Monday 15 January 2007

Roberta (1935) William A Seiter

With certificate number 601, this is obviously a really early movie to be sanctioned by the Production Code. As I've become a huge fan of the freedom of the precodes, this is therefore a Bad Thing. Another bad thing is the fact that one of the three stars to appear above the title is Irene Dunne. I've tried to find her appeal but so far to no avail, even though I've seen such well regarded pictures as Show Boat, The Awful Truth and Cimarron, which even won the Best Picture Oscar in what must have been a really poor year. I haven't enjoyed a single one of her performances and don't understand why she was such a huge star. On the good side there's not just Fred Astaire but Ginger Rogers too and I've been enjoying both of them in musicals and non-musicals alike.

Fred turns up in Le Havre with his band, Huck Haines and His Indianians from Wabash, USA, but because they're not real Indians they don't get the gig they expect. So off they go to Paris, where Randolph Scott's aunt Helen Westley (the Roberta of the title) runs a famous costumery. Scott is the sort of character he seemed to play rather often, a large quarterback who says things like 'Gee, that's swell' a lot. No wonder he switched to westerns exclusively. He makes a big impression on Roberta's secretary, Irene Dunne, but an even larger one on the temperamental, seductive and fake Comtesse Scharwenka, played by Ginger Rogers. She's a nightclub singer who has invented her title to get her into the Cafe Russe, so she gets them a gig on the proviso that Huck doesn't give her away.

This is a pretty decent thirties musical, of the lesser sort that weren't choreographed by Busby Berkeley. Then again these dances are arranged by Fred Astaire, so they're always worth watching, both from a technical standpoint where we can be happily stunned by the talent of the man (and the lady doing everything he does, in heels and backwards) and from an aesthetic standpoint where we get to actually enjoy the dancing. Yeah, I don't tend to say that too often, but Fred and Ginger musicals are usually winners in my book. The music is by Jerome Kern so there's no problem there but Irene Dunne keeps singing.

I'd have much preferred it if she'd have kept her mouth shut, as usual. More and more she reminds me of Leslie Howard, in looks and voice and presence. Fortunately I haven't heard Howard try and sing yet and I hope I don't have to: somehow I know he's going to sound like Irene Dunne. What intrigues me is that it can't just be changing fashions that have left wishy washy people like Irene Dunne in a different age, because I'm enjoying so many others from the same era. Maybe one day I'll find a performance of hers I can enjoy, just as I finally found one of Leslie Howard's in The Scarlet Pimpernel. In the meantime I'll enjoy Fred and Ginger and thank the stars that Irene Dunne wasn't in the rest of their movies together.

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