Music: Cole Porter, Max Steiner Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady and Edward Everett Horton
Busby Berkeley, RKO followed a different formula with their Astaire and Rogers pictures which typically took the form of a romantic comedy set to music and dance. The Gay Divorcee was the pair’s first starring feature, after appearing together in supporting roles in Flying Down to Rio. The film itself benefits from the freshness of being the first of the formula and features the song “Night and Day” by Cole Porter, as well as the Oscar winning song “The Continental.” The film was also nominated for best picture, as well as production design, sound recording, and Max Steiner’s film score. Like the Warner Brother’s films, the Astaire-Rogers pictures are typically built around a specific plot framework, and this one is no exception, with the pair is usually getting together in the middle of some sort of overseas travel.
This film begins at a cabaret in Paris, with a singing chorus line imploring the downtrodden audience to “Don’t Let it Bother You” while dancing with finger puppets. Edward Everett Horton and Fred Astaire are on their way to London and have forgotten their wallets on the train, forcing Astaire to dance for their dinner. Once in London Astaire meets Ginger Rogers who is there with her aunt, Alice Brady. He accidentally tears her dress and she leaves without telling him her name. But he is smitten. The next number usually takes place in Astaire’s apartment or hotel room and he sings about trying to find her while dancing a soft shoe. This time it’s a tap number on the fireplace hearth while getting dressed. When he finds her again, he proposes marriage, but then the audience learns that she’s already married and seeking a divorce. Brady, it turns out, knows Horton, and gets him to provide the legal advice to Rogers. By having her pretend to have an affair, he hopes that the husband will agree to divorce her. The final element of the formula is that Horton knows Rogers but doesn’t know she’s the one Astaire is in love with.
Though RKO was striving to develop its own unique musical style, the influence of the Busby Berkeley vehicles is still evident in the “parade of faces” sequence when Astaire begins his search for Rogers in the streets of London, as well as in the opening number with the French chorus girls and the “Let’s Knock Knees” number at the beach. Still, RKO’s formula remains dominant. The iconic dance number is Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” The two really are extraordinary together. The different framing devices, from under a table or through Venetian blinds, also adds some nice variety to the number. Even though the film was based on a Cole Porter stage musical, that song is the only one of his to make it to the screen. The musical grand finale is “The Continental,” a nearly twenty minute song and dance number that was the first song to win an Academy Award. As a big finish it’s certainly nowhere near the Berkeley numbers in terms of spectacle, emphasizing the dance steps instead, but not trying to compete directly with the choreographer was also a wise choice.
The thing that makes the film so good is that it’s not overdone, the way much of the formula would be later. There’s a subtlety to the humor, as well as a judicious use of it, that is quite enjoyable. The one weak spot is the ethnic Italian stereotype played by Erik Rhodes. It’s over the top and excessive and a bit embarrassing, especially when he sings in the finale. Fortunately, he has a vey small role. There are also a couple of memorable supporting actors, the distinctive E.E. Clive plays a customs officer in London, and Betty Grable is the singer and dancer at the beach who wants to “knock knees” with Edward Everett Horton. It’s actually quite surprising to watch Horton try to sing and dance, something they wouldn’t force him to do in later films of the series. Though very different than what Warner Brothers or MGM was doing at the time, RKO hit on a formula and a couple of great dancing stars to help Americans get through the Depression. The Gay Divorcee is the opening chapter in a great series of musicals.