Of all the times one might have heard the late legendary crooner Frank Sinatra sing the lounge favorite “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road),” it’s highly possible to not even think about who Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen actually wrote the song for. Turns out the barroom ballad was really written for Fred Astaire — and the film the tune was written specifically for was 1943’s wartime musical comedy/drama The Sky’s the Limit, which co-starred the talents of former child performer Joan Leslie, regular jokester Robert Benchley, and future onscreen tough guy Robert Ryan. Here, Astaire stars as Fred Atwell — the ace of the Flying Tigers squad, serving the United States of America during World War II by shooting down enemy planes aplenty.
After he and the rest of his squad are granted an eight-day furlough, Fred finds himself unhappy with being hailed as a war hero, and skips out on his buddies. Walking into a nightclub (where Clarence Muse is the doorman), Fred meets attractive, feisty photographer Joan Manion (Leslie) — and promptly starts to follow her around everywhere like a crazed stalker. His intentions are not malignant, however: he’s simply in love with the young lady. Keeping his true identity a secret from her, Fred woos Joan, who aspires to be a war journalist overseas — a desire her employer (Robert Benchley) isn’t too terribly keen on, especially since he’s in love with the lass himself.
While the musical numbers — particularly the aforementioned “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” — are pretty normal (not to mention well done), The Sky’s the Limit emerges as being one of the oddest Fred Astaire vehicles ever. His character borders on being downright creepy as he pursues Ms. Leslie about — and the occasional noir lighting cast over Fred’s whimsical dialogue seems somewhat strange. A scene of Fred being forced to do a “seductive” snake dance for his buddy Robert Ryan just to humiliate him (he threatens to expose his true identity if he doesn’t) is even more surreal for this kind of feature — and surely must be seen to believed.
Like her top-billed male counterpart, Joan Leslie delivers a fine performance, as she tries to determine whether or not she cares for this seemingly lazy, boisterous madman. The great Robert Benchley (who is surely one of the most underrated comedians ever) gets a chance to make us laugh as only he could, taking an entire scene to inaccurately describe a graph. There’s also a cameo by Eric Blore — who appeared in several Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classics — as Benchley’s valet (the kind of part the funny little man was born for).
Warner Brothers gives us the long-awaited DVD debut of The Sky’s the Limit as part of its Warner Archive Collection, and is available at WBshop.com. The title is shown in its theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio, and with the original monaural soundtrack. There are no special features included (not even a trailer, sadly), but the fact that Astaire purists can finally add this to their collection should be special enough for all.