Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee was not the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but it was the film that really put them on the map and established the classic formula that would make them RKO’s biggest stars.

The first Astaire-Rogers movie, the 1933 release Flying Down to Rio, had the pair in supporting roles but they were so clearly the highlight of the picture that RKO drew the obvious conclusion and had them top-billed in the following year’s The Gay Divorcee.

They’re not just top-billed but they hold centre stage throughout. While most of the Astaire-Rogers movies are delightful some do suffer from pacing problems and drag just a little when the dancing stops. That is most emphatically not the case in this movie. The effervescent script, the superb performances and the sure comedic touch of all the players mean that there is really never a dull moment. The comedy sparkles and the main romance works to perfection.

The plot is ideally suited to a light-hearted feel-good musical. Dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) encounters Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) as they are coming ashore at Dover. Guy instantly falls for Mimi but Mimi doesn’t want to know.

Guy’s friend Egbert 'Pinky' Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton) is a bumbling lawyer trying to handle a divorce case on his own for the first time. Mimi is his client. Egbert has everything planned, or at least he thinks he has. Mimi will go to a seaside hotel where a phony assignation has been arranged with Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes), a voluble Italian who earns his living as a professional co-respondent. Since Egbert is not entirely confident about handling the case on his own he asks Guy to accompany him. Of course Guy has no idea that it is Mimi’s divorce that Egbert is handling. He’s been desperately trying to find Mimi since their first encounter. And naturally when they meet again at the hotel there is much confusion as wires get hopelessly crossed. This all ensures that Guy and Mimi will end up together but only after a series of zany and very funny misunderstandings.

Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee were the only pre-code Fred and Ginger musicals and The Gay Divorcee does get quite risque at times. Unlike many pre-code comedies in this case the risque humour is not only done with style and with a light touch but is genuinely funny.

A major plus is the superb supporting cast. Edward Everett Horton’s role is a substantial one and he’s in top form. He even gets to sing! Eric Blore has great fun as a waiter, sharing some gloriously amusing banter with Horton. Erik Rhodes goes way over the top as Tonetti but it works. Alice Brady provides even more humour as Mimi’s aunt Hortense, the bane of poor Egbert’s life. Look out for a very young Betty Grable in a minor supporting role.

Van Nest Polglase’s art deco-inspired art direction is always a huge asset to an Astaire-Rogers movie and this one is no exception.

The dance numbers are terrific, there are some good songs, the costumes are exquisite. Ginger Rogers gets to wear some gorgeous gowns and Fred Astaire shows just how good men used to look when they wore hats and superbly tailored clothes. The beginning of the decline of western civilisation can be dated to the time when men stopped wearing hats.

All of this would be enough to make a wonderful movie but then there’s the inspired extended musical sequence The Continental. It was intended as a spectacular show-stopper and that’s exactly what it is.

The Warner Home Video DVD release (in their Astaire-Rogers Collection volume 2) offers a fine transfer. 

The Gay Divorcee is magnificent entertainment. Very highly recommended.

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