Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, The: H.C. Potter Directs Astaire-Rogers Last (and Weakest) RKO Musical

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ last film together at RKO, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is a middling biopic musical directed by H.C. Potter.

Grade: C+ (** out of *****)

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
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Theatrical release poster

Based on the stories My Husband and My Memories of Vernon Castle, by Irene Castle, the movie was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Yost and Richard Sherman.

Novice American dancer Irene Foote (Rogers) convinces New York-based British vaudeville comic Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) to give up slapstick comedy for a more sophisticated ballroom dancing.

Their break occurs while stranded in Paris, along with their friend Walter Ashe (Walter Brennan), with no money. The influential agent Maggie Sutton (Edna May Oliver) arranges a tryout for them at the prestigious Café de Paris, and they become overnight sensation.

After taking Europe by storm, the Castles return to the U.S. and become just as big a sensation. Their fame and fortune rises to heights in the immediate pre-World War I years.

When World War I starts, Vernon returns to Britain and joins the Royal Flying Corps, while Irene makes patriotic movie serials to aid the war effort.

However, Vernon is killed in a training accident, leaving Irene to carry on alone.

Irene Castle, advisor to this film, disagreed with the director as to details of costuming and liberties taken. When informed that white actor Walter Brennan was to play the part of faithful servant Walter, she was dumbfounded: the real Walter was black.

The characters are more realistic than usual in Astaire-Rogers films, there is none of the usual “screwball comedy” relief provided by such actors as Edward Everett Horton, Victor Moore, or Helen Broderick.

It is the only Astaire-Rogers musical biography, the only one on which Oscar Hammerstein II worked, and the only musical with tragic ending (Astaire’s character dies)

The film was popular in the US, making $1,120,000 and it also earned $705,000 elsewhere. However, due to high costs RKO recorded the film as a loss.

Cast

Fred Astaire as Vernon Castle
Ginger Rogers as Irene Castle (née Foote)
Edna May Oliver as Maggie Sutton
Walter Brennan as Walter Ash
Lew Fields as Himself
Etienne Girardot as Papa Aubel
Janet Beecher as Mrs. Foote
Rolfe Sedan as Emile Aubel
Leonid Kinskey as Artist
Robert Strange as Dr. Hubert Foote
Douglas Walton as Student Pilot
Clarence Derwent as Papa Louis
Sonny Lamont as Charlie, Tap Dancer
Frances Mercer as Claire Ford
Victor Varconi as Grand Duke
Donald MacBride as Hotel Manager
Leyland Hodgson as British Sergeant
Lillian Yarbo as Mary, Claire’s Maid (uncredited)

Credits:

Directed by H. C. Potter
Produced by George Haight
Screenplay by Richard Sherman, Oscar Hammerstein II, Dorothy Yost, story by Irene Castle
Music by Various composers
Cinematography Robert de Grasse
Edited by William Hamilton
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: April 28, 1939 (US)
Running time: 93 minutes
Budget $1,196,000
Box office $1,825,000

Note:

TCM showed this musical on May 10, 2021.