Roberta

  • Title:  Roberta
  • Director:  William A. Seiter
  • Date:  1935
  • Studio:  RKO
  • Genre:  Musical
  • Music:  Jerome Kern
  • Book and Lyrics:  Otto Horbach
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne, Randolph Scott
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“But underneath, she’s a pearl.”  — John
“And a pearl, so I’m told, is the result of a chronic irritation on an oyster.” — Huck

“John, every day you act worse – but today you’re acting like tomorrow.” — Huck

Roberta is another RKO musical where Fred and Ginger play second fiddle, this time to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott. And to make things worse – Irene Dunne sings, four numbers, two that aren’t even in English. And she can’t sing. Dunne has this awful, trying to sound soprano, warbling sort of voice that’s about as irritating as nails on a chalkboard. And unlike Follow the Fleet, which also has the problem of regulating Fred and Ginger to supporting cast behind Randolph Scott, Roberta has no comedy elements hardly at all. The plot revolves around a fashion house matriarch, Scott’s Aunt, who dies, and a question is raised as to who will inherit her fashion house and continue to make it a success.

Fred Astaire, as Huckleberry (or Huck), is an Indiana band leader, as well as singer and dancer. He and his band, the Wabash Indianiaians, head to France for a gig. When they arrive, the owner of the club claims he wanted “Red Indians” and refuses to hire them. Wondering what to do, they head to Paris, hoping to find someone who can get them a gig. John (Scott), a member of the band, and friend of Huck’s, has an Aunt, Mimi, who runs the Roberta fashion house. They head there and John and Mimi have a happy reunion. John also meets, Stephanie, Mimi’s assistant, who he’s quite taken with. Mimi is about to help them out. Meanwhile, the band, including Huck, is waiting downstairs. Getting restless they begin to play signals to get John’s attention. As they are playing, Huck sees Ginger on a balcony. Their eyes meet.

However, rather than follow the plot of Fred immediately falling for Ginger and trying to woo her — when he gets upstairs to find out why John is taking so long, he finds Ginger putting on a accent and claiming to be a European countess. Once they are alone, however, it turns out that the two know each other, they grew up together, and “Countess Scharwenka” is Ginger’s stage name. Huck asks her to get his band a gig. She does.

Soon, as I said, Mimi dies, leaving her salon to John — even though he knows nothing about fashion or design. John approaches Stephanie (Dunne) and tries to give her the business, but she refuses. The two end-up as partners. They have issues, but eventually put on a musical fashion show together. By the end of the film, John’s proposed to Stephanie (after a few misunderstandings, as in all romances), and Huck and Liz (Rogers) are also together.

Musical Numbers

  • Let’s Begin – Fred (singing) and his band (music).  Fred has a soft shoe number with the company.
  • I’ll Be Hard to Handle – Ginger singing.  Fred & Ginger — tap, ballroom.
  • I Won’t Dance — Fred (singing).  Fred – solo tap.
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes — Irene Dunne singing (no dance).
  • Lovely to Look At —  Irene Dunne singing (no dance).
  • Lovely to Look At — Fred singing to Ginger.
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes — (Music only)  Fred and Ginger,  ballroom dance.
  • Reprise — Fred and Ginger, partner tap.

As stated above, Irene Dunne also has two non-English songs, possibly lullabies, that she sings to Mimi to help her fall asleep for her afternoon nap.

Fred and Ginger’s ballroom number, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, is wonderful. It’s slowly paced, beautiful, and eloquent. Ginger shows an incredible sense of balance throughout the dance. It’s also, conceptually, unusual for a ballroom number, especially a Fred and Ginger number, in that for most of the dance, both the opening and the closing, they aren’t touching each other. They are mirroring, and dancing ballroom moves, but without actually holding hands — which means Ginger had to have had an incredible sense of balance — not depending on her partner’s strength to hold her up. The middle of the dance does have Fred holding Ginger’s hand to spin her, as well as moving into a more traditional ballroom hold, but it’s an incredible dance to watch. Plus it is choreographed perfectly to the music.

The reprise is nearly the opposite of the main dance — it’s very fast paced partner tap. Fred and Ginger fly through their moves. Ginger’s moving so fast she actually has to hold the skirt of her very long, silky, black gown (the same one from the “Smoke gets in your Eyes” number) up as she dances, though she does hold it in such a way as to not reveal her knees. After their dance, it’s Liz (Ginger) who says to Huck (Fred), “So, you were going to propose, right?  I accept.” Basically, proposing to him!

Not one of the best Fred and Ginger films by a long shot, but the “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” dance and the reprise tap dance are both worth waiting for.

Recommendation:  If you want the complete Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collection, see this, otherwise look to one of their better films.
Rating:  3 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Robin Hood:  Men in Tights

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