Not nearly enough careers in the cinema end well. I suppose I've always known this, but it was really brought home when Robert Altman died last November: what a perfect final film he had, and how vanishingly small the number of directors, actors and writers who can say the same!

Of course, 1939's The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle wasn't really the final Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers film; ten years later, the stars would reunite for The Barkleys of Broadway. But that was as much an accident as anything, and besides, it was for the Freed Unit at MGM. The classic cycle of RKO musicals that most of us think of when we hear the names "Fred & Ginger" (those of us who think of anything at all), those ended here, as Fred's RKO contract wound to a close, and Ginger was increasingly anxious to abandon musicals. And their history-making run of films would end not with a bang, but a biopic.

I'll bet there are people in this world who don't reflexively cringe at the word "biopic," and while it shames me to think so, they might even be reading this. So let's up the horrible: it's a musical biopic! Still need more? It's a musical biopic scored with WWI-era pop music!!!

Specifically, it is the biopic of Vernon and Irene Castle (you probably guessed that), the Fred & Ginger of the 'Teens. In 93 doubtlessly-factual minutes, a debutante meets a vaudevillian in 1911, they marry and become the world's most famous ballroom dancers, inspiring clothes, hairstyles, dance steps and candies to be named after them. When war breaks out, Vernon joins the British air force, is transferred to Texas soon after the US joins in the fun, and dies in a training exercise in 1918.

I mention that last spoilish fact, because it is symptomatic of one of the three great flaws with the film: it is joyless. Even at their most sentimental, the Astaire & Rogers films were always funny and playful. There's very little of that here. If I may use a word I don't like very much, it is an airless film. It's so caught up with the importance of celebrating its important subjects importantly, that it forgets the reason that 8 films with Fred & Ginger had been so successful: they were delightful. Is there some rule written down, somewhere in the gilded halls of the Academy, that all biopics must be arch? The line connecting Vernon and Irene Castle to Ray is a suprisingly clear one, and it is a distinctly mirthless and punishing line.

Great Flaw the Second: its focus. It's not just that the film, like all its disgusting bretheren, wants to be Significant. It's that it Significantly looks at the years 1911 to 1918, which at the time of the film's release was between 21 and 28 years gone. As the title card proudly announces, this is a film about a time just recent enough to be remembered.

So why does it feel so anthropologic? From the sets to the costumes to, above all else, the music, Vernon and Irene Castle is rather thorough in its treatment of the era as an exotic other. I have a theory about that: the 1920s - let's just say after the War, it's easier and more culturally sound - after the War, the cinema witnessed an explosion of feature-length films. In the decade preceding that, motion pictures were short and rather disposable (sadly, the conception of films as "disposable" in the literal sense would stick around until into the sound era), and with a very small number of exceptions, audiences did not "watch a movie" so much as they would enter a theater, watch the slate of shorts and short features, and leave when they felt like it. Flash-forward twenty years, and this means that that there was a not a significant received tradition of representation of the 1910s in cinema. Which is a fancy way of saying that there weren't movies about the 'Teens, and certainly nothing that would impress an audience with a decade of sound films under their belt.

In this way, I view Vernon and Irene Castle as an effort to make a film like they would have done if 1911 took place in 1939, if you will. While the era still was, as the card says, just recent enough, a sound movie had to document that era. An analogue: Stephen Spielberg's 2005 Munich is a film about the 1970s, made using the vocabulary of 1970s cinema. Vernon and Irene Castle cannot use the vocabulary of 1910s cinema. Because, after a fashion, the 'Teens were sort of exotic; the period from 1917-1920 was a gulf that divides modern history like none other. 68 years later, the men and women of 1939 feel less alien to me than Vernon and Irene Castle seem to be to the filmmakers in 1939. Again I want to partially blame the lack of representation: we know what the '70s look like because we've seen '70s movies, and Munich trades on that. It copies a period. Vernon and Irene Castle have nothing to copy, and so it must re-create a period, and that, I think, leads to the constant laying-out of signifiers for our approval: "yes, that is accurate, congratulations."

That long digression has a simple punchline, and I'm sorry I got so caught up. My point is: the film is so up its own ass about remaking the 'Teens that it's a bit alienating and dated. I'd go so far as to call it the only dated Fred & Ginger movie.

Now for the third flaw, the most horrible: it's a bad musical. So many reasons for this: it was a biopic, and suffered from the biopician need to recreate the subjects as accurately as possible, hence the dancing was Vernon and Irene, not Astaire and Rogers; it has only one original song, the forgotten "Only When I'm in Your Arms," compared to a tradition that gave the world "They Can't Take That Away From Me," "Cheek to Cheek," "The Way You Look Tonight," "They All Laughed," "Isn't It a Lovely Day," and so forth; the Tin Pan Alley songs from the first two decades of the 20th Century all suck on toast.

What this means is that there is lots of dancing, but all cut up and stuffed into montages and an unprecedented number of shots of other people watching the dancers. And there's only one exceptional number: and instrumental version of "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," where Fred literally dances circles around some schlub, because he is using jazz moves that won't be invented for twenty years. It stands out like a sore thumb, because it is the only anachronism in the entire film, and it is easily the highlight.

It's just not a Fred & Ginger movie. It happens to star Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and that's the extent of it. It's not bad: compared to a lot of films from the late '30s, it's well-written and there's a lot of interesting meta-commentary on the new war that was just kicking into gear in Europe. But it's not "good" in any reasonable sense of that word, and it's the least-satisfying way I can imagine to end their RKO cycles - maybe a spy thriller with Fred assigned to kill Ginger would be worse, or perhaps a zombie picture with Ginger as the frail Western girl and Fred as the voodoo priest. There's hardly a trace of the spark that made them what they were, and the traces we get are just enough to make us crave more. Still: eight films that virtually defined the '30s musical. Another film to come, giving their audience an actual chance to say good-bye. They can't take that away from me.