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

Follow the Fleet

  • Title:  Follow the Fleet
  • Director:  Mark Sandrich
  • Date:  1936
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Romance, Comedy
  • Lyrics and Music:  Irving Berlin
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Harriet Hilliard, Lucille Ball, Betty Grable, Astrid Allwyn
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Say, Will you guys let me forget I was once a hoofer?”  Bake Baker

“Sorry, miss, it’s the rules of the Paradise, no girls are allowed in without an escort.”  — Ticket Girl
“Oh, I see, women aren’t even admitted to Paradise without a man.” — Connie Martin

“But I bet you’re used to seeing pretty girls all over the world.”” –Connie
“I never give them a tumble, sister, women don’t interest me.”  — Bilge Smith

Follow the Fleet is another Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical where, unfortunately, they play second fiddle.  The main romance is between Connie (Harriet Hillard) and Bilge (Randolph Scott) – and Hillard even sings, unfortunately.  Fred and Ginger do have a lot to do, but as the “B plot” of the film.  Astaire plays Bake Baker, an ex-hoofer, or dancer, now in the Navy.  Ginger is Sherry Martin, his former dance partner, now trying to make it on her own with a career in show business.  Connie is Sherry’s sister, a music teacher.  And Bilge is Bake’s best friend aboard his ship.  By the way, keep in mind, this film is from 1936, or before World War II; thus this is a peace-time Navy.

When Bilge and Bake’s ship makes port in San Francisco, they, as well as a group of sailors, head into town for shore leave.  Bake runs into his old dancing partner again.  He had been in love with her, and had even proposed, but she turned him down to concentrate on her career.  Meanwhile, Bilge meets Connie, and they have a nice date.  However, he also meets Iris (Astrid Allwyn), who as the vivacious blonde, is much more his type, he thinks.  Bake promises to help Sherry find a better job in show business, but before he can do anything (and after he’s accidentally cost her her job at the Paradise club) all shore leave is cancelled and all the sailors have to return to their ships.

Connie is now head-over-heels in love with Bilge and doesn’t realise he’s fallen for Iris.  She decides to take out a loan to refurbish her father’s ship, which needs a lot of work.  Sherry gives Connie her savings to help as much as she can.  Sherry’s also angry at Bake for leaving her without the better job he promised her.

When the ship returns that Spring, Connie’s refurbished the ship, with help, but she also has a massive loan that’s due.  Sherry is still angry at Bake.  Bake is completely in love with Sherry, so much so that he’s decided to leave the Navy and go back to show business.  Bilge, though, thinks he’s in love with Iris, not Connie.  Sherry and Connie, with Bake’s help, decide to put on a show to raise funds to pay off Connie’s loan (in part because a family friend also helped, and now he’s in trouble for covering the debt).  Bake convinces Iris to perform “a small part” in the show, then writes a scene that Bilge is intended to over-hear, so he’ll get sore and run to Connie (it sort-of works).  Bake also gets himself  in trouble, hitting an officer he was told was harassing Sherry (a misunderstanding) and has to go AWOL to get to the show on time.  Bilge lets him go on-stage, once he is told the show was to help out Connie.  In the end, Sherry and Bake are together, with the promise of their own show once Bake finishes his term in the Navy (including his time in the brig) and Sherry even proposes to him.  Bilge and Connie are also together, though, like Bake, Bilge has to finish his term in the Navy before he can be master of his own ship and sail the world, with Connie, on her ship.

Musical Numbers

  • We Saw the Sea  — Fred Astaire and Ensemble, vocals
  • Let Yourself Go — Ginger Rogers, vocals
  • Get Thee Behind Me, Satan — Harriet Hilliard, vocals
  • I’d Rather Lead a Band — Fred Astaire, vocals (and tap dance) also dance with ensemble
  • Ginger’s solo tap dance, for her “audition”
  • Let Yourself Go — Ginger Rogers, vocals (reprise)
  • But Where Are You? — Harriet Hilliard, vocals
  • I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket (Piano) — Fred Astaire
  • I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket (Song) — Fred Astaire, vocals; Fred and Ginger, dance (tap)
  • Let’s Face the Music and Dance  — Fred Astaire, vocals; Fred and Ginger, dance (ballroom / waltz)

“Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is one of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers best numbers together, and it’s worth waiting through the entire picture to see it.  It’s highly unusual for a Fred and Ginger musical in that the number is part of the “show within a show” that the two characters, Bake and Sherry, and putting on for Sherry’s sister.  It’s the only number for the show within a show.  And, in a sense, it’s a ballet — it’s a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, told entirely through music, dance, and the expressions of the characters.  Fred is a gambling at a casino, but loses all his money; then he loses the girls that hovered around the table with him.  When he finds all the girls ignoring him, he goes to the roof of the casino hotel, takes out a pistol, and is considering shooting himself.  But, while on the rooftop, he runs into Ginger, who’s about to jump off the roof.  He rescues her, and the two dance a marvelous slow waltz to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Fred provides vocals at the start, before it segues to the dance).  The dance is the perfect embodiment of romance that Fred and Ginger do so well, and it’s a story in and of itself.  And this despite the accident which occurred in the middle, where Ginger’s beaded gown accidentally hit Fred in the face (he continued anyway, and though other takes were done later, the first was the best and remained in the film, and yes, you can see the smack).

It is a shame that the relationship between smart and sassy, Sherry, and working-class, Bake, is the B plot, and Bilge and Connie are the “A plot”.  Randolph Scott really doesn’t seem to be any sort of a catch for Connie – he’s a bit of a cad.  But there you go, a rather uneven film, but with a fantastic dance at the end.  This is one of the Fred and Ginger musicals I owned on VHS video tape, that I replaced with DVD.

Recommendation:  Though not perfect, see it.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Footloose