27 November 2009 | Doghouse-6
Highs and Lows
Very much in the Fred Astaire canon of the 30's-40's (Fred meets girl, Fred exasperates girl, Fred wins girl over on the dance floor), THE SKY'S THE LIMIT - although uneven - contains some of Astaire's best and most unusual moments on film. It's worth getting past a few jarring notes to access them.
In almost every one of his musicals, Fred plays some extension of the same character: the lovestruck, earnest but insouciant sophisticate, and for some reason the standard formula required Fred to annoy the object of his affection upon their initial meeting - and often for some time after. This picture frequently carries the gimmick to inexplicable extremes.
The recipient of Fred's love at first sight is magazine photographer Joan Leslie, who although not quite a triple-threat (her singing voice is courtesy of Sally Sweetland, but she could dance and handle both comedy and drama; call her a two-and-a-half threat) is generally up to the task, and projects a maturity far beyond her 18 (yup: 18) years. Supplying able assistance is Robert Benchley as Joan's editor and would-be suitor, who has moments hinting at more depth as an actor than he was usually given an opportunity to display.
With Fred portraying a Flying Tiger ace who skips out on a PR tour to enjoy a few days of fun before returning to duty, there are elements of wartime morale-boosting, but only around the edges, and in what sometimes is an almost subversive vein. After enduring a discourse on "how to win this war" from the man who has given him a lift to town, Astaire's only response is, "What's your classification?" "4-F," the man answers, to which Astaire replies, "That's what I thought."
In an odd bit of casting, Robert Ryan appears as one of Fred's Air Forces buddies, but takes the script's intended mischief a bit too seriously. In scenes that call for him to merely tease, he practically drips with menace. That quality would serve him well in subsequent films, but here it's one of the aforementioned jarring notes.
There's still plenty of fun along the way, and the script is sprinkled with in-jokes, such as references to some of Astaire and Leslie's costars in earlier films, or Benchley's series of celebrated two-reel shorts for MGM in the 30's (Joan tells of a wedding proposal from him that digressed to a lecture about "the sex life of a polyp"). Indeed, Benchley delivers one of his trademark disorganized addresses at a fete honoring an industrialist, and while it brings the story to a halt for a few minutes, you won't really mind if you're a fan.
The crown jewel of THE SKY'S THE LIMIT is one of Astaire's best vocalizations of one of the best songs ever written for him, "One For My Baby (and One More For the Road"), along with one of his most adventurous dance solos, in which a night of bar-hopping after a falling-out with Leslie culminates in an explosive choreographic release of frustration and fury, at the posh nightspot where they first met.
This may not become one of your favorite Astaire pictures, but there are rewards if you can overlook a few rough spots.