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 a romantic comedy filled with mistaken identities and 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 it’s 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 following 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 Belleni 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 jodphur-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 sea plane – 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 Belleni, 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 Belleni 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 Belleni 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. Belleni 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’s 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 Tap Hat. It starts as a 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

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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 a 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

Suspicion

  • Title:  Suspicion
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Studio:  RKO Radio Pictures
  • Date:  1941
  • Genre:  Mystery, Film Noir, Drama
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Leo G. Carroll, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce
  • Format:  B/W, Standard
  • DVD Format:  R1, NTSC

 

“I’m honest because with you I think it’s the best way to get results.” — Johnnie
 
“Monkey-face, I’ve been broke all my life!” — Johnnie
Suspicion starts like any light romantic comedy.  Johnnie (Cary Grant) meets Lina on a train and tries to pick her up, but she’s unimpressed.  They run into each other again at a fox hunt.  He talks her for a walk on a Sunday, and makes a date for later that afternoon.  Lina announces this to her parents, but he breaks their date for that afternoon, and for a week, Lina is miserable because she hasn’t seen him in so long.  However, he returns just in time for the hunt ball.  Very soon after, Lina sneaks out of  her parents house and the two are married at the registry office.  The two go on a whirl-wind European honeymoon, then return to a new house – where Lina discovers that Johnnie has no money.
Suddenly, instead of a light romance, the film resembles Gaslight.  Over and over, Lina picks up on her husband acting weirdly, or suspiciously.  But she has no proof, no idea what’s really going on, and every time Johnnie’s money troubles seem to catch up with him, he suddenly comes up with the money he needs (such as a £2000 pound windfall that Johnnie claims he got from the track).  Lina notices her husband is fascinated with detective and murder stories… but at first thinks nothing of  it.  But when Johnnie’s dear friend, Beaky, dies under mysterious circumstances, Lina goes to their mutual friend Isobel, a mystery writer.  Isobel talks about her recent mystery, where a man causes another man to walk over a weakened foot bridge and fall to his death.  Isobel says that morally it’s murder if the first man knew the bridge was weak.  She then casually says “It’s the same with Johnnie’s friend, Beaky.”  Beaky had died after drinking a large amount of brandy in a drinking contest – despite his allergy to brandy.  Lina freaks at this, because she knows that Johnnie knows about Beaky’s allergy, and that Beaky would sometimes still drink brandy even though it caused him to have fits, and trouble breathing.  Later, Isobel, her husband, Lina, Johnny, and a strange blond woman dressed as a man have a dinner party.  Johnnie’s dinner conversation though not only focuses on murder but on untraceable poisons.  Lina’s so freaked she won’t let him into her bedroom that night.
Things finally come to a head when Lina decides to go home to spend a few days with her mother.  Johnnie insists on driving her.  On a winding road, Lina thinks he’s trying to kill her, but he pulls her back into the car, then yells at her.  When they talk, Lina comes to the conclusion that Johnnie was considering suicide as a way out of his money problems, and for her to get his insurance money to settle his debts for once and for all.  Lina throws herself  into his arms, and they drive back towards their house.
In Gaslight, Ingrid Bergman gradually comes to realize that her husband is a criminal who only married her to have access to the empty house next to hers, where he thinks there’s a treasure.  The husband manipulates his wife, trying to make her think she’s going insane – and she’s only saved at the last minute by a kind policeman.
Suspicion is much more unsettling.  Cary Grant is very menacing – and switches from his “happy go lucky”, “everything is fine” personality to someone who is truly scary like lightening.  He clearly seems to not only not want to work, but to only have a talent for losing money – and he routinely borrows money to pay off his most insistent debtors.  Yet, at the same time, Joan Fontaine’s Lina, seems almost paranoid.  We see her getting little pieces of evidence that her husband’s up to no good, such as when she goes to visit him at his office, and learns from his employer and a family friend (played brilliantly by Leo G. Carroll) that Johnnie was fired weeks ago after £2000 went missing from the business.  But each time she finds something out, he has an explanation and she forgives him and realizes that she loves him.
What makes the film brilliant is that because of Grant’s superb acting, and the way he flips back-and-forth between menace and light-hearted kindness, one is never sure of his motives.  Does he want to kill his wife for her money?  It doesn’t appear so, he never actually does anything to her.  Yet, at the same time, he’s almost slimy in the way that he always has an answer for everything.  At times, Lina seems very alone, but at others she has no problem going out – she visits Isobel with no problems, and sees other friends who seem jealous of  her relationship with Johnnie.  Suspicion is a masterful, and short (only 99 minutes) film with no concrete endings.  I highly recommend it.
Recommendation:  See it!
Rating:  5 of  5 Stars
Next Film:  Swing Time

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 prat falls 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 solders 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 than 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 a 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 rollar 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)

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

Notorious

  • Title:  Notorious
  • Director:  Alfred Hitchcock
  • Date:  1946
  • Studio:  RKO
  • Genre:  Drama, Film Noir
  • Cast:  Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains
  • Format:  Standard, Black and White
  • DVD format:  R1, NTSC, (Criterion Collection, single disc)

“Waving the flag with one hand and picking pockets with the other, that’s your patriotism.”  — Alicia

“I’ve always been scared of women, but I get over it.” — Devlin

In Hitchcock’s Notorious, Ingrid Bergman plays Alicia, whose father’s been tried for treason, found guilty and jailed.  We later learned that he “died in his cell”, which is only marginally better than “shot while trying to escape”.  Bergman is indifferent to her father’s death, knowing he was a traitor (or as he put it in a recorded conversation – loyal to Germany and his own pocket) – but seems apolitical.  She is, however, a hopeless alcoholic, even driving drunk.  She meets Devlin at one of her parties, and quickly discovers he’s an American agent.  He brings her to his bosses to use as an agent.  Reluctantly, she agrees and the two fly off to Rio.  It’s interesting to note that Alicia’s friends had also wanted her to take a vacation, but suggested Cuba!!!  Anyway, once in Rio, Alicia and Devlin discover what the job is that Devlin’s un-named agency wants her to do.  She’s to become romantically involved with Claude Rains’ character, a man she knew as a young girl, and someone who seems to be supporting some shady scientists, though to what end is unknown – that is what Alicia is to find out.  Devlin isn’t happy about Alicia’s assignment, because the two have fallen for each other. Alicia, however, agrees.  She quickly forms an attachment to Rains — and even marries him.  Devlin, meanwhle, becomes her handler – but gets more and more angry to see the woman he loves with another man.

Despite it’s fantastic cast – Notorious is a very, very slow moving film.  Yes, the tension does build up, especially when Rains’ mother discovers Alicia is an agent and begins to poison her coffee, but the pacing is so slow as to be irritating instead of suspenseful.  I actually found Rains to be the most fun – it’s nice to see him in a juicy “bad guy” role as opposed the to lighter characters he normally plays.  Bergman is excellent as the newly minted tough-as-nail agent, but her easy submission into taking the poisoned coffee (and not realizing there might be a reason she feels so sick) undercuts her strong woman personna.  Grant, of course, rescues her at the end, but the film still has a strange ending (they leave the house, but we don’t know, for sure, if Grant got to her in time for the poisoning to be reversed).  All in all – I think Notorious is a good example of a film that would work better as a TV series.  I’d have loved to see a pair of secret agents – one male, one female, who gradually fall for each other – and eventually marry.  It could be especially interesting if the woman still must “honeytrap” other spies as part of her job.  A TV series, however, could gradually work the relationship of  “Alicia” and “Devlin” — making it more realistic, as well as dealing with the difficulties of a couple in such a dangerous profession.

But, getting back to the film, Grant is fantastic in Notorious – giving a subtle performance, and projecting a core of steel and violence.  I loved that.

Overall, though Notorious has it’s good points and an excellent cast, it’s like a novel by a great writer who needs an editor and without one writes books which are overly long.  The film really needed to be tightened up, the pacing improved, and the ending needs to be more concrete and less confusing.  Still, I would recommend it.

Recommendation:  See it.
Rating:  3.5 out of 5 Stars
Next Film:  The Philadelphia Story