THE SKY’S THE LIMIT (Edward H. Griffith, 1943)

More like a sketch than a film, but a full and delightful one, The Sky’s the Limit plays with its wartime audience in an interesting way.
     Fred Astaire plays on-leave Air Force pilot Fred Atwell, who skips out on war bond/propaganda tour, to avoid publicity that will cast him as hero, and incognito, as cowboy Fred Burton, promptly falls in love with a photographer who tries to enlist his services in the war effort. Her name is Joan Manion, and like Astaire she is played by an actress, Joan Leslie, whose first name is the first name of her character. Moreover, both stars refer to recent co-stars: Fred, to Rita Hayworth; Joan, to Jimmy Cagney. Atwell, who wanted to avoid flashing cameras, can’t keep away from Manion’s camera because he doesn’t want to keep away from her. He begs her to photograph him. “Couldn’t I be the fellow who never gets his name mentioned? The one they call ‘a friend?’” he asks her. “You know, Ginger Rogers ‘and friend.’”
     It turns out that this isn’t Crosby-Hope-type “Road”-picture inside-joking. It’s more purposeful than that, for it helps prepare the audience for a sweepingly moving finale. As himself, Atwell is at the air field about to take off, and who should be photographing him but Joan, who of course now knows the truth about Fred, that he isn’t a slacker but a patriotic warrior. They kiss, and as he takes off, in tearful closeup, Joan mouths a prayer whose words we do not hear. The collapse of the barrier between Astaire and Leslie and their roles thus expands to collapse the barrier between these characters and the audience, who fill in the prayer for their own loved ones overseas. How I love popular commercial cinema! It can do things that nothing else can.
     Astaire is fine and Leslie, normally too wholesome for my taste, sparkles in a more sophisticated role than she usually plays. Astaire, who choreographed, gives Leslie a sprightly, charming dance with him that doesn’t strain her limited ability, and he gives himself a spectacular number on top of a bar smashing pyramids of drink glasses with his shoes. The rage it expresses is all out of proportion for the light romantic comedy of masked identity that props up the slight plot. Rather, it suits the horror and viciousness of war, as well as the nonsense of official “heroism” from which Atwell fled in the first place.
     The next year, Preston Sturges went even further in this vein in his sardonic satire Hail the Conquering Hero.

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