Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Sky’s the Limit (RKO, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

When I got home TCM was running one of Fred Astaire’s more obscure movies, The Sky’s the Limit, a 1943 musical made at RKO (Astaire’s last film for the studio that had made him and Ginger Rogers stars in the films they made there together) in which his co-star was Joan Leslie, borrowed from Warner Bros. and fresh from her triumph in Yankee Doodle Dandy with James Cagney, while Astaire was fresh from his two films at Columbia, You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier, opposite Rita Hayworth. I watched about half of it — Charles came home while it was on, didn’t recognize it and asked if we’d ever watched it together (I’m sure we had, but I don’t have a listing for it on the computer), and I got to see Astaire do a dance with Joan Leslie that’s surprisingly close in look, feel and actual steps to the great numbers with Rogers (in his outro to the film Robert Osborne said that a recent book on Astaire had said that of all his subsequent partners Leslie danced the most like Rogers) as well as the most incredible number from the film, “One for My Baby.” Like “Night and Day” and “Change Partners,” this is a song that today is primarily identified with Frank Sinatra but was actually written for Astaire — and the song’s mood as presented here couldn’t be more different from the sad, self-pitying way Sinatra sang it. (Reviewing the Johnny Mercer documentary The Dream’s on Me — Mercer not only wrote the lyrics to “One for My Baby,” with Harold Arlen supplying the music, he made a surprisingly assertive straight-up record of it for his own label, Capitol — I wrote, “[W]here Astaire made it angry and Sinatra made it sad, Mercer’s made it rather lighthearted — Astaire’s protagonist literally trashed the bar, Sinatra’s was probably going to fall asleep in his cups, while Mercer’s was going to go home, sleep it off and wake bright and refreshed the following day.”)

Astaire’s “One for My Baby” is one of the great solo numbers of his career; in the overall film he plays a pilot with the famed Flying Tigers who’s been given a week’s leave in New York City with his two buddies from the squadron (one of whom is played by the young Robert Ryan, who puts a lot more intensity and viciousness into what was supposed to be an ordinary comic villain than writers S. K. Lauren, William T. Ryder, Frank Fenton and Lynn Root intended), ducks out on a big publicity tour and tries to live incognito and use his disguise as an ambition-less drifter to win the heart of magazine photographer Joan Manion (Joan Leslie) — incidentally Astaire is also playing a character with the same first name as his own: he’s Fred Atwell but calls himself “Fred Burton” as part of his incognito. Frustrated at all the roadblocks that have been thrown up in the way of his affair with Joan — from the ragging of his two Army Air Corps buds to Joan’s insistence that he get a job either with her boss, Phil Harriman (Robert Benchley in his second film with Astaire, after You’ll Never Get Rich), a character obviously based on Time and Life publisher Henry Luce, or with Sloan (Clarence Kolb), an airplane company CEO whom Fred pisses off by telling him in detail exactly what’s wrong with his planes and how difficult they are to fly in combat — he ends up in the bar of the fancy hotel where he and Joan met. Of course, it’s quarter to three and there’s no one in the place except Fred and a bartender who is almost inevitably named Joe, and as he sings the song Fred gets angrier and angrier until he literally trashes the bar, breaking glasses right and left and climaxing by throwing a barstool through the bar’s heavy glass mirror, shattering it. (Some comments on’s trivia page for this film indicate that Astaire cut his shins and ankles on all the broken glass, and that RKO got letters attacking them for breaking so much glass in the movie when ordinary Americans were being urged to turn glass in to be melted down and reused for the war effort — though I suspect much of the “glass” in that sequence was actually spun sugar, Hollywood’s usual substitute for glass when they were doing a sequence in which glass got broken, accidentally or intentionally.) It’s a stunning number and the song buzzes with anger during Astaire’s bar-trashing dance — in which, as he did in the “Say It with Firecrackers” number in Holiday Inn, he manages to suggest drunkenness while still maintaining absolute control over his body — whereas years of hearing Sinatra sing it have conditioned to regard it as sad.

One alternative book on the Academy Awards (meaning in this case “alternative” to Robert Osborne’s Academy-sanctioned official history) criticized the Academy for not nominating “One for My Baby” for Best Song, but in those days the Best Song nominations were in the hands of the studios, not the Academy. Each studio picked a song from one of their movies and put it up for Best Song, and the nominations process just whittled down this list to five before the full Academy voted one of the five as the winner — and in 1944 RKO decided “My Shining Hour” (a great song, both as played here by Freddie Slack and His Orchestra with Astaire singing and he and Joan dancing to it, and as later covered by John Coltrane on the Coltrane Jazz album on Atlantic) would be their choice for this film and “One for My Baby” would not. “One for My Baby” is the highlight of an inconsistent but often marvelous movie (let’s face it, anything with Fred Astaire — even his all-time weakest musical, Second Chorus — is worth watching) that also includes “My Shining Hour,” “A Lot in Common” (a duet for Astaire and Leslie — actually, in Leslie’s case, her voice double, Sally Sweetland — that includes Astaire asking Leslie, “Where’s Cagney?,” and her replying, “Where’s Hayworth?”) and a weird snake dance on a table Ryan dares Astaire to do, threatening to “out” him if he doesn’t. There’s also a nice in-joke in which, trying to get close to Joan by getting in one of her photos, Astaire plaintively asks, “Couldn’t I be the fellow who never gets his name mentioned? The one they call ‘a friend’? You know: ‘Ginger Rogers — and friend.’” I’d always thought the “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels” jokes were relatively recent, or at least post the second-wave feminist movement in the early 1970’s, but here’s a variant of them spoken by Astaire himself; as Arlene Croce noted in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Astaire and Rogers got along personally but were both ferociously ambitious about their careers, and each wanted to show that they could get along and have hit films without the other!