“Heaven rest us, I’m not asbestos”
Roberta is one of the least known,1 and one of the very best, of the films that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did together. It features some of Jerome Kern’s2 best songs, superb dancing from the stars, a script that is actually funny in places, and a triple helping of hilarious early-thirties high fashion. Most of all, it features Ginger Rogers in her greatest role, the outrageous “Sharvenka.”
Like its predecessor The Gay Divorcee, Roberta starts slowly. We’re introduced to the male leads, Jack Kent (Randolph Scott3) and “Huck” Haines (Astaire), landing at the French port of Le Havre with their band, the Wabash Indianans,4 and we suffer through a bit where the band members, wearing gloves that resemble piano keys, pretend to be a human “organ” on which Fred plays.5 The boys’ hopes for a continental tour are dashed when the French impresario who invited them over abandons them on the dock. He wanted Indians, not Indianans. But not to worry: Jack’s Aunt Minnie is a swell old gal, and, more to the point, as “Roberta,” the most fashionable couturière in all of Paris, she’s sure to give the boys a hand.
Riding up the elevator to Aunt Minnie’s elegant establishment, Jack runs into Princess Stephanie (Irene Dunne6), a “White Russian” who is Aunt Minnie’s closest assistant. White Russians were supposedly aristocratic exiles from the Soviet Union, who if they could afford it spent most of their time in Paris, drinking champagne and dreaming about the good old days.7 Dunne, a silver-voiced soprano with aristocratic pretensions equal to any White Russian, had a great time in the role.8 No actress ever looked happier in a tiara.
Aunt Minnie fills Jack in on her most demanding patron, Sharvenka, a Polish countess who, like so many of us, “has spurned the hollow mockeries of society and gone in for nightclub entertaining. She’s got the finest figure in Europe and has to have it dressed, at least partly.”
A deliciously svelte Ginger, down at least fifteen pounds from The Gay Divorcee,9 makes her appearance, living up to her advance billing and more as she directs a temper tantrum at Stephanie (“These Latin races must be shouted at,” she explains later) and puts the make on Jack. “You beeg, beautiful American,” she murmurs, after he knocks her twice on her fanny to keep her from assaulting Stephanie. “You are very strong,” she adds, assaying his bicep.
Ginger’s “act” as Sharvenka (we learn later that she’s really “Lizzie Gatz”) is a feature-length parody of actress Lyda Roberti,10 who created the Sharvenka role on Broadway, seasoning it heavily with her own thick Polish accent and easygoing sexuality. In the guise of Sharvenka, Ginger escapes for once the “good girl” roles to which the Astaire-Rogers films otherwise confined her.11 She has so much fun that she makes a much better Lyda Roberti than Roberti herself did, being prettier, funnier, and sexier, in addition to being a better singer and dancer.12
A little later, Ginger gives us a sample of what she can do as Sharvenka in the delightful “I’ll be Hard to Handle,” which contains “no mercy” lines like “If you complain, this is one little Jane who will leave you flat.” When she finishes the lyrics she adds a few jive flourishes (loosely, “Scavutz, scavutz, a razzamatazza”), wets her forefingers on her tongue and then rubs them ostentatiously with her thumbs, a gesture I’ve never seen anywhere else, live or on the screen.13
Once she’s finished singing, Ginger shifts to her “Liz” persona as she and Fred reminisce about their youth, growing up in Indiana.14 They then move to the dance floor for one of the most charming and effortless dances on film. Rogers, elegantly slender in a sort of black-and-white jumpsuit, is simply the embodiment of girlish enthusiasm and grace.
At first things go swimmingly for everyone. Jack’s so warm for Stephanie that he’s even learning French! But then Madame Roberta dies, leaving the House of Roberta to Jack! The news convinces Jack’s conniving ex-fiancée, Sophie Teale (Claire Dodd), that it’s time to renew acquaintances. Naturally, there’s much confusion, and much fashion (the number of seal pups that bit the dust to make this film is appalling) before everything gets sorted out. Along the way we get three of Kern’s best songs, “I Won’t Dance” (sung by Fred and Ginger, danced by Fred alone in a seriously high-velocity tap solo), “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,”15 and “Lovely to Look at” (both sung by Dunne in gloriously operatic fashion16). Fred and Ginger dance to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in a “serious” dance that isn’t quite up to their best and romp through a reprise of “I Won’t Dance.” If you like Fred and Ginger, you’ve got to see this film.
There is an excellent Fred & Ginger site maintained by “Elizabeth,” an indefatigable 23-year-old from Oklahoma City by way of Princeton. The “Afterwords” section for The Gay Divorcee article (Bright Lights #28) contains additional information and links for Fred and Ginger.
There does not seem to be a first-rate website devoted to Jerome Kern. If you want to hear more of his work, one place to start is Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Jerome Kern Songbook,”17 although there are many other CDs that collect his compositions. Till the Clouds Roll By, a 1947 all-star biopic devoted to Kern, starring (among others) Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horne, starts with a bang – about 20 minutes of highlights from Show Boat – but the rest of the film’s big production numbers leave me cold.
Show Boat itself has been filmed three times, in 1929, 1935, and 1951. The first version, part silent and part “talkie,” is maddeningly unavailable. The 1936 version is the most famous, thanks to the presence of Paul Robeson as “Joe.”18 In 1988, EMI recorded an “opera-style” version of Show Boat, including every piece of music Kern ever wrote for the show, which was reworked a number of times over the years. The recording, now available as a 3-CD set, reproduces all of the excruciatingly “period” dialogue from the original show, down to the last “dis,” “dat,” and “gwine.”19 The set also includes an extensive history of the musical’s development.
Lovely to Look At, the 1952 remake of Roberta, now even more obscure than the original film, is itself well worth a look, with plenty of Kern tunes (more than were in Roberta) and good performances all around from Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel, Red Skelton, Ann Miller, and Marge and Gower Champion. (A thirty-something Zsa Zsa Gabor is also along for the ride.)
Wisely, the film makes no attempt to follow Roberta. Other than a balky elevator, the only real link between the two films is choreographer Hermes Pan,20 who was Fred’s right-hand man throughout the Ginger years. Pan choreographed the big production numbers for the Astaire-Rogers films, among others, and danced Ginger’s parts in the early rehearsals. He also dubbed Ginger’s taps on occasion.
The dancing in Lovely to Look At is all first-rate. Ann Miller, usually a boring and mechanical tap specialist, gives a funny, sexy new slant to “I’ll Be Hard to Handle,”21 joined by eight young gentlemen wearing wolf masks.22 The Champions23 appear in three numbers. The first two, “I Won’t Dance” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” definitely look back to Fred and Ginger, but the “Jewel Thief” number, perhaps the best of the three, has a more contemporary flavor.
For some reason, none of the production numbers in Lovely to Look At have the “swing from the heels” flavor of the big numbers in Roberta. This is especially surprising because Keel and Grayson, with their operatically trained voices, were quite capable of pulling out all the stops. Even the fashion show finale, an invitation to excess if there ever was one, is “rich but not gaudy,” advice better suited to real life than the movies. (However, animal lovers will be pleased to know that there is no fur showing in this film.)
- Roberta owes its obscurity to the fact that it was remade in 1952 as Lovely to Look At. As a consequence, it was taken out of circulation and never appeared on TV during the pre-cable era, unlike The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance, which constitute the real Fred & Ginger oeuvre for those growing up in the first TV generation. [↩]
- Kern wrote the music for Show Boat as well as the Astaire/Rogers film Swing Time, along with many other shows. Otto Kahn did the lyrics for Roberta, with some help from Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. [↩]
- Scott is the nominal lead, because he’s romancing the top-billed Irene Dunne. The film’s structure looks back to the first Astaire-Rogers film, Flying Down to Rio, in which the stars played second fiddle to Gene Raymond and Dolores del Río. Scott was probably added to get some beefcake on the screen. In real life, of course, it was Fred who was married, while Scott was odd-coupling it with Cary Grant. [↩]
- The Wabash is the longest river in Indiana, not that that’s much of a distinction. The Wabash owes its notoriety largely to two songs that appeared at the turn of the twentieth century, “On the Banks of the Wabash” by Paul Dresser, older brother of novelist Theodore Dreiser; and a “hobo” song, “The Wabash Cannonball” (amusingly, one website lists Dreiser as the author of the “Cannonball”). In the twenties, a jazzed-up version of Dresser’s tune, known as “(Back Home Again in) Indiana,” was also very popular. [↩]
- The tune that Fred “plays” is an almost unrecognizable version of “Indiana” (see footnote above). [↩]
- Dunne was one of the biggest stars of the thirties, most remembered for her roles opposite Cary Grant in The Awful Truth, perhaps the best of all the screwball comedies, and My Favorite Wife(where she almost abandoned Cary for Randolph Scott). She also played Magnolia Hawks in the classic 1936 version of Show Boat, her performance unfortunately marred by what is perhaps the worst blackface in the history of film, a disgrace to the white race and indeed all of humanity. You can download pics of her from bombshells.org, which also has some nice links to other sites. [↩]
- The classic 1939 Greta Garbo film Ninotchka (the one film for which she will be remembered) explores this milieu. The 1957 musical version, Silk Stockings, with music by Cole Porter, was Astaire’s last musical. It was the only time he was really outdanced by his costar (Cyd Charisse), which was perhaps one reason why he decided it was time to hang it up. [↩]
- Her plucked eyebrows alone are worth the price of admission. [↩]
- The thought of appearing in the same picture with a bunch of fashion models must have intimidated her. Following Roberta she gained back about half the weight she’d lost. [↩]
- Roberti, whose career was sadly cut short by a heart attack at age 32, had limited talents but took an unlimited delight in being on stage. She appeared in a string of revue-type musicals during the thirties, including The Kid from Spain (with Eddie Cantor) and Million-Dollar Legs (with Jack Oakie and W. C. Fields). [↩]
- Rogers, who was a Christian Scientist in private life, clearly thought of herself as a “good girl” and probably preferred this kind of role, though she frequently played bad girls in her pre-Fred days. [↩]
- One rather hopes that Roberti didn’t see the film. [↩]
- Perhaps it’s Polish. [↩]
- “You’ve got to have a title to croon over here,” Ginger tells Fred to explain her transformation. “Crooning” was a manner of singing more or less invented by Rudy Vallee in the late twenties, who realized that the development of the electric microphone allowed a much more intimate singing style than previously used. Vallee quickly became one of the most famous men in America, just below Charles Lindbergh and probably the equal of Babe Ruth. He bombed in early talkies but remained a living legend, similar to Paul McCartney today. He has a nice role in Preston Sturges’ frenetic 1942 farce The Palm Beach Story and was still enough of a name in 1967 to play Robert Morse’s boss in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Crooners were the most romantic thing going in the early thirties, which is why, in case you’ve ever wondered, Alfalfa is a “crooner” in The Little Rascals. [↩]
- The lyrics to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” are only semi-coherent. The idea is that when your heart’s on fire, “smoke gets in your eyes.” But the melody is terrific. To hear how great kitsch can be converted into great art, track down Thelonious Monk’s version, recorded in 1954 with Frank Foster and Art Blakey and available on CD from Original Jazz Classics as OJCCD-016-2 (originally released as Prestige 7053). [↩]
- Dunne is in particularly rare form for “Lovely to Look At.” She makes her entrance on a balcony, swathed in an enormous white fur that probably cost more than the average American home. She delivers most of the song in extreme close-up, rolling her eyeballs heavenward on the high notes, then arching her brows in exquisite condescension to the adoring peasants below. [↩]
- For some reason, “The Jerome Kern Songbook” is a truncated affair, offering only a dozen songs. It’s not really comparable to the “songbooks” Ella did for Irving Berlin, Rogers & Hart, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, and the Gershwins, which offer a much more complete picture of the composers’ works. [↩]
- Robeson was criticized by many black groups for accepting a role in what was widely regarded as a racist work. To welcome him aboard, Kern and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein wrote “Ah Still Suits Me” for him – an “I’se a lazy so and so and Ah loves it” number. [↩]
- Which is, of course, exactly how black people talked back then. [↩]
- Born in Memphis, Tennessee as Hermes Panagiotopoulos, Pan worked with Astaire for decades, but made many other films as well, including Kiss Me Kate (1953) and My Fair Lady (1964). [↩]
- In the course of the revised lyrics, Miller refers to herself as an “iron butterfly.” Sixteen years later, the sixties rock group Iron Butterfly turned out the heavy metal classic “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” which probably owes nothing to Jerome Kern. [↩]
- A lecherous young man was known as a “wolf” in the forties and fifties (whence “wolf whistle”). [↩]
- The Champions, an excellent husband and wife team, had a lot of classical training, though Marge never goes up on her toes, at least not in this picture. Gower seems to have modeled himself quite closely on Fred. [↩]