The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Old English Definition of Gay

I had a period in which I was infatuated with the greatness that is Fred Astaire & Ginger Rodgers. Prior to this I often heard of them but I was occupied with later film musical of the 50’s. When I checked them out for myself I got it, oh boy did I get it. When together dancing or not, Fred and Ginger are in a world of their own and everyone else ceases to exist. Just look as Night & Day (my favourite Astaire and Rodger’s number), what could be more spellbinding? The Gay Divorcee is my favourite Astaire & Rodgers picture. This was their first film together as leads and yet a feel it gets everything right and I consider it a much better film than Top Hat which itself I find overrated.

I find the humour of The Gay Divorcee is more creative than that of Top Hat. Take the sequence in which Astaire finds Rodger in London by near impossible luck, then the two engage in a car chase into the countryside (how often do you get a car chase in a 30’s musical), and then in a wacky races type moment he goes ahead or Rodgers and gets road closed sign out of nowhere in order to stop her. Astaire’s stalker attitude could come off as creepy but he is charming enough to get away with it, making these moments morbidly funny. This whole sequence is so surreal and plays like a live-action cartoon as if the filmmakers are making fun of the film’s own highly improbably mistaken identity plot. This is much more clever than the handling of the mistaken identity plot in Top Hat. I don’t mean to completely undo Top Hat, I think it’s a good movie, just whatever Top Hat did I can’t help but feel The Gay Divorcee did much better. I’ve always championed Astaire’s unsung abilities as a comedian. His timing and line delivery is easily on par with the likes of Cary Grant; I wish he could have appeared in some non-musical comedies. Ginger Rodgers usually had a female companion throughout the series and I think Alice Brady is the best of them all with her histrionics; the sound of her voice alone cracks me up.

The Gay Divorcee may have slipped through the recently instated production code. If not then it certainly feels like a pre-code film, with sexual tension throughout and an air of scandalousness to the whole thing.

Fred and Ginger, they were gods!

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My Man Godfrey (1936)

She’s Electric, she’s in a family full of eccentrics.

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Does a comedy film actually have to make you laugh? Can you have a comedy without any laughs in it? This was once a question posed by film critic Mark Kermode.  When thinking of this question, the first movie which comes to my mind if My Man Godfrey, a comedy which I love but there are only a few moments during it which make me laugh and even those few aren’t big laughs. This is despite the movie’s crazy screwball, gorilla imitating antics in which the straight man William Powell enters a cartoon world. But I would still call it a comedy as it’s a movie which leaves you feeling melancholic watching it.

William Powell’s role as Godfrey exemplifies why he is the master of words. He can take any regular sounding lines and turn them into something memorable and unique – it’s like poetry. Even as an unshaven bum Godfrey outclass anyone. Likewise It’s easy to fall in love with Carole Lombard watching My Man Godfrey; she succeeds in playing a ditsy scatterbrain in an endearing manner but I feel the real unsung cast member of the film is Gail Patrick, one of the most underrated actresses of the 30’s – it’s a shame she never became an A-list leading lady. She became typecast playing (for lack of a better term) bitches, but could do so with a dose of humanity.

I love those moments which describe a ridiculous situation which is never caught on camera. The mental image of Carole Lombard riding into a mansion on a horse, going up the stairs and leaving it in the library is an image better left to my imagination. Many modern film comedies would show such a display for the viewer to actually see and well, would just be cringey and embarrassingly unfunny in the process.

My Man Godfrey wasn’t based on a stage play but watching it you might think otherwise as long stretches of the film take place in real time. Plus you get one thing almost unheard of in films prior to the 1950’s, an intricate title sequence.  I consider My Man Godfrey along with You Can’t Take It With You as the two quintessential “kooky family” movies although “kooky” may be an understatement.

Screwball comedy was partially about making fun of the rich as retribution for the great depression; My Man Godfrey is probably the harshest attack on the rich which the genre ever made, partially because of just how somber the film is. The opening scene in which men are living in a shanty town by a dump or the scavenger hunt for bums (or so-called ‘forgotten men’) are shocking sights for any era. However, My Man Godfrey shows how the wealthy upper classes are not beyond redemption and are a necessary component for any functioning capitalist society.

At the beginning of the film, Godfrey utters “Prosperity is just around the corner”, a line misattributed to Herbert Hoover though a widely mocked platform of the Republican Party during the early days of the depression. Once Godfrey is hired by the Bullock family as their butler he uses his newfound position to work his way out of poverty. By pawning the necklace Cornelia planted in Godfrey’s bedroom in an attempt to frame him, Godfrey purchases stock which Mr. Bullock had sold and in turn saving the family fortune. Godfrey owes a debt to a wealthy family for bringing him out living in a literal dump but in return, he is responsible for saving the family’s fortune and bringing the dysfunctional Bullocks together.

It sounds like the movie makes an argument for supply-side economics. Less subtle however is the scene in which Eugene Pallete (I swear that man is the spitting image and voice of Alex Jones) as the head of the Bullock household says “I don’t mind giving the government 60% of what I make but I can’t do it when my family spends 50% of it”, followed by his wife’s response of “Well why should the government get more money than your own family?”. At the end of the film, Godfrey has opened his own diner at the dump from the beginning of the film and hiring his previously homeless chums. – People banding together to get themselves out of poverty and not relying on an FDR handout.