Directed by Mark Sandrich
Screenplay by George Marion, Jr., Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman, based upon the stage musical of the same name, by Dwight Taylor
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Alice Brady, Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes
I’ve never seen a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers pic before this entry – I was aware of their existence, in the way people with a brain are generally aware of things that existed before their time when they’re not brain-dead, but there was never more than awareness. Maybe here or there I’ve seen a clip, or a GIF, but certainly no more. And if we’re honest, I’m not even sure I’ve seen a Ginger Roger’s pic at all, with or without Fred Astaire, and the only Fred Astaire movies I’ve ever seen are ones he made when he was older: Ghost Story, which is more memorable for Alice Krige getting naked in it than for anything Fred Astaire did in it; and The Towering Inferno, which is not memorable for anything.
Well, with The Gay Divorcee, all that changed.
What’s It About
Returning from France with his buddy, Astaire meets Rogers at customs. Smitten with her, he tries to get her name and address – anything to keep in touch – but she won’t have it, and ultimately, they go their separate ways. But…
But they aren’t separated for long because Roger’s hires the buddy – who is an attorney, and who Rogers doesn’t know is Astaire’s buddy – to represent her in a divorce. This being England in the 1930s, which clearly does not take part in the ‘No fault’ divorce process we enjoy today, the husband’s consent, or some sort of fault, needs be shown for the divorce to go down.
Because the husband won’t consent, the attorney/buddy hires a man to be caught in the act with Rogers and, after some complications and misunderstandings in which Rogers mistakes Astaire for that paid stooge, grounds for divorce are established in a most unexpected way.
In it’s way, the plot is convoluted, but is also simple: a man is attracted to a lady but misunderstandings conspire to keep them apart. Eventually, after some comedy, the misunderstandings are cleared up and everybody leaves happy.
How It’s About What It’s About
The Gay Divorcee is a musical, but only in a perfunctory way, whereby the music hardly seems to matter at all and is, at best, a staging device for the dancing. One suspects that if the filmmakers could have gotten away without the music, they would have. And truly, aside from one song, ‘The Continental’, which leads into the massive dance number in the back half of the film, the music is completely unmemorable. And then, ‘The Continental’ is only memorable because it’s the button on the end of every other line in the song, i.e. it’s memorable by repetition.
But if we treat the movie as a musical, and not as merely a dance delivery method, it’s one of the most low-key and visually unimaginative musicals in history. Unlike the 1950s, when musicals were all garish colors, over-the-top singing and dancing extravaganzas in majestic widescreen, and the musicals of today, which tend to be shot with so much energy that the camera is like one of the dancers, The Gay Divorcee is almost static. Most of the time, the camera seems locked to the floor, and always looks on from the same side of any given room. In other words, not only is the film a bit lifeless in its direction, the way it’s made only emphasizes that it’s filmed on a stage. It makes the artificial – musicals are the very definition of artificial – all-the-more-so.
That said, The Gay Divorcee is basically of a piece with other films from the 1930s, musical or otherwise, which were never known for any real camera movement or attempt at visual creativity.
You Take The Good, You Take the Bad
The Gay Divorcee will never be confused with being visually imaginative, or even remotely groundbreaking, but at least the acting is marvelous. Astaire is a magnificent dancer, has good comic timing, and looks damn good in a tux – it’s no stretch to believe women would be taken in by him.
Erik Rhodes, as the fastidious Italian paid to provide the grounds for divorce, is also fantastic. More than simply being an accent we can laugh at – he tends to speak in garbled English, with an admittedly-broad Italian accent – he avoids the cheap laughs and instead mines the situation for all the humor it’s worth. Sure, do we get to laugh at the accent? Yes. But is that all we laugh at? No – not by a long shot.
The real comic hero, though, is Alice Brady, as Rogers’ forgetful aunt. So wonderful is she that it’s a shame she wasn’t nominated for, nor won, Best Supporting Actress. The shame is that, in her, we see what supporting actresses do – she supports. She comes in, adds a little spice to the dish, adds some laughs, and moves out again. On her own, she is delightful, but with the ensemble, she is magic. Given that, it’s a shame she received no Oscar love for the role. Of course, the reason why she got no Oscar love? There was no Supporting Actress Oscar in 1934 – category wasn’t created until 1936. Rest assured, Alice Brady was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the first year she could, with My Man Godfrey, and won it the next year for In Old Chicago. If I can find a copy of that film, which was itself a Best Picture Also-Ran, I promise to make it an entry in this series.
An interesting aside is that, for a time, it was thought Alice Brady’s Oscar was stolen off stage at the award ceremony – she was unable to attend and it was believed nobody picked it up in her place and so when it disappeared, it was thought stolen and the Academy promised her a replacement.
At least, that’s the legend. In truth, it was never stolen. It had merely been picked up by her director, Henry King, who must not have told anybody he was doing that, and who later delivered it to her. When the truth was discovered, plans for a replacement were cancelled.
What Didn’t I Like?
If I’m honest, Ginger Rogers did little for me. Yes, the timing she has with Astaire is impeccable, but aside from timing, she fails to move me one way or the other.
Also, while the film is basically light on its feet and generally moves at a good clip, that showstopper in the back half of the film – the massive dance sequence – does just that. It stops the show dead and whatever momentum the film built before then is almost completely destroyed. perhaps if it were trimmed a bit, by a 1/3 or even ½, it would be tolerable. As it is? Dreadful.
Better Than Best?
Was The Gay Divorcee better that the eventual winner of the Best Picture Oscar, It Happened One Night? No. And one has to suspect that if the Academy were limited to choosing just five films for Best Picture, as it did for the bulk of the Best Picture Oscars’ existence, instead of the twelve that were nominated – that’s right, 12! – it surely would have been on the outside looking in. But even if we expand the field in the way the Academy does today, nominating 8 or 9 in any given year, you can believe it’d be in there.
That said, it’s certainly charming and lovely and inoffensive and is a good way to pass the time. Better, it asks nothing of you and gets it’s comedy from the manners and silly situations of the film, not from being vulgar or crass. In short, it’s fun, and given that, it’s easy to see why it made the money it did. And just as it easily might not have been one of the five best films of 1934, it also wouldn’t be all that shocking if it had won Best Picture – after all, they were much more tolerant of comedies back then and weren’t burdened by the awards stigma that’d later hit them.
Until 1943, the winners of Best Supporting Actor and Actress did not receive an actual Oscar statue like they do today. Rather, they received a plaque on a wooden base. You can see a photo of Alice Brady’s actual Oscar at left. Incidentally, it was sold some years ago at auction with an asking minimum of $40,000.00.
See the rest of the Also Rans Project here.