Monday, February 27, 2012

Roberta (1935)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are paired together for the third time in RKO’s 1935 production of Roberta. The film adaptation of the popular 1933 Broadway play would feature the rising singing and dancing stars, but above the duo would be Irene Dunne as the leading lady. Top billing for the film would go to Dunne, Astaire, and Rogers, but the focal point of the story would be around an actor RKO was attempting to put in larger roles, Randolph Scott. In the studio’s latest musical RKO would use the formula of utilizing a successful play as the base, with a star to headline, and two rising musical talents  as supports to form a solid picture. Roberta would be a lighthearted movie, a sort of fish out of water story, anchored with fine talents of the team Astaire and Rogers.

Roberta is a comedy musical of a famous gown shop in Paris that whose ownership falls into the hands of an American who is not in touch with fashion to say the least, but wishes to see the business succeed for the sake of his late aunt who passed away giving him the gown shop. American good old boy John Kent (Randolph Scott) inherits one of Paris’ most well respected gown shops, Roberta, while on a trip to the City of Lights. Understanding he has no knowledge of the industry, but wishing to continue the legacy of his Aunt’s shop he partners with his Aunt’s chief assistant and head designer Stephanie (Irene Dunne). From the moment they met their was chemistry, but misunderstanding between the John and Stephanie, especially when John’s former girlfriend comes to town in hearing of John’s new fortune, as well as the German prince that seems to always be around Stephanie. The partnership breaks up spelling disaster leading up to the shops big fashion show. Meanwhile John’s friend and bandleader Huck (Fred Astaire) and his lady friend, performer Lizzie (Ginger Rogers) whose shtick is posing as a countess, attempt to carry the shops designing with near disastrous results. Stephanie returns to save face to the shop turning the show and the boutique into a rousing success. In the end all misunderstandings are cleared up, with John and Stephanie closer and more affectionate than ever.

A delightful little movie, Roberta is a musical from the mid-1930s with an actual plot that is not too fantastical. A plot of an American, a former Harvard football player, who inherits a Paris gown shop from a distant and loving Aunt, trying to keep her legacy and business afloat is a fun basis for a comedy. On top of that is the singing and dancing of one of Hollywood’s rising duos in Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers supports the film with their skills and comedic acting. All around it makes for a solid picture that would appeal to the casual moviegoer, especially females with the love story and beautiful dancing.

The film would be led by RKO stock comedy director William A Seiter, whose best works have come from a vast number of comedies, sometimes including duos, probably is most well known picture being Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert. Seiter as a director that was thrown into casual movies that usually did marginal gains, never really standing out in any way; more of a factory moviemaker than your big name directors.

The real skill in the filmmaking process was Fred Astaire. Not just an actor/singer/dancer, Astaire was the choreographer of the dances, a skill he was billed for. His ways went with the producing and filming of the dances between himself and Rogers. He made a point to have the dancers filmed full bodied as he believed dancing was a full body art form and to cut any of it out would be a disservice. Adamant to making the dancing even more authentic, Astaire had a hardwood dance floor installed in the soundstage for the dance sequences to record the taps of his and Rogers shoes live to tape. The common practice at the time was to film the dances and add the taps in post-production, but Astaire’s addition created a more genuine feel to the dancing, which can be heard In the film and supported as sincere by the occasional giggling Rogers would produce when performing with Astaire in their beautiful numbers.

In their third film together- Rogers and Astaire
The third picture together, Astaire and Rogers once again were not the main characters of the film, like their first feature together, Flying Down to Rio. RKO knew that they were ever on the rise, thus their billing in large letters under Irene Dunne. Dunne was a large musical star by this time, therefore her top billing giving the film a star and a marketable name. Randolph Scott was however a much smaller name, and was given forth billing far under Dunne, Astaire, and Rogers in minor print. Scott’s work up to this point had been in far smaller pictures, mostly B westerns. His tall, handsome frame gave a persona of a leading man, but at this point he was still gangly and lumbering as an actor, far from the gracefulness of his co-stars. Obviously he was not put into a position where he would even come close to singing or dancing, but for the first time really given a chance to make himself into a marketable leading man.

Roberta would take many of the songs from the stage production, but because of minor changes in the story would subtract a small number f songs and add their own. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the stage production would be a transcended success in music, but originals to the film “I Won’t Dance” and “Lovely to Look At” both became #1 hit songs in 1935. “Lovely to Look At” would even be nominated for best song at the Academy Awards, and commonly added in stage revivals of the Roberta.

As a small trivia footnote seen in this picture is the RKO feature debut of a little known actress named Lucille Ball. In an uncredited, non-speaking role as a fashion model Ball graces the screen for a few seconds with platinum blonde hair in the fashion show sequence. It goes to show that future stars started in the small roles at one point.

Roberta was a modest success of a musical further cementing Astaire and Rogers as musical team for RKO studios.  The team would continue to make films together into 1939, their next being Top Hat which came out later in 1935, this time with the two as the top line stars like they were in The Gay Divorcee. To all of its leading actors Roberta further solidified their attraction to film adueinces supplying another modest musical to the film market.

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