There are few things that had more of an impact on my adolescent brain than that first time I saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dance together in The Gay Divorcee (1934). I caught it on Turner Classic Movies after school one day, when I was around 8 or 9 years old, and I swear my backside must’ve gone numb from sitting on the floor for so long without moving. I was transfixed. It made me laugh. It made me swoon. And I immediately wanted to see it again.
So I waited. I scoured the newspaper every day to see when TCM would be playing the movie again. And it wasn’t until months later that they brought it back. I was ready. I had a VHS tape that I’d acquired from the bottomless pit that was our TV cupboard, with stacks upon stacks of VHS movies shoved inside. I quickly taped over whatever was on the VHS, and probably got in trouble for it, so that I could have my own copy of The Gay Divorcee and I watched it over and over and over. After school. On the weekends. Whenever I could.
There was something about the way Fred moved, even when he wasn’t dancing. And he was so charming, witty, smart. He was a dreamer. He was everything little me wanted, and at the same time, he was everything I wanted to be. He was Cary Grant, but with a miraculous sense of grace and athleticism. In his long, oddly handsome face, there was elegance and class, but also sincerity and goodness.
It was such a pleasant film to look at, too. From the slim figure of Fred in his tuxedo as he danced, tilting to and fro like a palm tree in the wind…to Ginger Rogers’ stunningly beautiful gowns that were absolutely made to dance in. Every single time that woman twirled, my heart skipped a beat. The silk and the feathers, the way her dress swept around her legs even after she’d stopped moving, before it fell delicately back into place as the couple stared into each other’s eyes.
Just imagine little me as a puddle. Honestly. Like Alex Mack.
I finally broke the tape at the “Night and Day” number. I would watch it, then rewind it to watch it again. And again. And again. Cole Porter’s song, with Fred’s voice, and the orchestra that went from quiet romance to booming intensity…I get a little breathless just writing about it.
My dad had to find a used copy of the movie on the Internet—probably off of Amazon or something—because I’d reduced my amateur copy taped from TCM to being covered with wiggly lines.
I didn’t know until later that The Gay Divorcee was based off of a Broadway musical called Gay Divorce that had apparently been a huge hit a year earlier. Fun fact: The film’s name had to be changed to get it through the Hays Office (Remember them?), because apparently it was unseemly to present divorce in a lighthearted manner. Divorce was supposed to be an upsetting occasion, obviously. But apparently it was totally fine for the person obtaining the divorce to be happy about it. Okay, Hays Office. Okay.
The plot, however, wasn’t changed. Mimi Glossop (Rogers) is stuck in an unhappy marriage to an absent geologist named Cyril. (I mean, you married a man named Cyril, Mimi. What did you expect?) Cyril has been refusing to grant a divorce for years by the time the film opens, and Mimi and her Aunt Hortense (just wait, the names get even better than this) acquire the services of Aunt H’s old beau, an incompetent lawyer by the name of…wait for it…Egbert Fitzgerald. These naaames!
Egbert’s ideas are just about as good as his name is. His plan is to make Cyril think Mimi is having an affair, thus prompting him to agree to a divorce. He hires a professional co-respondent, Rodolfo, to pretend to be Mimi’s lover and sends Mimi and Hortense down to Brighton to stay in a seaside hotel where Egbert will meet them later. Of course, he also forgets to send private investigators down to catch Rodolfo and Mimi in the act. Just a minor hitch.
Of course, Egbert brings his American dancer pal Guy Holden (Astaire) down with him and Mimi incorrectly assumes Guy is the co-respondent. It doesn’t help that the two had previously met in unfortunate and awkward circumstances, and Guy hadn’t exactly been subtle in his…um…admiration of her. Yeah, we’ll call it that. Hilarity ensues, beautiful and elaborate dance numbers are danced (The Continentaallll oooo the Continental), people fall in love, there’s divorce…and it’s all so beautiful. So so beautiful.
The first time I watched The Gay Divorcee as an adult, I’d been away from it for quite some time, and I was struck anew by its beauty and great comedy. It’s so charming and sumptuous. It was the beginning of the type of film that people typically think of when it comes to 1930s Hollywood musicals. Overblown unrealistic situations. Overwhelming, long musical numbers with a huge mass of dancers that look sort of like a black and white kaleidoscope of movement. None of the characters in the film have a care in the world. Or, you know, a job. I swear, nobody actually worked. They just hung around or went on boat trips. The less pristine musicals of the early 1930s were a thing of the past, before the Code was officially in place. No more chorus girl centered musicals, in which we saw backstage affairs and flirtation. (Scandalous, those were. Hays Code hated them.)
The musical numbers are still just as melt-worthy now for me as they were back then. The dancing is just as breathtaking. And I can’t say this enough, but Ginger Rogers’ gowns in that film are arguably some of the most gorgeous that she wore in any of her 10 films Astaire.
There are definitely a few things that weren’t apparent to me when I was a kid. For instance, dancing Fred Astaire is seduction in tap shoes. Some of his best work is in this film. And “Night and Day” might be the most gorgeous musical number Fred and Ginger ever did together. I don’t know what the Hays Office thought they were watching when they approved the dance sequence, because what they were actually watching was sex-dancing. The “Night and Day” number is about seduction. The way their bodies sway together, the eye-sex. When they touch, it’s so delicate, and yet so desperate at the same time. It’s positively electric and mouth watering. And when the number finishes, it’s not just Mimi who is breathing hard, if you catch my drift. Yeah, yeah, you could say she was just dancing and that’s why she’s so out of breath, but we all know it was actually because she was super hot and bothered. Not to mention the fact that he offers her a cigarette. As you do in old movies after you’ve just had sex. I guess sex-dancing is no different.
Behind the (sizzling) romance of Guy and Mimi, there are some hilarious supporting performances. There’s the hyper, rambling Alice Brady as Aunt Hortense, and Fred Astaire’s usual partner-in-crime Edward Everett Horton as the bumbling and serious Egbert who is doing his best to stop the flighty Hortense from thinking he is flirting with her. I swear, every single time she says “Ohh, Egberrrt!” his response is just golden; a look that exists between “What? No!” and “Oh dear God, why me?” And then there is Erik Rhodes as Rodolfo Tonetti, the cheesy co-respondent who is almost too Italian and too adorable with his tiny mustache and his accordion. Finally, the incredibly droll and perpetually-done-with-everyone Eric Blore plays the waiter who repeatedly has to deal with the ragtag group’s tomfoolery and is seriously affronted by it.
The Gay Divorcee isn’t just a gem of Hollywood’s golden era of musicals. It paved the way for a different sort of romance. Once that’s less heavy, less desperate, and still enjoyable. It shaped the way I saw romance as I grew up—whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, you can watch the film and let me know later. Granted, some might say Guy is a bit of a stalker at the beginning of the movie. It’s a little wince-worthy, sure, but it made sense to me when I was 8. The poor guy was besotted right off the bat, and it followed that he’d want to find her again. Egbert, as much of a buffoon as he was, had an impact on my sense of humor. Same with Eric Blore’s waiter. It was a much drier humor that spoke to me in a way the humor in most cartoons of the 90s didn’t. Growing up with that film made me a bit of a dreamer, maybe. And it’s the reason why I’ve always been such a hopeless romantic. Or just hopeless. There’s a fine line.
You could say The Gay Divorcee and the rest of the Astaire/Rogers repertoire ruined me, perhaps. I’ll take that. I’ll accept it. It’s fine. To this day, I would watch Astaire romance Rogers through dance over almost every romantic comedy there is. Maybe it is the fact that it was such a staple of my childhood—sitting in front of the TV with a numb behind and an aching neck, watching as Fred swept Ginger into a beautiful arc of feathers and silk. Maybe I was just super impressionable back then and it never went away.
I don’t know what happened. All I know is that I fell in love. I fell in love with the music. I fell in love with the movement. I fell in love with them falling in love. And yes, I might have even fallen in love with Edward Everett Horton.
Watch The Gay Divorcee. And if you like it, consider watching the other Astaire/Rogers films. Maybe you’ll fall in love with them as much as I did when I was 8.
~ Karen Valenzuela, @VictoriaNoir89