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Lady Alyce Marshmorton must marry soon, and the staff of Tottney Castle have laid bets on who she'll choose, with young Albert wagering on "Mr. X." After Alyce goes to London to meet a beau (bumping into dancer Jerry Halliday, instead), she is restricted to the castle to curb her scandalous behavior. Albert then summons Jerry to Alyce's aid in order to "protect his investment." Written by
Diana Hamilton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
One thing that you got a lot in the late 30s, when many of the franchises that had kept the industry going were now starting to lose appeal, was the studios putting together meaty packages of all the popular elements they had at their disposal in the hope of creating a sure-fire hit. 1937's Damsel in Distress gives us the dancing of Fred Astaire, the music of Gershwin, the writing of PG Wodehouse, plus a bevy of comedy supporting players. How could it fail? Well
Fred Astaire's pairings with Ginger Rogers were beginning to lose money, and were perhaps being perceived as repetitive. Damsel in Distress seems to be an attempt to revive flagging box office takings by sending one half of the duo out on his own and putting him in a new environment with a new leading lady. While Joan Fontaine was a great actress, she was neither a singer nor a dancer, and what made the previous musicals work was the way Fred and Ginger clicked through dance when their two characters danced together, you knew they were made for each other. You would later get the same thing when Astaire was teamed with Cyd Charisse. You're not going to get it with Fontaine. And it's not just Ginger who's missing; it seems to have been RKO's deliberate intention to remove all the familiar faces from the supporting cast no Eric Blore, no Erik Rhodes and not even Edward Everett-Horton. Those jokers were half the fun! Instead, we get "cockney" lad Harry Watson, who presumably grew up to become Dick van Dyke's dialogue coach, and comedy couple George Burns and Gracie Allen, who are about as funny as cancer.
Of course the Gershwins were always good, and Damsel in Distress contains some of their best songs. The choreography of Hermes Pan plays nicely off the lively tunes as well. However, like most musicals of the period, the song and dance numbers are simply showpieces for which the narrative must take a break. The Fun House routine, for which the picture won its only Oscar, is very amusing, although it shows how Hermes Pan was now more interested in props and elaboration than showcasing the talent of Fred. The simple flow of "Things are Looking Up" is actually more satisfying and sits better with the rest of the picture.
Director George Stevens was someone who could always be relied upon to treat even the silliest of stories with grace and tenderness. The slow, measured pace he encourages from his actors, often with long moments between the dialogue in which the characters emote wordlessly, give great weight to the romantic scenes. The best "Stevens" moment from Damsel in Distress has to be when Fontaine confesses her feelings to Astaire at the cottage. As in many such scenes, we gradually move in from mid-shot to close-up, but Stevens begins that first close-up of Fontaine with her face moving into the frame, giving the moment that little bit more intensity. The steady pace of a George Stevens picture also often brought out the best in the comedy, although unfortunately there is not enough raw material here.
As for poor old PG Wodehouse, you can just about see traces of his style, the basic plot being a typical Wodehouse blend of warm romance and gentle satire with an emphasis on the interplay between aristocrats and their servants. Someone probably thought this would go well with sassy sophistication and stuffy vs. modern dynamic of Astaire's musical comedies, but it clashes horribly. Few of the cast, with the exception of Reginald Gardiner and Montagu Love, look like they belong here. Incidentally the aforementioned Messrs. Blore, Rhodes and Everett-Horton would all fit very nicely into Wodehouse world.
The trouble then with Damsel in Distress is that it throws together all its (mostly) worthy elements without any consideration of how they might work together. Bits and pieces of it are nice, and the songs are excellent, but overall it's a rather bland affair. The picture was predictably a great mistake that did no favours for Astaire's falling star, or Fontaine's rising one.
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