The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

  • Title:  The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
  • Director:  H. C. Potter
  • Date:  1939
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Biography, Drama, Musical
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver
  • Format:  B/W, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Well, we’ve got our health, we’re young, we’re in Paris, we’re on our honeymoon, what more can we want.”  — Vernon

“Hey, dance with me.”  — Vernon
“All the people downstairs?” — Irene
“Look, we can do it quietly, like this, just as if we’re walking on air.”  — Vernon

“War is a man’s business, women only do what they’re told.”  — Maggie

The Story of  Vernon and Irene Castle is the last musical that Astaire and Rogers did for RKO and it’s notable for several reasons.  It’s one of only two films where Astaire and Rogers played a married couple (the other is The Barkleys of Broadway).  It’s the only biography the two did, so the only time they played real people.  It’s the only one of their musicals that’s more of a drama than a comedy.  And it’s the only one with a definite downbeat ending (Vernon Castle (Astaire’s character) dies).  The film is different from other Astaire and Rogers musicals and that may be why it is not as well known as their other films.

The film opens in 1911, Fred Astaire is Vernon Castle, who at the time is barely working as a vaudeville comedian.  He’s not even the star of  the show he’s in, but the second banana who takes all the prat falls and on-stage abuse from the star.  He tries to get the show’s leading lady interested in him, but to no avail.  However, while at the seaside, he meets Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) when they both jump into the drink to rescue a small dog.  She, it turns out, is an aspiring actress/performer and she performs “The Yama Yama Man” as an audition for Castle.

After the lackluster audition, the two go to the train station, where a group of “bachelors” and their dates are on an excursion.  When one of  the guys gets up and dances – Vernon shows off his tap dancing skills. On their later dates, Irene suggests that Vernon should give up comedy and become a dancer.  Vernon actually agrees with her and the two approach his boss with the idea of being a dance team.  But his boss is having none of it.  However, two French theatre owners approach Vernon and offer him a job in Paris.

Now married, Vernon and Irene go to Paris… but discover that the job they thought started immediately won’t start for six weeks.  Irene convinces the theatre owners to give Vernon an advance on his salary so they will have something to live on for six weeks.  After the six weeks of waiting goes by, Vernon returns to the theatre — only to discover he’s to play his comedy role again.  As he explains to his wife, “Well, I refused… I know you don’t want me to do, and I didn’t want to do it… but he brought up the money we owe him…”  Irene accepts this trying to make him feel better by saying, “Well, at least it’s a job, maybe not the job you want, but it’s a job.”  To console her, Vernon dances with her, quietly.

Fate intervenes in the person of Maggie, an entrepreneur and agent who walks into their apartment at that moment and sees them dancing.  She gets them dinner and an audition at the Cafe de Paris.  The audition is a smash success, and other couples imitate the Castles.  They are hired by the nightclub as professional dancers.  Before long they are back in New York, introducing The Tango to New York. The Castles sell books, records, and dancing lessons.  Irene becomes a fashion icon.  Their merchandising continues with ladies hats, bon bons, and face cream.  Vernon’s name goes on cigars and dancing shoes.  They introduce the Fox Trot, and the Castle Polka.  With both scenes of the Castles introducing their ballroom dances, the shot of  the couple dancing is double exposed with sparkles and lights – giving it a dreamy quality.  Irene bobs her hair, which causes a sensation and starts a trend.  The Castles introduce the Moxie, another dance, at a seaside resort.  They then tour nationally.  (We see the couple dancing across a map of  the US and each place they stop – additional dancers appear).  As they return home, Irene and Vernon tell their manager, Maggie, they are tired and want to buy a house and raise a family.  However, as they pull into one little town, there’s a fuss outside the train — Germany’s declared war.

At first, the Castles do retire to their new home, and Vernon agrees with Irene that he won’t enlist.  But when he’s asked to work at a benefit… he sees all the Canadian solders and decides to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps.   He manages to live through the war, but when he returns home he’s sent to Fort Worth at the last minute as one of  the pilots in an airshow for a Brigadier General.  An inexperienced pilot takes off and flies into his airspace — given the choice of  hitting the other plane or trying to avoid the crash he pulls straight up and the plane stalls.  Vernon Castle is killed in the plane crash… the young inexperienced pilot in the plane with him survives, in part because Vernon took the seat in front rather than letting the young pilot do it since he knew that the front was the more dangerous seat.  After her uncle and Vernon’s close friend tells Irene the news she walks into the garden of the hotel her husband had  set-up for her and imagines the two of them dancing together in the garden.

Again, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is very unusual for an Astaire and Rogers film.  It has a downbeat ending, and even the dances are mostly not complete dances … they are excerpts as the story unfolds.  Astaire performs well as Vernon Castle… really getting into the role which is quite meaty. Rogers has less to do, mostly following her husband around, and worrying constantly about him after he goes to war.  But the film is meant to be a historical film, taking place between 1911 and 1918, when women didn’t even have the right to vote, so Irene’s somewhat shadowed appearance can be understood if not condoned.  And it is obvious that this couple loves each other, and Vernon, at least, allows his wife to not only have a say in their decisions but to lead in them (It’s Irene who insists he’s better than physical comedy; it’s Irene who wants them to retire from touring; and it’s Irene who at first insists that Vernon not go to war).  In a sense, though Vernon dies at the end, the film is not only romantic, but it’s a more realistic romance than most movie romances.

The story for the script was written by Irene Castle, based on her autobiographical book about her husband, and she acted as an advisor on the film, especially in terms of  Rogers clothes.

This was not your typical Astaire and Rogers musical, I’d say it’s for diehards only, or if you want  to see a different type of film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  The rating is based on the film not being what you expect out of a musical — for example, there are very few full dances in the film.

Recommendation:  Depends.
Rating:  Three and a half out of five stars.
Next film:  Stripes