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HALL OF FAMEon 2 August 2007
From 1933 with Flying Down to Rio to 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, Fred Astaire made 10 movies. All except one had him partnered with Ginger Rogers. By 1937 he decided he wanted a break, and the result was A Damsel in Distress. Who was his new partner? Well, he didn't really have one. The closest in the film would be George Burns and Gracie Allen. Joan Fontaine, who was the love interest, simply doesn't register strongly. Probably deliberately, Astaire chose Fontaine because she couldn't sing and couldn't dance. She was the antithesis of Rogers. At 20, she was sweet, shy and attractive. She makes a pleasant love interest, but the movie works as well as it does because of Astaire, Burns and Allen, and some great George and Ira Gershwin songs.

Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Fontaine) met an American she thinks she loves, but her mother is having none of it. Lady Marshmorton is determined Alyce will mary Reggie, a proper British twit. She's keeping Alyce closely watched at the the family manse, Tottleigh Castle. But Alyce runs off to London with the family's butler, the obsequious Keggs (Reginald Gardiner) in pursuit. In London, Alyce meets Jerry Halliday (Astaire), a famous American dancer who has been promoted into a heart throb by his publicity agent, George (George Burns), assisted by George's secretary, Gracie (Gracie Allen). One confusion leads to another, with Jerry, George and Gracie arriving at Tottleigh Castle. Then there are misunderstandings, reconciliations and leaps from a balcony. Things aren't helped by a pool set up by Tottleigh Castle's servants to pick who will eventually win Lady Alyce's hand. Kegg and a young houseboy, Albert, are determined each of their own candidates will be the winner and win the pot for them. They take turns stirring the pot. However, is there any doubt who eventually wins the lady's hand?

Joan Fontaine doesn't sing a note in the movie. Only briefly and cautiously does she share a simple but elegant dance with Astaire. She was probably the most obviously non-dancer he ever worked with. The most complicated steps she's called upon to do are a few simple, graceful jumps. In every case Astaire is there guiding her with his hand or an arm around her waist. For a young woman with no dancing ability, it must have been a petrifying experience for her.

But with Burns and Allen, two pros, Astaire has one excellent routine and one classic. With the "I've Just Begun to Live" theme (there's no song), the three of them do a complicated and amusing three-way dance that is part soft shoe, part tap. The classic is danced to "Stiff Upper Lip" and takes place in an art deco fun house. The number was put together by Hermes Pan, who won an Academy Award for it. The three of them dance on and with every device Pan could think of for a fun house: Moving walkways, collapsing stairs, slides, turning tunnels, rubber doors, distorting mirrors and a circular turntable. It's inventive, surprising and great fun to watch. And pay attention to Gracie Allen. She and her husband were one of the great comedy teams in America. At best they probably are only faded memories now. Gracie, however, was not only a skilled comedienne, she was a very good dancer. She used small gestures and never lost the ability to look "lady-like" while dancing. She could be almost as funny dancing has she was delivering her ditsy lines.

The Gershwins wrote five songs for the movie and there's not a clunker among them. The songs are smart, amusing and clever. Even the one romantic song, "A Foggy Day," is best appreciated by literate lovers:

A foggy day in London town,
Had me low, and had me down.
I viewed the morning with alarm.
The British Museum had lost its charm.

How long, I wondered, could this thing last.
But the age of miracles hadn't past.
For suddenly, I saw you there
And through foggy London town
The sun was shining everywhere.

The songs are:

--"I Can't Be Bothered Now," a fast tap number that takes Astaire into the London streets. He turns his umbrella into an animate object. The number is shot with daytime fog swirling around.

--"Stiff Upper Lip" is a collection of amusing cliches, sung by Gracie. It sets up the fun house number.

What made good queen Bess
Such a great success?
What made Wellington do
What he did at Waterloo?

What makes every Englishman
A fighter through and through?
It isn't roast beef, or ale, or home, or mother.
It's just a little thing they sing to one another.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella,
Carry on, old fluff.
Chin up, keep muddling through.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella,
When the going's rough.
Pip pip to old man trouble
And a toodly-oo, too.

Carry on through thick and thin
If you feel you're in the right.
Does the fighting spirit win?
Quite, quite, quite, quite, quite.

Stiff upper lip, stout fella,
When you're in the stew.
Sober or blotto, this is your motto,
Keep muddling through.

--"Things Are Looking Up," sung by Astaire to Fontaine and then danced by them by the streams and trees of Tottleigh Castle.

--"A Foggy Day." Astaire sings of the first meeting he and Fontaine had while she watches him from her balcony as he strolls and dances in the fog-swept woods.

--"Nice Work If You Can Get It," is a close harmony rendering sung as entertainment at a party at Tottleigh Castle. Astaire joins in. It morphs into a fast tap and drum number for Astaire at the close of the movie, just before he and Fontaine sweep arm and arm out of the castle.

The movie can be located on VHS. The copy I have looks very good. For Astaire fans, it's a must have. The fun house number alone justifies the purchase.
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The great pleasure of A Damsel In Distress is that it offers a break from the norm for both us and Fred Astaire. After about seven consecutive flicks with Ginger Rogers (F&G) and often the same supporting cast, doing the same silly romantic comedies, he decided on an entirely different kind of silly comedy romance, delightful and irritating in new ways.

This time, Fred is an American dancer invited by happenstance to woo an aristocratic young lady, Alyce (Joan Fontaine) because the staff at her father's castle have a sweepstake going on who she will marry, Lady Caroline's choice or the mystery American Alyce is in love with (not Fred, but the butler and the errand boy think he is). Fred's, or rather Jerry's, pursuit of Alyce is supported and thwarted by the staff, by Alyce, even by her father Lord Marshmorton, until all comes right at the end.

Fred's comedy back-up comes from George and Gracie, the latter provoking some laughs from her eternal witless misprision. The best dance numbers have all three dancing together, and although Fontaine manages one limited routine with Fred in the woods - on a muddy slope, can't have been that easy! - there's no big romantic duets for the leading man and lady. Instead, we get some lovely songs like "Nice Work If You Can Get It", as well as the beautifully photographed "A Foggy Day". I for one applauded the scene where the opera-loving butler suddenly performs an aria in the garden, Fred listening with bemusement from inside. The funhouse dance sequence bagged an Oscar.

'Stuffy Brits learn how to swing it': that must have been the pitch. Joan Fontaine's Alyce is a more confident character than you might anticipate but it's easy to see where her typecasting as the nervous shy heroine might have sprung from. She matches Astaire's musical charm with a fickle caprice that renders him dejected when things go wrong. (In fact, he becomes almost menacing when Jerry decides to show her he "means business".) The romantic misunderstandings, arising from both deception and self-deception, are more complex than in previous F&G comedies. So, the story is more engaging than in the other F&G comedies, but there are fewer memorable dance routines and songs, although they are good.

If this one has so far slipped you by, be sure to give it a shot, especially if you've got into the habit of FF'ing the talking in the F&G films and only watching the musical numbers. A Damsel In Distress is just as endearing as any other vintage Fred Astaire film.
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on 19 January 2010
One of the greatest and funniest dance scenes, with the marvelous Gracie Allen at the fun fair. Many wonderful dance scenes and a funny script. A real pleasure.
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on 26 June 2013
While the story (by P.G. Wodehouse) is good, in that old 30's tradition, and there are some great songs by the Gerschwins in it, the actual copy, because it is not remastered, is very grey and the clever words aren't always easy to pick up. I'd like there to have been subtitles so that I could hear some of the jokes, but there weren't - an oversight.
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on 23 February 2013
I purchased it basically for the tap dancing scene by FA when he plays the drums with his feet...unreal to say the least.
It's worth watching just for that scene but if you like FA & GR or just wonderful dancing then you'll love this old time film.
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on 3 February 2014
Having seen a number of Fred Astaire's films, this is my favourite to date; I was entranced. The storyline evokes an impression of "Downton Abbey" meets the Marx Brothers, with Fred being the kingpin who links the action together, whether romantic or comedic. George Burns and Gracie Allen provide some genuine belly-laughs with their repartee, with Allen getting most of the best lines - "My, my, how old-fashioned! Horse-whipping a man in this day and age when they could run over him with an automobile!" - and the scenes where they dance with Fred are scintillating - all three of them just look to be having so much fun, it's impossible not to want to join in.

Joan Fontaine is at her demure best but shows some uncharacteristic feistiness - which sits well on her - in the scene where she gets annoyed at Fred, when he doesn't understand that she's in love with him.

There are some fine comedic interludes from the supporting cast but naturally it's the great man himself who takes command of the film, even when he's not on screen. It doesn't matter whether Fred's leading lady can dance or not because when he takes to the floor, all eyes are on him anyway. The guy had that rare gift of being able to combine romantic lead with comedy, and in the scene on the hall stairs, where Lady Alyce rejects him, he displays that trusting vulnerability (reminiscent of Stan Laurel), which makes him so endearing and has us rooting for him from start to finish.

The dance routines, especially Fred's "drum solo" toward the end of the film, perfectly display the athleticism, innovation, musicality and style of the man - and Fred was never less than perfect. Doubtless there are Fred Astaire films in which the dances are more sophisticated and romantic - but perhaps none with the feel-good factor of this one. By the end, everyone's differences have been settled and they're all just one big happy family. So grab your suitcase, pack your chuckle muscles and get yourself down to Tottleigh Castle. This is one country house party you'll want to revisit again and again.
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on 6 July 2012
RKO's 1937 musical comedy 'A Damsel in Distress' is somewhat of an oddity in Fred Astaire's association with that studio, in that he is not paired with Ginger Rogers, and the romantic overtones usually associated with Astaire's dancing roles are subservient to the comedy element assayed by George Burns and Gracie Allen and other supporting players; in fact, Burns and Allen also fulfil the role of Astaire's dancing partners for most of the proceedings. Accordingly the Gershwin songs are somewhat impersonal in their tone - Stiff Upper Lip, Things Are Looking Up, A Foggy Day (in London Town), and Nice Work if You Can Get It, being the classic standards the Gershwin brothers supplied.
The female lead is played by Joan Fontaine, who was apparently not quite 20 years old at the time the picture was produced. Fontaine's style of acting at this stage of her career has a coolly reserved and cerebral style that lends a curiously modern quality to it; indeed, there are moments in the movie when Fontaine seems like a screen actress from the early 21st Century who's somehow fallen through a timeloop and ended up in a thirties knockabout screwball romp.
These and many other elements (including a great performance by Reginald Gardiner filling in for Eric Blore, and a curious prolonged cameo by band leader Ray Noble, all playing to a crackling script by PG Wodehouse, SK Lauren, and Ernest Pagano) make the movie very entertaining enjoyable, and it is a huge pity that the producers of this DVD issue - Odeon Entertainment - did not deem it worthwhile to master from a decent quality PAL transfer (the one I purchased looks suspiciously like an transfer from an NTSC (US standard) master, resulting a slight degradation in picture quality), let alone invest in some digital restoration - especially at a list price of £6.99. It is only as a result of this that I have deducted one star from my rating - it's no reflection of the innate quality of the content.
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on 14 January 2016
Astaire in an RKO film without Rogers. Joan Fontaine joins him in a charming routine designed not to tax her but the delight is in two dances with comedians Burns and Allen, apparently hoofers in their early days. Fred has two solos, the second of which he plays drums with both hands and feet. This is stunning, especially as it was shot in one long take. The plot, by PG Wodehouse, is one of daffy misunderstanding and is played with a light touch by an excellent cast. The icing on the cake is a specially written score by George Gershwin to Ira's lyrics. The print is good.
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on 1 June 2013
I don't think Fred Astaire made a bad picture. This DVD I would buy just to watch Fred dance "Stiff Upper Lip" with George Burns and Gracie Allen. Hilarious! Gershwin music what more could you ask for.
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on 5 January 2013
This has to be one of my 'desert island' movies. A light-hearted musical guaranteed to cheer you up. A frothy and delightfully inconsequential plot by P G Wodehouse based on his 'Blandings Castle' novels and Fred Astaire in top form singing and dancing to Gershwin tunes. Can it get any better? Yes it can - because this is one of the very few films made with the greatest of radio comedy teams: George Burns and Gracie Allen. You only get a flavour of what their wisecracking cross-talk act was like - but even the taste is enough to upstage Astaire, and that's not easy! They were radio stars when radio was big, so not really best known as a song and dance act - but here they show that can do it with the best of them. They just don't make them like this any more!
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