‘A Damsel in Distress’ (1937)

While this RKO production is a relatively minor Fred Astaire musical (and one that lost money), it’s got stuff you’d want to put in any anthology of his great routines. Two of them are utterly delightful trios with George Burns and Gracie Allen, who join him in a dazzling, epic sequence full of moving sidewalks and funhouse mirrors; choreographer Hermes Pan won an Oscar for this, and by rights Astaire should have gotten one too. Then there’s Astaire’s solo act with a drum set, where he kicks the skins in a breathless single shot (his preferred method of shooting) that puts today’s hyper-edited routines to shame. By the way, the songs are all by George Gershwin and his lovely wife Ira (that’s a joke, and not mine), and include “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “A Foggy Day”. George died during production, and American music still feels the loss.

The romantic plot, to put it mildly, isn’t much, and the less time the movie spends on it, the better. There’s an on-again, off-again flirtation with a proper British heiress (Joan Fontaine), whose amiable father (Montagu Love) and strict battle-axe aunt (Constance Collier) live on a swan-infested estate straight out of P.G. Wodehouse, who co-scripted from his novel. Reginald Gardner does a nice turn as a butler not entirely as proper as he appears; his vice for opera is a typically daffy Wodehouse touch. Director George Stevens keeps it all light and airy. The only problem with this made-on-demand disc from Warner Archive is that the sound quality is so poor you may have to turn up the volume full blast to avoid straining for the dialogue, but none of that matters during the dancing.

RATING 7 / 10