Joan Fontaine's in Distress
"A Damsel in Distress" is on one hand a unique movie but on the other not unique at all, I know that's a contradiction but it's true. It is unique because it is the only time that author P.G. Wodehouse assisted in writing a screenplay of one of his own works but it is not unique as his romantic comedy is very typical of Fred Astaire's movies of the time. In fact whilst it may see Astaire starring opposite Joan Fontaine it feels like a stereotypical Astaire & Rogers movie with a romantic storyline, comedy and being a musical plenty of singing and dancing. And whilst the confusion aspect of the storyline is well worked, going back and forth a few times to add some extra hilarity, it is the musical side of things and in particular the dance routines which end up being what you remember it for.
With Lady Alyce Marshmorton (Joan Fontaine - Letter from an Unknown Woman) likely to accept a marriage proposal anytime soon the staff at Tottney Castle have a sweepstake on who the lucky man will be. Whilst chief of staff Keggs (Reginald Gardiner) manipulates things so he has the most likely young man, young Albert (Harry Watson) gets in on the action by betting that she will pick someone they don't know about. Following a brief excursion to the city to meet a beau only to find herself in the company of American Jerry Halliday (Fred Astaire - Swing Time), Lady Alyce is forbidden from leaving the castle due to her behaviour. So Albert aware of the brief encounter invites Jerry to the castle in order to match make and win the bet.
So whilst we have the unique proposition of P.G. Wodehouse adapting one of his own stories into a screenplay the result is in fact not that brilliant. I say not that brilliant because it feels typical of what we had seen Fred Astaire appear in before. So whilst we have this set up which sees the staff of Lord John having a sweepstake on who Lady Alyce will marry, and interfering to try and win, what follows is a simple take on the mistaken identity/ confusion set up. That means that Astaire's Jerry Halliday is mistaken for someone else and confusion abounds because of this and naturally come the end of the movie will have won the girl. The journey from beginning to end is enjoyable especially as the confusion comes and goes as it is cleared up only to occur again but in many ways it is all quite obvious.
But to be honest you don't remember "A Damsel in Distress" for its story but for its musical elements and by now Fred Astaire was very comfortable leading this sort of musical delivering some fun singing and dancing scenes. The most fun comes from watching Astaire dance and there is a wonderful lengthy dance routine which takes place in a fairground fun house which sees Fred dance with George Burns and Gracie Allen. In fact that it the best which "A Damsel in Distress" gets and it is such a fantastic scene with moving floors and distorted mirrors adding to it's cleverness. But sadly whilst in Burns & Allen Astaire has good dance partners delivering the same level of comedy Joan Fontaine looks in distress when dancing. Now to be honest most people would look awkward when dancing with Astaire as he was so good but Fontaine really does look awkward and in a way makes you realise what a great dancer Ginger Rogers was.
Another sad thing is that whilst there are some impressive dance routines and Fred delivers the various songs with a touch of comedy the songs are actually not that memorable. That almost seems wrong to say seeing that George & Ira Gershin provided the music for "A Damsel in Distress" but with the exception of "Nice Work If You Can Get It" the rest are surprisingly forgettable.
As already mentioned by this point in Astaire's career he was very comfortable leading a movie even without Ginger Rogers to accompany him. But like the obviousness of the story there is also something obvious and familiar about Astaire's performance as Jerry Halliday as it feels like a variation on himself, something which he had done in previous movies; it's not that it's bad as Fred is entertaining but it is very familiar. Now to be honest Joan Fontaine is no Ginger Rogers and whilst stunningly beautiful seems poorly cast as she not only struggles with the dancing aspect of her character but also the comedy. Thankfully with George Burns playing Jerry's agent and Gracie Allen playing his secretary there is an abundance of comedy with these two sparking off each other to deliver so many of the movies funnier moments.
What this all boils to is that whilst "A Damsel in Distress" is a fun Fred Astaire musical it ends up very familiar to what we had seen him do before, just without Ginger Rogers to match him in the dance routines. But with George Burns and Gracie Allen not only delivering plenty of comedy but also the movies most memorable musical moment any issues are almost forgotten.