A Damsel in Distress (1937)
Movie Review by Debbie Winkler
Starring: Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Joan Fontaine, Reginald Gardiner
Director: George Stevens
Release Date: 19 November 1937
Length: 98 minutes
Movie Rating: Not Rated
View Format: TV
My Rating: 3.5/5 stars
Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine) must wed soon, but she is not in love with any of her suitors. Determined to marry for love, Lady Alyce tries to sneak off to London to meet the American she met some time ago on a ski trip. Unfortunately, her latest attempt to meet the man leads her to encounter Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire), a famous performer who has broken hearts the world over. Keggs (Reginald Gardiner), the family butler, mistakenly identifies Jerry as Alyce’s boyfriend and hijinks ensue as some try to keep Jerry and Alyce apart, while others try and help them find time together. But in the end, the fact remains that Jerry is not the American that Alyce fell in love with – or is he…?
This was a fun musical to watch, but the strength of the film lies in its pieces rather than in the sum total of its parts. The music was composed by George Gershwin, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and the film was called a musical, but there was not very much singing in it. There were some lovely instrumental pieces and a few clever lines of song, but most of the singing was done by choirs or arranged groups of people in the castle. This was an unexpected disappointment as I am accustomed to musicals featuring song and dance routines throughout the film with the songs adding to the story. Instead, this film relies on some performers at the castle to perform music for guests with Fred Astaire joining in at some points to great comedic effect. While these songs were clever and fun, they just did not fit into the storyline and did nothing to further the plot. I was delighted with the dance routines, however, and thoroughly enjoyed the performances by Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen. These three had some terrific routines that elevated the movie into something memorable and worth watching. In particular, I had a wonderful time watching these three dance their way through a local circus. It was cleverly staged and used some terrific sets such as spinning tunnels, slides, rotating circles, electronic sidewalks and fun-house mirrors. Fred Astaire made the other two look like they were merely average dancers, but George Burns and Gracie Allen held their own and brought a lot of personality and style to the routines. I feel that this movie was worth watching for the fun-loving dance routines alone, but there were so few of them! I was left wanting a great deal more song and dance in the movie as a whole, but there were some brilliant moments that made me glad that I took the time to watch the film.
The plot is nothing special in this movie, but the actors and actresses did the best with what they had. I never really bought the romance between Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire) and Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine). I feel that the movie would have been much stronger if there was a love triangle between these two leads and the completely absent Mr. X that Lady Alyce supposedly fell in love with. Having Lady Alyce change her mind and heart so often throughout the film made it difficult, if not impossible, to take her seriously when she proclaimed her love for someone else. This main plot was a real disappointment, but the subplot of the servants in the castle was very entertaining and worth seeing. All of the servants put money into a pot and then drew names out of a hat with the suitors’ names on them. Whomever drew the name of the winning suitor wins the pot. Keggs (Reginald Gardiner), the straitlaced butler, maneuvers so that he draws the name of the current frontrunner, Reggie (Ray Noble), a rather dimwitted, but loveable young man. He is outwitted at almost every turn by a young servant, Albert (Harry Watson), who knows that Lady Alyce writes to an American and insists on being given the name Mr. X as he is betting on Lady Alyce throwing Reggie over for her American. Seeing an older, more established man battling a clever young boy was an unexpected delight and I enjoyed this plotline much more than any of the others.
I feel that the superb acting elevated this rather humdrum musical into something that was fun and flirty. Gracie (Gracie Allen) was my favorite character by far! She plays George’s (George Burns) featherbrained secretary and she was so funny! When George threatens to replace her at the beginning of the film and hire another girl, her response is “are you sure we have enough work for two girls?” I don’t think that she had a thought in her head, but I knew that I would smile when I saw her on screen. She was a lovely dancer and interfaced effortlessly with everyone on screen. Gracie Allen stole the show, in my opinion, and I will need to make an effort to look up some of the other movies that she is in. Fred Astaire plays his typical role as a jaded playboy who is looking for a woman who truly loves him with his usual panache, but lacking some of the biting wit and weakness in character that would have made him memorable and interesting. Still, Fred Astaire is incomparable when it comes to dancing and it was wonderful to see him dancing side by side with George Burns and Gracie Allen so his talent could be fully appreciated. Too often his skills are hidden by floating skirts and beautiful partners, but this time you can see him side-by-side-by-side so that it is immediately apparent how fabulous he was. Reginald Gardiner was quite entertaining as Keggs, who appears to be a prim-and-proper butler on the surface, but has a weakness for operatic arias and will do anything that it takes to win the money in the pot, no matter how low the blow. Montagu Love, who played Lady Alyce’s father Lord John Marshmorton, was a refreshing change from a typical, domineering father. He loves his garden more than society and there are a few entertaining scenes where he mistaken for a lowly gardener while tending his beloved roses. I loved that he wanted his daughter to make a true love match, however, and really liked him. I found Joan Fontaine to be largely forgettable as Lady Alyce Marshmorton. She has a few romantic scenes with Fred Astaire, but nothing of particular note. Indeed, the best part of her roles is the continual references to the Lawrence Leap, which is a perilous jump off of a balcony to preserve a lady’s honor. Other than that, she is a beautiful prop to move the story along and never finds a way to hold her own with the brash, outspoken American crew.
I stumbled across this movie on TCM late one night and had a fun time watching it, but I understand why it is not available on DVD. I would not imagine that it is anyone’s favorite musical and all of the leads have been in other, more memorable films that made a great deal more money. Still, this is a fun black-and-white musical from the 1930s, when films like this were very popular so they churned them out by the truckload. I felt like this musical was so close to becoming something truly memorable, but it just did not quite execute on its promise. A stronger storyline and perhaps a different ending would do a great deal to elevate this film. Still, there are some moments that truly sparkle and made me happy that I took the time to watch it. If you enjoy older musicals, especially those featuring Fred Astaire, you will want to keep an eye out for this one on TV.
This movie contains some scenes of drinking and smoking. There are a few passionate embraces and chaste kisses. Recommended for ages 6 and up.