “Strathe-Bungy” sounds a good deal more Wodehousian than Hibernian. [↩]
- The “funny mirror” bit is particularly uninteresting. Earlier, Gracie has a good time being chatted up by Reggie in the Tunnel of Love. [↩]
- The aria was composed by Friedrich von Flotow, a pretty much forgotten nineteenth-century composer who still has one opera, Martha, in the current repertory. [↩]
- Love, who had a long career in both the silents and the talkies, apparently radiated authority. He played King Henry VIII, King Phillip II, Lord Styne, George Washington (twice), Thomas Jefferson, and Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase, not to mention “Ghobah” opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Son of the Sheik. [↩]
- It’s generally agreed that anyone as obsessed with surface as Astaire could have little time for anything as sticky as sex, regardless of gender. Well, if you want to see screwing, rent Johnny Wadd. [↩]
- Why she’s wearing a coat at all, much less this one, is a bit of a mystery, because up until now it’s been summer. [↩]
- The Goldwyn Follies was the last project George Gershwin worked on, dying of a brain tumor at age 37. It is probably necessary now to explain that “Goldwyn” was Sam Goldwyn, the “G” in MGM, a self-infatuated showman who never quite achieved the legendary status he hankered for. I’ve never seen The Goldwyn Follies, but I’m betting that with both the Ritz Brothers and Bobby Clark in the cast, subtle it ain’t. [↩]
- A two-CD set of the music from An American in Paris has been released, including numerous out-takes. Along with Kelly, there’s music from the Benny Carter Quartet and piano-pounder Oscar Levant. [↩]
- An interesting review of this 1993 filmed version of the opera, which I haven’t seen, is available at us.imdb.com/Title?0107854. [↩]