A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.”  By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.

But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.

After her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the blockbuster Captain Blood, Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s most promising rookie of 1935.

Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.

After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.

But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.

After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways.  Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.

And Astaire?  Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner.  He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all.  He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing.  How hard could it be to teach someone else?

Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.

She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.

A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.

She should’ve chosen not to accept it.

It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film.  Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.

The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love.  It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.

Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.

They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne.  In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.

Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing.  Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.

All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.

Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.

The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans.  Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American.  The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.

After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American.  Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle.  He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)

Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.

By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.

The film was not a success.  The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together.  Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.

As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.

It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?

But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)

It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood.  Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.

Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.

An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.

Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.

Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.

Game on, girls.

Sources

  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  • Behlmer, Martin, ed.  Memo from David O. Selznick

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

3 thoughts on “A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

  1. Man, that is some generic song and dance! Could have come from 100 films, although not maybe with the same fluid moves from FA.. Not playing to JF’s strengths at all; Rebecca really is the film role that seemed to suit her, and she nailed the character in a way the Netflix remake got all wrong. keen to see where this’ll take you next…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: The Affairs of Susan (1945):  Split Personalities | Melanie Novak

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