Saturday 28 November 2009

The Gay Divorcee (1935)

Director: Mark Sandrich
Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady and Edward Everett Horton
After the success of Flying Down to Rio, the first film to pair Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (and yes, it was that way round, for the only time in their careers), it was inevitable that they'd be paired again in the future, even though after a long professional partnership with his sister Adele Astaire really didn't want to get into another one. 'I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more,' he's reported to have written to his agent. Sure enough, eight of his nine next films were with Rogers, though she made many more without him in between, always being far more prolific.

Beyond Astaire and Rogers and an actual plot, this one also has a number of added benefits, not least the presence of a surreal song and dance number between Betty Grable, one of the most popular pin up girls of the era, and the greatest ditherer of the thirties, Edward Everett Horton. That's something I never thought I'd ever see and I'm still a little in shock at seeing it this time. 'I was just dancing,' says Horton. 'Is that what it was?' replies Astaire. There's also the genial Eric Blore, the outrageous Erik Rhodes and a bizarre opening number where the singers are a bevy of lovely ladies but the dancers are finger puppet dolls that they send through their manoeuvres in front of black cloth.

Astaire is Guy Holden, a famous American entertainer on holiday in France and England, and he knew the role well having played it on Broadway under its original title of Gay Divorce. In fact the earliest known extant footage of Astaire is him dancing in Gay Divorce with Dorothy Stone in New York in 1933. Apparently the American censors required the name change to the film but the British censors didn't, preferring to keep the original title intact on screen, which probably causes a lot of confusion when it's shown on TV nowadays. We get to see nothing of Holden's actual career, except an impromptu dance in a Paris restaurant to prove who he is, given that he's forgotten his wallet. He spends most of the film pining for a young lady he met at English customs and managed to embarrass in the process, ripping her dress in an effort to help her out of a predicament.

She's Ginger Rogers, of course, playing Mimi Glossop. Actually she's Mrs Mimi Glossop, as she's the gay divorcee of the title, or at least is planning to be. Her husband is a geologist, who she hasn't seen in years and so wants to divorce. Her aunt Hortense, played to incorrigible abandon by Alice Brady, knows a lawyer, Egbert 'Pinky' Fitzgerald, someone who managed to escape her matrimonial clutches some years before. As she says to her niece, 'I wonder why he preferred to hunt elephants instead of marrying me.' He's played by Edward Everett Horton and he's who Guy Holden had been to Paris with and who he's staying in London with. Chance is the fool's name for fate, indeed.

Fitzgerald is perhaps unwisely left in charge of the firm by his father while he's on holiday himself to Scotland, though he is given the instruction to do precisely nothing. He ignores that, of course, because no Edward Everett Horton character in the history of the movies ever had good judgement, and so in one stroke sets up a co-respondent for Mrs Glossop at the Hotel Bella Vista and we viewers up with a situation comedy. The way it unfolds is hardly surprising but it's pretty well constructed as a story, certainly with a lot more effort than went into a few subsequent Astaire and Rogers movies. Check out Follow the Fleet for example.

This apparently doesn't bear a lot of resemblance to the original Broadway production. Only a couple of the actors reprise their roles from the stage, the other being Erik Rhodes who is outrageously definitive as Rodolfo Tonetti, an Italian tenor and professional co-respondent that Fitzgerald hires to be discovered with Mrs Glossop. Only one of the songs here was sourced from the stage production, Cole Porter's Night and Day. Everything else, from the big production number, The Continental, to that Grable/Horton routine, Let's K-nock K-neez, were new in this film, though Grable's jumpsuit wasn't. It's the one that Dolores del Rio wore a year earlier in Flying Down to Rio, the first of the ten Astaire/Rogers pairings.

Incidentally The Continental became the first winner of an Academy Award for Best Original Song, possibly the Oscar with the least actual substance of them all, given that it descended into a question of which soporific song from a Disney cartoon was most cringe inducing in any particular year. This one's pretty good, certainly compared to its successors down the years, and it accompanies a record breaking 17 minute plus production number that isn't bad at all. It isn't up to Busby Berkeley standards and Lillian Miles appears out of nowhere to murder a verse of it, but I'd still rather watch this than Gene Kelly's ballet at the end of An American in Paris that ran over 18 minutes thus breaking the record set here.

Sometimes records aren't enough to make a film. An American in Paris won six Oscars including one for Best Picture, but I found it boring and overblown, not even worthy of mention in the same breath as another Gene Kelly movie from a year later, Singin' in the Rain. This one only won for The Continental, but I'd still watch it over An American in Paris any day, even though it doesn't have Leslie Caron and Nina Foch, it isn't in colour and it isn't even the best of the films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together. I've now seen nine of the ten, with only The Barkleys of Broadway currently eluding me, and I'd put at least Top Hat, Swing Time and Carefree over this one, with a couple of others close. There's just something about that chemistry that makes fluff like this so enjoyable, even to someone like me who really doesn't care for all that singing and dancing. That says something, right?

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