Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Roberta (1935)

Roberta, released in 1935, was the third of the RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals and one thing is immediately apparent. RKO still had no idea of the box-office gold they had on their hands. Fred and Ginger are relegated to supporting roles with the main plot being a dreary and very slow-moving romance between Irene Dunne (who got top billing in the movie) Randolph Scott.

Randolph Scott is John Kent, an American football player who unexpectedly inherits the House of Roberta, one of the most renowned fashion houses in Paris. 

Roberta herself (Helen Westley) had been in failing health and for some years most of the designing had been in the hands of her assistant Stephanie (Irene Dunne). Roberta had always intended to leave the business to Stephanie but had neglected to make a will. As a result her nephew John Kent finds himself the owner of a fashion house. Kent of course knows nothing about women’s clothing. The obvious solution would be to offer Stephanie a partnership but he takes a while to come to that very self-evident conclusion. He and Stephanie naturally fall in love and naturally there are the usual complications you expect in a romantic comedy. The problem with this romantic comedy plot is that it is totally lacking in romantic chemistry and even more totally lacking in comedy. While the movie focuses on these two it drags unbearably. Irene Dunne was exceptionally good at comedy but with the script offering her no funny lines she is hopelessly at sea.

Fortunately the movie has a much more entertaining sub-plot involving band leader Huck Haines (Astaire) and the Countess Scharwenka (Rogers). Of course Scharwenka is no countess; she’s an American girl from the Mid West who grew up with Huck. As she explains, if a girl wants to make it as a singer in Paris she has to be a countess. Huck and his band, the Indianans, arrived in Paris to be the resident band at the Cafe Russe but the owner of the establishment wanted Indians (the kind that wear feathered headgear) and not Indianans (who are just regular guys from Indiana). Countess Scharwenka pulls some strings and they eventually end up with the job anyway.

Of course Scharwenka and Huck are in love as well, only it takes them a while to figure that out.

The romantic troubles between Kent and Stephanie threaten to ruin the House of Roberta on the eve of a major fashion show so Huck and Scharwenka have to find a way to get them back together again to save the show.

Most of the first half of this much-too-long movie should have been left on the cutting-room floor. No-one is going to be the slightest bit interested in a dreary romance between two very dreary people. It’s not the fault of Randolph Scott or Irene Dunne but the script really is a clunker. The fashion show itself will either bore or entrance you depending on your level of interest in 1930s women’s fashions. The studio spent a fortune on the fashions and the show is handsomely mounted.

Once the action switches to Fred and Ginger it becomes an entirely different movie. They actually do get some good lines and they make the most of them and their performances really sparkle. Unusually they get to play characters who like each other right from the start, which might reduce the dramatic tension but as compensation it gives some real warmth to their on-screen banter. 

There’s some great music by Jerome Kern including some absolutely superb classic songs like I Won’t Dance and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. Unfortunately Irene Dunne gets to sing most of the songs. Her operatic style of singing is completely unsuited to the movie and provides a jarring contrast to the light and breezy style of the music in the Astaire-Rogers numbers.

The biggest problem of all in this very problematic movie is that Astaire and Rogers get to do very little dancing. When they do get the opportunity they’re terrific and the movie suddenly comes alive.

Edward Cronjager’s very competent cinematography and Van Nest Polglase’s wonderful art direction are major assets.

After this movie the penny finally dropped at RKO. Astaire and Rogers were promoted to star billing on their next picture, Top Hat. The result was a box-office smash hit.

The Warner Home Video presentation is very good, with some slight graininess but generally excellent picture quality.

Without Fred and Ginger this movie would have been a boring fiasco. Had they been given a lot more screen time and a lot more dancing it could have been splendid entertainment. As it stands it’s worth seeing only for the brief moments when Fred and Ginger get to work their magic.

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