The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)    2 Stars


The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)


Director: H. C. Potter

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver

Synopsis: This is the film version of Vernon and Irene Castle, sensational ballroom dancers prior to World War I.




The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle would be the last movie Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would make together for a decade.   Their popularity had begun to wane as the 30s drew to an end, and this film, together with their previous effort, the under-rated Carefree, marked RKO’s efforts to breathe life back into the partnership by subtle tinkering of the previously popular format.   Carefree had been more of a comedy than a musical, with Astaire for once playing second fiddle to Rogers, while The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle was a biopic about the dancing partnership of Vernon and Irene Castle, who took Europe by storm in the years immediately preceding WWI.   Evidently, RKO’s efforts failed to revive the duo’s fortunes, and Astaire and Rogers would not work together on the big screen again until 1949, when Rogers would step into the unwell Judy Garland’s shoes for The Barkleys of Broadway.

Even with Irene Castle acting as an advisor on the movie there’s little doubt that the mostly light-hearted events depicted on the screen bear only a passing resemblance to reality.   Astaire plays a frustrated song-and-dance man forced to play the stooge in a vaudeville comedy routine, while Irene is the small-town girl with whom he falls in love.   Together, they form a dance partnership that enables them both to realise their dream, although not without first having to suffer the indignities of living a hand-to-mouth existence in Paris after mistakenly believing they had won a dancing engagement there.   It’s only after meeting Bohemian theatrical agent Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver – Alice in Wonderland, Drums Along the Mohawk) that their fortunes finally change and their ballroom dancing act becomes the sensation of Europe.   Their future appears assured, but ominous war clouds are looming…

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle trades heavily on its audience’s presumed nostalgia for the pre-War years which, back then, were still fairly recent history, and its depiction of small-town Americana in its early scenes is light and evocative.   The two distinct stages of Vernon and Irene’s lives together are separated by a montage sequence which seems to last forever as it chronicles both their meteoric rise to fame and the cult of celebrity that accompanied their success (that’s right: celebrity-endorsed retail crap isn’t just a 21st Century phenomena, kids – it was even going on when your great-grandparents were sperm).   The first half is the more light-hearted and enjoyable than the second.   There’s a winning innocence about the Castle’s courtship and the hardships they encounter in Paris.   Of course, Hollywood has a knack for glossing over the harsh realities of penury, and the Castle’s must have been unique in having a manservant (Walter Brennan – The Affairs of Cappy Ricks, To Have and Have Not) to wait on them moments after they’ve had to race to their room to avoid the final demand of their exasperated landlady.   Unfortunately, this is where most of the film’s story is found, while the second half feels like its treading water as it builds to a tragic conclusion.

Of course, the greatest pleasure to be derived from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is the infectious one generated by the seamless elegance and grace of Astaire and Rogers as they glide across the stage in perfect synchronisation.   That such natural style and finesse could only be attained through tortuous, bone-wearying hours of practice and rehearsal is one of those paradoxes for which the Hollywood machine is fabled…

(Reviewed 15th December 2015)

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