Reviewed by DAN STUMPF:
P. G. WODEHOUSE – A Damsel in Distress. Herbert Jenkins, UK, hardcover, 1919. George H. Doran Company, US, hardcover, 1919. Reprinted many times in both hardcover and soft.
A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS. RKO, 1937. Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Reginald Gardiner, Montagu Love, Ray Noble. Written by Wodehouse, Ernest Pagano, S.K. Lauren, William J. Burns and P.J. Wolfson. Music by George Gershwin. Dance Director: Hermes Pan . Directed by George Stevens.
A tale that finds the author at the top of his form, A Damsel in Distress was adapted as a silent film the year it was published, then as a play in 1928, and finally as a lush RKO musical in 1937. The book itself mines all the usual rich veins of Wodehouse: the stately castle presided over by an Earl (Emsworth in all but name — this Earl nurses roses instead of a prize pig.) the standard iron-clad Aunt, cunning servants, young lovers, dithering relations, and a young demi-lord who could stand as Bertie Wooster’s twin brother.
The amazing thing is that Wodehouse could return to the same plots, themes, characters and motifs time and again without ever getting stale. In this case, he takes for his hero a composer of popular musicals, one George Bevan (who coincidentally has the same occupation and initials as Wodehouse’s long-time collaborator, the incurably romantic Guy Bolton), whose life is agreeably upset one day on a London street when a desperate young lady (the Damsel in Distress) jumps in his taxi and begs him to hide her.
From there on, things go as one expects them to: He falls in love; she does too but doesn’t realize it; identities are mistaken, plans laid, plots hatched, things go awry and then get wryed back up again. No surprises here, just laugh-out-loud humor as Wodehouse weaves the tale with his customary understated hyperbole and stream-of-non-sequiturs narration.
I was struck though by how astute and likable our hero turned out to be — characters in Wodehouse tend to be either one or the other, but seldom both to this degree — and I found myself wondering if this were a mark of the author’s affection for his life-long friend, Bevan’s character model.
Be that as it may, I read a biography of Wodehouse once that deplored the RKO film of Damsel in Distress, and Wodehouse himself said he contributed remarkably little to it, but I find it a hard film to deplore or even dislike.
This Damsel is a charming thing, faithful in its fashion to the novel, and where it departs from the text it does so with admirable aplomb; for example, a meeting between the plot-crossed lovers set in a smelly barn in the book is relocated to a fun-fair for splendidly cinematic results. Joan Fontaine seems a pluperfect romantic heroine, and even Burns & Allen enter into the Wodehousian spirit admirably.
I was struck also by the inspiration in re-shaping the romantic Bevan. Someone at RKO must have noticed that they had cast Fred Astaire in the part (rechristened Jerry Halliday for some reason) and hit upon the happy notion to make him not a musical composer but a musical star! One applauds the cutting-edge creativity involved, as this lets them slip in several highly enjoyable dance numbers, including a fine bit with Burns & Allen, who turn out to be talented hoofers themselves.
I don’t know which of the phalanx of writers came up with this idea, but I’m glad whoever it was took the concept by the horns and talked the others around to his way of thinking — just imagine how otherwise this might have turned out had they missed this boat and the character remained a composer; the notion of scenes with Astaire sitting at his desk trying to find a rhyme for “Lady Alyce Marshmorton” simply doesn’t bear thinking about.
Oh, and I wanted to say something about the music by George Gershwin, but once you’ve said “Music by George Gershwin” what more is there?