Monday, September 13, 2010

Film Review: The Sky's the Limit (1943)

War pilot Fred Astaire pretends to be a drifter while
wooing Joan Leslie in The Sky's the Limit.
Last Thursday I went to the great Golden-Age movie palace the Stanford Theatre in order to see an obscure Fred Astaire film called The Sky's the Limit. I had seen this film before--probably at the Stanford--but it failed to make an impression on me all. In fact all I could remember about it was that Fred played a fighter pilot. So obviously it's obscure for a reason.

Still, I'm of the opinion that a movie featuring the greatest dancer ever to grace the silver screen can't be without some merit, even if it's a piece of wartime fluff such as this, which I normally condemn on principle. For Astaire fans I would say that this movie is certainly worth viewing because in Fred's three dance numbers his performance do not fail to disappoint. Not only did Astaire choreograph all his dances himself, but he took pains to ensure each had a unique look to it in order both to show his versatility and to keep from being a one-note performer. As a connoisseur of Fred Astaire, therefore, I cannot help looking with admiration and delight at each of his numbers.

So what's this movie about besides and hour and a half (pardon the bad joke)? Well, just as I remembered, Fred plays a decorated fighter pilot on leave who is being paraded around the country as a poster-boy/moral-booster. Tired of being on the pedestal with no time to relax, he ditches his unit and goes roaming across the country, ending up in NYC where he falls in love with a lovely photographer played by Joan Leslie. The only problem is that Fred doesn't want to tell her he's a war hero because--he says but doesn't elaborate sufficiently--he fears that she would have him talking about nothing else since her dream is to be a war correspondent.

Perhaps I'm too removed from that wartime generation to get it, but this motivation seems dreadfully insufficient to me, especially since it significantly hinders his courtship with the girl he likes, and he only has a short time in which to woo her. To me this is just laziness on the part of the screenwriters. It's a lame excuse in order to draw out the plot, especially when there could be lots of more believable reasons why he'd want to conceal his identity from her and that would still serve the purpose they wanted plot-wise.

In addition the film suffers from an uninspired writing for the minor characters, something that's usually vital for a romantic comedy. For example they had a potential for a lot of humor out of the fact that Joan Leslie entertains in a soldiers' canteen, and when Fred follows her there pretending to be a civilian, he runs into the other members of his squadron, who don't torment him nearly as much as they should to make a comedy really entertaining. Again, this speaks of laziness on the writer's part.

Inspired plots, however, are not the reason people go to see musicals. That can be easily forgiven if the signing and dancing is good enough. Is it, though, in this case? Yes and no. There are only three musical numbers in the whole movie, and while that's not nearly enough to carry us through ninety minutes, the three numbers are quite good. The score by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer features the immortal "One More for My Baby," which would also be featured in the much better film Cover Girl the next year, and two more songs which, while not fabulous are sweet and appropriate. I've already hinted that Astaire's dancing is inspired, but now let me say that he treats us to a vaudeville-style light duet with Joan Leslie, which is cute and peppy, a passionate love piece, and  a drunken despairing solo of "One More for My Baby." I know a good performance should always leave us wanting more, but in this case it's so little as to make us feel cheated.

Fred Astaire is such a superb performer that I'm going to give him a 6 out of 10 just for being himself and giving us some entertaining songs and dances, but he's the only asset this film has.

Buy it now:
The Sky's the Limit [VHS]Cover Girl

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