It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.
This week’s musical:
The Sky’s The Limit (1943) – Musical #210
RKO Radio Pictures
Edward H. Griffith
Fred Astaire, Joan Leslie, Robert Benchley, Robert Ryan, Elizabeth Patterson, Marjorie Gateson, Fred Aldrich, Robert Andersen, Richard Davies, Norma Drury, Dorothy Kelly, Neil Hamilton (uncredited), Peter Lawford (uncredited) Eric Blore (uncredited), Amelita Ward (uncredited)
Himself: Freddie Slack and his Orchestra, Ella Mae Morse
Fred Atwell (Astaire) is one of the Flying Tiger pilots during World War II and has been named a hero for all of his successful missions. During his leave back home, he is taken on a personal appearance tour. Tired of the strict schedule, he gets off the train at a stop and decides he’s going to have fun. He meets photographer Joan Manion (Leslie), who he falls for but she believes it just a drifter.
-The song “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” was written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen for this film, which would be performed for the first time by Fred Astaire.
-Sally Sweetland dubbed Joan Leslie in the song “Shining Hour.” Leslie sometimes did her own singing in films, but other times Sweetland dubbed her.
– Fred Astaire staged the dance numbers for the film.
– Ella Mae Morse, Freddie Slack’s singer, was originally announced to be in the cast. Morse was going to sing the song “Harvey the Victory Garden Man,” but it was cut, according to Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography by Peter Levinson
-The popular big band tunes playing in the background, such as “Like the Fella Once Said.”
-Joan Leslie and Fred Astaire make references to their other film co-stars, like Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth and James Cagney.
-Fred Astaire’s first film at RKO since 1939.
-“One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” performed by Fred Astaire
-“Shining Hour” performed by Joan Leslie, dubbed by Sally Sweetland
-“A Lot in Common with You” performed by Joan Leslie and Fred Astaire
When you think of Fred Astaire’s long career from 1933 to 1981, his films with Ginger Rogers often come to mind first. Then following those, perhaps dancing with Vera-Ellen, Audrey Hepburn, Rita Hayworth and the MGM Technicolor musicals with Cyd Charisse.
One that often goes overlooked is “The Sky’s the Limit,” where his leading lady was Joan Leslie.
“The Sky’s the Limit” is different from Fred Astaire’s films up to this point. His musicals with Ginger Rogers, and even “Broadway Melody of 1940” with Eleanor Powell, were generally lavish. The characters appeared wealthy, well-dressed and lived lifestyles that most people wouldn’t.
There are no mirrored floors or ostrich feathers here. This is a time capsule of World War II conditions. For example:
-Joan Leslie is a working girl- a photographer with an office.
-The secretary of Robert Benchley tears her stockings, and she and Fred Astaire discuss how precious stockings are at this time.
-Joan Leslie has an “A” gas rationing sticker in her car windshield, which was the general public sticker that entitled her to four gallons of gas a week.
-Joan Leslie and Fred Astaire visit a serviceman canteen.
Some of these conditions also played into how some scenes were changed. When Joan Leslie and Fred Astaire first meet, he treats her to the dinner she is eating when he finds her. This meal was changed from a full course meal to a hamburger in a diner. There were concerns on how audiences would feel when they would watch Leslie onscreen eating, while they were under food ration conditions.
However, one scene did bring about criticism. In Fred Astaire’s “One for My Baby (and One More For the Road)” number, he smashes glass and mirrors at the bar, which made audiences and critics angry, because it was wasteful during wartime.
In “The Sky’s the Limit,” Fred Astaire plays the everyman: he’s a soldier who has been drafted and is fed up with the war. One thing that does set him apart is that he is an ace flyer in the Flying Tigers. The only other film during this portion of his career that makes him the “everyman” would be “Second Chorus” (1940), where he plays a college student.
While Fred Astaire, who was 44 at this time, was established in his career, Joan Leslie was on the opposite end. Joan Leslie, who turned 18 on the set of “Sky’s the Limit,” was successful at Warner Bros. She had only really been noticed since 1941 with her breakthrough role in “High Sierra,” which brought roles like “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) and “The Hard Way” (1943).
Joan Leslie said she wrote Fred Astaire a letter when she was 16 because she wanted to perform in a film with him. He liked what he read and knew about her, so she auditioned and was accepted for this role. The film was put on hold while he completed “Holiday Inn” (1942), according to the book Puttin’ On the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography by Peter Levinson.
At the point in his career, Leslie was the youngest of his co-stars and had the largest age gap (this would change later on with Jane Powell, Audrey Hepburn, Leslie Caron). While Joan Leslie wasn’t the best dancer, she does a good job and keeps up. You can tell that Astaire, an expert dancer, takes care of his dancer partner so that they look good.
The music in this number is entertaining and lovely, all written by Johnny Mercer. Astaire and Leslie’s best number together is a jive number performed by bandleader Freddie Slack called “A Lot in Common with You.” It’s a mix of tap dancing and boogie-woogie. It’s an exciting number that suits both of their dance styles.
Another standout number is the famous song, “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” which was written for the film and first performed by Fred Astaire. He performs it when he and Joan have a fight. He later said it was “one of the best pieces of material that was written especially for me.”
While I enjoyed the music, never have a mourned for a song that I have never heard like I am right now. The song “Harvey the Victory Garden Man” was to be performed in the film by Freddie Slack’s singer Ella Mae Morse. Morse is one of my favorite singers of the 1940s, and I love a World War II novelty song, so I am so disappointed that this was cut from the film! I haven’t been able to find if this was ever recorded, so let me know if you have any information.
“The Sky’s the Limit” also has some funny scenes with Astaire regular co-stars Eric Blore and Robert Benchley bringing some laughs. Another highlight is Robert Ryan in a small role as one of Astaire’s Flying Tiger buddies in his seventh film role.
This is a fun musical with lovely songs and dance numbers, but the ending isn’t as happy-go-lucky as you might expect. Our two leads are in love, yes, but Astaire’s character has to go back to the Pacific for fighting. It was still uncertain what the outcome of World War II would be, particularly in the Pacific theater where it was not going well.
The ending leaves you feeling bittersweet but hopeful. Will he come back? Joan Leslie’s character was as uncertain as audience members would be about their own loved ones.
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It’s so interesting to hear Astaire do “One for My Baby”, since I’m so familiar with the Sinatra version. Love them both.