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  Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, The Dance Class
Year: 1939
Director: H.C. Potter
Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver, Walter Brennan, Lew Fields, Etienne Girardot, Janet Beecher, Rolfe Sedan, Leonid Kinskey, Robert Strange, Douglas Walton, Clarence Derwent, Sonny Lamont, Frances Mercer, Victor Varconi, Donald MacBride
Genre: Musical, War, Romance, BiopicBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 2 votes)
Review: The year was 1911 and Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) was a comic actor in the theatre who planned to woo one of the show's bigger stars. However, she would always come up with excuses not to make it to their dates, as it was tonight when she claimed to have a splitting headache when actually she had a date with someone else. Vernon arranged with her to meet at the beach the next day, but was let down again and had to content himself playing with a stray dog there, throwing a stick for it to catch. Unfortunately for the dog, he threw the stick into the sea and it nearly drowned - fortunately for Vernon, in his efforts to save it he met Irene (Ginger Rogers)...

And so a legendary partnership was born, depicted by another legendary partnership who were preparing to head off in different directions. This was the final Astaire and Rogers film for ten years when they reunited for the one off Barkleys of Broadway, their actual final movie, and as it was not as successful at the box office as their previous films of the thirties had been, perhaps because of its more serious tone, the team agreed to try something apart. But although it had a tragic ending, this was not by any means a dejected trudge through the Castles' rise to worldwide fame, as director H.C. Potter provided a light touch to the proceedings.

Irene Castle served as technical advisor on the film, which was based on her memoirs, and was not best pleased with Rogers who was reluctant to change her appearance to look like that of the person she was playing, including changing her hairstyle too dramatically. The Castles were interesting folks, not only renowned dancers but open minded in their views, which took in race (their orchestra was all black), sexuality (their manager Maggie Sutton, played by Edna May Oliver here, was openly lesbian) and animal rights, as shown by their doting on the little dog in the film. Needless to say none of the more potentially controversial stuff made it in here, but it was a sincere tribute nonetheless.

By this time Astaire and Rogers looked effortlessly comfortable with each other, and a nostalgic item such as this looked to be perfect for them, if not exactly a stretch. Certainly nobody watching would have any complaints about their performances as their romance is very sweet, starting tentatively when budding entertainer Irene invites Vernon back to her house to demonstrate her embarrassing song routine, and she then goes along to take in his thespian talents only to be dismayed that he is one step up from a circus clown with his barber shop stooge act. But when they realise they can both dance, they have an idea to team up as a musical partnership, something which is easier said than done.

The plot makes a meal of the duo's rocky road to success, as it seems nobody is interested in staging their dances. They want Vernon to continue with his clowning, but there comes a chance when they are invited to Paris by two producers - alas, they still wanted to see Vernon's comic act, but as luck would have it, the Castles, now married, attract the attention of Maggie (who describes herself as an "entrepreneuse") and the rest is history. We know they are doing well thanks to the world's longest montage, detaling their dances and their moves into merchandising, both of which make them rich and famous. What could possibly go wrong? How about World War One? The resonances with the war brewing in Europe when this was made cannot have been lost on audiences of the time, and it all leads up to a truly poignant finale which tends to overshadow the agreeable though undemanding antics of before. This wasn't the best Astaire and Rogers work, but it was perfectly satisfactory.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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