Movie Review: A Damsel in Distress (1937)
“It’s Smooth! It’s Smart! It’s Snappy! New Songs! New Steps! New Laughs!”
A Damsel in Distress (1937)
Director: George Stevens
Cast: Fred Astaire, George Burns, Gracie Allen
Synopsis: An American in London mistakenly believes that an aristocratic young women is in love with him.
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One of Fred Astaire’s (Dancing Lady, Flying Down to Rio) lesser films – possibly because he lacks a decent romantic female dancing partner – this is still a fairly entertaining example of the kind of lighthearted romantic comedy he was putting out in the 1930s. He plays an American in London who mistakenly believes he is the apple of a wealthy young lady’s eye (Joan Fontaine – Suspicion, Jane Eyre). Many misunderstandings follow until, inevitably, Miss Fontaine realises he’s right and she does, in fact, love young Fred.
Most of the humour is provided by the banter between supporting stars George Burns and Gracie Allen, and their quick-fire one-liners are still pretty funny today. They’re not the only ones to be given funny lines though. In one scene, the snobbish mother of Fontaine (Constance Collier – Stage Door, Rope), matriarch of a British stately home, says sniffily after learning that it is the weekly open-house day, ‘Well, open all the windows after they’ve gone.’ Of course this is a fabricated world as far removed from real life as it is possible to get, and was exactly the type of escapism people in the midst of a depression craved.
I’m not quite sure why the studio chose to pair Astaire with the young Miss Fontaine, who clearly isn’t a proficient dancer. Perhaps they were trying to build her up as a star. Anyway, it means that Astaire shares most of his dance numbers with Burns & Allen or goes it alone. The film’s a little poorer because of it, but he’s still pretty good, whether playing an unconventional drum solo while dancing to a Gershwin number, performing a comical fairground dance with his two sidekicks, or simply singing A Foggy Day in London Town in an atmospherically shot solo number.
(Reviewed 5th January 2012)