The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver, Walter Brennan, Lew Fields directed by H.C. Potter Movie Review

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Ginger Rogers as Irene Castle in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

The Castle's were Bigger then Beckham

Whilst technically a biopic "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" is really more a glamorous and glorious tribute to the Castle's. Who I hear you say? Well back in the early 20th century they were dancing pioneers and a bigger brand than Beckham with their name being used on all manner of products whilst Irene was a trend setter be it in fashion or hair length. As such with the Castle's being dance pioneers it seems apt that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers played them in the movie having established them as a top dance duo. But having made a series of jolly musicals it has to be said that whilst Fred & Ginger are for the most perfect to play Vernon and Irene it is a very different sort of movie to what they had done before with heartbreak and tragedy being part of the story, probably not what many people expected when it was originally released.

The year is 1911 and Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire - Carefree) a minor comic in a Lew Fields stage production has his sights on scoring a date with the shows leading lady, but in his pursuit he meets Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers - Shall We Dance). Whilst they get off to a rocky start they hit it off as Irene insists that Vernon has more talent as a dancer than as a stooge for the show's main comedian, eventually not only marrying but becoming a dance duo. Offered work as dancers in Paris they arrive with no money and when the show is delayed find life very difficult until the entrepreneurial Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) hears them rehearsing and becomes their manager turning them into pioneer's of the dance scene and a household name. That is until World War I stars and Vernon feels he should sign up to fight.

Walter Brennan, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

Like with so many biopics of popular people "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" feels more like a tribute to the dance pioneers rather than a true look at them as couple. I won't say it's sanitized but there certainly has been a liberal use of poetic licence to make their story into an entertaining movie. Things such as how Vernon actually died, the colour of their friend Walter or the sexual preference of their manager has all been altered as has certain events with in the timeline of their life. It's what you expect and means that their story works but there is no nastiness even when it comes to Vernon and Irene being hard up soon after they got married.

But what this does is make it feel a little like a Fred & Ginger movie especially from the meet cute when they bump into each other in the sea through to Vernon asking Irene to marry him but is constantly being interrupted. It has that fun factor about it and it's not until about two thirds of the way through that the fun factor makes way for the actual drama.

That drama comes from the outbreak of World War I and Vernon being British enlisting in the Royal Flying Corps because he feels guilty not to. Now I am not going to go into detail but with Vernon flying planes as both on reconnaissance missions and as a fighter pilot you expect the worst and director H.C. Potter does a marvellous job of toying with you, making you wonder whether his next flight could be his last. How much of this is true I cannot say but you do get a sense that Potter took every opportunity available to get you on a knife's edge especially with a marvellous scene where Vernon arranges to meet Irene in the Cafe De Paris where they first tasted success but he has to go on another flight leaving us wondering whether he will return or whether Irene will be left their heartbroken.

But here is the thing as whilst there is plenty of opportunity for Fred and Ginger to show off their singing and dancing talents it is by no means one of their big musical productions that they had come to be known for. Instead many of the musical scenes are there as part of the story and are not that memorable, there is no memorable song or astonishing dance routine although Astaire's tap routine to "By the Light of the Silvery moon" is certainly good fun. But as such it feels different to what you would expect going on what Fred and Ginger had delivered before yet it allows them to show off their talents as actors and neither Fred or Ginger come up short delivering strong performances through out. Although with the emotional nature of the story you have to say that Ginger Roger's final scenes are beautiful.

Aside from Fred and Ginger there is also Walter Brennan who delivers a nice touch of comedy as their close friend Walter and Edna May Oliver also has some humorous moments as their manager Maggie Sutton. Although it has to be said that both of these characters differ to those they are portraying.

What this all boils down to is that after several full on Fred & Ginger musicals I enjoyed "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" because it allowed them to act as much as sing and dance. It does suffer the issue which plagues many a biopic and that is it feels more of a tribute that an authentic look but it is entertaining and enlightening which is what you want from any biopic.