- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were cast as show business colleagues in “Flying Down to Rio,” the first of the nine RKO musicals that teamed them in the 1930s. Her character, Honey Hale, was a wisecracking, curly-blonde band singer. His, Fred Ayres, was the band’s accordionist and assistant leader. He also functioned as the conscience of the ensemble, since ostensible leader Roger Bond, played by Gene Raymond, preferred to fly airplanes and chase women.

The romantic co-stars of “Rio” were Raymond and Dolores Costello, the elite object of desire as a patrician Brazilian beauty, Belinha. Billed fourth and fifth below the title, respectively, Rogers and Astaire were never quite confirmed as a supplementary romance. However, a certain understanding had emerged by the fadeout, which gave their characters the last lines.

Though still tentative, this understanding seemed to begin during an abbreviated dance duet within the major production number; all too briefly, Fred and Honey were observed mastering the new and supposedly indigenous dance craze, the Carioca, in nothing flat.

It took almost another year to confirm the promise of Astaire & Rogers as dancing, singing and romantic comedy partners. Booked for Christmas of 1933 as the first attraction at New York’s newest film palace, Radio City Music Hall, “Rio” proved a rousing hit.

Both performers were under contract to RKO. Rogers had been an up-and-coming asset for two years. Earlier in 1933, she helped justify a comeback for movie musicals while loaned to Warner Bros. for “42nd Street” and “Gold Diggers of 1933.” She had eight titles to her credit that year and another seven in 1934.

Astaire was in London when “Rio” opened, preparing a new edition of his last Broadway show, “Gay Divorce.” He had doubted his own movie potential, but audiences warmed to him in “Rio” and MGM’s “Dancing Lady,” where he did a guest appearance as himself, opposite Joan Crawford. He had to remain with the London show for six months once it found favor. RKO didn’t have anything tangible for him, anyway, although he and Rogers were announced for a project called “Radio City Revels.”

Eventually, the soundest follow-up idea became a revamp of “Gay Divorce,” retitled “The Gay Divorcee” and completed in time to play an extended holiday run at Radio City, after opening on October 12, 1934. Rogers was an afterthought: The heroine of the original musical was meant to be an English lady, a type presumably out of her class.

For the first time, the attraction and compatibility of Astaire and Rogers justified the whole system of make-believe. Their characters, estranged wife Mimi Glossop and dance star Guy Holden, progress from a chance meeting through whimsical, expedient misunderstandings to a rapport and tenderness sealed by the brilliance of their dance duets. The apparent understanding suggested at the end of “Flying Down to Rio” is exquisitely, conclusively dramatized during the “Night and Day” and “Continental” sequences of “The Gay Divorcee.”

This culmination may seem the sweeter for being an exemplary case of delayed gratification. Within the format devised for “Gay Divorcee” itself, an ideal match must overcome obstacles contrived as soon as the characters meet. This Plan A sufficed beyond one co-starring vehicle: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were repeatedly well met as strangers destined to become sweethearts.

While pursuing Mimi around London, Guy literally bumps into her car. A chase ensues and he overtakes her on a country road. We’re led to believe that he’s thought out this pursuit so avidly that he even travels with roadblock signs as standard equipment. The blocking gag returns with a breathtaking lyrical emphasis at the start of the “Night and Day” number, when Guy rushes to head off Mimi’s impulsive exits. An Astaire suitor needed to break down considerable resistance in a Rogers heroine, although part of her genius as a partner was to excel at projecting the woman’s mixed emotions, including her willingness to soften and be persuaded, if his case can be pressed with optimum physical eloquence.

The most awkward feature of “The Gay Divorcee” is the last reel, which seems expendable in most respects. Certainly in terms of plot housekeeping and tidying up. People who jump to the conclusion that the movie is ending when the co-stars exit through a revolving door at the close of the overextended “Continental” production number have logic and jubilation on their side. The film would certainly conclude on a high note at that point.

Despite this hitch, the movie is full of endearing grace notes. For example, the use of finger puppets in the opening sequence is echoed by Guy’s timely resort to a cut-out silhouette, intended to simulate a dancing couple and mounted on a record turntable, in order to hoodwink Erik Rhodes as the absurd and malapropic co-respondent, Tonetti, hired to secure Mimi’s divorce. During their last waltzing spin around Mimi’s suite, the lovers mimic those cut-outs during one playful glide around and over the furniture. There are few wasted notions and motifs in “The Gay Divorcee.” But the best reason of all to be grateful on this 75th anniversary is that the movie proved too astute and popular to squander the promise of Astaire & Rogers.

TITLE: “The Gay Divorcee”
RATING: No MPAA Rating (fleeting innuendo but suitable for all ages)
CREDITS: Directed by Mark Sandrich. Produced by Pandro S. Berman. Screenplay by George Marion, Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman, based on the musical play “Gay Divorce.” Songs by Cole Porter; Con Conrad and Herb Magidson; and Harry Revel and Mack Gordon. Photography by David Abel, with special photographic effects by Vernon Walker. Art direction by Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark. Costumes by Walter Plunkett. Dance ensembles staged by Dave Gould. Musical direction by Max Steiner.
RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes
DVD EDITION: Volume II of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s “Astaire & Rogers Collection”
WEB SITE: www.warner homevideo.com

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