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"I don’t change the facts to enhance the drama. I think of it the other way round, the drama has got to fit the facts,
and it’s your job as a writer to find the shape in real life."
Hilary Mantel


Sep 30, 2021

Biopic Blogathon: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

 

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, filmed in 1938 for release in 1939, was the ninth and penultimate pairing of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, and their final picture for RKO. And it was the duo’s first and only period piece.


Together we had drunk our cup of Fame
And side by side had loved, and worked, and played
And Life to us seemed but a happy game;
We met our fortunes laughing—unafraid.
Irene Castle

 Production Background and Source Material

 RKO’s script was based on Mrs. Castle’s books, My Husband and My Memories of Vernon Castle, but production was delayed for two years after acquiring the rights. The producers never refuted Irene’s firm belief that they would acquiesce to her demand for a nationwide search for the actress to portray her (inspired by David O. Selznick’s well-publicized "Search for Scarlett.") But from the outset, the project was intended for Ginger and Fred.

During pre-production, Ginger had her first meeting with the former ballroom and cabaret dancer, and reminisced about it in her memoir. “What an entrance she made! … I could hear the rustle of taffeta and the swishing of her dress. Then the door opened and in she swept. Irene Castle was tall, at least 5’10”. [Ginger was six inches shorter.] Everything she wore was gray: gloves, shoes, hat, and purse…She looked as if she had stepped out of a Vogue magazine from the early 1920s.”

Surprisingly, despite being offered the role of her own mother, Irene declined. She received script and casting approval, and was put under contract as technical advisor. An assertive personality and a stickler for accuracy, she insisted that Ginger appear as a brunette in the film, with short, bobbed hair in the style made popular as the “Castle Bob.” Didn’t happen. The director, Hank Potter, constantly ran interference, according to Ginger, “with care and tact.”

Irene achieved victory in the area of choreography and to a lesser extent, in costuming. She worked closely with Hermes Pan, already familiar with the Castles’ manual Modern Dancing, recreating dance steps she and her husband had performed. Ginger’s dance dresses were designed to replicate the ones worn by Irene, and she was excited by the prospect of wearing historical costumes from decades earlier. The studio spent a total of $2,775 on her wardrobe.


Irene & Vernon and Ginger & Fred

But Irene had scant understanding of the concept of “interpretation” and was constantly disappointed in Ginger, who later reflected that Fred had it easy, because Mrs. Castle was so intently focused on her portrayer. Besides, all along, Irene had wanted Fred to play Vernon, and was especially pleased that he could fit into her late husband’s military uniforms. During Fred’s early career dancing with his sister Adele, he’d often witnessed the Castles in action and remembered some of their dances well enough to help Hermes Pan revive them. was further instructed by Mrs. Castle herself.

The film contains seven dance duets, some extremely brief. The music and songs were faithful to those of the Castles’ performances, apart from “Only When You’re in My Arms,” which was composed for the film.

Although the movie was popular with audiences, it wasn’t entirely successful for the studio, failing to make a profit and recording a loss of $50,000.

 The Film

For audiences, then and now, accustomed to the lightweight plots of an Astaire-Rogers musical, the witty banter and repartee, misunderstanding-based conflict, and dances that reflect and inform the romantic plot, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle contains numerous differences. As a biopic, it’s a straightforward—if not wholly factual—presentation of the real-life performers’ courtship, dance partnership, and wartime separation, and (spoiler) a tragic accidental death. Fred, collaborating with Hermes Pan, choreographed solo dances for himself and to perform with Ginger, specific to the films they made together. The Castles were famous for exhibition dances performed for live audiences in theatres and cabarets. Their original creations became popular as social dances that anyone could learn—the Castle Walk, the Castle Polka, the Maxixe. They also added flair to existing dances like the Turkey Trot and the Foxtrot.

The Story. 


Zowie (flim version), with Ginger & Fred 
Young Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers), a New Rochelle doctor’s daughter, aspires to a stage career. When she encounters English vaudeville comedian Vernon Castle (Fred Astaire) at the seaside, where they save a small fluffy white dog from drowning, she invites him home and gives a drawing-room performance of “The Yama-Yama Man,” in a Pierrot clown suit, copying Bessie McCoy, the originator. It fails to impress her parents or Vernon. Later, at the railway station, the indifferent vaudevillian breaks into a dance, convincing Irene that his talents are wasted in broad slapstick comedy roles for producer Lew Fields (appearing as himself). She’s already smitten, he eventually succumbs. They dance together. They marry. They accept an employment offer from a pair of Parisian producers believing they will perform together as a couple. On arrival in Paris, with the little dog Zowie and omnipresent servant Walter (Walter Brennan), Vernon discovers that he’s supposed to appear in his old vaudeville routine. A chance encounter with a formidable female talent agent (Edna May Oliver), secures them a fine dinner at the Café de Paris restaurant and cabaret and the chance to dance there the following night. But when the extremely hungry couple sit down for their delectable meal, a Russian Grand Duke demands that they dance there and then. Vernon escorts Irene, in her wedding dress and lacy Dutch cap, to the floor. Their massive success and lasting legend are instantly assured.

Irene becomes a worldwide fashion icon, influencing dresses, shoes, and hairstyles. They exhibit their talents across the continent, these cross-country tours revealed in a process montage across a map of America. They acquire numerous animals in addition to Zowie, the little dog that brought them together. All is peachy—apart from occasional references to excess expenditures—until World War I breaks out, and Vernon feels the call to enter the fray on behalf of his native land. Irene embarks on a silent film career. Vernon’s daring exploits as an aviator are depicted. He and Irene meet up in Paris. Eventually he returns to America as a military flying instructor in Texas. On the day of his long-awaited reunion with his eager wife, he’s involved in a fatal airplane accident—and is lauded as a hero for saving his pupil’s life.

Reality vs. Fiction

Fred Astaire bears an uncanny resemblance to Vernon Castle, though his personality was quite different. As previously stated, Ginger looked nothing like Irene Castle and neither she nor the studio had any intention of altering her appearance.

Walter Ash, the family servant of Irene Foote’s family and the Castles’ devoted retainer, was a Black man. In later years, Irene complained about his being “whitewashed” into Walter Brennan in order not to offend exhibitors or audiences in the South. This might or might not be true.

The couple’s “meet cute” didn’t happen that way, and “The Yama-Yama Man” played no part. Vernon helped Irene get a proper audition with Lew Fields, who cast her in a show. Vernon’s barber shop routine, however, is based on fact.

The real-life Zowie was an un-fluffy bulldog-type. He did accompany the couple to Paris, where they performed in vaudeville revues and lived hand to mouth, as depicted in the film.

It was a male agent who booked the Castles at the Café de Paris. On that first night their dinner was interrupted by a Russian aristocrat who insisted on their dancing immediately, but it wasn’t exactly an impromptu performance—they’d previously rehearsed with the orchestra. Irene was indeed wearing her wedding dress and her Dutch bonnet. The Russian paid them a tip of 300 francs. The result was a six-month engagement at the same venue, augmented by private performances.

The Castles did travel throughout Europe with a German Shepherd dog that they brought back to the States.

The Castle House—its façade appears briefly on screen—was their dancing academy, and they operated the Sans Souci restaurant at 42nd and Broadway, and a beachside nightclub. The movie makes it seems that they were financially as well as professionally successful as entrepreneurs, but this is misleading. Vernon had lavish tastes and was a spendthrift, causing practical Irene considerable dismay and concern.

During World War I, Vernon joined the Royal Flying Corps and was a distinguished and decorated aviator, receiving the Croix de Guerre in 1917. Achieving the rank of Captain Castle, he was transferred to Canada as a flight instructor before arriving in Fort Worth for that fateful final flight. He took the front seat and insisted on his pupil taking the rear one. This was his final act of heroism, because when he made his risky maneuver to avoid colliding with another training plane he was in the more vulnerable position, and it cost him his life. As indicated in the film, his student did survive.


Vernon Castle shortly before his death by airplane

The final image of the Castles dancing together leaves the impression that Vernon was the love of Irene’s life. This may be the case. However, his indomitable widow ultimately had nearly as many husbands (four) as Ginger Rogers (five).



Conclusion

In their own time, Fred and Ginger were the 1930s edition of the Vernon and Irene phenomenon—a wildly popular dance partnership, omnipresent in the media of the day, recipients of international acclaim, and cultural and fashion influencers. This biopic provided Ginger with the meatier dramatic role she’d been angling for. The movie concludes during one world war and at the time of its release a second such conflict was already well under way, and again the U.S. was slow to join the fight. The demise of Fred’s character, as Ginger points out in her memoir, presaged the death of their dance partnership, which wasn’t revived until they reunited a decade later for The Barkleys of Broadway at MGM.


Don't forget to visit other Biopic Blogathon entries!