Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Astaire/Rogers #2: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The following is the second in a ten part series on the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  Enjoy.  For the first installment in this series, please go here.  And now, on with the show.

1934's The Gay Divorcee, produced by RKO, the home of the first nine of the eventual ten Astaire/Rogers films, like many comedies of the time, including several other Astaire/Rogers films, plays under the assumption that if only everyone would just be honest with who they are and what their motives are, the ridiculous antics that inevitably ensue from such misunderstandings, could all be nipped in the proverbial bud.  Of course, if everyone did come clean with who and what they are, and what they are after, then we would never get to watch these said ridiculous antics that inevitably ensue - nor would we see the song and dance numbers that go hand-in-hand (or foot-to-foot) with the ridiculous antics - and considering that is pretty much the whole reason we are watching a film like this in the first place, that would be a shame - a shame indeed.

And speaking of said assumptions and misunderstandings, The Gay Divorcee is about a famous dancer (Astaire, of course) who falls for a pretty lady (Rogers, of course) while traveling in Europe, only to have every advance rebuffed.  Hell, he doesn't even know the girl's name.  But, not to fear, for Fred is an intrepid and determined little bastard, and get the girl he most certainly will.   After several funny, meet cute incidents, Fred and Ginger finally hook up in a London hotel, where her lawyer has hired a professional gigolo to come and act as her lover, so when her husband shows up, he will grant a divorce (marriage law must have been fun back then).  Fred, unbeknownst to any divorce schemes - unaware that she is even married in the first place - follows her to her room, where she promptly mistakes him for the hired gigolo.  The fact that Ginger's lawyer, and Fred's best friend, are the same person - played wonderfully by Fred and Ginger stalwart, Edward Everett Horton - just makes things even more confusing for the wouldbe couple.

But storyline aside - and really, though I mock it in my opening salvo, I do enjoy the screwballesque story here - the real reason we are watching this film is to see Fred and Ginger kick up there proverbial heels - and this one has some good ones.  First and foremost is Cole Porter's famous "Night and Day," sung and danced by Fred and Ginger overlooking a beach at night.  This number is the only holdover from the Broadway Musical.  The musical incidentally, was called the Gay Divorce, but apparently, the Hays Office would not have that, and made them add an extra e at the end.  Presumably, a divorce cannot be lighthearted and funny, but a divorcee can.  But even though the rest of Cole Porter's stage musical songs were left out, they were replaced quite nicely in the film.  One notable song is "Let's K-Knock K-nees," and it is most notable for not only excluding both Fred and Ginger (others should get some spotlight two one supposes) but being headlined by a then-still-unknown seventeen year old Betty Grable.  Sure, seven years later she would be the biggest box office star, and the best-selling pin-up girl of WWII, but here, she is still an unknown teenage girl.

The big number though, is the one that (almost) finishes the film.   "The Continental" is an elaborate seventeen and a half minute long number (the longest in a movie musical until Gene Kelly takes it a minute longer for his big ballet number in An American in Paris seventeen years later) that involves a huge chorus dancing along with Fred and Ginger.  The song would go on to win the very first Best Song Oscar ever awarded.  A great way to close out any show, and a great way to show off the talents of Fred and Ginger.   And, I suppose, we should feel lucky that we had such a number at all.  In fact we should be glad we had this film at all.  After Flying Down to Rio, Astaire was reluctant to partner with Rogers a second time.  After a partnership of nearly twenty-seven years (Fred was just six when they began), Fred had recently stopped performing with his older sister Adele, because of her marrying, and also because of Fred wanting to make a name for himself, instead of being in the shadow of another dancer.  Because of this, Fred was wary about committing to what might become another dancing partnership, but obviously, he was eventually convinced, and the second of ten team-ups did occur.  

And, on top of all this, The Gay Divorcee is the first of two Astaire/Rogers films to be nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, the second being the following year, and arguably, the duo's most famous film, Top Hat.  But before we get to Top Hat, the duo's fourth film together, we must first talk about Roberta, which was actually headlined by Irene Dunne, with Astaire and Rogers receiving second and third billing respectively.  But not right now.  Howzabout next time around?  Until then, see ya in the funny papers.


Chip Lary said...

Horton was the secret weapon in several of their films. Sometimes he was very broad, but he usually got a chuckle out of me at some point.

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