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Astaire, Burns, Allen In 'Distress' In London Town

A Damsel in Distress was the third of only four films on which George Gershwin and his brother Ira collaborated. The star is Fred Astaire, but without Ginger Rogers. Their previous film together, Shall We Dance?, also with an unforgettable Gershwin score, hadn't lived up to studio expectations, and the now-famous stars were taking a break from each other.

This film — out now on a new DVD from Warner Classics — has two substitutes for Rogers, one of the best and maybe the worst. Two songs from it became standards, and Astaire's longtime assistant, choreographer Hermes Pan, won an Oscar for dance direction for one of the most delightful production numbers in a Hollywood musical.

The story is based on a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, who also co-authored the screenplay. It's a mild satire on the snobbery of the British aristocracy. The heroine, the rebellious Lady Alyce Marshmorton, is played by 18-year-old Joan Fontaine (three years before she won an Oscar in Suspicion -- the only actor ever to win an Oscar in an Alfred Hitchcock film).

Her family thinks she has fallen in love with Astaire, who plays an American dancer visiting London with his publicist and his dizzy secretary — played by George Burns and Gracie Allen. It's directed by George Stevens, who's better known for such high dramas as A Place in the Sun, Shane and Giant, but who had previously directed Astaire and Rogers in what many people consider their very best film, Swingtime.

The British setting gives the Gershwins a chance to experiment; the score actually includes two madrigals. But the great number is an 8-minute sequence in a fun house, in which Astaire and Burns and Allen slide down a chute, and dance on a double turntable turning in opposite directions — and in front of a series of fun-house mirrors that stretch them and shorten them and make them all legs with no bodies (a marvelously ironic image of Astaire).

Burns and Allen are veteran vaudevillians, and their dancing is light as a feather, especially Allen's hilarious nonstop trotting around that turntable, like some wonderful wind-up toy.

The main problem with the film is that Fontaine was no dancer. So the only romantic dance number in the film takes place in a woodland setting, and whenever possible, Fontaine is hidden by trees. It may be the only Astaire musical that doesn't end with a duet. The other great song in the film is "Nice Work If You Can Get It," with Astaire simultaneously dancing and playing drums with his feet.

Imagine a time in Hollywood when there were so many good movie songs that neither "A Foggy Day" nor "Nice Work If You Can Get It" was nominated for a best song Oscar. In fact, George Gershwin's only Oscar nomination was from the same year, for another song introduced by Fred Astaire — "They Can't Take That Away from Me," from Shall We Dance?

But it lost to a Hawaiian number called "Sweet Leilani" that Bing Crosby made popular. It would be my nomination for the worst decision ever made by the Motion Picture Academy.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, host: George and Ira Gershwin wrote some of their best songs for the movies. One of these films, "A Damsel in Distress," which was released in 1937, four months after George died of a brain tumor, is now on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says it may be the oddest among their films.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, I CAN'T BE BOTHERED NOW")

FRED ASTAIRE: (as Jerry Halliday) (Singing) Bad news, go away. Call `round someday, in March or May. I can't be bothered now. My bonds and shares may fall downstairs. Who cares? Who cares? I'm dancing, and I can't be bothered now.

LLOYD SCHWARZ: "A Damsel in Distress" was the third of only four films on which George and his brother Ira Gershwin collaborated. The star is Fred Astaire, but without Ginger Rogers. Their previous film together, "Shall We Dance?", also with an unforgettable Gershwin score, hadn't lived up to studio expectations, and the now-famous stars were taking a break from each other.

This film has two substitutes for Rogers, one of the best and maybe the worst. Two songs from it became standards, and Astaire's longtime assistant, choreographer Hermes Pan, won an Oscar for dance direction for one of the most delightful production numbers in a Hollywood musical.

The story is based on a novel by P.G. Wodehouse, who also co-authored the screenplay. It's a mild satire on the snobbery of the British aristocracy. The heroine, the rebellious Lady Alyce Marshmorton, is played by 18-year-old Joan Fontaine, three years before she won an Oscar for "Suspicion," the only actor ever to win an Oscar in an Alfred Hitchcock film.

Her family thinks she has fallen in love with Astaire, who plays an American dancer visiting London with his publicist and his dizzy secretary, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It's directed by George Stevens, who's better known for such high dramas as "A Place in the Sun," "Shane" and "Giant," but who had previously directed Astaire and Rogers in what many people consider their very best film, "Swingtime." Here's one of the most famous songs from a "Damsel in Distress," maybe the best song ever written about England.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS")

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A FOGGY DAY")

ASTAIRE: A foggy day in London town had me low and had me down. I viewed the morning with alarm. The British Museum had lost its charm. How long I wondered could this thing last. But the age of miracles hadn't passed, for suddenly I saw you there and through foggy London town the sun was shining everywhere.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ: The British setting gives the Gershwins a chance to experiment; the score actually includes two madrigals. But the great number is an eight-minute sequence in a funhouse in which Fred and George and Gracie slide down a chute and dance on a double turntable turning in opposite directions, and in front of a series of funhouse mirrors that stretch them and shorten them and make them all legs with no bodies, a marvelously ironic image of Astaire.

Burns and Allen are veteran vaudevillians, and their dancing is light as a feather, especially Gracie's hilarious nonstop trotting around that turntable, like some wonderful wind-up toy. Here's the song that begins the number, deliciously introduced by Gracie.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STIFF UPPER LIP")

GRACIE ALLEN: (Singing) What made good Queen Bess such a great success? What made Wellington do what he did at Waterloo? What makes every Englishman a fighter through and through? It isn't roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother. It's just a little thing they sing to one another. Stiff upper lip, stout fella. Carry on, old bean. Chin up, keep muddling through.

GRACIE ALLEN: (Singing) Stiff upper lip, stout fella. Dash it all, I mean, pip, pip to old man trouble and a toodle-oo too. Carry on through thick and thin. If you feel you're in the right, does the fighting spirit win? Oh, quite, quite, quite, quite, quite. Stiff upper lip, stout fella. When you're in a stew, sober or blotto this is the motto: keep muddling through.

SCHWARTZ: The main problem with the film is that Fontaine was not a dancer. So the only romantic dance number in the film takes place in a woodland setting, and whenever possible Fontaine is hidden by trees. It may be the only Astaire musical that doesn't end with a duet. The other great song in the film is "Nice Work If You Can Get It," with Astaire simultaneously dancing and playing drums with his feet. Here's the song before he starts tapping.

(SOUNDBITE OF "NICE WORK IF YOU CAN GET IT")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Holding hands at midnight, 'neath the starry skies.

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) Strolling with the one girl, sighing sigh after sigh.

ASTAIRE: (Singing) Boy, it is nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try...

SCHWARTZ: Imagine a time in Hollywood when there were so many good movie songs that neither "A Foggy Day" nor "Nice Work If You Can Get It" was nominated for a best song Oscar. In fact, George Gershwin's only Oscar nomination was from the same year, another song introduced by Fred Astaire: "They Can't Take That Away from Me," from "Shall We Dance?"

But it lost to a Hawaiian number called "Sweet Leilani" that Bing Crosby made popular. It would be my nomination for the worst decision ever made by the Motion Picture Academy.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix, and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed the new DVD of "A Damsel in Distress." Coming up, rock historian Ed Ward talks about hillbilly boogie, a hybrid of boogie woogie and country that caught on after World War II and was a precursor to rock and roll. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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