The final week of The July Five is upon us. But don’t be too sad…we’re gonna end the month dancing with the illustrious duo, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers! I’ve included several of their films on previous TCM Top Ten lists, but have only seen one, The Barkleys of Broadway (Wednesday’s review). With that, The Gay Divorcee was their second of ten pairings and I’m hoping things progress. The Gay Divorcee is a fizzy romantic musical with some incredibly witty lines said by incredibly witty people, but the musical smothers the romance and narrative, leaving me to think I was watching a compilation of Fred and Ginger’s greatest hits.
Mimi Glossop (Rogers) wants a divorce, but her husband isn’t amenable to the decision. So, Mimi hires a professional corespondent – a fake paramour her husband will “catch” her with – and boards a cruise ship to wait. She runs into hoofer Guy Holden (Astaire), a man she met previously and rebuffed, and assumes he’s said corespondent. A comedy of errors ensues, all danced beautifully.
It’s easy saying you don’t expect much from a Golden Era musical, as the dancing is always center stage (pun intended). But there’s a difference, for me at least, between a musical and a dance showcase, of which The Gay Divorcee falls into the ladder. I doubt that this was the intention going in. Originally based on a successful Broadway show called The Gay Divorce, the title was the first thing changed to appease the Hays Code. So, add an “e” and you have a movie tamed for cinema audiences. This is a good move, as the onus then gets put on Mimi as a character as opposed to just a woman in a situation she wants to extricate herself from…or into. Unfortunately, that’s about as risque as the film gets because we’re just never privy about WHY Mimi is willing to go so far to get said divorce. It’s her prerogative, sure, but coupled with the other elements of the narrative that are just too thin, it comes off like an absence of character development.
I’d also argue the lack of reason turns the film away from the divorcee in question. Astaire anchors this picture, so it’s understandable we end of getting a better portrait of Guy Holden than anyone else. His meet cute with Mimi puts him on a near obsessive path to get in touch with her again for…reasons. Again, the romantic comedy formula often relies on character recognizing innate qualities in the other character that equates to love, but after one brief meeting where she couldn’t really care less about him? For much of the movie Astaire seems more in love with the idea of love itself! Even his friend Egbert (a delightfully droll Edward Everett Horton) tells him she’s hiding because she isn’t interested. I guess it’s just one of those old movie tropes we laugh at: Remember the days when you could stalk a girl who was openly hiding from you, and it was considered darling?
Matters of love aside, Astaire’s dancing is top-notch. Unlike Gene Kelly, whose dancing never quite has that spontaneous tone, Astaire dances as if he’s so consumed by emotion he just has to dance it out! This is reflected in his ability to adapt, and dance, within his surrounding. We watch him dance around his living room, testing out the area around the fireplace before jumping on tables and chairs. Even his butler gets in on the act, throwing Astaire his hat in rhythm. When coupled with Rogers, whose first dance with Astaire has her playing as cold as she started out, the two work with or without the people in the room.
But too often Astaire and Rogers disappear, opening the dance floor up to other random characters cherry-picked from a Busby Berkeley movie. One of those given screentime is Betty Grable in a role acting as a test ground for her singing and dancing. If you didn’t tell me she was in this, I wouldn’t have known (I don’t have much history with her films). She has a great moment with Horton during the song “Let’s Knock Knees” (another saucy ditty). The song sounds akin to “Pettin’ in the Park” and wins due to Horton’s complete ambivalence and discomfort that he’s being sung to. There’s a weird subplot involving Horton’s seeming irresistability with women and it works best here. Horton’s moments with the flighty Alice Brady as Mimi’s Aunt Hortense are also hilarious and often steal the show; “I haven’t been astonished since I was 8-years-old!”
However, by the time the film gets to the nearly 18 minute performance of “The Continental” – the longest production number in an Astaire/Rogers film and one of the longest dance sequences before the ballet in An American in Paris (1951) – Rogers and Astaire seem like two grains of rice inf a boiling pot. The actual dance scene is fine, but there’s no integration of it within the larger narrative, and Astaire and Rogers absence as strangers sing the song make it seem like it was lifted from another movie and blindly inserted here. I’m all for spontaneous bursts of song in public places, but there needs to be a reason why it’s here. Most of the songs and performances in The Gay Divorcee never make sense for being placed in this specific film. Maybe they worked better in the play?
We still have three other films so perhaps I haven’t hit on the Astaire/Rogers film for me? I have no issues with the individual actors in the film, but script is as thin as vellum with songs standing in for character development.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.