A minor Fred Astaire musical with not a lot of music, or dancing for that matter, The Sky's the Limit (1943) is still worthwhile because of its stars and for Astaire's knock-out solo number near the end. Some have described the film as a departure for the dancer-singer-actor, that it offers Astaire a rare (early) dramatic role. The movie doesn't really bear this out, as it's more a strange grafting of genre conventions from his '30s musicals at RKO onto then-current wartime propaganda, though the very last scene almost validates this assertion. Overall, it's pretty creaky compared to the more ambitious musicals Astaire would be making at MGM just a few years later.
A Warner Archive Collection manufactured-on-demand release, The Sky's the Limit is, like most '40s RKO titles, in pretty rough shape. It's a good transfer of damaged goods: there are several jarring jump cuts/splices, a few tears, and scratches throughout. The previous night I watched an RKO title from ten years before, the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy Diplomaniacs (1933), which contrastingly looked great. Who'd have guessed the earlier, more obscure comedy would be in much better condition than the newer, bigger-scale Astaire musical?
Flying Tigers Fred Atwell (Fred Astaire), Richard Merlin (Richard Davies), and Reginald Fenton (Robert Ryan, in an early role), having shot down a record number of Jap planes over the Pacific, are feted with a 10-day leave/whirlwind personal appearance tour, in ironic scenes not unlike those found in Clint Eastwood's film of Flags of Our Fathers. Fred, annoyed by all the attention, hops off the train, goes AWOL (a little detail strangely ignored by all) and hitchhikes to New York City.
There, love-'em-and-leave-'em playboy Fred falls in love for real with magazine celebrity photographer Joan Manyon (Joan Leslie, on loan from Warner Bros.). He's impressed when she pleads to her boss/fiancé Phil Harriman (Robert Benchley, very good as always) to let her join the war effort as a front-lines photographer.
The Sky's the Limit adopts the same strange conceit as most of Astaire's early starring films. He figures the way to win a woman's heart is to badger her into submission, stalking her mercilessly until she gives in to his charms. In The Sky's the Limit one of his tactics is to break into Joan's apartment and cook her breakfast. It's hard to imagine this ever being attempted in a movie made today, and it works here only because Astaire is so effortlessly appealing, even when he's playing an over-confident creep.
The movie's plot also adopts another plot contrivance producing strange side effects. Not wanting to be recognized, and to avoid turning all attention to his flying exploits, Atwell adopts the name Fred Burton, pretending to be a talented but insufferable ne'er-do-well disinterested in aiding the war effort. Joan, falling for Fred but continually frustrated by his lack of commitment and dismissive attitude about absolutely everything, doesn't know whether to marry or slug him.
It's an odd plot device, one that a few years before probably would have cast Astaire as a multi-millionaire pretending not to be, and emphatically unambitious about finding a job. In The Sky's the Limit, however, Fred's just a jerk, though an undeniably charming one. But once it's clear Fred and Joan are nuts about one another, why doesn't he come clean?
(Mild Spoilers) For nearly the entire picture, Fred Atwell behaves much too frivolously for Astaire to do anything like serious dramatic acting but at the very end, there's an unexpectedly touching, emotional reunion between Fred and Joan, as Fred prepares to fly off on another dangerous mission. For the first and only time in the picture, the reality that Fred might not be coming back is made plain, and a rush of emotions pour out: Fred and Joan reunited when they thought their relationship was kaput, the realization that they love one another after all, the pain of separating for an undetermined period of time, etc. It's all there in their faces, and this one scene alone almost justifies the rest of the picture. It's strange though that nothing that comes before prepares the audience for this. Even the extremely brief montage at the beginning, of Fred and his fellow Flying Tigers shooting down Japanese Zeros, is routine and uninteresting.
There's much less singing and dancing than the usual Astaire vehicle. He doesn't dance at all for the first half-hour or so. However, he introduces Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)," one of the great '40s standards, in one of Astaire's most-celebrated solo numbers. It's unusual because, maybe for the first time, Astaire's dancing expresses bitterness, and his character at that moment is drunk, angry, and even violent. The highlight comes when he dances on the bar itself ("Set 'em up, Joe...") and he begins kicking and smashing glasses and mirrors. Reportedly Astaire eschewed "candy glass" opting for the real thing and cut his ankles during filming.
The song "My Shining Hour" is performed several times, first played by a band whose instruments are outlined with neon lights. It's an effect done better before. Here the trumpets, saxophones, drumsticks, etc., are obviously fakes and the massive wiring powering these "instruments" is extremely clunky if not extremely dangerous. The band looks ready to be electrocuted at any moment. Later, Fred and Joan dance to the same song, a lovely sequence harkening back to Astaire's partnership with Ginger Rogers. Probably because of her background in Vaudeville as a child, Joan Leslie performs admirably opposite Fred and she's wonderfully naturalistic throughout.
Eric Blore, Neil Hamilton, and Peter Lawford turn up in small, uncredited parts.
Video & Audio
The Sky's the Limit is another victim of poor preservation (pre-Turner) of the RKO film library, whose '30s-'50s titles seem to have suffered more than any of the other major studios. Here, there are at least two jump cuts necessitated by obvious splices, and the audio drops out at the end of a couple of scenes. The film also has a lot of damage in terms of negative scratches and other wear, though the video transfer tries to make the best of a bad situation. The region-free disc's Dolby Digital mono audio (English only), with no alternate language or subtitle options, is adequate. No Extra Features.
A lesser Fred Astaire musical, The Sky's the Limit does nevertheless have many fine individual components and for that reason is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.