The Sky’s the Limit (1943)
The Sky’s the Limit (1943)
Director: Edward H. Griffith
Cast: Fred Astaire, Joan Leslie, Robert Benchley
Synopsis: Flying Tiger Fred Atwell sneaks away from his famous squadron’s personal appearance tour and goes incognito for several days of leave.
Perhaps realising that asking us to accept Fred Astaire as a WWII Flying Tiger fighter pilot places unrealistic demands on its audience’s ability to suspend disbelief, Edward H. Griffith’s The Sky’s the Limit wisely elects to get him out of uniform (and into faintly ridiculous cowboy gear) as swiftly as it can after first establishing his heroic credentials by having him shoot down a Jap bi-plane in the midst of battle. Fred and his comrades (including a young Robert Ryan) are so skilled at their job that they’re shipped back to the States to promote the War Effort, but Fred finds the extensive touring so unrewarding that he decides to go AWOL for ten days. Strangely, no one in authority seems particularly concerned by his dereliction of duty, so Fred is apparently free to roam New York in his cowboy outfit without fear of arrest by MPs.
It’s not long before our hero becomes fixated on an available young woman and begins to pursue her with the kind of single-minded dedication common to all obsessed stalkers. Joan Manion (Joan Leslie – Foreign Correspondent, Man in the Saddle) is a photographer for a society magazine, and Fred first grabs her attention by photo-bombing every snap she tries to take. He then rents the apartment across the hall from her, and sneaks into her room to cook breakfast. The fact that the 43-year-old Astaire was twenty-six years older than his teenage co-star simply adds another dimension to his character’s questionable courting techniques, but of course Astaire possesses enough charm to get away with such otherwise unsavoury behaviour.
Although considered by many to be one of Fred Astaire’s lesser movies, The Sky’s the Limit is far from being his worst. With only four numbers, it barely qualifies as a musical, but features the memorable My Shining Hour as its signature tune, and, with the classic One for the Road, a terrific dance from Astaire that’s filled with uncustomary anger and despair, and which appears to have no place in a movie primarily concerned with boosting wartime morale while delivering a propagandistic message. This incongruity extends to the overall tone of the movie, with funny in-jokes sharing screen time with last-minute drama, and a supposedly comic speech from the otherwise excellent Robert Benchley (Dancing Lady, You’ll Never Get Rich), which temporarily brings the film grinding to a halt, followed by a scene in which a young widow symbolically launches the construction of a fleet of new fighter planes.
While the financially-challenged RKO’s production values can’t compare to the kind of money lavished on musicals by the likes of MGM, and a good half-hour passes before Astaire even taps a foot, The Sky’s the Limit is still worth seeking out. The 17-year-old Leslie, while admittedly no match for the likes of Ginger Rogers or Rita Hayworth, still makes an effervescent dance partner for Astaire, and it’s a novelty to see the usually greying, crinkled Robert Ryan looking so young and fresh-faced.
(Reviewed 26th December 2015)