1939 is of course known to all of us as The Golden Year because of all of the now true classic films released during the year. One of those movies that came out during The Golden Year was the final RKO pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle– a portrayal of the real life husband and wife dance team that rose to fame in the pre WWI era- and since its debut it has fallen from public’s attention.
Vernon & Irene VS Fred & Ginger
When one views Vernon and Irene Castle, I don’t believe it’s fair to say it’s a musical- more so, I think of it as a biopic with a few straight dance numbers (and one original song, Only when You’re in my Arms, sung by Fred)- none of those typical showy numbers and every dance is a careful recreation of a real dance style. In other words, there is nothing “original” about the choreography present in this film.
Vernon and Irene- their first meeting
However, just because this isn’t a Fred & Ginger sing and dance show, I do believe this film is important because it is based off real people– and is a rare movie from its time to have an unhappy ending. The picture on a whole is not bad- and if you want to see Fred and Ginger play straight romance and more dramatic acting- this is the opportunity to see that. For Fred especially, this was a turn into a more serious part and it reminded the public Ginger had a true range of ability and foreshadows a lot of her later work.
How accurate it actually is to the real Vernon and Irene Castle- well, changes were made. For one, Vernon was British; secondly their loyal servant Walter (who was played by Walter Brennan) was black; and thirdly, Irene was dark haired. While Ginger recalls in her autobiography she clashed with Irene Castle on the making of the picture (Irene was a consultant and the movie itself was based on her memoirs), it was noted that according to Irene, Fred did a wonderful job of capturing the real spirit and emotional embodiment of Vernon.
The famous “Last Dance” For Vernon and Irene….
…but not quite for Fred and Ginger
Today, this film does rank as an odd one in the Fred -Ginger bunch- and if you’re not into biopics- especially old fashioned ones where the stories were given glamour treatment- then you’re not going to like this film. For me to watch it, I view it differently than I would a musical and I tend to focus on the love story and also the historical aspect. Even if you don’t feel the spirit of the Castles, you definitely feel the chemistry of Fred and Ginger- and that alone makes it watchable. (And if you really can’t latch onto anything- there is a cute little dog involved in the early half of the film)
Needless to say, I do declare, that despite its flaws, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is a biopic product of its time, a memorable tribute to the real Castles, a notable 1939 production, and of course, a different, yet interesting final RKO sendoff for the most famous dance partnership of all time.