Top Hat

  • Title:  Top Hat
  • Director:  Mark Sandrich
  • Date:  1935
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick
  • Words and Music:  Irving Berlin
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“Oh, that call wasn’t for me, it was for you. Somebody has registered a complaint.” – Horace Hardwicke (Edward Everett Horton)
“I know! I’ve just seen the complaint and she’s lovely, she’s delightful, she’s charming, and she wants to sleep.” – Jerry Travers (Fred Astaire)

“May I rescue you?” – Jerry
“No thank you. I prefer to be in distress.” – Dale Tremont (Ginger Rogers)

“You want this show to last two nights? Get me a plane, now!” – Jerry
“What kind of plane?” – Horace
“One with wings!” – Jerry

Top Hat is a romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities, misunderstandings, and music! Like any farce, it’s the type of plot that would be resolved in five minutes if anyone in the cast actually talked to each other for five minutes, rather than making assumptions. But that’s not really a negative – because it’s light, frothy romance with no harsh realities at all. The sets are marvelously art deco and beautiful – especially the Venice hotel with its waterways and boats.

The story begins in London, with Jerry Travers waiting in a very quiet English gentleman’s club for his friend Horace. The club is one where Silence Must Be Observed at all times, and everyone stares at Jerry when he drops something or turns the page of his newspaper. Horace finds Jerry, starts to talk to him, then realizes where he is, and urges Jerry to leave so they can talk. Just as he’s leaving, Jerry does a quick tap dance on the floor simply to annoy everyone – and as a joke.

Horace takes Jerry to his hotel, Jerry – excited about seeing Horace, and their new show; begins tapping in his hotel room (“No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)”) – waking up the young woman in the hotel suite below. She calls to complain to the manager. Horace takes the call, gets confused, and goes down to the hotel desk to tell the manager he doesn’t want a young woman in his hotel room because it wouldn’t be proper. Meanwhile, Dale goes to the hotel suite and complains. Dale doesn’t introduce herself – and Jerry’s so taken with her, he doesn’t introduce himself either. This proves to actually be a very important part of the plot.

The next day, Jerry goes to the hotel flower shop and orders that all the flowers be sent to Ms. Tremont’s room (by room number) – then charges the very expensive bill to Horace by his room number.

Horace, afraid that Dale might be a “designing woman” sets his valet, Bates, to follow her. This is another part of the plot that’s considerably more important than it seems. Horace also warns Jerry off, telling him about a woman he met called Violet who took advantage of him.

Meanwhile, we learn Dale is a social model. A dress designer named Alberto Beddini pays her to wear his dresses, so her friends will see them, ask about them, and he will get more contracts to design dresses and sell more of his designs. But, since he’s financially supporting her – this is something not good for Horace to find out as he’d get the wrong idea. Dale is also close friends with his wife, Madge.

Jerry tries to meet Dale again, she rebuffs him – mentioning she’s going for a ride in the park. Jerry gives her a ride to her lesson in the park and again tries to get her interested in him without luck. During her ride, Dale gets caught in the rain. She shelters in a gazebo. Jerry arrives and tries to calm her down by telling her a story about clouds. He then sings “Isn’t it a Lovely Day? (To get Caught in the Rain)” to her, and the two dance in partner tap. Ginger is wearing jodhpur-pants. Fred and Ginger also mirror each other beautifully when dancing. At the end of their dance, the two sit down on the edge of the raised gazebo platform – and shake hands. It’s a gesture between partners.

Later at the hotel, Ginger asks the concierge to point out Horace. The concierge points to “the man with the briefcase and cane” on the walkway. But Horace runs into Jerry and hands him his briefcase and cane – thus making Dale think he’s her friend Madge’s husband. This type of thing continuously happens – Dale keeps thinking that Jerry is Horace, and thus her friend’s husband and a terrible cad to boot.

Jerry is in the middle of his show, changing between acts when Horace reads his wife’s telegram and finds out she and Dale are heading off to Venice. Jerry insists they hire a charter plane and go to Venice as well.

The production number, part of Jerry’s show, is “Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails” which has Astaire dancing with a chorus of men in formal wear. During the dance, he “shoots” the men with his cane. His short tap dancing routine gets a standing ovation from the audience.

In Venice, Dale meets up with Madge, and they meet the seaplane – but Dale isn’t there when Madge says hello to Jerry – whom Madge actually wants to set-up with Jerry. The hotel is full – so Horace and Jerry end up sharing the bridal suite, while Madge and Dale share their own suite.

Bellani, thinking that Horace has designs on Dale confronts him, but Horace has no idea what’s going on.

Dale talks to Madge about her husband’s flirting. Madge says she knows he flirts, but it doesn’t mean anything. Dale decides to “teach him a lesson” and goes to his room to throw herself at him – and again runs into Jerry. Jerry turns the tables and flirts back.

Later, at dinner, Madge, Jerry, and Dale meet – but no introductions are made, as Dale insists she knows who Jerry is (she still thinks he’s Madge’s husband Horace). Fred and Ginger dance to “Cheek to Cheek”, with Ginger in the beautiful, floaty, feather dress. It’s ballroom dance that begins with the two in the midst of a crowded dance floor and moves to the two dancing on a patio that resembles an even bigger version of the gazebo from earlier. There is also some side by side and partner tap, with the two mirroring each other beautifully. But when Jerry proposes – Dale thinks he’s Madge’s husband and slaps him.

Alberto Belleni flirts with Dale and proposes to her. She accepts him but insists they must be married immediately.

Jerry, in a last-ditch effort to get Dale to listen to him, has Horace distract Beddini and goes to talk to Dale. He takes her on a boat ride on the water – and finally explains who he is.

Meanwhile, Bates reports to Horace that Dale and Jerry are drifting out to sea. Horace, Madge, and Belleni go off in a boat to “rescue” Dale and Jerry.

Dale and Jerry return, happy at last but concerned about her quick marriage and how to dissolve it. Dale rushes off. Bates tells Jerry that Madge, Horace, and Beddini went off in a boat from which he’d “removed the gasoline” while disguised as a gondolier. The local police arrest Bates for his impersonation.

There is a production number instrumental of “The Piccolino”, which starts with Bugby Berkeley-styled dancers. Then the camera changes to a much happier Dale singing “The Piccolino” to Jerry. Then the perspective switches back to the elaborate production number.

Fred and Ginger dance – tap and ballroom, mirroring each other in tap. Their dance is full frame and uncut. Ginger’s dress is sparkly with a trumpet skirt. They dance back to their table, saluting each other with champagne glasses.

Horace, Madge, and Belddini return. That Horace is Madge’s husband is confirmed, as is the blossoming romance between Dale and Jerry. Just as everyone is wondering what they will do, Bates arrives and states he had been following Dale everywhere, and he had earlier disguised himself as a clergyman by turning his collar around. Beddini states, “But you were the one who married us!” Dale responds, “Then we were never really married!” And she rushes off in Jerry’s arms!

List of Musical Numbers

  • No Strings (I’m Fancy Free)
  • Isn’t This a Lovely Day (To be Caught in the Rain)?
  • Top Hat, White Tie and Tails
  • Cheek to Cheek
  • The Piccolino

Top Hat is a simple, romantic comedy – fueled by mistaken identities, coincidences, and misunderstandings, where, of course, in the end – everything works out. But it features some of Irving Berlin’s best songs and Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger’s best dances. The sets, especially the boats in the waterway, are wonderful – and the Art Deco just shines. The dances are filmed full-frame and often without cuts. Certainly, there are no cuts to faces and feet – which means one can follow the dance and focus on Fred and Ginger’s artistry. There are two ensemble production numbers – Fred’s tap dance with a male chorus, which is part of the show he’s been hired for as a professional dancer; and “The Piccolino”. “The Piccolino” is a wonderful production number – but it seems out of place in Top Hat. It starts as an elaborate production number, switches to show Ginger singing, switches back to a production number, then switches a fourth time to Fred and Ginger dancing. The production part is full of fast cuts, and elaborate patterns, using ribbons. In short, it looks like a Bugsy Berkeley musical. But when “The Piccolino” focuses on Fred and Ginger dancing together, it becomes one of their signature-style dances – shown full frame, in a single shot without cuts, with Fred and Ginger both tap dancing (briefly) and ballroom dancing. So overall, though very elaborate, it works. Top Hat is one of my favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films, along with Swing Time and Shall We Dance. For many, it is the quintessential film for the pair.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Truman Show

The Thin Man

  • Title: The Thin Man
  • Director: WS Van Dyke
  • Date: 1934
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Mystery, Drama, Comedy
  • Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen o’Sullivan, Cesar Romero
  • Format: Black/White, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“You see, the important thing is the rhythm. You always have rhythm in your shaking. Now a Manhatten you shake to a foxtrot. A Bronx to two-step time but a dry martini you always shake to waltz time.” – Nick, explaining how to make martinis.

“Nick? Nicky?” – Nora
“What?” – Nick
“You asleep?” – Nora
“Yes.” – Nick
“Good. I want to talk to you.” – Nora

“I read where you were shot five times in the tabloids.” – Nora
“It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.” – Nick

The Thin Man is a successful film accomplishment of style over substance. The film is loosely based on Dashiell Hammett’s novel. However, the film is less about the mystery and three murders to be solved than about it’s two lead characters, married couple Nick and Nora Charles. Nick is a “retired” private detective now living large on his very wealthy wife’s income. However, everyone, including Nora, keeps urging him to go back to being a detective because he was so good at it. Meanwhile, an old friend of Nick’s, Dorothy, shows up to also request Nick’s help. She is due to be married, but her father, Wynant, is missing. The last anyone knew of her father, he told everyone he was “going away on business” and he would be back by Christmas. Yet when he doesn’t arrive, Dorothy, and eventually everyone else in his life (his ex-wife, her new husband, their son, Dorothy and her fiance’, his partner from work, his attorney) begin to worry.

Although he considers himself retired, eventually Nick is drawn into investigating. He finds a body in Wynant’s shop which the police assume is Wynant’s victim. But Nick knows it’s Wynant. He invites all the suspects to a dinner party and questions them… which leads to the murderer revealing himself.

The mystery is a bit more complex, and at times confusing, but the focus of the film is the relationship of married couple Nick and Nora and their dog, Asta, an Airedale Terrier who steals the show. Nick and Nora Charles, are fond of exquisite cocktails, exquisite parties, and exquisite living. They are very much in love, and trade quips and smart dialogue. The dialogue of the film is smart, sassy, clever, and cute in a good way. And, in an era before TV, it isn’t surprising that The Thin Man was followed by five written for the screen sequels. Nick’s idea of bringing all the suspects together for questioning and accusations until one confesses is a motif that would continue in detective fiction for decades to come. Likewise, Nick and Nora’s clever, witty dialogue would inspire 1980s TV programs like Remington Steele and Moonlighting.

Overall, I recommend this film. It’s short, enjoyable, fun and funny. It’s like spending an evening with a pair of classy, witty, clever friends.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Third Man

Swing Time

  • Title:  Swing Time
  • Director:  George Stevens
  • Date:  1936
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre:  Musical, Comedy, Romance
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“My talent is gambling, Pop, hoofing is all right, but there’s no future in it. I want to spread out.”– John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire)

“Listen, no one could teach you to dance in a million years! Take my advice, and save your money.”– Penny (Ginger Rogers) to Lucky

“It’s funny how we met… and all that’s happened to us since.”– Penny
“The way we’ve been sorta’… thrown together and everything.”– Lucky
“As if  it were all meant to happen.”– Penny
“It’s quite an experience.”– Lucky
“No, it’s more than an experience.  It’s sorta like… a romance.”– Penny

Swing Time is one of my three favorite Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals (the other two being Shall We Dance and Top Hat). This time, Fred plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a professional dancer who’s about to marry his high school sweetheart. The guys in his touring dance troop know they will be out of a job if Garnett leaves the stage for marriage and a serious job, so they arrange for him to be hours late for his own wedding. When he misses the wedding the girl’s father actually makes a deal with Garnett… if he can make $25,000 then he will let him marry his daughter. Lucky takes the challenge and goes off to the city to make his fortune.

In a large city, presumably New York, he runs into a girl, Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers). He follows her and finds out she’s an “instructress” at a dance studio. Deciding to have a little fun, he dances badly, causing several prat falls with Penny… who gets so frustrated she tells him no one will ever be able to teach him to dance, he should save his money. Unfortunately, her boss over-hears this and fires her and her maiden aunt (Helen Broderick). Lucky feels bad and decides to show Penny’s boss that she has taught him a thing or two and the two dance together. Penny’s boss is so impressed he gets them an audition at the Silver Sandles club.

Unfortunately, unbeknownest to Penny, Lucky is flat broke, he only has the wedding clothes he’s wearing to his name. He sends his friend Pops to get some money, but Pops isn’t as good a gambler as Lucky. He brings a drunken gambler to Lucky’s for a game of “strip pichet” (no idea… a card game that looked like some version of gin). Lucky’s never played the game before and loses.

Penny gets mad at Lucky for blowing their audition. But he gets them a second tryout. She relents after he sings to her while her hair is covered in shampoo. At the club, they dance together on the crowded dance floor, but before they can perform their number… the orchestra leader cancels and leaves. He’s had a crush on Penny for awhile, and refuses to play to see her dance for another man.

Lucky gambles again for the orchestra… and wins it. He and Penny get their audition. Penny and Lucky, with the orchestra, become a star attraction, and the owner of the Silver Sandals offers Lucky 50 percent of the take. Mindful of his deal with his ex-fiancee’s father, he argues it down to 25 percent. He’d earlier quit his bets at the roulette wheel because he was afraid of winning too much.

Lucky, Penny, Pop, and Mabel (Penny’s maiden aunt) head out to the country to relax, even though it’s the dead of winter and it’s snowing.

They return to the city and the Silver Sandals is re-opening after it’s make-over. Ricardo, the band leader, tries to give Penny jewelry and she refuses it. Mabel challenges Penny to kiss Lucky. She’s determined to, loses her nerve, and then they do… off screen, hidden by an open door.

Lucky, with his dancers and chorus girls, dances to “Bojangles of  Harlem” as the new opening number of the club.

Margaret, Lucky’s ex-fiancee arrives at the club. Pops plays card tricks with some wise guys in the audience of the club.  Unfortunately, they are the ones Lucky won the orchestra from. Even worse… they now know Pops palmed the Ace for Lucky… something even Lucky hadn’t realized. Confronted with the evidence that he cheated, Lucky decides to re-draw cards and loses.

Penny finds out about Lucky gambling… and losing… and gets really upset, and even more upset when she finds out about Lucky’s ex-fiancee.

Ricardo (the orchestra leader) proposes to Penny, and in a fit of pique, she accepts him.

Fred sings “Never Gonna Dance” to her and they dance together, but it is a dance of love and loss, and at the top of the Silver Sandals set, the two part company.

But Margaret is there to give John a “Dear John” letter… she’s fallen in love with someone else. Meanwhile Lucky is completely in love with Penny. In the end, Pops and Lucky pull the same gag with cuffed trousers on Ricardo as his band had pulled on Lucky in the prologue, giving Lucky enough time to talk to Penny and stop the wedding.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • Pick Yourself  Up – Fred and Ginger vocals, and dance – Ballroom & Partner Tap
  • The Way You Look Tonight – Fred, vocals
  • Waltz in Swing Time – Fred and Ginger, dance – Ballroom & Partner Tap
  • A Fine Romance – Ginger and Fred vocals
  • Bojangles of Harlem – Fred & Chorus – dance
  • Never Gonna Dance – Fred, vocals – Fred and Ginger – Ballroom Dance

Swing Time is just pure fun. Fred and Ginger are in fine form, and the picture mixes romance with comedy and irony. For example, Fred sings the lovely ballad, “The Way You Look Tonight” to Ginger — while her hair is covered in shampoo and she’s annoyed with him, rather than in a traditional romantic setting. “A Fine Romance” is a sarcastic song with both Fred and Ginger spitting lyrics like – “A Fine Romance… with no kisses”. The film also uses the RKO Players like Eric Blore and Helen Broderick to fill in the comedy moments of  the plot. The only real out of place number is “Bojangles of Harlem” which is, unfortunately, done with Astaire in blackface. Otherwise, it’s a fine number (which includes Astaire dancing with three shadows… that suddenly start to not follow him). But yeah, dated, is the kindest word for it. The Silver Sandals set is a lovely two-level art deco set with a black and white dance floor below, and a shining black dance floor above. The two floors are connected by two staircases, one on each side of the main dance area.The picture in the banner of this review is of Fred and Ginger dancing “Never Gonna Dance” on the beautiful Art Deco Silver Sandals set. The set is used particularly well when Fred and Ginger dance to “Never Gonna Dance” — a song of love and loss, that ends with them parting, which at that point in the plot they do. It’s lovely.

Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  4 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Thin Man

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle

  • Title: The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
  • Director: H.C. Potter
  • Date: 1939
  • Studio: RKO Radio Pictures
  • Genre: Biography, Drama, Musical
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edna May Oliver
  • Format: B/W, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Well, we’ve got our health, we’re young, we’re in Paris, we’re on our honeymoon, what more can we want.” — Vernon

“Hey, dance with me.” — Vernon
“All the people downstairs?” — Irene
“Look, we can do it quietly, like this, just as if we’re walking on air.” — Vernon

“War is a man’s business, women only do what they’re told.” — Maggie

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is the last musical that Astaire and Rogers did for RKO and it’s notable for several reasons. It’s one of only two films where Astaire and Rogers played a married couple (the other is The Barkleys of Broadway). It’s the only biography the two did, so the only time they played real people. It’s the only one of their musicals that’s more of a drama than a comedy. And it’s the only one with a definite downbeat ending (Vernon Castle (Astaire’s character) dies). The film is different from other Astaire and Rogers musicals and that may be why it is not as well known as their other films.

The film opens in 1911, Fred Astaire is Vernon Castle, who at the time is barely working as a vaudeville comedian. He’s not even the star of the show he’s in, but the second banana who takes all the pratfalls and on-stage abuse from the star. He tries to get the show’s leading lady interested in him, but to no avail. However, while at the seaside, he meets Irene Foote (Ginger Rogers) when they both jump into the drink to rescue a small dog. She, it turns out, is an aspiring actress/performer and she performs “The Yama Yama Man” as an audition for Castle.

After the lackluster audition, the two go to the train station, where a group of “bachelors” and their dates are on an excursion. When one of the guys gets up and dances – Vernon shows off his tap dancing skills. On their later dates, Irene suggests that Vernon should give up comedy and become a dancer. Vernon actually agrees with her and the two approach his boss with the idea of being a dance team. But his boss is having none of it. However, two French theatre owners approach Vernon and offer him a job in Paris.

Now married, Vernon and Irene go to Paris… but discover that the job they thought started immediately won’t start for six weeks. Irene convinces the theatre owners to give Vernon an advance on his salary so they will have something to live on for six weeks. After the six weeks of waiting goes by, Vernon returns to the theatre — only to discover he’s to play his comedy role again. As he explains to his wife, “Well, I refused… I know you don’t want me to do, and I didn’t want to do it… but he brought up the money we owe him…” Irene accepts this trying to make him feel better by saying, “Well, at least it’s a job, maybe not the job you want, but it’s a job.” To console her, Vernon dances with her, quietly.

Fate intervenes in the person of Maggie, an entrepreneur and agent who walks into their apartment at that moment and sees them dancing. She gets them dinner and an audition at the Cafe de Paris. The audition is a smash success, and other couples imitate the Castles. They are hired by the nightclub as professional dancers. Before long they are back in New York, introducing The Tango to New York. The Castles sell books, records, and dancing lessons. Irene becomes a fashion icon. Their merchandising continues with ladies hats, bon bons, and face cream. Vernon’s name goes on cigars and dancing shoes. They introduce the Fox Trot, and the Castle Polka. With both scenes of the Castles introducing their ballroom dances, the shot of the couple dancing is double exposed with sparkles and lights – giving it a dreamy quality. Irene bobs her hair, which causes a sensation and starts a trend. The Castles introduce the Moxie, another dance, at a seaside resort. They then tour nationally. (We see the couple dancing across a map of the US and each place they stop – additional dancers appear). As they return home, Irene and Vernon tell their manager, Maggie, they are tired and want to buy a house and raise a family. However, as they pull into one little town, there’s a fuss outside the train — Germany’s declared war.

At first, the Castles do retire to their new home, and Vernon agrees with Irene that he won’t enlist. But when he’s asked to work at a benefit… he sees all the Canadian soldiers and decides to enlist in the Royal Flying Corps.  He manages to live through the war, but when he returns home he’s sent to Fort Worth at the last minute as one of the pilots in an airshow for a Brigadier General. An inexperienced pilot takes off and flies into his airspace — given the choice of hitting the other plane or trying to avoid the crash he pulls straight up and the plane stalls. Vernon Castle is killed in the plane crash… the young inexperienced pilot in the plane with him survives, in part because Vernon took the seat in front rather than letting the young pilot do it since he knew that the front was the more dangerous seat. After her uncle and Vernon’s close friend tells Irene the news she walks into the garden of the hotel her husband had set-up for her and imagines the two of them dancing together in the garden.

Again, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle is very unusual for an Astaire and Rogers film. It has a downbeat ending, and even the dances are mostly not complete dances … they are excerpts as the story unfolds. Astaire performs well as Vernon Castle… really getting into the role which is quite meaty. Rogers has less to do, mostly following her husband around, and worrying constantly about him after he goes to war. But the film is meant to be a historical film, taking place between 1911 and 1918, when women didn’t even have the right to vote so Irene’s somewhat shadowed appearance can be understood if not condoned. And it is obvious that this couple loves each other, and Vernon, at least, allows his wife to not only have a say in their decisions but to lead in them (It’s Irene who insists he’s better than physical comedy; it’s Irene who wants them to retire from touring, and it’s Irene who at first insists that Vernon not go to war). In a sense, though Vernon dies at the end, the film is not only romantic, but it’s a more realistic romance than most movie romances.

The story for the script was written by Irene Castle, based on her autobiographical book about her husband, and she acted as an advisor on the film, especially in terms of Rogers’ clothes.

This was not your typical Astaire and Rogers musical, I’d say it’s for diehards only, or if you want to see a different type of film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The rating is based on the film not being what you expect out of a musical — for example, there are very few full dances in the film.

Recommendation: Depends.
Rating: Three and a half out of five stars.
Next film: Stripes

Shall We Dance (1937)

  • Title:  Shall We Dance (1937)
  • Director:  Mark Sandrich
  • Date:  1937
  • Studio:  RKO (Radio Pictures)
  • Genre:  Musical, Romance
  • Music:  George Gershwin
  • Lyrics:  Ira Gershwin
  • Cast:  Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore
  • Format:  Black and White, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

“I told ya’ I haven’t even met her … but I’d kinda’ like to marry her.”  — Peter

“If we get married now, I can start divorce proceedings in the morning.”  — Linda

“I be your pardon, but what are grounds for divorce in this state?”  —  Linda
“Marriage.”  — Law clerk

Shall We Dance is one of my three favorite Fred and Ginger musicals — the dialogue is wonderfully witty, the plot, involving a secret marriage that isn’t, and then is, is great fun, and the Gershwin score is simply marvelous. The dances are incredible (though I wish Fred and Ginger had actually danced to “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” rather than Fred merely singing it to Ginger). Be sure to take note of the wonderful Art Deco set for “Slap that Bass”, and Fred and Ginger tap dancing on roller skates to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”.  My other two favorite Fred & Ginger musicals are Top Hat and Swing Time. Though, I must say, there are parts of all their musicals I enjoy.

Fred Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, a dancer who’s discovered by Jeffrey (Horton) and becomes the star of a ballet in Paris, under the name, “Petrov”. Ginger Rogers, is musical comedy / Broadway star Linda Keene who’s sick of the “life” and her stream of unsuitable suitors.

Astaire sees a picture of Linda and falls for her, so he tries to meet her in Paris. But when he over-hears her complaining to her maid about all the unsuitable men who see her picture and then try to win her over, he introduces himself as “Petrov”, with a very bad Russian accent, rather than Peter P. Peters from Philadelphia, Pa.

However, both soon sail for New York on the steamship Queen Anne. It takes Peter a while, but his persistence pays off, and soon Linda falls for him. Yet, when Jeffrey (Horton) tells an unsuitable suitor of Petrov’s that he is secretly married to Ms. Keene, and Peter confirms it — she lets the news slip, and soon the “secret marriage” is headline news. When Ms. Keene is seen knitting on the ship deck (she’s actually making a sweater for her dog), it adds fuel to the fire. She erupts in anger at the rumors — and blames Peter for them.

In New York, Peter and Linda are booked into adjoining suites, by the concierge (Blore) — who, none-the-less keeps locking the door and pocketing the key as he’s told the couple is not married. Linda, however, has her own troubles — the news media hounds her about her secret marriage; her manager wants to keep her on the stage or he’ll lose his theatre, and the man she thinks she wants to marry is angry at her for “lying” about her “marriage to Petrov”. When the manager uses a mannequin of Linda to take pictures of Linda and Peter in bed (a twin no less) and publishes the pictures — Linda’s anger only grows, especially as her boyfriend dumps her.

Linda and Peter go to the park, have a date, and decide to marry in secret in New Jersey, for real, and then publicly divorce so Linda can marry who she wants. But Peter’s now in love with her. When Linda finally serves him divorce papers, he finds him dancing with a stage full of “Linda Keenes” (dancers with masks). She’s impressed, and in the end, Linda and Peter dance together and decide to stay married.

Musical Numbers

  • Slap that Bass  — Fred, vocals and dance
  • Beginner’s Luck — Fred, vocals
  • They All Laughed — Ginger, vocals; Fred and Ginger, dance
  • Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off — Fred and Ginger, vocals, Fred and Ginger, tap dance on roller skates
  • They Can’t Take That Away from Me — Fred, vocals
  • Shall We Dance
Also, an opening sequence of Fred “practicing” alone, that’s tap and ballet, and various other sequences of ballet that are “rehearsals”.
Recommendation:  See It
Rating:  4.5 of 5 Stars
Next Film:  Shall We Dance (2004)

Satan Met a Lady

  • Title: Satan Met a Lady
  • Director: William Dieterie
  • Date: 1936
  • Studio: Warner Bros.
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Cast: Bette Davis, Warren William
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Do you mind very much, Mr. Shane, taking off your hat in the presence of a lady, with a gun?” — Valerie

Satan Met a Lady was included as a bonus feature on my special edition copy of The Maltese Falcon. I didn’t have very high hopes for it, and in this case, I was right — it was awful. The description of this loose adaption of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel The Maltese Falcon, is that it’s “light-hearted”. Well, I could tell they were trying to make a comedy, but it fails utterly. This isn’t The Black Bird, and it’s not a parody. It’s like watching a really bad high school production of The Maltese Falcon, and not even Bette Davis can save it.

The plot, vaguely reminiscent of the classic film and novel, differs in a few key points. First, the McGuffin everyone is after isn’t a Falcon, it’s a French Ram’s Horn, made of ivory and filled with jewels. Second, all the names are changed — the detectives are Ames and Shane, not Archer and Spade. The film shows us a bit more of Ames, actually it takes a while before the Ram’s Horn plot is introduced, so when Ames is killed, it should mean something. That it doesn’t is mostly down to the film just not working very well. Casper “The Fatman” Gutman is a woman in Satan Met a Lady, and her underling is called Kenneth. She’s still a mobster though, and overweight (though not grossly so). Madame is probably the most interesting character in the film. In the end, Shane does turn Valerie over to the cops for killing his partner, then he takes the train out of town with his secretary. That is a nice bookend since the film started with him taking the train into town, escaping trouble in the next town up the road.

Bette Davis puts in a good performance in some scenes but is merely average in others. Warren William is terrible as Shane, the detective. He has no personality at all. Overall, even as a bonus feature, just not very interesting. But at least it’s short, clocking in at only 74 minutes.

Recommendation:  Give it a miss.
Rating:  1
Next Film:  Serenity

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

Gone with the Wind

  • Title: Gone with the Wind
  • Director: Victor Fleming
  • Date: 1939
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Classic, Romance, Historical Epic
  • Cast: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Leslie Howard, Olivia deHavilland, Ann Rutherford
  • Format: Technicolor, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Most of the miseries of the world were caused by wars, and when the wars were over — no one ever knew what they were about.”  — Ashley Wilkes

“No, I don’t think I will kiss you. Although you need kissing and badly, that’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.”  — Rhett Butler

“What a woman!” — Rhett Butler

Gone with the Wind sweeps you into its story gradually but completely. You are quickly immersed in the story and the characters. And the film is really Scarlett’s story. Scarlett O’Hara, despite first appearances, in a way is a very modern character, and at times a strong woman. She’s manipulative, determined, strong and feisty, and she knows what she wants (or thinks she does). She’s willing to do whatever she has to do, whenever she has to. Scarlett is in sharp contrast to Melanie (deHavilland) who’s kind and generous — to a fault, and weak and even, at times, a bit simple. Melanie can be strong (watch her face down Union troopers in the second half of the film for example), and she’s honest about her feelings and in her marriage to Ashley (her much older cousin). DeHavilland is fantastic in her thankless role as the perfect Melanie. Scarlett’s sisters never learn anything about strength, or getting what they want (which is simply a husband to care and provide for them) and whine and simper-on throughout the film. Scarlett never once whines or complains, not really, she just does what needs to be done, or what she thinks she needs to do (and she doesn’t care at all who she hurts in the process). Essentially Scarlett’s a bitch in both the good and bad sense of the word. Because in some circles to be a bitch is a compliment, and in some circles, it’s the only way to really survive. And whatever else you say about Scarlett O’Hara – she’s a survivor.

When we meet Scarlett, she’s not that impressive – she comes off as dumb, and shallow, concerned only with her looks, and her beaus. But even in the beginning of the film, it’s suggested she’s not as dumb as she pretends – she just acts that way because it’s how she’s been taught and how she thinks she can get a man. However, she soon finds out the man she’s “wanted”, who she thinks really loves her, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) from the plantation next door, is going to marry his cousin Melanie, instead. We aren’t told if this is an arranged marriage or a love match. Ashley and Melanie are actually well suited to each other – both are kind and gentle, always doing what’s expected, never raising any controversy, filling their roles the way one was expected to – given the times and their statuses. Scarlett, throughout the film, says both aloud and by her actions that she loves Ashley and that she’s convinced he loves her – even when both are married to other people.

The war (the American Civil War) comes and all the men go off to fight. Ashley and Melanie have been married. Scarlett, in a fit of pique, marries Charles, Melanie’s brother, even though Charles was her sister’s beau. Charles dies of pneumonia during the war. Scarlett really doesn’t care, and even rebels at wearing Widow’s Weeds and not dancing at the next round of society balls (which at this point are only being held as war fundraisers). She gives in to convention, though, and manages to look stunning in black. (At the time, only a widow would have worn black, especially at a society function). During the society ball, she manages to arrange things so each of the women will be “auctioned off” for dances. Rhett Butler bids on and wins Scarlett. She’s so desperate to dance, she takes him up on it, claiming it’s for charity (we know it’s not). Rhett is the dashing stranger – he’s avoided service in the war because he has no desire to get himself killed and he hates all the waste of war. Rhett’s a gambler, a blockade runner, and a rakish rogue. He’s trouble and considering Scarlett is as well – they are very suited to each other. Even Rhett says to her, they are two of a kind.

Scarlett and Melanie end up in Atlanta, working as nurses to help the wounded. Scarlett doesn’t particularly like this duty, but she knows she must do it. Melanie has Ashley’s baby (nine months after his Christmas leave). She’s sick and ill just before and during the birth, but Scarlett manages to figure out and help with the process. By this time, the war is nearly over, and Sherman’s troops are marching on Atlanta. Rhett comes to the rescue of the three women (Scarlett, Melanie, and Scarlett’s maid, Prissy) and the baby. He gets them out of Atlanta and safely on the road to Tara, Scarlett’s home, then leaves, informing Scarlett he’s going to join the war effort for the last stand.

Scarlett manages to make it the rest on the way on her own, seeing Twelve Oaks (the Wilkes plantation) burned to the ground on the way. Tara’s survived, but her family’s in ruins: her mother has died, her sisters are still weak and ill from a fever that killed her mother, and her father’s gone out of his head from shock. Saddled with another sickly and physically weak woman and a baby, Scarlett endures. She finds that her home still stands, but it sits in the middle of a wasteland, and there’s no food or money. Scarlett runs out into a field, eats a carrot she finds and starts to throw up. Then, she holds up her hand, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again,” she swears. This is the end of part one, and the intermission card is on the DVD.

Part two picks up during the Reconstruction. Scarlett is told she needs three hundred dollars to pay the taxes on her home. That might not sound like much, but in the 1860s/1870s it was a small fortune, especially when you have absolutely no way of making any money. Scarlett uses a pair of drapes to sew herself a new dress and tries to get the money from Rhett Butler. He’s in a union jail (stockade) and can’t access his money which is in a London bank. (After all, it’s not like they had ATMs back then, and though he could access his funds via bank draft, it could be traced and the money taken — this is a risk Butler isn’t willing to take). Scarlett then runs into Frank Kennedy, another of Sue Ellen (her sister’s) beaus. She marries Frank to get at his money that he’s made running a general merchandise store, and convinces him to buy the lumber mill next door. Scarlett saves Tara, but lives in Atlanta, running the mill and lumber business.

Scarlett proves to be a shrewd businesswoman, running the mill (though Ashley Wilkes is her partner in name), at a time when women seldom worked, much less ran their own businesses. However, one day she takes a horse and buggy (another concept the ladies in town find scandalous – Scarlett driving her own buggy, alone) through a bad area of town. She’s attacked. Rhett Butler shows up and rescues her. Scarlett, Melanie, and the other girls have a sewing party, and Scarlett knows something is going on but doesn’t know what. She later learns Ashley, her husband, Frank, and several other men have gone to attack the men who attacked Scarlett. Frank’s killed. Ashley returns, wounded, but alive. (Rhett again comes to the rescue, faking being drunk, with Ashley faking being even drunker, as in the local doctor so they can get into Tara which is being guarded by Reconstructionist/Union troops on the lookout for the men who attacked the men who attacked Scarlett). A widow again, and in Widow weeds, again, Rhett proposes to Scarlett. They marry and soon have a daughter, Bonnie.

Scarlett, however, is so vain, that after the birth of her daughter, she decides not to have any more children because it will ruin her figure. Rhett considers divorcing Scarlett when she tells him this but decides to stay. He’s fallen for Scarlett, despite their tendency to constantly fight, and Scarlett’s drinking issues.

When Bonnie’s around eight, Rhett gets fed-up and takes Bonnie with him on a trip to England, when they return dual tragedies occur: Bonnie’s killed in a horse-jumping accident (it really is one of  the saddest moments of the entire film), and Scarlett, who’s gotten pregnant again, despite her intentions, falls/is pushed down a flight of stairs, gets sick, and has a miscarriage. Her second pregnancy is interesting anyway because it’s the result of something seldom talked about now, and certainly not in 1939 – marital rape. She’s drunk/he’s drunk – they fight, he carries her up the stairs and literally has his way with her, then leaves for London the next day). Also, the scene on the stairs between Rhett and Scarlett is filmed in such a way that we really don’t know if Scarlett fell by accident, if she fell accidentally on purpose to anger Rhett, or if Rhett was so angry at her he pushed her without thinking. Whatever – he’s devastated by the dual losses. It doesn’t help that though Scarlett calls out for him, all the women around her decide not to tell Rhett she wants him with her when she’s ill. Shortly thereafter, Melanie, who was told not to have more children, gets pregnant, has a miscarriage, and dies of sepsis (or possibly pre-eclampsia). She even tells Scarlett to look after Ashley for her. Scarlett talks to Ashley though and finally realizes she really loves Rhett, and her feelings for Ashley were a childish crush and a pipe dream. She goes to tell Rhett – but he basically doesn’t believe her and leaves her. In the end, Scarlett’s bereft and without a man, but she realizes that she does still have the one thing that really matters – land, Tara, her home. Somehow, Scarlett will be just fine.

Gone with the Wind really is a great film. It’s more than simply a romance or a war film. It’s unusual in that the entire film is told from the point of view of a woman – and not a goody-goody woman, but a woman who’s complex, scheming and manipulative. And unlike the designing women or femme fatales of the Film Noir films, Scarlett isn’t made to fatally suffer for her misdoings. The film sweeps you up and into its world and it’s characters. Vivien Leigh is gorgeous and gives an incredible performance as Scarlett. Clark Gable is fantastic as Rhett Butler. The rest of the cast shine in their roles, sometimes in the smallest and simplest scenes (such as the conversation between Melanie and the Atlanta madam Miss Belle after she hides Ashley and saves his life).

The film also looks gorgeous – it’s an early Technicolor film, and the colors just pop right off the screen. I loved the restoration work on my copy – it looks brand new, with no color bleeding or red cast. There are scenes in Gone with the Wind that still impress, such as the burning of  Atlanta. The film is of course, based on a novel, and print screen cards appear not just at the beginning of the film, but throughout the movie explaining what is going on, especially in the larger canvas of the Civil War – it adds to the scope of the film.

The politics of the film deserve a mention – this is a film that white-washes (no pun intended) the Old South, and slavery in particular. Blacks (called “darkies” in the film – even by Scarlett and Rhett) are referred to as servants, not the slaves they were. They are also portrayed as being well treated and taken care of and happy with their lot (something that simply wasn’t true). The film is definitely sympathetic to the South. However, that speaks volumes about the times when the film was made (1939) and the times the film portrays (the 1860s) as well as the point-of-view of the author of the book. Students can learn from such a film what attitudes were in the past, and then learn what the harsh realities were.

About the famous slapping scene, though – often it’s taken, completely out of context as an example of the film’s racism. However, when Scarlett slaps Prissy – she’s hysterical. Scarlett could have easily have slapped a white woman who was behaving in such a fashion. And Scarlett pretty much slaps everyone in the film at one point or another (including her sister, Rhett, Ashley, and possibly even Melanie – but again to wake her up). Slapping Prissy is not out of character for Scarlett, it’s in character. And considering Prissy’s hysterical at the time – she needed to be slapped (it’s film grammar for shutting up a hysterical woman). Besides, in the film’s context – Prissy is Scarlett’s slave, not a servant, and technically Scarlett had the right to hit her. Not that it’s right, but there you go. There’s a lot more in Gone with the Wind that is on the racist side, but that scene isn’t one of those things. It certainly isn’t something worth banning the film for, as has been proposed occasionally.

Overall, a really remarkable film and a must see.

Recommendation: See it!
Rating: 5 of 5 Stars
Next Film: Mary Poppins

The Maltese Falcon (1931)

  • Title: The Maltese Falcon (1931)
  • Director: Roy Del Ruth
  • Date: 1931
  • Studio: Warner Brothers
  • Genre: Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast: Ricardo Cortez, Bebe Daniels
  • Format: Standard, Black and White
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“This is murder and don’t you forget it!”  — Police Detective Dundee

This film is one of two earlier versions of Dashiell Hammett classic mystery included on the Warner Brothers three-disc special edition of the classic Film Noir version starring Humphrey Bogart from 1941. I actually avoided watching it for over a week. However, it wasn’t as bad as I feared it might be. It’s no classic, but it’s not a disaster either.

Richard Cortez plays Sam Spade as a hopeless flirt, who trades quips with his secretary and is definitely having an affair with his partner’s wife (something alluded to in the 1941 edition, but definitely toned down). Archer, moreover, knows about his wife’s indiscretions. The only woman Sam doesn’t seem to flirt with, is his client, Ms. Wonderly.

Since we actually see Archer in this film, he’s slightly more sympathetic.

Watching the 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon is very much like watching a stage play version of a favorite film. Much of the dialogue is the same or recognizable, but it’s delivered completely differently by a different crew of actors, none of whom are well-known. I didn’t mind flirty Sam Spade, though Bogart gives a much more nuanced and haunted performance. Bogart’s Spade is a man on the edge. Cortez breezes through the film like he’s having a grand time, and even reminded me a bit of Errol Flynn. Bebe Daniels, in a way, I actually liked better than Mary Astor. At least she’s fairly straight-forward, even when she’s lying to Sam. (This version drops her multiple identities from the plot). But the bit players – Cairo, Gutman, even Wilbur are very bland here. The 1941 version is much better with Peter Lorre, Syndey Greenstreet, and Elisha Cook Jr.

This film is much shorter (around 71 minutes), and less complicated. And, like a play, many larger (more expensive to film) scenes are dropped or mentioned but not shown (we never see Archer’s body, or the burning of La Paloma, the ship that brings the Falcon to San Francisco). Also cut is some of Sam’s wandering around the streets of his city, thinking things over.

  • Recommendation:  Skip it, unless you happen to get a free version as an extra, then you may as well watch it.
  • Rating:  2.5 Stars
  • Next Film:  Mary Poppins