Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Fred & Ginger Part 2: Roberta and Top Hat

As we've proceeded with our re-viewing of the eight 1930s Astaire-Rogers comedies, it's gradually become clear that there are (at least) two templates for their movies. The first, the one we all remember, is outlined in the introduction to Fred & Ginger Part 1. The second template is based on the two-couple conventions of comic opera: there's a leading couple around whom the romantic complications center, and a secondary couple who provide most of the comedy. The surprise in the second type of film is that, even when they're top-billed, Fred and Ginger play the comic secondary couple. As in...

3. Roberta (1935): You'd think that it would have been obvious to everyone how well the Astaire-Rogers star pairing worked in The Gay Divorcée (1934), but for Roberta they were returned to supporting roles. The film was planned before The Gay Divorcée was released, so perhaps that explains the filmmakers' caution in falling back on the Flying Down to Rio formula.

The movie was based on a Jerome Kern stage musical of the same title. As was the usual practice, several numbers from the stage show were cut, and new songs—"Lovely To Look At" and "I Won't Dance," also by Kern—were substituted.

The lovely Irene Dunne gets top billing as Stephanie, the main designer at a glamorous Parisian boutique. When Roberta's owner dies and leaves the shop to her American nephew John Kent (Randolph Scott), he and Stephanie clash at first before they realize they can't live (or run a business) without each other. Stephanie and Kent are the serious romantic couple, and so Dunne doesn't get to give full play to the wonderfully wry comic persona she later displayed in movies like The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). She does sing the Kern classics "Lovely to Look At" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" in a high operatic soprano that, because it doesn't have a hint of jazz in it, sounds like it should be in a different film. The stolid Scott is typecast as an American lunk who gets in over his head in both business and love.

Fred is Huckleberry Haines, leader of the Wabash Indianians dance band. Ginger is Lizzie Gatz, Huck's hometown sweetheart who went to Paris to make her fortune and now performs as the cafe singer "Countess Scharwenka." With Dunne and Scott going through the all the romantic plot twists and misunderstandings, all Fred and Ginger are given to do is banter, sing and dance together, which they do superbly. In "I'll Be Hard To Handle," Ginger sings the song in her "Countess Scharwenka" accent, and then she and Fred launch into a tap routine that reprises the relationship of their characters while it showcases the actors' easy comic rapport (at about 1:35 you can hear them laugh together for a moment over something invisible to us mere mortals):

Delightful as this is, it's their second dance together that's the iconic number from Roberta: the fluid "Lovely To Look At/Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" duet, with the lithe Ginger in a clingy black satin gown and Fred in the white tie and tails that he'd make his trademark in the title number of their next film, Top Hat (1935):

In The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book Arlene Croce calls this movie "their most ebullient film" (p. 46), and speculates that it's because during the filming of Roberta the super-hit success of The Gay Divorcée was becoming apparent. Whatever the reason, the high spirits evident in this film carry over into at least their next three collaborations, starting with...

4. Top Hat (1935): This was the first of their films to be written specifically for Astaire and Rogers, but it essentially follows the model of The Gay Divorcée—initial antagonism and mistaken identity inevitably being overcome by love. Rogers plays Dale Tremont, friend of Madge Hardwick (Helen Broderick), wife of the theater producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton), who is putting on a London show featuring the American song-and-dance man Jerry Travers (Astaire). Got all that?

Dale comes to believe that Jerry is Horace, and so she is outraged by his romantic pursuit of her around London and all the way to Venice (or perhaps I should say "Venice," since no attempt is made to made the Venice locations look like anything other than the huge Art Deco film set that they are). And Dale is very puzzled by Madge's eager matchmaking between her and the man she thinks is Madge's husband. Of course, ultimately the confusion is cleared up, but not before Fred and Ginger sing and dance through some terrific Irving Berlin numbers written for the movie.

Fred's solos to "No Strings (I'm Fancy Free)" (in which he first wakes up his downstairs neighbor Ginger with a tap routine, and then puts her to sleep with a soft shoe reprise), and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (in which he "shoots" a male chorus line with his walking stick), are justly famous. But—no surprise here—I find his duets with Ginger to be the highlights of the film. First is "Isn't This A Lovely Day," where Fred and Ginger conduct a charming courtship dance in a deserted gazebo in the middle of a sudden downpour:

(This scene should look familiar to Bollywood fans, as it's the original to which director/writer Karan Johar is paying homage in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998).)

Fred and Ginger's second dance together is "Cheek to Cheek," which begins with Fred singing "Heaven, I'm in heaven..." Easy to believe when he's dancing with Ginger. This is the number with the famous ostrich-feather dress; according to Croce, it was designed by Rogers herself. It floats around her beautifully, especially when Astaire twirls her, dips her, or lifts her into the air—a suggestion of heaven, indeed, in what is probably their best-known (and perhaps loveliest) duet:

I find the plot of Top Hat to be a bit too thin—is it really conceivable that Dale wouldn't realize her mistake almost immediately, or that she would so readily agree to marry the fop Bedini (Eric Rhodes, of course)?—but I realize that the plot is beside the point. Top Hat is delirious tongue-in-cheek fun, and it was a smash. It's still probably the movie people are most likely to be thinking of when they think of an Astaire-Rogers movie. Amazingly, though—in my humble opinion, at least—they still hadn't reached their peak.


  1. Nicely written. I agree with most of your observations. I am a bit surprised, however, that you did not even mention the delightful "I Won't Dance" number from Roberta. The singing interplay between Astaire and Rogers is delightful, and his solo is quite impressive.

  2. Fred, thanks for your comment. "I Won't Dance" is a terrific number with, as you say, some delightful musical interplay between Fred & Ginger. The is the song that has the lyric "When you dance you're charming and you're gentle / 'Specially when you do the Continental"--a nod to the big number in their previous film together, The Gay Divorcée. And "music leads the way to romance" could be the motto for every Astaire-Rogers film. (The lyrics to this version are by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh.)

    I didn't include "I Won't Dance" only because, after Ginger's entry, it becomes a solo dance showcase for Fred. In this series I'm focussing on their dances together.

    (And not even all of those. Also missing from my discussion of Roberta, for example, is their joyful reprise of "I Won't Dance" at the end of the film. And in Top Hat I omitted any mention of "The Piccolino," a novelty number that parodies "The Carioca" from Flying Down To Rio.)

    I'm trying to trace for myself (and interested readers) how the Astaire-Rogers partnership developed over their eight comedies together, especially as expressed in their dance duets. (And also to give a bit of a viewer's guide to the films.) For in-depth discussion of the films, their production backgrounds, and the individual numbers, Arlene Croce's book is a good place to begin.

    Thanks again for your comment!