Falling in Love with Film Again via the Gay Divorcee

The Gay Divorcee (1934) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Watching a console TV for long stretches from the living room floor at a distance of not more than a few feet was a good part of a typical day for most tots of my era. Much of what we watched was “old movies,” because, for many years, the films of what we now call  the Golden Age aired morning, noon and night on local stations in need of hours of not-too-expensive programming. On top of this, I grew up in a movie-loving home. Mother, a child of the ‘30s and young woman of the ‘40s, had been one of the countless kids who was terrorized by King Kong when it was a first-run release and she was among the many teenagers who lined up to see Gone with the Wind when it was breaking box office records. Later, after she came to live in Southern California during World War II, she had chance encounters with one or two movie stars that she never forgot. Dad wasn’t a movie fan in the same way, but he did love Cagney. And he favored Westerns. One night, when my brother and I were in his charge, he took us to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was the only night out at the movies we ever had with just Dad.

Since movies were a part of my life from the beginning, is it any mystery that I knew who Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Tyrone Power were before I knew the names of some of my relatives? I recall noting in my diary when I was about nine that I had watched The Great Lie, “starring Bette Davis.” I remember first being enchanted by Tyrone Power when he smiled at Dorothy Lamour just after they met on a staircase in Johnny Apollo. And there was the time I watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder every night, five nights in a row, on a channel that would run the same feature film all through the week.

But as I got older my interests multiplied to include music and boys and so many other things. And time continued to pass, until…

The Gay Divorcee (1934) was the first in a string of musicals Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers headlined together for RKO, and it set a pattern for the classics that would follow. In this one, he’s Guy Holden, a cocky Broadway hoofer on holiday in Europe, traveling with his dim and dizzy sidekick, Egbert (Edward Everett Horton), a British attorney of sorts. Astaire is up and dancing within the film’s first minutes: pressed into service to pay for dinner at a Paris nightclub, Guy puts on a floor show of his own, improvising a slapdash dance routine on the spot.

The prototypical Astaire/Rogers meet-cute takes place dockside in London. He is instantly smitten, she is promptly put off. When he later begins to pine for her (though he protests, “girls pine…men just suffer”), he warbles a lovesick tune, “Needle in a Haystack,” and breaks into a nifty dance around his hotel room as he gets dressed. Irving Berlin was on the money when he said, “As a dancer he stands alone, and no singer knows his way around a song like Fred Astaire.”

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers: The Gay Divorcee (1934)A collection of eccentric screwball types surrounds the pair. Alice Brady prattles madly as Mimi’s (Ginger Rogers) Aunt Hortense, a many-times-married-and-divorced scatterbrain who was once engaged to Egbert. Married Mimi is desperate to divorce her absentee husband and Hortense enlists inept Egbert to serve as her attorney; this, of course, has mixed results. Also on hand lending comic support are Eric Blore as an unctuous waiter with an eye and ear for detail and Erik Rhodes as an enthusiastic, if hare-brained, professional “co-respondent” (“Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti”). Briefly featured is 18-year-old Betty Grable as a bit of platinum strudel intent on k-knocking k-knees with Egbert.

Most of The Gay Divorcee is set at a lavish resort on the faux English seaside – the Bella Vista, a glittering monument to Art Deco. When Guy spies Mimi at the hotel, he pursues and coaxes her into dancing with him in an empty ballroom overlooking a moonlit sea. He sings Cole Porter’s glorious “Night and Day,” they dance, and as the heat between them builds, her resistance begins to melt. It’s a palpably seductive moment and he literally dances his way into her heart. The expression on Mimi’s face when the music ends says it all…

GAY DIVORCEE, THE 2Naturally, there’s a cleverly contrived identity mix-up that derails the romance for a while. It centers on time and place and the phrase, “chance is the fool’s name for fate” (repeated variously as “chance is the foolish name for fate,” “fate is a foolish thing to take chances with,” “chances are that fate is foolish,” etc.).  But Guy and Mimi unravel the misunderstanding and it isn’t long before they’re dancing again, this time in the musical centerpiece of The Gay Divorcee, “The Continental,” a many-phased, grand-scale, 22-minute production number. 

Headed for matrimony in the end, Guy and Mimi prepare to leave the resort together by taking one last turn in her hotel room to strains of “The Continental.” And when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced up and over the dining table and chairs and out the door, my heart went with them.

It was then that my dormant affection for “old movies” reawakened and became a full-blown passion. Soon it was more than classics on TV and keeping up with the latest new movies (many of them now legends of the New Hollywood) for me. I began to haunt “revival houses,” where retrospectives of Hollywood classics were shown, and “art houses” that screened foreign films old and new. And that was just the beginning.

 Thinking back on it, the experience of reconnecting with classic movies and recognizing, consciously, what they meant to me wasn’t too unlike what had happened when I returned to my hometown for the first time after many months away. It was springtime and as the car descended into the valley where I’d grown up, the scent of orange blossoms drifted up, growing stronger and stronger. Tears suddenly sprang into my eyes. The smell was so powerful and exotic…and yet so intimately familiar. That beautiful scent had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember but I’m not sure I fully appreciated it until that instant.

GAY DIVORCEE, THE 4The Gay Divorcee was a box office smash and established the Astaire/Rogers formula for the best of their films at RKO. The picture was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Art Direction (Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark) Best Music/Score (Max Steiner), Best Sound Recording (Carl Dreher) and the first Best Music/Original Song award, which it won, for “The Continental” by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson.

 The film was based on a 1932 Broadway hit, Gay Divorce, in which Astaire had starred with Claire Luce (not to be confused with writer Clare Boothe Luce). Only “Night and Day,” of the 13 songs Cole Porter had written for the original stage production, was kept in the film version, but the plot remained intact and both Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes reprised their Broadway roles onscreen. The original title of the musical was changed at the insistence of the Hays Office in the belief that suggesting a divorcée could be happy was safer than implying divorce might be a cause for frivolity.

The Lady Eve lives in Northern California and works in TV. Her blog posts have won CiMBA Awards from the Classic Movie Blog Association and been reprinted in newspapers and magazines. For more information, visit http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com

  • Leonard Ulman

    to reprise is to perform again while a reprieve is a pardon

  • Wayne P.

    The Continental dance routine from The Gay Divorcee is one of the longest musical production numbers, probably, in film history…and a catchy, hummable tune at that to boot! How I love movies with that “G” word in the title because it used to simply mean ‘happy’. “We were very, very gay…” as Bette Davis said famously with a line from another classic movie. Nowadays, I am not so sure anymore.

  • Joseph23006

    When I first encountered the Astaire/Rogers’ films they were, I think, under the C & C, Television Time, without the RKO banner and really poor quality. But with the remastered boxed sets, I can appreciate the artistry and notice something new each time I watch any of the!

  • John Marsh

    This is, indeed, a beautiful film in a real cinegraphic way. As a photographer I often recommend it to any one who asks me why I shoot in black and white. I refer them to this film as an example of outstanding combinations of art direction, costuming, lighting and monochromatic cinematography. I have often wondered why David Abel never won an Oscar for his camera work. He shot this one and Top Hat and others. What is so outstanding is to view these 30′s RKO films now in BluRay. One would never have seen anything so sharp and contrasty in a theater. For any photographer who understands the obvious elements demonstrated in this film, must find the quality of it as fantastic – and this done in 1934! Please, you viewers of classic films, take another look at this film and watch how Ginger Rogers is costumed in white with black while Fred is costumed in black with white as they dance in beautiful white sets with black and gray accents. I obviously can’t write anything that describes the indescribable beauty of this black and white film. Go see it!!

  • Louis Harrison

    Thanks for the fine article on this film and the team of Astaire and Rogers. I first saw ‘Divorcee’ on late night local television in dubious quality and complete with frequent commercial interruptions. But the joy came through clear enough. Way back when, ABC television showed a group of RKO films over the network on Sunday nights. Since they couldn’t compete with Ed Sullivan on CBS or ‘Bonanza’ on NBC they evidently gave up and gave me my introduction to A&R with ‘Top hat.’ Wonderful!