Friday, October 10, 2008

The Gay Divorcée (RKO, 1934)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles The Gay Divorcée, the 1934 film that was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ first starring vehicle — and remains my favorite of their films, even though the dancing doesn’t quite have the élan of their later vehicles (“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet and “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time are probably the greatest dance sequences they ever did) and the plot is pretty creaky, despite the finely honed wisecracks and the marvelous farceurs who dot the cast: Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Erik Rhodes and Alice Brady. It seemed as if every screaming-queen type in Hollywood except Franklin Pangborn (who must have been busy elsewhere that week — or maybe he was cast as the desk clerk at the Bella Vista Hotel and his scene was cut from the release print) was in this movie, which prompted Arlene Croce in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book to suggest that as long as they were changing the noun in the title (the name of the stage musical it had been based on was Gay Divorce — which was also the title of the film in its British release), they should have done something about the adjective as well.

There are enough wisecracks from Samuel Hoffenstein (Rouben Mamoulian’s favorite writer and the scripter of Love Me Tonight two years earlier) to make one wonder what this film might have been with a true genius like Mamoulian directing instead of a talented hack like Mark Sandrich — certainly the film tries for the same easy integration of song, dance and story that Mamoulian and Hoffenstein achieved in Love Me Tonight, and while it’s hardly on that level it’s considerably smoother than the Busby Berkeley films at Warners which cut from dialogue scene to song cue to production number with all the severity of an old-fashioned opera seria moving from recitativo secco to recitativo accompagnato to aria.

Astaire wasn’t as suave as he became later — there was a curious streak of meanness in his character that would have made him a great noir actor (he looked so much like Dashiell Hammett’s physical description of Sam Spade I’ve long wondered what The Maltese Falcon would have been like with Astaire and Barbara Stanwyck in the leads instead of Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor), and that makes his initial harassment of Rogers, and her initial distaste and disgust with him, credible even though we know that the plot is going to end with them together. And the dancing — especially the marvelous “Night and Day” sequence (the only one of Cole Porter’s songs from the stage show retained for the film version) — is magnificent, though Astaire and Rogers are so magical together that compared to the two of them (Croce noted that only 10 of this film’s 107 minutes are taken up with Astaire dancing either solo or with Rogers), Dave Gould’s massive faux-Berkeley ensembles in “The Continental” (a 17 1/2-minute production number that stood as the longest single number in a film until Gene Kelly gave us the 18 1/2-minute title number of An American in Paris 17 years later) seem decidedly beside the point. — 3/12/98


I staged a mini-coup at the living-room TV and watched the Turner Classic Movies showing of The Gay Divorcée, the second of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies and the first in which they were the stars (and the first in which they played a romantically involved couple who were united at the end). It was based on Astaire’s 1932 stage show Gay Divorce — his first project without his sister Adele — though not only was the title changed (at least for the U.S. release) but all but one of the original songs by Cole Porter were thrown out of the film version. The one that was kept was “Night and Day,” done in a stunning dance sequence on the beach at the fictitious British resort town of “Brightbourne” in which Astaire and Claire Luce (the female star of the 1930 John Ford comedy Up the River) had danced a passionate adagio on stage and which he repeated with Rogers in the film. (Ironically, Astaire had wanted to drop “Night and Day” from the film because he thought the song had been overexposed; when the stage show was running in the U.S. and Britain he’d recorded it twice, backed each time with a different song from the rest of Porter’s score — “I’ve Got You on My Mind” and the almost as beautiful “After You, Who?” — either of which it would have been nice to hear in the film.)

The Gay Divorcée remains my favorite of the Astaire-Rogers films even though most critics write it off as a beta version of the masterpieces to come, Top Hat and Swing Time, and though the Astaire-Rogers dances to “Night and Day” and “The Continental” and his solos to “Don’t Let It Bother You” and “A Needle in a Haystack” are the high points of the film (“When one considers that only 10 minutes out of the total [107-minute] running time of The Gay Divorcée are taken up by the dancing of Astaire alone or with Rogers, the film’s enduring popularity seems more than ever a tribute to the power of what those minutes contain,” wrote Arlene Croce in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book), the rest of it is quite merry and charming feel-good entertainment. One of the sources of its charm is the marvelous gender-bending of the script, which Croce rather sneered about in her book — “It’s surprising in how many musical comedies and operettas of the 1920’s effeminacy was a comic’s stock in trade. In The Gay Divorcée, which had a retrogressive book, all the male comics seem queer. The title was changed to take the edge off that hard word ‘divorce.’ Perhaps something should have been done about the adjective” — but for me it adds a level of sophistication as well as making Fred Astaire, who for all his superb physicality and obvious control over his body was not the macho, athletic dancer Gene Kelly was, seem more butch by comparison.

I’m not sure why I like The Gay Divorcée better than the later, more highly regarded Astaire-Rogers vehicles, but perhaps it was because the people behind the camera (director Mark Sandrich and writer Dwight Taylor, who didn’t actually work on the film but had written the stage show on which it was based and was, once The Gay Divorcée was a hit, hired by RKO to rework the formula into the story and script for Top Hat) were still working out the bugs in the formula; partly because of the fascinating assemblage of guest stars (including Betty Grable and Lillian Miles — Grable, who gets a trivial but charming number called “Let’s K-nock K-neez” with Edward Everett Horton, would pass through RKO and Paramount on her way to stardom at Fox via the 1940 film Down Argentine Way; Miles would end up with a major role in Reefer Madness four years after she sang part of “The Continental” in this film) and a script that permitted Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes to sing (they actually had pretty good comic voices even though Rhodes’ attempts at “La donna è mobile” are so wince-inducing that when Astaire says he’s worried that Rhodes’ character might be a tenor, a few lines of Verdi’s great aria out of Rhodes’ mouth and Astaire concedes to Rogers, “I was wrong”); and a script that though hardly laugh-out-loud funny does have a lot of amusing lines (my favorite: when Astaire has cornered Rogers in the countryside and his car is blocking hers, she says, “Will you move your car — or don’t you want it anymore?”); and that 17 1/2-minute production number on “The Continental” (the first ever Academy Award-winning best song) that was the longest single musical sequence ever put on film until Gene Kelly’s ballet to the title piece of An American in Paris 17 years later. I just love this movie! — 10/9/08