"The Gay Divorcee" **** (out of ****)
There's beautiful music and dangerous rhythms for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers to sing and dance to in RKO musical "The Gay Divorcee" (1934).
"The Gay Divorcee" marked the first time Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were given starring roles in a movie together. Previously the two appeared in "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), where they were given co-starring roles. Astaire played the "funny best friend" to the male lead, Gene Raymond, with Rogers playing a singer in a band.
Astaire and Rogers were given one song to dance to in that movie, the Carioca, which sadly ends on a comical note. Though their dance together was brief, audiences liked the two in the movie, and so RKO allowed the two of them to play lead roles opposite each other.
"The Gay Divorcee" was based on a Broadway musical called "The Gay Divorce", which opened in 1932 and starred Fred Astaire. It featured a musical score by Cole Porter and included songs such as "I've Got You On My Mind", "After You, Who?", "How's Your Romance?" and the hit song of the show, "Night & Day", often considered the finest song Porter ever wrote. Unfortunately, every Porter song, with the exception of "Night & Day", was scraped from the movie and replace with a new score.
Hollywood censors would also demanded the title of the movie be changed from "divorce" to "divorcee" since "divorce" could not be considered a "gay" or "lighthearted" matter. During this time the production code was being enforced and Hollywood wanted to promote and encourage the idea of marriage and morality.
Fred Astaire stars as Guy Holden, a famous American dancer on vacation with his friend, Egbert Fitzgerald, (Edward Everett Horton) an attorney, in London. While in London Holden meets Mimi (Ginger Rogers). For Holden it is love at first sight. For Mimi it is annoyance at first sight. Mimi has accidentally caught her dress in a locked truck and requires assistance to get loose. Not knowing the situation but attracted to Mimi, Holden takes the opportunity to speak to Mimi and offer his help. He ends up tearing the back of her dress and provides his raincoat as aid for Mimi to cover herself.
Holden gives Mimi his address for her to mail the raincoat back to him but Mimi does not give Holden her name, telephone number or address, discouraging him. This forces Holden to walks the streets of London in the hopes he will casually bump into Mimi again.
The reason for Mimi's secrecy is because she is in a loveless marriage and has come to London to visit her aunt, Hortense (Alice Brady), who knows a lawyer, that will be able to help Mimi get a divorce. Hortense is friends with Egbert, whom she once dated and was almost engaged to, except for the fact Egbert never asked her. It is Egbert who will serve as Mimi's attorney.
In London it is difficult to get a divorce if the husband does not agree to it. So, Egbert arranges for Mimi to be caught with a co-respondent at a seaside hotel. The co-respondent is suppose to be an Italian singer, Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) but due to plenty of confusion and misunderstandings Mimi thinks Holden is the co-respondent.
"The Gay Divorcee" plays around with the theme of mistaken identity, which was a central part of several Astaire and Rogers musicals. The best example is "Top Hat" (1935) which takes the material to the furthest extent it can stretch it. "The Gay Divorcee" doesn't go as far with the material as the set-up takes too long to capitalize on.
Watching "The Gay Divorcee" again two elements stand out most. One, how much the move has to do about sex and two, how the movie serves as more of a vehicle for Fred Astaire and not Ginger Rogers.
The opening number in the movie is called "Don't Let It Bother You". It is sung by an all-female chorus at a French nightclub. The ladies are wearing very short dresses so the viewer can see their legs and garter belts as the stand on a revolving stage. There is a counter top where they can rest their hands, as they wear miniature dolls, with their fingers acting as the doll's legs. After the chorus sings the song the lights go dim and the camera closes in on the dolls as they appear to be dancing. However, you will notice the camera doesn't go in for a close-up. Instead it is a long shot. The viewer can still perfectly see the ladies' legs in frame with the dolls providing a not so subtle hint of sex appeal. Certainly you could have filmed this sequence with a close-up of only the dolls in frame without showing the chorus girls and their legs.
Another musical number is called "Lets K-nock K-nees", it is introduced by a very young Betty Grable, who hadn't reach fame yet, as she sings to Egbert. A lot of time and effort goes into the piece but lets purely focus on the name of the tune. It is without question a euphemism for sex. In the movie it is suggested it simply means to dance together as every time the line "lets knock knees" is sung, two characters (one male and one female) gently tap each other with their knees. But who are you kidding? They aren't singing about dancing my friends. The song is fun and flirtatious and clearly has a sexual vibe.
Then there is the character of Egbert played by Edward Everette Horton. Us old-timers know him quite well, he was once jokingly credited as having appeared in every movie made in the 1930s. He was a character actor, often playing the "funny best friend" of the male lead. In real life Horton was a homosexual and that would subtly find its way through into the characters he played. He, along with another character actor, Eric Blore, who also appears in this movie, helped established the "sissy man" stereotype in Hollywood films. While you would never hear someone refer to a character as gay in a Hollywood movie of this time period it would be implied. Egbert is an effeminate male. He is seen playing with the doll the chorus girls were using in the opening number, he is timid and shy, women frighten him and at one point Hortense says Egbert "always had a mother's instinct". In his relationship with Hortense it is she that pursues him. She is the aggressor.
After the opening number of the movie, in an attempt to quickly introduce the characters, Holden and Egbert are unable to pay the check at the nightclub because they have left their wallets at their hotel. In order to avoid trouble Egbert and Holden introduce themselves to the owner of the club suggesting they will mail the amount of the bill to the restaurant. The owner doesn't believe Holden is the famous dancer he says he is and ask, as a form of ID, he dance in front of the audience at the club.
Later in the movie, when Holden decides he must find Mimi, he sings "Needle in A Haystack" and briefly dances. It is also he that gets to sing "Night & Day". By the time we see Ginger Rogers dance, it is with Fred in the "Night & Day" number, 50 minutes have went by and the total running time of the movie is 105 minutes. The movie makes sure, from the beginning, to establish Fred Astaire as a song and dance man. He sings two songs and dances to four in total. Rogers gets to sing "The Continental", the most time consuming number in the entire movie. Rogers sings it first, then a chorus dances to it, proceeded by Astaire and Rogers dancing to it, then Erik Rhodes sings it, again followed by a chorus dancing to it, next Lillian Miles sings it and Fred and Ginger dance to it once more to various tempos; a latin tempo, an Eastern European one and finally a waltz.
Seeing how RKO treated Astaire and Rogers it is no wonder Ginger Rogers had it in her contract she must get to sing one song in each Astaire and Rogers movie because she feared the studio would push Astaire more than her. Remember, at this time in both of their careers, Rogers had appeared in more movies than Astaire, who had only appeared in two prior movies; "Dancing Lady" (1933), which starred Joan Crawford and Clark Gable, and "Flying Down to Rio".
Still, one could argue it is Ginger that gets to sing the best song in the movie, The Continental, which would win the Academy Award for best song, the first time the award was ever presented. Though the "Night & Day" number is also a strong contender for best musical sequence. In both numbers we get to see what made Astaire and Rogers so great together. For me, watching the two of them dance together is movie heaven. They had wonderful chemistry together. Their dancing is fun and flirtatious, sophisticated and intimate all at once. At the end of the "Night & Day" number Holden offers Mimi a cigarette, as if to suggest their dancing, the closeness of their bodies together, reached the same intimacy as sex.
When "The Gay Divorcee" was released America was in the Great Depression but watching the movie you wouldn't know that. Everyone is happy, sing and dancing, in love. People are traveling to Europe, sending money without a care. It was a kind of Hollywood escapism audiences craved at the time. Hollywood was once referred to as a "dream factory". We watched movies to live out our fantasies, to escape our mundane lives and forget our worries. "The Gay Divorcee" is a prime example of this type of entertainment. When we old-timers watched these movies and saw the way these people lived we thought that was what life was like. Maybe not for us but we believed somewhere people lived like this and we hoped to one day do the same.
The question becomes, can today's audience appreciate this movie? Will it be able to appeal to the 18 - 29 year olds? I would love to say "yes"! But, it wouldn't be difficult for me to imagine some people saying the movie is too corny. They don't like the music. They don't buy into the romance. Still, I have had some success introducing movies of this era to friends who don't watch movies from this time period.They find that they like the movies and are quite surprised by that. So, maybe there is an audience today that will enjoy it. If not, well, at least us old-timers know about it and enjoy it.