Thursday, September 16, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: The Gay Divorcee (1934)

In this iconic photo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
romance to Cole Porter's immortal "Night and Day"
in their first starring film, The Gay Divorcee.
Welcome to the first of my series on the greatest film duo of all time: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I know that sticking a superlative on anything warrants debate, but I think I may so term these two without much fear of contradiction. In terms of name-recognition, number of movies made together, and the quality of those films, Astaire and Rogers have no real competition for screen duos. They were the biggest thing in Hollywood during the '30s, and made a stunning nine movies together in the course of seven years. Not only that, but all of their films feature superb music by the greatest composers of the day such as Gershwin (who was a personal friend of Fred Astaire's and who wrote the immortal "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" because his brother and lyricist Ira Gershwin noticed that Fred and Ginger pronounced certain words differently), Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter. On a less important note, a lot of high-end designers clamored for Ginger to wear their gowns, resulting in a lot of fabulous and a lot of horrible wardrobe choices for her. I will be monitoring both throughout the series.

A typical Astaire and Rogers musical features a light romantic comedy plot with colorful minor characters and plenty of misunderstandings. Fred and Ginger normally have about three dances together and a few more songs, but it's during the dances that they fall in love. This dynamic duo was first teamed together for supporting roles in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio, a film that many people consider to be the first of great the Astaire/Rogers movies, but I exclude it on the grounds that they're barely in it and when they're not on-screen it's a pretty wretched film. Fortunately for the world, the producers at RKO Pictures realized that they had something special in those two, and decided to give them their own film based on a play Fred had done on Broadway, The Gay Divorce (the title was changed to The Gay Divorcee in order to eliminate the implication that anything could be fun about divorce, but the theme of the play still seems to support that thesis).

As the first real Astaire/Rogers film, therefore, this film has a lot of magic moments, but it also has a lot of things that will be improved upon in later outings. Let's start with what's good, shall we? First off the plot is simple but amusing, and the character actors are hilarious especially Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, and Eric Rhodes. Of course Fred and Ginger have a couple of good dances together in "Night and Day" and "The Continental,." a 17-minute extravaganza.  I also can say that this is the only one of their movies in which I like all of Ginger's outfits. In every other film she has one dress that's absolutely hideous but in this one she escapes possibly because she was not yet a big enough star to get really avant-garde designers. I especially like the ball gown in which she's pictured above.

Now, unfortunately I have to tell what's sub-par. To start, with the exception of the two already mentioned musical numbers, the rest of the score is completely forgettable. Secondly there's a musical number featuring Betty Grable called "Let's Knock Knees" that's extraneous and painfully bad--and that's only partially because Edward Everett Horton tries to sing! Also as well as the plot works it's not as refined or tightly-woven as their later films would be, but this is a minor quibble.

The plot synopsis is simple. Ginger Rogers plays an American girl who finds to her dismay that her husband, a British professor, is a fortune hunter. Obviously she needs a divorce, but in 1930s Britain, women could only get divorces with either their husbands' permission or in a case of proven infidelity. So in order to get grounds for her divorce, Ginger must fake an affair with a hired correspondent. Unfortunately she mistakes the man who, unaware of her marital status, has been romantically pursuing her for the hired correspondent, creating some memorably awkward and funny scenes.

Despite a few objections and the fact that it's not as good as their later pairings, I still give this film a 7.6 out of 10, a solid Astaire/Rogers outing.

Buy it on DVD:
The Gay DivorceeFlying Down to Rio

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