fbpx Dark Victory – Test – Adele Astaire & Edith Atwater (US 1936) | George Eastman Museum

00:00 Introduction by Catherine A. Surowiec, Film Historian, Researcher and Editor
04:09 [Dark Victory - Test - Adele Astaire, Edith Atwater]

[Dark Victory – Test – Adele Astaire & Edith Atwater] (US 1936)
Director: H. C. Potter
Cinematographer: Rudolph Maté
Cast: Adele Astaire (Alden Blaine), Edith Atwater (Judith Traherne)
Production Company: Selznick International Pictures

Production date: 28 February 1936
Sound: sound
Color: b/w
Length (in feet): 411 ft.
Length (in reels): 1
Running time: 4 min. 30 sec.
Frame rate: 24 fps

Preservation funded by the Packard Humanities Institute. Preserved by Eastman Museum Film Preservation Services. Photochemical work carried out at Fotokem.

Sometimes nothing is ever really lost. A fossil can be buried in cliff strata, a temple can be choked in jungle foliage, an island can simply be uncharted. A film can be lurking in an archive or collection for years, unknown, until a researcher, like an archaeologist or explorer, comes along with instinct, clues, accumulated knowledge, and enthusiasm, following a trail like a detective. In this case the trail led to Adele Astaire. I have been researching the work of Fred Astaire for years, wherever I go, with the goal of a production history of his films. In 2016 I was at the Harry Ransom Center, a treasure trove of collections at the University of Texas, researching another passion, art direction and costume design. While there I asked curator Steve Wilson about their famous David O. Selznick Collection, known for its production files, memos, Gone with the Wind material, and many screen tests. It was Selznick, then at RKO, who arranged Fred Astaire’s fateful January 1933 screen test (it doesn’t exist) and hired him for films.

The papers also contained some information about a 1936 screen test by Fred’s sister Adele. I learned that in 1999 all the Selznick nitrate film material had gone to the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. I eventually contacted Paolo Cherchi Usai, the then curator of the Moving Image Department, and he confirmed the existence of Adele’s screen test. It was catalogued (listed simply as “Adele Astaire, Edith Atwater test, 1936, B&W composite print”), but no one had ever understood how unique it was or looked at it. Not only that, he arranged for me to see it. That was a memorable and exciting day; it was like beholding a holy grail. It turned out to be the only substantial sound footage of Adele Astaire, not only acting a scene, but singing! I immediately told them how important this footage was. I am thrilled to say that things have happened since then; this led to the test being fully preserved and screened publicly for the first time. Stage legend Adele Astaire is finally emerging from the shadows, ready for her close-up, and will light up the silver screen, both photochemically and digitally, available to all in a new 35mm polyester print and online on the Museum’s website.

Screen legend Fred Astaire needs no introduction. We all know his 1930s classics with pert goddess Ginger Rogers. But before Ginger, and Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth, and Cyd Charisse, he had another dancing partner, his sister Adele. Today, Adele Astaire (1896-1981) is a name from the distant past, but in their 27 years as a musical team on the stage she was considered the star of the two. Starting in vaudeville as children, they steadily advanced to supporting roles in Broadway shows and revues. By the 1920s they were fully-fledged stars in their own musicals with scores by the Gershwins: Lady, Be Good! (1924), in which they introduced “Fascinating Rhythm,” and the delightful Funny Face (1927). They lit up the stage with a special brand of magic, blending ballroom, tap, ballet, and eccentric dance, with grace, charm, elegance, and humor. Adele was considered the quintessential flapper and radiated the personality of the era, with her bobbed hair, sleek fashions, and mercurial, impish spirit. Their stage peak was reached in 1931 with The Band Wagon, a groundbreaking sophisticated Broadway revue. This show also marked Adele’s retirement from the stage in 1932, to marry into the English aristocracy, to Lord Charles Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, and life in an Irish castle. Fred, meanwhile, starred in one more stage musical, Gay Divorce, and then embarked on a new career, in movies. The rest is history. Fred Astaire became one of Hollywood’s top stars, and his artistry lives on, preserved thanks to the medium of film. But for decades Adele has been known only through words, descriptions and reviews and reminiscences, sound recordings, and photographs.

When Adele and her husband visited America in late 1935 to see Fred, speculation immediately spread that she might be interested in reviving her career, given the right property. On February 28, 1936, Adele faced the cameras in a screen test, filmed at the old Pathé studio in Culver City, Los Angeles, for producer David O. Selznick. The main portion consisted of a scene from Dark Victory, a short-lived 1934 play that had starred Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, which Selznick had bought hoping to attract Greta Garbo to a modern role (she made Anna Karenina instead). The character Adele played in the test was Alden Blaine, a brittle, flirtatious, witty writer – a subsidiary character dropped when the property was overhauled by its new owners, Warner Bros., and turned into a sumptuous Bette Davis weepie released in 1939. In this fascinating test the scene from the original play, running about 3 minutes, gives us a unique chance to see – and hear – Adele Astaire in action, and observe her acting style, expressions, gestures, movement, and delivery of her lines. Her exuberance, charm, and personality all come through, though her manner entirely belongs to a 1920s musical or drawing-room comedy, not the 1930s property at hand.

The most surprising part of the test is its very first segment – not a Dark Victory scene at all, but Adele singing directly to the camera! Singing, moreover, the Gershwin song “’S Wonderful,” which she introduced in Funny Face in 1927. It’s a truly precious minute and a half, transporting us back to the 1920s. As Adele sidles closer to the camera, drawing us in, the years fall away, and we can’t help smiling. Who could ask for anything more?

This test wasn’t the first time Adele was filmed. There was a Paramount screen test (now lost) with Fred in 1928 (a number from Funny Face); and about 20 seconds of mock rehearsal footage from Florenz Ziegfeld’s show Smiles (it’s on YouTube), with the Astaires spryly dancing on and off, maddeningly obscured by another legend, co-star Marilyn Miller, who is positioned in front of them. There’s also a glimpse of Adele (in uniform), with Fred, in a 1944 British Movietone newsreel, covering the star-studded opening of London’s Stage Door Canteen. The only time a feature film loomed was in 1937, when Adele was booked to co-star in England with Jack Buchanan and Maurice Chevalier in Break the News, directed by René Clair, which featured a Cole Porter song. The publicity machine was in overdrive. But after only two days of filming Adele abruptly left the production, to be quickly replaced by June Knight. The role, Adele said, didn’t suit her, and she was right. The character, a stage diva named Grace Gatwick, was unsympathetic, and had no singing and dancing scenes (Buchanan and Chevalier perform the Cole Porter song). Adele danced up the Stairway to Paradise (another Gershwin number from one of the Astaires’ 1920s shows) in 1981, but no other actual engagement with film production can be documented. All the more reason, then, to treasure the few minutes here, when Adele sings “’S Wonderful,” shows her old sparkle, and time stands still.

-Catherine A. Surowiec