“The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” (1939)

by A.J. Hakari

"The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" poster

 

Maybe it’s because I hadn’t the faintest clue who its subjects were before giving it a whirl, but The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle struck me as much less rigid than biopics traditionally feel. How often have we seen a famous person’s life and times relegated to a checklist of their most well-known accomplishments or coated with so much enhanced melodrama, it’s difficult believing that any such events took place, even if they really did? But although it carries an air of fantasy, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle still feels more genuine and affectionately-made than those flicks with more interest in racking up awards cred than in bringing history to life. It’s a swoony sweetheart of a film that treats its characters as people rather than dramatic pawns, with the sense of respect and fuzzy feeling that its execution leaves you with allowing it to get away with what one assumes are its fair share of liberties taken at the expense of true events.

He’s a vaudeville comic. She’s a rich daddy’s girl. When a seaside trip causes them to cross paths in 1911, Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) and Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) find that their personalities couldn’t clash more. They’re almost instantly critical of one another, with Irene looking down her nose at how Vernon wastes his natural gifts as a dancer in lowbrow slapstick, while he sees her as nothing but a spoiled brat who isn’t as talented as she thinks she is. The two are stubborn, petty, pig-headed — and absolutely perfect for one another. Following a courtship with enough bickering to make the Kramdens beam with pride, Vernon and Irene marry, determined to break away from vaudeville and make a name for themselves as a dancing team. The newlyweds face hard times on the road to establishing their act, until fortune smiles on them in the biggest way in Gay Paree. Almost overnight, the Castles become international sensations, yet while their fancy footwork entertains countless crowds all over the world, the chance to live a normal, loving life together remains their greatest desire.

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle chronicles the end of an era not only for its subjects but for the actors portraying them, as well. It wasn’t the last time that Astaire and Rogers would collaborate on film (that’d be 1949’s The Barkleys of Broadway), but it did mark their final partnership with RKO, the studio that made them the silver screen’s premier toe-tappers in the 1930s. The movie was also the only one out of the lot that wasn’t a frothy comedy in which the plot was an excuse to get from one dance number to the next, but rather a biographical piece, one that saw Fred and Ginger playing a couple whose moves took America by storm twenty years before they did the same thing. Knowing of their relationship on- and off-camera gives The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle an added poignancy, as you can undoubtedly see a little bit of them in their characters as they butt heads, kiss, and make up. That the film so smoothly integrates the drama with the song and dance that fans came to see is a real blessing, allowing Astaire and Rogers to not only display the craft that made them famous but to also truly come into their own as actors. It may have taken them until their penultimate pairing, but Fred and Ginger finally got a script that gave them well-rounded roles to fill, as well as occasion to cut a rug across the screen with their trademarked grace.

The very picture of sincerity, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle easily wins over audiences without the need to be cloying or contrived. Sure, even with Irene onboard as a technical advisor, I’m sure the film took license with the actual turn of events quite often (not the least of which included substituting the Castles’ faithful black manservant with Walter Brennan, who’s close to overdosing on quirky a lot here). But its heart is in the right place, and save for maybe one tune crooned out of the blue, the picture doesn’t do much to strain its credibility. It’s not a downbeat production, nor is it an overly fanciful affair; it strikes a delicate balance between the two, aiming to please while employing as little saccharine as possible. The story’s focus is always on Vernon and Irene’s romance, blazing through their rise to fame in a single montage just so it can sooner address how incidents like Vernon’s eagerness to enlist in World War I affect their relationship. Both Astaire and Rogers do a marvelous job of playing their characters as strong-willed yet vulnerable, and while they unquestionably dominate the flick, supporting actors like Edna May Oliver (as the agent who catapults the Castles to stardom) work hard to make an impression all their own.

Though something of a commercial disappointment upon its release, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle remains what’s very likely the most personal addition to the Astaire/Rogers catalogue. The film evokes the whimsical high one gets by popping in one of their musical delights, while including the added bonus of a lovingly-crafted plot and set of protagonists. Though The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle often feels lighter than air, its sentimental nature is anything but frivolous.

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