The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)

A tuxedoed Fred Astaire dancing across an impossibly polished floor with an elegantly gowned Ginger Rogers remains one of cinema’s most iconic images. Films such as Roberta, Top Hat and Swing Time not only made a bundle for the RKO studio, but also revolutionised the film musical. Though the innovation of how the dancers were filmed was still evident in their last film together at RKO, the dances themselves harked back to an earlier time.

Vernon and Irene Castle were a famous dance couple of the 1910’s. After a brief courtship, the newlyweds travel to Paris with the promise of stage work. Though this doesn’t eventuate, their success at the Café de Paris leads to a triumphant return home where they promote modern dance, fashion and various other accoutrements. After a successful whirlwind tour of the States, their plans to settle down and start a family are derailed by the outbreak of WWI.

This biopic faithfully recreates several of the dances popularised by the Castles, much to its detriment. Astaire and Rogers' performances of the foxtrot, tango and maxixe may be technically flawless, but they lack the fun and illusory spontaneity of the team’s earlier work. This is no more evident when contrasted with the scenes that occur before the Castle's find fame, be it Astaire’s dance with Sonny Lamont to ‘By the Light of the Silvery Moon’ or auditioning with Rogers to ‘Waiting for the Robert E. Lee’.

Despite the team's effortless charm, and amiable support from Walter Brennan and Edna May Oliver, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle failed to repeat the team's earlier successes. Their last film together, The Barkleys of Broadway, was made ten years later at MGM.

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Irene Castle, who served as a technical adviser on the film, objected that the recreation of her childhood home made it look lower-middle class.

Ginger Rogers refused to dye or cut her hair in Irene’s Castle’s trendsetting fashion.

 

Walter Ash, portrayed by Walter Brennan in the film, was actually an African-American.

 

The character of Maggie Sutton is based on Elisabeth Marbury.

Biopic has a brief behind-the-scenes segment featuring Irene Castle’s starring role in Patria (1917). Though not mentioned in the film, Vernon and Irene did co-star in The Whirl of Life, a fictionalised version of their lives. 

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