The Gay Divorcee (1934) Directed by Mark Sandrich.  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton (107 min) 35mm archive print from the Library of Congress

A dancer is mistaken for a “correspondent” hired by a pert blonde to feign adultery in order to get her divorce.  The rhapsodic Astaire and Rogers, in their first starring film, swirl amidst an apotheosis of Art Deco glamour.  “The repartee is sharp, the plot is delightfully ridiculous, and the numbers — like “Night and Day” and the epic Oscar winner “The Continental” — are knockouts.” (EW).

Before 1932, Fred Astaire’s dancing partner was his sister, Adele.  Spritely and beautiful, an exceptional dancer and blithe comic spirit, Fred was always in her shadow.  When she quit show business to marry into the British aristocracy, Fred, who had been dancing with her in vaudeville since they were children, was at a crossroad in his career.  Would he attempt the stage without her, or enter the movies? He did both, but didn’t succeed until he partnered, almost by accident, with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio.

Ginger had hoofed in vaudeville and on stage, propelled by her formidable stage mother, Lela.  She acted in movies filmed in New York during the day, so she could continue her stage career at night.  Offered a Hollywood contract, she delayed long enough to star in the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy (revived as Crazy For You) on Broadway.  She already spent time on screen in a series of supporting roles (including 42nd Street) before the team of Fred and Ginger lit up the screen dancing “The Carioca.”  Fred balked at having another steady dance partner, but the box office had spoken.  The difference was, now they were the stars (not the supporting comedy couple) and “The Continental” in The Gay Divorcee was a smash, winning the first Oscar for Best Song. “But, as they say in The Gay Divorcee, ‘chance is the fool’s name for fate’” (Croce 40).

The Gay Divorce had been Astaire’s last stage show, without Adele.  He starred in New York and then in London, after filming wrapped on Flying Down to Rio. RKO producer Pandro S. Berman flew to London to see the show, even though he had already purchased the rights for $20,000.  Arlene Croce comments on the fact that the Production Code insisted that a divorce (which was sinful) could not be “gay” meaning joyful, but perhaps the divorcee, herself, could be.  “The title was changed to take the edge off that hard word ‘divorce.’ Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore were comedians from the stage cast.  In many musicals and comedies of the day, the supporting male comedian was a little on the gay side (co-star Edward Everett Horton fits this stereotype, as well).  “Perhaps something should have been done about the adjective” (Croce 33).  Although the basic outline of the plot was retained, several writers contributed new lines and gags, and only one song, “Night and Day” was retained from the stage show.  Imagine.  RKO threw out a Cole Porter score!

Fred Astaire and his wife, the former Phyllis Potter

Astaire’s agent, Leland Hayward, negotiated an amazing contract for him.  He didn’t suggest a significant raise (based on the box office success of Rio) but instead, received a percentage of the film’s profits, almost unheard of at the time.  By the mid-1930s this contract would make Astaire a wealthy man.  He got him the right to stage all his own dance numbers, and that he and his partners would be shot full figure in extended sequences.  Astaire even went into the editing room to protect the integrity of his work.  Producer Berman and director Mark Sandrich (who had won an Oscar for his short musical film, So This is Harris, starring Phil Harris, now mainly remembered as the voice of Balloo the Bear in Disney’s The Jungle Book) were integral to the team that made the Astaire/Rogers films what they were.

Dave Gould was the Dance Director.  This meant that he was in charge of the way the numbers would appear on screen.  He would decide how long the numbers would be, and how many musicians and other dancers would be needed.  Astaire did the choreography of his dances, with the assistance of his long-time collaborator Hermes Pan, who danced with Fred (as Ginger) while the steps were worked out.  Six weeks were set aside to rehearse the dances.  When you look at the dance routines in old films, it’s noticeable how few cuts there are.  This is because everything was rehearsed exhaustively before the camera was turned on.  They look effortless because of all the effort that was put into them. Astaire remained skeptical of Rogers dancing skills, he initially thought of her dismissively as “a Charleston dancer.” But she worked hard, and her acting skill, as well as her tremendous chemistry with Astaire, overcame any deficiencies in her dancing.

Astaire’s choreography to “Needle in a Haystack” defines what would be his on-screen character, and the adaptation of his stage choreography to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” created the romantic tension between Astaire and Rogers on screen.  The numerous reprises of “The Continental” which the studio hoped to make into a dance craze lasted 17 ½ minutes. This remained a length record for many years, when most dances were as long as a 78-rpm record, about 3 minutes.

In this film nobody sings while dancing.  Playback was still being perfected (and director Mark Sandrich was a pioneer in that regard).  One of the thrills for me is that some of the numbers, particularly Astaire’s first solo, are recorded live on set.

Walter Plunkett designed the costumes.  He had done Astaire and Rogers’ costumes for Flying Down to Rio, but not star Dolores del Rio.  The slim styles of 30s did not lend themselves to ballroom dancing.  So, they had to look fashionable, but also “billowed, swirled and flowed during her dynamic numbers with Astaire” (Bailery 90). Rogers’ clothes influenced contemporary fashions in this way.  Plunkett collaborated closely with Hermes Pan, “We always collaborated.  You go and see the rehearsal, and sometimes during the rehearsal you could see someone doing something and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have the costume do something at the same time.’” (Baily 90).

He remembered, “Ginger wanted more ornate stuff, Fred wanted simple things that moved just right, and the director, Mark Sandrich, with his eye to the camera, had strong ideas.  Some of the sketches I had to revise five or six times before I got one they all agreed on.  And, Ginger, you always had to slip into her dressing room just before she shot the first scene in a new dress to make sure she didn’t stick a flower in her hair and add more jewelry” (Chierichetti 137).

Fan magazines insisted on features where stars modelled fashionable clothes.

Perhaps the plot demands a bit of explanation.  In the days before divorce was liberalized, the only legal ground for divorce was adultery.  If you had not committed adultery (or sometimes, if there was an agreement that one or the other partner would take the blame) being “caught in the act” was staged for witnesses, using professionals who pretended to be the lover of the person seeking the divorce.

Venetian blinds became popular because of this film, although they were newly popular in offices, having recently been installed in the 30 Rock and Empire State Buildings.

“Certainly no greater dance musicals exist.  Oddly enough, the dance emphasis that made them unusual also made them popular.  Although Astaire and Rogers did many things in their movies besides dance–the—way they looked and read their lines and wore their clothes and sang in their funny voices has become legendary, too, and they could make a song a hit without dancing to it—it was through their dancing that the public grew to love them and to identify their moods, the depth of their involvement, and the exquisite sexual harmony that made them not only the ideal dancing couple, but the ideal romantic team.  No dancers ever reached a wider public” (Croce 5)

Sources include: The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book by Arlene Croce. Shall We Dance: The Life of Ginger Rogers by Sheridan Morley, Puttin on the Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache by Peter J. Levinson, Ginger Rogers: A Bio-Bibliography by Jocelyn Faris, Astaire and Rogers by Edward Gallafent, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, Those Glorious Glamour Years: The Great Hollywood Costume Designs of the 1930s by Margaret J. Bailey.

Photos include Ginger on the cover of August 1936, Modern Screen, the Astaires from March 1934, Photoplay, Story about Astaire and Rogers glamour shot from February 1935, Screen Book Magazine, Fred Astaire autograph from Moviediva’s collection.