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).

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