The last of RKO's Fred Astaire
vehicles, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
is also the least typical. At their best playing carefree characters in gossamer-thin musical comedy plotlines, Fred and Ginger seem slightly ill at ease cast as the real-life dancing team of Vernon and Irene Castle. The stripped-to-essentials storyline boils down to novice dancer Irene (Rogers) convincing vaudeville comic Vernon (Astaire) to give up slapstick in favor of "classy" ballroom dancing. With the help of agent Edna May Oliver
, the Castles hit their peak of fame and fortune in the immediate pre-World War I years. When Vernon is called to arms, Irene stays behind in the US, making patriotic movie serials to aid the war effort. Vernon is killed in a training accident, leaving a tearful Irene to carry on alone. To soften the shock of Astaire's on-screen death (it still packs a jolt when seen today), RKO inserted a closing "dream" dancing sequence, with a spectral Vernon and Irene waltzing off into the heavens. The film's production was hampered by the on-set presence of the real Irene Castle, whose insistence upon accuracy at all costs drove everyone to distraction -- especially Ginger Rogers, who felt as though she was being treated like a marionette rather than an actress. In one respect, Mrs. Castle had good reason to be so autocratic. Walter, the "severest critic servant" character played by Walter Brennan
, was in reality a black man. RKO was nervous about depicting a strong, equal-footing friendship between the white Castles and their black retainer, so a Caucasian actor was hired for the role. Mrs. Castle was understandably incensed by this alteration, and for the rest of her days chastised RKO for its cowardice. As it turned out, it probably wouldn't have mattered if Walter had been black, white, Chicano or Siamese; The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
was a financial bust, losing $50,000 at the box office. Perhaps as a result, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would not team up again for another ten years.