Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

People did not know, but they way dancing was presented in musicals were about to change when a small, skinny man with a receding hair line took his place on screen. After the release of RKO’s 1933 movie Flying Down to Rio it was interesting to find that the most attention-grabbing actors of the film were two supporting ones, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, as they quipped back and forth and danced their way into limelight. From that the studio began to package them as a team and arose to produce a new line of musicals that stepped away from the large, lavish chorus set ups of the Busby Berkeley pictures from Warner Bros. and began to focus on the beautiful precision of the individual dancers as never before. It starts here with The Gay Divorcee and the performance of the dancing perfectionist Fred Astaire.

The Gay Divorcee is a musical comedy about a woman seeking a divorce from her husband who she has not seen in years and meets a new love interest in a dancer who literally sweeps her off her feet. Mimi (Ginger Rogers) takes a trip to England in effort to gain a divorce from her husband whom cares little about her and has not visited her in many years. To do so she, with the help of her several time eloped Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) and an incompetent lawyer, Egbert (Edward Everett Horton), who happens to be an ex-fiancĂ© of Hortense, plan for Mimi to have her caught in a staged affair. After many miscues, she mistakens Egbert’s friend, famous dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire), to be her co-respondent in the romantic action she was to be discovered in. Guy and Mimi have in the past had a few runs in before, making Guy be infatuated with Mimi and Mimi being less than enthused about him, but even with the mix up Mimi enjoys Guy’s company over the overly gaudy, real co-respondent, Rodolfo (Erik Rhodes). Guy and Mimi’s relationship flourishes as they dance the night away under the moonlight, destined to be together.

The picture is a rather weak story that sets up many marvelous dance sequences of Astaire and Rogers. The musical moments do, however, play along with the plot, not clogging up the movie as simple eye candy, as the lavish Busby Berkeley films did. The two stars play well off each other, at first with Mimi avoiding Guy while he becomes smitten by her, later evolving to a mutual love between the two as they share wonderful dances with each other. The dancing uses the sets and props as part of its beauty, dancing on and off furniture, using the whole body as the canvas. The elegance and charm of both the stars make the film ever more playful and fun. Despite the loose storyline, you do get caught up in a sort of awe as the splendor of the elegant dancing takes hold of the screen.

To direct the picture was a novice of feature films, Mark Sandrich. An intelligent man, educated at Columbia University who mistakenly fell into motion pictures, was an Academy Award winning director of shorts subjects. Here with The Gay Divorcee, he made his first big hit into features. A man of not great creativity, Sandrich was smart enough to know what looked good in such a film. He was a veteran of primarily comedies, but he seemed to know how to bring elegance to this musical, perhaps with the inspiration from shot from Berkeley films. He does move the camera and take a few high shots in visuals ofthe large ensemble dancing number, but he more sticks to a static camera while Astaire dances through his scenes, as very much planned by Astaire.

Above the director you had the stars themselves. Astaire and Rogers were the key of the film, and the reason it was made. Astaire, who had starred in the Broadway version of the film, was very much in control of the creativity of his dance numbers. He choreographed them and performed them all by himself, instructing Sandrich to fill him continuously and from head to toe, as he saw it as a full body thing to dance. For Astaire to see only a portion of the dance in a shot would not be right. In a way Rogers was second fiddle, serving as the sex appeal to Astaire creativity and precision, but Rogers and Astaire needed each other. Rogers made Astaire work in the movies allowing him to be appealing. Astaire was originally against having a “partner” in the movies, in fear of bad blood he experienced with his previous partner, who happened to be his sister, but Astaire would give in and Rogers did not disappoint. Rogers had an elegance that was not displayed before in other musical she had been in, and her dancing is splendid. It is no wonder these two would make eight more films together.

As with any picture, you need a fine cast of supporting characters, in this case supplying much of the great humor the film contains. Alice Brady plays the forgetful and ignorant, worldly Aunt Hortense. She clearly knew her role as a buffoonish well-to-do character, as she was a long time veteran of the stage and had just recently returned to appearing in movies, something she never quite liked as much. Edward Everett Horton was a rather well used character actor of the time, playing the attorney friend of Guy who thinks he knows what he is doing, but cannot quite get things right. In two other small humorous roles were Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, respectfully playing an interrupting waiter and the not too convincing co-respondent. Both Blore and Rhodes were hired directly because of their work on the Broadway play was perfect and reprised the roles for the screen.

A quick note can be made for a beautiful eighteen year old girl that dances with Horton in the suggestive song and dance number “Let’s K-nock K-nees.” This little blond beauty is the teenager Betty Grable, who was a small time actress/dancer at that time, but her future would land her as one of the most iconic pin-up girls during WWII. Grable’s photo in a bathing suit in her later twenties would make the rounds with American soldiers in foxholes around the world, presenting the GIs with what they thought they were fighting for. Well this film gave many their first major look at this blushing beauty.

The movie was one of RKO’s biggest hit of the year and would inspire many more Astaire-Rogers parings. The film did so well that it would be honored with five Academy Award nominations including bets art direction, best musical score, best sound recording, best picture, and it would take home Oscar for best song for “The Continental,” which accompanied a twenty minute number containing many different dances sequences that splashes on the screen.

The Gay Divorcee was a success for RKO (known as simply Radio Pictures at the time), continuing to build a strong platform for one of Hollywood’s best studios. The Hays office had its issues with the title, as it didn’t believe that divorce should be presented as lightly as “gay.” By any means, the film is good, light hearted fun and is entertaining to watch. You can see that Astaire and Roger’s future was very bright in the genre with their grace, class and wit.

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