Project 39 (belatedly) celebrates the 70th anniversary of RKO’s final Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s vehicle, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. (The pair would only make one more film together, ten years later for MGM in the Barkleys of Broadway.) Here the King and Queen of cinema song and dance portray the real-life King and Queen of ballroom dance, Vernon and Irene Castle. What’s special about this film (aside from Astaire’s lighter than air By the Light of the Silvery Moon) is the story: it actually has one.
Now, I’m a die-hard Astaire/Rogers fan, but even the keenest fan has to admit that things like plot and character development were never exactly a focal point in their films. But it certainly is this time around. The Fred and Ginger formula has been reversed and instead of the film revolving around production numbers, feather dresses and fashion shows, their balletic brilliance accentuates a finely crafted and well acted romantic drama that takes us through Vernon and Irene’s meteoric, but bittersweet, rise to fame. They are given the chance to bust out their acting chops and while there is plenty of that famous Astaire-Rogers pluck and cheek, not to mention ragtime and razzmatazz, the film is sober, earnest and certainly capable of inducing a tear or two.