Silver Screen Standards: The Gay Divorcee (1934)
I knew I wanted to write about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for this month’s column, but with ten movies to choose from the hard part was deciding which one I particularly wanted to watch again. Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936) are the most obvious choices, but I settled instead on The Gay Divorcee (1934), the second of the pair’s pictures following their debut team up in Flying Down to Rio (1933). I’d like to say that I had very carefully considered reasons for going with The Gay Divorcee, like its importance as the film that settled Astaire and Rogers into a proper partnership, or its distinction as the first film awarded the Oscar for Best Original Song for “The Continental,” but I picked it simply because Erik Rhodes’ scene-stealing performance as Tonetti always makes me laugh. There’s a wealth of wacky supporting character action going on in The Gay Divorcee, and it’s just a delightfully silly picture from start to finish.
The plot comes from Gay Divorce, the 1932 Cole Porter Broadway hit in which Astaire also starred. Astaire plays American dancer Guy Holden, who falls in love at first sight with fellow American Mimi (Rogers) when he spots her in a London train station. Mimi, however, rebuffs his advances, mainly because she’s already in a jam thanks to her marriage to an absent geologist who only turns up when he wants her money. Mimi enlists her dotty Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) to help her secure a divorce, so Hortense acquires the legal services of her former flame, Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), who also happens to be Guy’s roommate and pal. Miscommunication then causes Mimi to think that Guy is the professional co-respondent Egbert has hired to bring about the divorce, much to the frustration of the actual co-respondent, the surprisingly domestic Tonetti (Erik Rhodes).
Fred and Ginger’s characters in their films tend to be variations on a theme; his pursuits and her refusals keep the action going around the big musical numbers but also raise some questions about men who won’t take no for an answer. Guy is an especially dogged stalker who drives around London searching for Mimi after she declines to give him her name and number; there’s even a car chase sequence that ends with him trapping her vehicle and forcing her to interact with him. Instead of having to sing the “Sprayed Mace Blues” as a result, Guy gets Mimi’s attention, but their romantic troubles are far from over. The fractious dialogue between the two provides contrast to the swoony romance of their dances, where they float together over the floor as Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” swells the score. Ginger wears some especially lovely gowns designed by Walter Plunkett during the dance sequences, and all of these elements being established in The Gay Divorcee provide a formula for the many Fred and Ginger pictures that follow. They’re not indistinguishable, but they don’t tend to stray too far afield from a format that repeatedly brought success for the stars and their films.
Of course, Fred and Ginger aren’t the only actors in their movies, and for me, it’s the supporting cast that really makes this one memorable. Erik Rhodes goes over the top as Tonetti, a flamboyant Italian who romances would-be divorcees but has very strict rules of engagement. His motto is “Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti!” The ubiquitous Edward Everett Horton acts as Astaire’s sidekick and has his own weird, reluctant romance with Alice Brady, which gives both Horton and Brady some truly funny moments. You’ll think of them whenever you hear someone say “peanuts.” Brady’s Aunt Hortense is just a few corpses shy of matching the Brewster sisters for cheerful insanity, but she fits right in with Tonetti, Egbert, and Eric Blore’s equally wacky waiter. The icing on this cast of characters cake is Betty Grable as the specialty dancer for the “Let’s Knock Knees” number, still years away from real stardom but delightfully energetic and adorable. These characters exist in a world where massive, elaborate dance sequences with dozens of outrageously costumed performers appear by magic, so we’re not surprised if the inhabitants of such a frothy wonderland are a bit mad. Guy and Mimi only appear sane by contrast; they are, after all, a man who falls in love with a woman he just met and a woman who was impulsive enough to marry a man she barely knew.
As iconic as Astaire and Rogers are together, it’s useful to see and appreciate them apart. Astaire made musicals with a number of other partners, but I particularly like him with Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948) and with Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1953). Some of my favorite Ginger Rogers solo outings are Bachelor Mother (1939), Kitty Foyle (1940), and the really perversely funny Billy Wilder comedy, The Major and the Minor (1942). The dramatic turn in Kitty Foyle is a huge departure from the musical comedies and won her the Academy Award for Best Actress. For a double bill of Fred and Ginger, I’d follow The Gay Divorcee with Top Hat (1935), which also reunites them with director Mark Sandrich and costars Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, and Eric Blore. Sadly, Alice Brady died in 1939 of cancer when she was only 46, but she left behind other memorable performances in My Man Godfrey (1936) and In Old Chicago (1938). Both roles earned her Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, but she won for the latter film.
— Jennifer Garlen for Classic Movie Hub
Jennifer Garlen pens our monthly Silver Screen Standards column. You can read all of Jennifer’s Silver Screen Standards articles here.
Jennifer is a former college professor with a PhD in English Literature and a lifelong obsession with film. She writes about classic movies at her blog, Virtual Virago, and presents classic film programs for lifetime learning groups and retirement communities. She’s the author of Beyond Casablanca: 100 Classic Movies Worth Watching and its sequel, Beyond Casablanca II: 101 Classic Movies Worth Watching, and she is also the co-editor of two books about the works of Jim Henson.