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With Fred Astaire's most lauded works being readily available to the public, I've always thought it a great treat to stumble into his lesser known, harder-to-find films. THE SKY'S THE LIMIT qualifies as such, and it's a darn good movie. Here, Astaire has a more dramatic role than usual and he proves to be capable in it. Meanwhile, there's the usual excellent dancing and the showcasing of two great song standards.
Fred plays Fred Atwell, an ace pilot of the world famous Flying Tigers. After another successful mission, the Tigers are sent on a stateside promotional tour, but Fred, wanting to get away from it all for a bit, decides to skip out and have fun on his own. He ends up in a New York nightclub and meets fledgling magazine photographer Joan Manion (Joan Leslie), whom he rapidly rubs the wrong way. Not wishing to be bombarded with questions re the Flying Tigers, he presents himself as a carefree, out-of-work fella named Fred Burton. Fred goes on the chase and eventually wins Joan over. But it doesn't take long before she begins to question Fred's casual work ethic and seemingly aimless nature (as set in the WW2 backdrop, these are especially frowned on qualities). Things get even more thorny when his casual fling turns serious as Fred, knowing that he's only on a short leave and must soon depart, finds himself falling hard for Joan.
THE SKY'S THE LIMIT, released in 1943, isn't one of Fred Astaire's best when compared to his many classic pictures (I still rate it 4.5 out of 5 stars). When viewed strictly on its own merit, it becomes a more accomplished work. Part of the reason that this film didn't perform as well as hoped in the box office was that it was promoted strictly as a lighthearted musical-comedy. The depth and dark undercurrent must've come as a surprise to the viewers back then. This film was made in the throes of WW2 and presented a departure from the normally happy and bouncy Fred Astaire product. Here, Fred gets a chance to do some acting and acquits himself well with his more callous and bleaker-than-norm character. Too, the love story starts out light and frivolous but then rapidly evolves into a bittersweet, whirlwind romance, which must've struck close to home with the wartime viewers.
Although the general feel of the film is one of lighthearted comedy, one can never fully forget that the froth takes place during the wartime backdrop. The presence of World War 2 is a constant quiet intrusion, affecting everything that goes on in the film. There's a sense of urgency implied in Fred's antics as he's perfectly (and maybe even desperately) aware of the limited time he has to seek out his fun. To him and most of the soldiers on leave, money is nothing while making the most of your alloted time is everything. It gives this film an added resonance.
Songwriter Johnny Mercer contributes two great songs: the wartime ballad "My Shining Hour" and the wistful lament "One For My Baby." There's also his "A Lot in Common With You" but that tune's merely decent, even if the lyrics are clever. Proving again that he's as graceful a singer as he is a hoofer, Fred delivers an easy going spoofy rendition of "My Shining Hour." His singing of "One For My Baby," on the other hand, is anything but easy going. His enraged and drunken performance of "One For My Baby" is the hands down showstopper of the film. It's a virtuoso act as Fred kick-shatters real glass and dances with vivid emotional rawness. Meanwhile, his ballroom dance with Leslie to "My Shining Hour" is typically elegant. Now, Fred isn't classically handsome, by any means (with his elongated face, he looks more like Mr. Peanut). More often than not, in his films, he wears down the girl with his good-natured but dogged pursuit. Short, lean, and balding, he relies on his cosmopolitan charisma and dancing feet to win the girl. Accordingly, it's his unwelcome, oneupmanship duet with Joan in "A Lot In Common With You" which makes her grudgingly begin to reciprocate his feelings. It's in this number that names of Astaire and Leslie's past film partners are tongue-in-cheeked invoked. Good fun.
I've always liked Joan Leslie (never better than in YANKEE DOODLE DANDY). She's wholesomely lovely, down to earth, and can hold her own in the song & dance department. She reminds me of Debbie Reynolds, but not as cheeky. For a while in her career, she played opposite male leads much older than she. She was 16 when she played 40-year-old Gary Cooper's love interest in SERGEANT YORK. Here, Joan was 18 (although made up to look older), Fred was 44. But never mind. They're both good in their roles and convincing and heartbreaking as a couple in love. Robert Benchley is a welcome addition as the funny and cynical magazine editor who attempts to be Fred's rival for Joan. Don't miss his bemused bargraph/chart lecture; it's a howl. A young Robert Ryan also briefly shows up as Fred's kinda cruel but steadfast Flying Tiger pal.
No, THE SKY'S THE LIMIT will never be mistaken for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES. But, beneath the bubbly facade, the film does strive to depict the day-to-day goings-on of life in the wartime era (and this was even before the U.S. officially joined WW2). As such, there's a hefty undercurrent of somberness and of events in unpredictable flux that makes this film even more relevant as we simultaneously enjoy it as a giddy Astaire vehicle. Unlike most of Astaire's films, which tout a blithely happy ending, this one ends on a bittersweet note. As Fred and a tearful Joan part ways and as he returns to his perilous job, uncertainty clouds the air. I can't help but wonder if Fred made it thru okay and met up with his Joan again. But we'll never know.
Note: other Fred Astaire gems which aren't widely heralded but shouldn't be forgotten: SECOND CHORUS, DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (with Joan Fontaine & Burns and Allen), THREE LITTLE WORDS (awesome movie!), and THE PLEASURE OF HIS COMPANY (although he doesn't really dance in this one). Even THE BELLE OF NEW YORK and YOLANDA AND THE THIEF, which aren't as entertaining, are still passable fare. I'm biased, though, because I consider Fred Astaire to be the best dancer in film EVER, a class act, and one of my all-time favorites in cinema. So, in my eyes, every picture he was ever in, however modest, is just cause for trumpeting.