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Monday, 8 December 2014

Classic Film Review: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

Based on the lives of two dance icons in pre-war American, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle stars Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the title roles. It deals with their marriage and struggle for success, then the tragedy that hits just a few years after their marriage. The cast also includes Edna May Oliver as agent Maggie Sutton, Walter Brennan as Walter the servant and Lew Fields as himself.

This is an altogether more serious film than other Astaire/Rogers collaborations I've seen. As a biopic, closely superintended by Irene Castle herself, it means fewer fun and games which, in turn, means the film is probably more memorable than some of their fluffy pieces. Rogers, of course, excels in dramatic roles, though the modern era has pigeon-holed her somewhat as Astaire's dancing partner. Two of the earliest films I reviewed on this blog were Kitty Foyle (1940, reviewed here) and Primrose Path (1940, reviewed here) which served to cement Rogers as one of my favourite actresses and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle definitely feeds into that.

There are, though, plenty of humorous moments early in the film. I adored Vernon and Irene's first meeting as they both dash to rescue a drowning dog then Vernon's horror at Irene's attempts to show off her dancing skills on a makeshift stage at her parents' house. Once the action shifts to Paris and Edna May Oliver is introduced as their agent, there are many hilarious moments. She never fails to lighten up a film but there are moments of wonderful seriousness from her as well. There's a gorgeous moment on the train as Irene is travelling to see Vernon where a simple movement betrays the strength of relationship that has sprung up between them all and it's a nice touch. Walter Brennan, too, is excellent, particularly in the final moments of the film.

Ultimately, this isn't about the dance numbers, it's about preserving a legacy and it does that very well. As the last Astaire/Rogers film at RKO and the only one based on a true story, it occupies a special place in their history - as it should.

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