Category Archives: Movies

Fred Astaire, George Burns & Gracie Allen sing, dance and joke through “A Damsel in Distress”

The 1937 RKO movie “A Damsel in Distress” cheerfully shreds the plot of the book. But it was the book’s author, P.G. Wodehouse (best known for his Bernie Wooster/Jeeves series), who helped transform the story into a star vehicle for Fred Astaire, George Burns and Gracie Allen. And what a vehicle it is, with dancing, singing and jokes.

Astaire, Burns & Allen in a 1937 RKO publicity photo for the movie
Astaire, Burns & Allen in a 1937 RKO publicity photo for the movie. Click twice to blow up

Fred Astaire plays a song-and-dance man named Jerry Halliday, while Burns and Allen play George Burns and Gracie Allen (We would call that post-modern; they call it vaudeville).

The book is a romantic comedy about a composer of musicals, while the movie goes one step further and is itself a musical. The music, by George and Ira Gershwin, included three songs which became standards — Things Are Looking Up, A Foggy Day, and Nice Work If You Can Get It. With a plot so light it can hardly be called a spoiler alert to say Astaire, playing a star, gets the girl. George Burns plays Astaire’s press agent and Gracie Allen is George’s secretary. Gracie plays a confused dingbat who somehow ends each scene getting what she wants.

Look for the dance sequence at a carnival, shot through funhouse mirrors. (A very different take on funhouse mirrors from the climactic scene in Orson Welles’ “Lady from Shanghai” made in 1948).

This Google movie won’t be seen in the U.S.

There is a revelatory moment in the movie “Google and the World Brain” that is excruciating and fascinating. In the mountains above Barcelona, Spain, Father Damià Roure, library director of the ancient Monastery of Montserrat, shows us one of 23,400 books in his library digitised by Google.

Father Damia Roure
Father Damià Roure

“This was a way of spreading our culture. It gives us great satisfaction that they are available to everybody,” he says as he slowly turns the pages of a 16th century prayer book. The interviewer’s rejoinder is sharp:

‘”Google didn’t pay you to scan your books. Was that fair? What if someone turns this all into a business and makes a profit?”

Father Roure’s lips move; no sound emerges. He bites his lower lip. His chin dimples. His head shakes quickly back and forth and his shoulders take a dip. Still no sound.

“Perhaps the question is too difficult?” says the interviewer.

And so it is. If Father Roure failed to consider that this might be exploitation, instead of charity, then we are all a bit like Father Roure. Are G-mail, YouTube, Picasa, and Android all something for nothing? Is there such a thing as a free lunch after all?

Digital technology has turned traditional notions of value on their head as surely as printing multiplied the power of the written word, or steam trains moved passengers faster than horse-drawn carriages. Ben Lewis, director of the film, says the out-of-print books that are a focus of his film had virtually no value before. But in the new digital economy they are highly valuable, just like Montserrat’s prayer books.

Lewis explores how Google is trying to exploit this value before everyone else wakes up. I once spent time as a Reuters journalist working on the story of the Google books settlement, yet Lewis’s film had new things to teach me.

At the same time that a new Hollywood comedy about Google is being released with great hullabaloo, Lewis cannot get his film distributed in the United States, even though it was a BBC production and exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival.

It would make us question Google’s values, and the value of data we give up willingly every day.
(Disclosure: One of my clients actively opposes Google business practices which have been identified by the European Commission as anti-competitive; I work on this case)