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  Damsel in Distress, A What Ho, Fred!
Year: 1937
Director: George Stevens
Stars: Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine, Reginald Gardiner, Ray Noble, Constance Collier, Montagu Love, Harry Watson, Joan Duggan, Mary Gordon
Genre: Musical, Comedy, RomanceBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: The servants at the country house of Lord Marshmorton (Montagu Love) are indulging in a bet about who will marry his daughter Alyce (Joan Fontaine), for she has as many suitors to make such gambling a proposition. The chief candidate appearas to be Reggie (Ray Noble) and the head butler Keggs (Reginald Gardiner) cheats so he can pick his name out of the hat, but the page, Albert (Harry Watson), also a schemer, has other ideas and asks to be allowed to pick a "Mister X", who he claims will be a mystery American. As if that would happen!

Ah, but there is a certain chap in England, the notorious lothario Jerry Halliday, and he's played by few people's idea of a great lover, Fred Astaire. But the screenplay played up this unlikely idea that women would be throwing themselves at him as the concoction of Jerry's publicist, who in a stroke of comic inspiration was George Burns, accompanied by his partner in laughs Gracie Allen as the secretary. Astaire was rarely joined by performers who could take the limelight away from him, but here he was generous enough to hand over the reins of humour to them, with winning results.

Of course, it could have been that the studio, RKO, were feeling less confident about his box office draw - this was nowhere near as successful as his pairings with Ginger Rogers had been - so Burns and Allen were drafted in as a safety net, but whatever the reason they made a cheery trio, even sharing a few dances where Gracie was adequate, but George was surprisingly adept, an even better partner than Fontaine turned out to be. At the time she was considered a poor choice for Astaire, and their routine an embarrassment, but she wasn't all that bad, simply not one of his more memorable romances as far as bringing out that emotion in dance went.

What made this more interesting for a certain section of the audience was the involvement of P.G. Wodehouse on writing duties. It doesn't sound as if he was taking care of Burns and Allen's typically crazy dialogue, but the plot was more like what you'd expect from him, concerning the upper classes and their comedy problems with a shade more romance that usual. The trademark wit from the English master was somewhat lacking, on the other hand, as much of the humour was more American of the time than what distinguished his books and stories, but as it stood there were plenty of genuinely delightful aspects to carry the Astaire fans if not the Wodehouse ones.

As for the big numbers, the best, perhaps tellingly, didn't feature Fontaine but George and Gracie with Fred, which comes about when a lot of the characters end up at a funfair. This being a Pandro S. Berman production, as the Astaire and Rogers movies had been, no expense was spared to conjure up inventive situations for them to act out, and the accoutrements of the fairground writ large were the ideal setting for joyful expressions of silliness. Just the thing to take away from the central love affair where we're supposed to accept that Alyce has fallen for Jerry when she's been in his company for all of fifteen minutes in their entirety, but when you see the other stars twirling and tapping on moving platforms, sliding down trick staircases and performing in front of distorting mirrors, there would be few complaints about the effort which went in to entertaining us. Ending with a fine drum routine from Astaire, this was quirkier than many of his vehicles, but no less amusing for that. Songs by George and Ira Gershwin.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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