The Gay Divorcee (1934)

That's "gay" as in "happy" friends. No need to get excited. This was the first pairing proper of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire after their appearance together in Flying Down To Rio (1933) and cemented the partnership for all time despite Fred's initial reluctance to commit himself to another double act. He plays Guy Holden, a famous dancer vacationing in Europe, who runs into Ginger's Mimi Glossop at British customs when her skirt inadvertently becomes trapped in her dithering aunt's packing trunk. Smitten, Guy pursues Mimi but she proves evasive, focused instead on her efforts to win a divorce from a tedious geologist husband. By coincidence, Mimi's aunt Hortense (Alice Brady) has engaged Guy's lawyer friend Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), an old flame, to advise on the separation. Egbert recommends that Mimi allow herself to be caught in the arms of a "hired co-respondent" in order to create the necessary grounds for divorce. Heading off to a laughably resplendent English seaside resort called Brightbourne, Mimi inadvertently mistakes Guy for the rented gigolo, actually Erik Rhodes' Italian buffoon Tonetti ("Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti!"), and a farcical yet typically elegant series of misunderstandings ensue.

The Gay Divorcee was based on a hit musical that Fred had starred in on Broadway and the West End by Dwight Taylor featuring the songs of Cole Porter, entitled The Gay Divorce. The Hays Office couldn't abide a title implying that a marital break-up could be a cause for celebration, however, hence the change when the play came to be adapted for RKO by Kenneth S. Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein. Mark Sandrich's picture from their script also ditched all but one of Porter's tunes, 'Night & Day'. Of the rest of its musical numbers, Fred's solo 'Needle In A Haystack' is pleasing slapstick and 'Let's K-nock K-nees' boasts the astonishing prospect of Edward Everett Horton jiving around in shorts, socks and sandals plus an early cameo from wartime pin-up Betty Grable. Only 'The Continental' proves a significant misfire, with the stars largely sitting it out to make way for an over-long Busby Berkeleyesque sequence featuring a multitude of couples throwing each other around in the moonlight. It may have won an Oscar but, for me, it's the film's weakest moment, verging on boring.

As a whole, The Gay Divorcee is very much a blueprint for the rest of the Astaire-Rogers series to follow. The pair overcome confusion to realise their romance and are variously helped and hindered by the likes of Horton, Brady and Eric Blore, the latter on especially deranged form here trying to tempt Horton with crumpets and toasted scones (I love that someone has written "Eric Blore is my homeboy" under this video on YouTube). Brady gets some of the best lines, advising her niece, "Be feminine and sweet. If you can blend the two", and flirting outrageously with the terminally flustered Horton throughout. A great joy as always then - there's even a high-speed car chase to recommend it - but ultimately perhaps not quite as tight a production as Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936).

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