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!

Vivacious Lady (1938)

Old School

Sex! Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s fascinating to see just how many references to the birds and the bees permeate the seemingly innocent veneer of Vivacious Lady. James Stewart and Ginger Rodgers where dating during the filming and it’s certainly apparent on screen with the levels of sexual tension between the two with these stars never appearing more youthful than they do here. There are many code breaking moments in Vivacious Lady from the opening scene with the exotic dancers in the nightclub and their tail feathers being pushed in Stewart’s face to Stewart breaking into a women’s only apartment block after visiting hours.

It’s clear that the University in the fictional town of Old Sharon is full of students eager to get it on from every other male student wolf whistling Ginger to the large number of couples occupying the boathouse at night. I mean the President of University and Stewart’s father played by Charles Coburn even comes right out and says it, “We are having the usual spring difficulties between our male and female students a little early this season. Too much fraternising in the lockers”.  – The Hays Code? What code?

However on closer examination of Vivacious Lady something dawned on me – there’s a very unusual incest thing going on between the main characters. Francey (Ginger Rogers) was going out with Peter’s (James Stewart) brother Keith (James Ellison) before they met, however, Francey marries Peter shortly after they meet for the first time even though she was still going out with Keith at the time. Even when Keith finds out he is perfectly ok with this arrangement and himself and Francey continue to act in an overly intimate manner throughout the film for people who are cousins. Likewise just get look at this dialogue exchange:

“I remember I married you”

“Oh no, she married me”

“So were cousins”

“You and your cousins can use that drawing room now.”

Incest aside, unlike other screwball comedies Vivacious Lady is actually more grounded in reality with its use of more deadpan humour. There are no over the top misunderstandings or histrionics (not that there’s anything wrong with that sort of thing) but rather the characters react in a manner in which people would in real life. Just look at the reaction of Peter’s father whenever he tells him he got married, it’s lifelike but manages to be no less funny. This was one of the four films in which Beulah Bondi played Jimmy Stewart’s mother; I can’t imagine a more convincing choice to be the mother of the on-screen, boy next door Jimmy Stewart persona. Likewise, is there a better choice to play an overly conservative father than Charles Coburn? I can speak for a friend of mine who couldn’t believe just how much he related to Jimmy Stewart and the manner he acts towards Ginger Rogers such as Stewart’s attempts to make advances but keeps backing away under nerves. The two of them really do feel like a bunch of young love-struck kids.

Tom, Dick and Harry (1941)

The Horror…

I was left in a state of despair after watching Tom, Dick and Harry. The fact that a Ginger Rogers film could be this shockingly below par. It’s not just a forgettable, run of the mill film. Heck, I wish I could call it mediocre. Tom, Dick and Harry is horrifyingly bad.

Although the opening title is creative, it all goes downhill from there. For starters there is a “joke” early during the film, in which Phil Silvers asks Rogers if she wants some ice cream, he mentions a variety of flavours, Rogers mentions he forgot one, Silver’s denies it. Once he leaves, Rogers say to her date that he forgot to say pistachio. Several minutes later Silvers returns just to mention he forgot Pistachio. I don’t get it, what’s the punch line!? Rest assured my laugh count by the end of the film was a total of 0.

But let’s move onto the most awful thing about Tom, Dick and Harry. I am talking about the film’s dream sequences. They sound like an interesting idea on paper, but good lord, are they terrifying! I rarely find any movie scary, weather classified as horror or not, but never have I been so close to wanting the literally hide behind the couch. The most terrifying thing about these sequences are the adults dressed as babies, miniaturised and superimposed in the scenes. The Exorcist? Rosemary’s Baby? Phhh , please. Those adults dressed as babies is where it’s at when it comes to the stuff nightmares are made of. Was David Lynch inspired by this film? It’s like something straight out of Eraserhead.  Every time one of these dream sequences was about to start I was pleading with the movie, “please not another one!”. This was the last thing I was expecting from a 1940’s movie with such an innocent, carefree title.

I can assure you that I’m not exaggerating when I call Tom, Dick and Harry one of the absolute worst films I’ve seen from Hollywood’s golden age. After finishing the film I had to watch something else in order to help get it of my mind, not only because it’s a terrible film starring my beloved Ginger Rogers,  but because those dream sequences will give me my own horrible nightmares (Just for the record the film I watched was Lonely are the Brave starring Kirk Douglas, which did the trick). I’d imagine after winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle, Ginger Rogers would have had all sorts of film offers going her way. Heck, she turned down Ball of Fire and instead appeared in this. I don’t even like thinking about it. Thankfully the following year she stared in The Major and the Minor, so all is forgiven.

Stage Door (1937)

The Women

Stage Door is very much the poverty row version of MGM’s The Women. It features only one big box office star, another who had become box office poison and a supporting cast who would later go on to play notable prominent roles in later films (Lucille Ball, Ann Miller, Eve Arden).

Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn where the two big rivals at RKO pictures with Rodger’s career on the up and Hepburn’s career on the down yet you can feel their mutual respect for each other as the film progresses (in the fictional realm at least). Stage Door follows a group of actresses living in a drab theatrical boarding house trying to make it in the world of show business. Right of the bat the movie is emotionally investing as the cast of street smarts constantly spew one-liners and witty remarks in an effort to try and deal with their lack of success amidst the depression-ridden 30’s; the film succeeds in evoking both laughter and sadness simultaneously with its barrage of highly relatable human emotion – The lightning-fast dialogue alone makes Stage Door worthy of multiple viewings.

Supposedly the filming of Stage Door began without a completed script resulting in much of the film’s dialogue being improvised. The interactions between the female cast feels real; the acting present in the movie doesn’t feel like acting, almost like I’m getting a voyeuristic insight into these character’s lives.  Likewise, the film even has an early appearance by Jack Carson as an over giddy lumberjack on an arranged date with Jean Maitland (Ginger Rogers); always a great screen presence no matter how brief his appearance is. I find Stage Door a one of a kind film; it has a raw quality, one that can’t be created intentionally making it a rare treat in many respects. The cast and dialogue is just too good that I really become attached to these characters and almost wish the film could be a bit longer.

Katharine Hepburn’s Terry Randall is another instance of Hepburn playing the odd one out. I do love Terry Randall, she’s the one character in the boarding house of whom clearly comes from an upper-class background and she is only one who achieves stage success by landing the lead in a play despite her lack of acting experience. With her go-getter attitude, Terry is the embodiment of the individual as summed up in one line: “You talk as if the world owed you a living. Maybe if you tried to do something for the theatre, the theatre would do something for you”.  I get the impression Stage Door purports the idea that one who comes from a lower class background will find it harder to overcome these ties and find success. In one dialogue exchange Terry asks the other women “do you have to just sit around and do nothing about it?” and the character played by Lucille Ball replies “maybe it’s in the blood, my grandfather sat around until he was 80”. Terry is clearly more dedicated to her craft than the other woman in boarding house, discussing Shakespeare and other aspects of theatrical arts, while the other conformist woman poke fun and shun her for it. This does make me question what they are doing there in the first place; I guess they have just been beaten down by the system that bad. One thing Terry is not, however, is a snob. She doesn’t look down on the girls from a high and mighty position and even makes the effort to learn their slang. When I doubt I will ask myself, what would Terry Randall do?

The Major and the Minor (1942)

Su, Su, You’re a Knockout!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

The Major and the Minor is the film which made me fall in love with Ginger Rogers, turning me into the obsessive fan I am now. Miss Rogers is Susan “Susu” Applegate, who transforms her 30-year-old body into that of a 12-year-old and does so completely convincingly and in my view gives the finest performance of her career. You must have a heart of stone not to fall in love with the endearing alter ego oddball that is Susu; a natural anomaly of a tall child (‘Swedish stock’ as she refers to her family) and “a very peculiar child” as Major Kirby (Ray Milland) describes her. – Susu’s response to this, “you bet I am” sums things up perfectly. I question how many actresses would have the ability to do such a feat. Being a super fan I would say that she should have won an Oscar for this acting marvel but I doubt the Academy would pay much attention to a weird little irrational comedy like this.

Oh yes, weird, that is our key word here. If the premise of a 30-year-old disguised as a 12-year-old in order to get a half fare on a train ticket doesn’t have you raising an eyebrow then how about throwing her into a military academy with 300 male pre teen cadets. The whole family can enjoy The Major and the Minor, the kids can enjoy the smart-alecky humour and the adults can enjoy the sexual innuendo….centered around children. That’s one of the things that makes this movie great, it’s so wrong on many levels (yet feels so right, or something like that) but contains that kind of innocence and naivety that only classic Hollywood can pull off. The British Board of Film Classification gives the film a current rating of “U” with the description, “contains very mild sex references”, although I believe that’s a gross understatement. Imagine if Lolita was a screwball comedy, you would have a result somewhere along the lines of The Major and the Minor.

Ray Milland is an excellent leading man, well a leading man to a character whom he thinks is a child (yes this movie becomes more wrong the further I analyse it). I wonder how must have felt delivering such lines as “You like boys Susu?, 300 of them, all they’re all yours”. The ending of The Major and the Minor itself is disturbing on a number of levels. When Major Kirby discovers Susu is actually an adult and they presumably now fall in love as seen in the final scene, is he going to fantasize that he’s going out with the 12-year-old Susu? My other favourite cast member here is Diana Lynn as an intellectual child planning to become a scientist. This kid is so badass, I’m actually quite jealous of her. Normally kids in movies tend to get on my nerves, but not when they’re able to outwit the adults, as seen here.

The Major and the Minor was Billy Wilder’s American directorial debut and already he has made the first in a long line of masterpieces. Exploring his films (including those he has written) I feel has been a journey for me through the annals of classic Hollywood and for helping to shape my sense of humour. The Major and the Minor marks another milestone in that journey.

Carefree (1938)

Freud & Ginger

On my first viewing of Carefree, I experienced something I never thought I would with Fred and Ginger, boredom. Initially I was expecting another spectacular musical showcase, however, the film is on a smaller scale (their shortest at only 80 minutes) than their previous outings and only contains a mere four musical numbers; making it more of a comedy with some singing and dancing than a full-fledged musical. With several movies behind them following a similar formula, if they were going to make another then they had to do something different or things would have become stale. I wished though that Fred Astaire could have done straight comedies during his career; Carefree is the closest thing to that.

None of the musical numbers in Carefree stand out as being among the best in the series. Fred Astaire’s number in which he plays golf while tap dancing sounds better on paper than it does in execution. I’m sure what he’s doing is no easy task yet it doesn’t look all that impressive to watch. The Yam, on the other hand, is a pretty standard number, but heck, it’s still Fred and Ginger dancing. I find the film’s most interest musical number is ‘I Used to be Color Blind’, the most experimental in the film, shot in slow motion and allowing the viewer to see Fred and Ginger’s grace in every detail.

For the only time in the series, Astaire plays a character who is not a dancer by profession, but rather a psychiatrist (although they do make sure to mention he once had aspirations of becoming a dancer). I don’t completely buy Astaire as a psychiatrist, but realism is not what these movies are about. Plus I’m sure the psychology on display here is of the “you are getting sleepy” variety as seen in movies. He doesn’t break his professional ethics though by pursuing his patient like his stalkerish attitude towards Ginger in other films in the series, instead, she wants him.

Carefree belongs to Ginger, playing a character whom has been put under hypnosis, giving her the opportunity to completely goof around in a childlike manner with big wide eyes, and it’s pretty funny stuff. How many movies do you get to see Ginger Rogers wielding a shotgun? Everyone needs at least one movie where they get to act stupid. The comedic assets of Ralph Bellamy and Jack Carson are big benefits to the film’s witty dialogue, where much of the film’s strength lies. Even if the dance numbers don’t fully exceed, as a screwball comedy, Carefree grows on me, of course, I am a sucker for these movies and the Astaire/Rodgers name, so good enough for me!