Monday, January 4, 2016

Carefree (1938)

Carefree, released in 1938, was the second-to-last of the RKO Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals. It’s more or less a screwball comedy with musical numbers (courtesy of Irving Berlin), and it’s a combination that works superbly.

Astaire is psychiatrist Dr Tony Flagg. He agrees to help out his pal Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy). Stephen is engaged to Amanda Cooper (Ginger Rogers) but she keeps breaking off their engagement. Dr Flagg is confident that by psychoanalysing Amanda he can find out what the problem is.

The usual pattern in an Astaire-Rogers movie is that they start out hating each other before discovering that they’re actually in love. This one is slightly different. They do clash at first but very quickly Amanda falls for Tony. The difficulty is that she can’t tell him. After all he is her doctor. Not to mention that she’s supposed to be engaged to his best friend. Then Tony makes the mistake of putting her under anaesthetic as part of his treatment and the truth comes out. He makes an even bigger mistake by hypnotising her which, among other things, leads her to her going after him with a double-barreled shotgun.

While she’s under the effect of the anaesthetic she also manages to create a great deal of mayhem and get herself arrested.

The hypnosis has Amanda switching back and forth between thinking she’s in love with Stephen and thinking she’s in love with Tony, which gives the plot the necessary screwball comedy elements.

The very short 83-minute running time makes this film pleasingly fast-paced and snappy (as a good screwball comedy should be). Some of the Astaire-Rogers pictures drag just a little in the middle but that’s certainly not the case here.

Having Astaire play a psychoanalyst offers the opportunity for a dream sequence which is wisely not overdone and works rather well. It also offers the opportunity for a lot of humour at the expense of the psychiatric profession, an aspect that I personally find very enjoyable.

The casting in this film is absolutely perfect. You might wonder about casting Astaire as a psychiatrist but since the role is played for comedy it works extremely well. Astaire’s characterisations could be just a trifle pushy at times but in this movie he’s all easy-going charm. Rogers is as splendid as ever. Ralph Bellamy makes a fine second lead and demonstrates his fine comic skills. Luella Gear, a major Broadway star who made few films, has great fun as Amanda’s fun-loving Aunt Cora. 

There’s plenty of visual inventiveness on display here with Astaire’s solo golfing dance routine being a highlight.

This was the last of the five Fred and Ginger musicals directed by Mark Sandrich and by this time he certainly knew a thing or two about directing musicals.

RKO originally intended to shoot this movie, or at the very least part of it, in colour. The idea was shelved due to the cost considerations. One of the musical numbers was in fact shot in colour but the quality was unsatisfactory and it was reshot in black-and-white.

If there’s a weakness to this picture it’s that there’s not quite as much dancing as you might expect, although what there is is pretty good. That means it has to rely on the comedy. Fortunately the comedy is genuinely funny so it isn’t a problem. Rogers in particular gets to show off her very considerable talents as a comic actress. 

For some reason this movie is not generally well thought of even by ardent Astaire-Rogers fans. Part of the reason for that may be the relative scarcity of the musical numbers. And comedy is of course very subjective. I found this movie to be very funny indeed but perhaps that’s just me.

The Warner Home Video DVD (from the second of their Astaire-Rogers boxed sets) offers an excellent transfer.

Carefree is probably the most underrated of the Fred and Ginger musicals. It’s a good screwball comedy with the musical numbers being a bonus. Highly recommended.

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