Bright Lights Film Journal

“A Third Party Might Spoil This”: The Gay Divorcee

Fred and Ginger get continental on your ass

The Gay Divorcee1 is the quintessential Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It’s not their best – largely because Ginger’s dancing skills were so far behind Fred’s – but nothing they did together was much more than a variation on a theme already established in this film.

The Gay Divorcee virtually invented the chaste, frothy, big-screen musical that remains a symbol of the thirties even today. Until 1934, when the heavy hand of the Hays Office2 took over, Hollywood was devoted to racy, “backstage” musicals, focusing on chorus girls, who were seldom chaste, and often only one step removed from outright prostitution, particularly when they were between shows.3 Chorus girls were the ultimate sex fantasy figures of the day, with a public image that fell somewhere between Laker Girl and lap dancer.

Fred and Ginger helped change all that, creating a never-never land where no one was unemployed (where, in fact, few people even had to work), where everyone worried obsessively about scandal, but no one ever did anything that was wrong.4 It was a world, in the words of the New York Times obituary for Ginger, “where all the telephones were white, all the butlers comic, and love the only concern.”

The Gay Divorcee gets off to a less-than-rousing start in a Paris nightclub as a very tame set of chorus girls perform “Don’t Let It Bother You” with hand puppets. Fred dances a brief, sullen dance to pay off the tab that he and his lawyer acquaintance Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton,5 who else?) have run up.

Things improve when Mimi Glossop (Ginger) meets her ditzy Aunt Hortense6 (Alice Brady) at London customs with a near-shipload of steamer trunks in tow, returning from a shopping spree in Paris. Hortense talks a mile a minute, setting up the plot (poor Ginger is married to a horrible Englishman and must get a divorce) and setting it in motion (by closing her trunk on Ginger’s dress) in one fell swoop.

Once Ginger is securely, though unwittingly, bound, Hortense rushes off. Ginger, discovering her plight, calls for Hortense, but gets Fred instead. (He and Egbert were on the same boat.) Fred gallantly offers his assistance, which Ginger doesn’t much appreciate, particularly when he tears her dress.7 Fred, still gallant, gives her his Burberry for cover, with the plan of calling on her to recover the garment, but she checks his gambit by refusing to give her address, demanding his instead.

Fred is depressed, of course, but his loss is our gain, because it sets the stage for one of the classic Astaire numbers, and a perfect introduction to the Astaire persona, “A Needle in a Haystack.”8 Astaire, lounging about his elegant London flat in an elegant silk dressing gown, spars with Horton over the likelihood of locating Ginger. (He doesn’t even know her name.) As Horton leaves, Astaire bursts into song. He sings the song once through while sitting on a sofa, then rouses himself to put his words into effect, singing the chorus a second time as he first discards his dressing gown and then selects a tie, with the bemused assistance of his valet (Charles Coleman9).

Once Fred gets his tie bar on, he’s ready for some serious dancing. As in many of his best dances, there’s a persistent movement from the mundane to the inspired, as he explores his environment, testing its possibilities for dance and then converting the everyday into art. He raps his knuckles idly on the mantelpiece; the rhythm is conveyed to his legs; the marble slab before the fireplace, he discovers, is an excellent surface for tap. Once he has exhausted the marble, he moves on to the floor.

Watching, and hearing, Astaire tap dance, it is easy to forget how monotonous the artform can be. Most tap dancers sacrifice everything for technique, which in the tap world simply means speed, with the result that they stand before us, with a fixed grin and wildly pumping legs, sounding for all the world like two high-speed metronomes.

Astaire, of course, never lets us see him work. If he can’t make it look easy, he won’t do it, with the result that we never see him straining for effect. Even more importantly, his tap dancing always has rhythm. It is never simply repetition. Fred moves, and frequently drives, the music as he moves with it, working in a manner similar to a jazz drummer.10

As the dance progresses, Fred leaves the real world further and further behind, and the dance culminates in a series of outright balletic leaps.11 Then he returns to earth as Coleman provides him with his jacket and a flower for his label. In a final flourish, he bounds to a chair before accepting his hat and umbrella.

Eventually, of course, Fred does track Ginger down, via a high-speed automobile chase.12 Once he corners her, he drops perhaps the all-time classic Fred-and-Ginger line: “Can I offer you anything? Frosted chocolate? Cointreau? Benedictine? Marriage?” Ginger refuses, though she neglects to mention that she is already married,13 and drives off.

Fortunately, the plot is about to come to Fred’s rescue. Aunt Hortense has arranged for Egbert (Horton) to be Ginger’s lawyer. The sole ground for divorce in England at that time was adultery. When both parties wanted a divorce, an arrangement was made for the wife to be “discovered” with a supposed lover, called a “co-respondent.” (For plot purposes, Ginger’s husband doesn’t know what’s going on. In real life, this would have sabotaged the whole arrangement.) Naturally, Egbert doesn’t know that “Mimi” is Fred’s beloved. He sends Mimi and Hortense down to the seaside resort of Brighton for a holiday to sugar-coat the embarrassing proceedings, and goes down separately as well, bringing Fred along for company.

The arrival in Brighton sets the stage for a unique song and dance number in the Astaire/Rogers series, one that involves neither of the principals. Instead, we get one of cinema’s true odd couples, 47-year-old Edward Everett Horton and 17-year-old Betty Grable, in “Let’s Knock Knees.”14 Horton appears in a bathing suit, pushing the envelope about as far as anyone would want it to be pushed (fortunately, he’s wearing a tank top). Grable, on the other hand, is a glistening dream, the gal who put the phat in platinum.15

Once Grable dances out of the film, we’re stuck with about 15 minutes of the “Chance is the fool’s name for fate” rigmarole familiar to anyone who’s seen the picture twice. Finally, we get to the “Night and Day”16 number. Despite the fact that Ginger really couldn’t dance very well at this stage of her career,17) this is probably the greatest dance Fred and Ginger ever did. No other dance carries the dramatic impact of “Night and Day.”18 This is a seduction, pure and simple, a light, airy seduction, to be sure, but a seduction, nonetheless,19 and what, after all, is more satisfying than seduction?

Coming down from a masterpiece, we’re hit with yet more comic relief, up in Ginger’s bedroom with the co-respondent, Rodolfo Tonetti, as played by Eric Rhodes, chosen no doubt for the role because he was the only man in Hollywood who could make Astaire look butch. Fred and Ginger make their escape in reasonably good order, hitting the dance floor just in time for “The Continental.”20

Like “Let’s Knock Knees,” “The Continental” is entertaining overkill, by my standards, at least, though the infamous “black and white” chorus does get exhausting. Then we’re back in Ginger’s bedroom, for a refreshingly fast-paced21 finale: Ginger’s husband, the odious Cyril, finally makes an appearance, and refuses to be offended by Ginger’s patently unconvincing show of infidelity. Fortunately, a hotel waiter (Eric Blore) recognizes Cyril from previous trysts. Cyril, rightly if inconveniently denying Ginger’s guilt, cannot deny his own. Egbert and Hortense arrive just in time to share in the good news, and add some of their own: they’re married! “Let’s all go to London to celebrate,” says Hortense. “I’m also very good at parties!” exclaims Tonetti, always ready to please. There’s nothing left now for Fred and Ginger to do but dance on the furniture. And they do, they do, and Ginger in her two-tone shoes.

Afterwords

Fred & Ginger websites can be found all over the web, with pictures, information, and links regarding film’s most famous dance team. There are plenty of individual sites as well.

Sadly, the two best books about Fred and Ginger’s work together, John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films,22 which covers all of Fred’s musical films, and Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book, are both out of print. However, they are locatable through the web.

  1. The stage version of The Gay Divorcee, known as The Gay Divorce, played on Broadway and in London, with Fred in the lead, opposite Clare Boothe. []
  2. The Hays Office administered Hollywood’s moral code, which didn’t expire until the modern ratings system went into effect in 1969. The Hays Office was only a small part of conservative trend in morality that affected all of Western Civilization, from Moscow to L.A. []
  3. See, for example, 42nd Street,in which Ginger plays “Anytime Annie”: “She only said no once, and then she didn’t hear the question,” and Footlight Parade, which contains the line “As long as there are sidewalks, you’ve got a job.” []
  4. Basically, it’s Noel Coward without all the sex and drugs. []
  5. Horton, best known for his roles in the Astaire/Rogers pictures, appeared in 124 films. His last picture, Cold Turkey (1971) was released after his death at age 84. He also did the voiceover for “Fractured Fairy Tales” in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon series. Horton was a hard-working actor: he made 11 films in 1934, and 11 more in 1935. []
  6. Hortense is supposed to be American, but she sounds more English than Horton, who supposedly is English. Ginger is, in fact, the only character in The Gay Divorcee who speaks “American.” []
  7. Fortunately, Ginger is wearing one of those magical Hollywood dresses that remain the same length no matter how much material is torn from them. []
  8. Written by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson, who also wrote “The Continental,” which won the 1935 Academy Award for Best Song. []
  9. Coleman appeared in 176 films, playing valets, butlers, waiters and doormen. Most intriguing title: The Devil Is a Sissy, a Freddie Bartholomew/Jackie Cooper/Mickey Rooney vehicle (probably not as good as it sounds). The Gay Divorcee gave him what was almost undoubtedly his best line: When Horton demands of a moping Fred “Is there something the matter with your liver?” Coleman responds, “It’s not his liver, sir. It’s love, sir.” []
  10. Astaire did a lot of tap dancing on the records he made. If you’re an Astaire fanatic, or on the way to becoming one, you might check out “Starring Fred Astaire,” a 2-CD set from Columbia. Back in 1940, Astaire recorded “It’s Just Like Taking Candy from a Baby” with the Benny Goodman band. Much of the record is given over to a “trio,” Goodman’s clarinet and Lionel Hampton’s vibraphone playing over the rhythm of Fred’s tap dancing. Goodman and Hampton also back up Fred’s vocal, to excellent effect. []
  11. They are called “cabriolets,” according to John Mueller, in his superb book Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, unfortunately out of print, but well worth pursuing. []
  12. The enormous white car that Ginger is driving is probably a Duesenberg, which were virtually hand-made monsters that sold for about $250,000 in current dollars. They were a particular favorite of movie stars, including Clark Gable (who apparently collected them), Gary Cooper, and Greta Garbo. If you’ve got a stock option burning a hole in your pocket, you can buy a Duesenberg replicar today for $195,000. Such a deal! Try their website at duesenbergmotors.com for pictures and ordering information. []
  13. Unless we are to believe that Fred is a complete bounder, and a willing accomplice in bigamy, we must assume that Ginger has already removed her wedding ring. Why she would do that is another question. []
  14. Written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, who also did the earlier, less interesting “Don’t Let It Bother You.” Gordon and Revel, a Penn and Teller-like duo, appear as themselves, quite entertainingly, in the Paramount short Hollywood Rhythm, available today in the video collection Radio Rhythms, which (confusingly) is the first volume in a four-volume set called “Hollywood Rhythm.” The short was made to promote the full-length musical College Rhythm (“Hey professor! Yes sir! Yes sir!”), unfortunately not available on video. []
  15. My enthusiasm for “Let’s Knock Knees” is already a matter of record. See my discussion of Grable, along with footnote 3, in the “Trivia Trifecta” section of my review of Whoopee, if you really want to know. []
  16. Written by Cole Porter, who did the music and lyrics for the stage version. Hollywood, in its time-honored fashion, “improved” The Gay Divorce by dropping all of the songs but one. “The Virtual Cole Porter,” here, offers extensive information on Porter. []
  17. Not only that, her hair and gown are a bit fussy, and she herself looks a little fat. (No letters, please. []
  18. A lot of fans would argue for “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time, but I’ve always found it just a little bit artificial. “Cheek to Cheek” (Top Hat) and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet) are scarcely a step behind “Night and Day,” and Ginger certainly looks, and dances, better in both. Other contenders are three of the “getting to know you” dances – “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” (Roberta), “Isn’t It a Lovely Day to Be Caught in the Rain” (Top Hat), and “Pick Yourself Up” (Swing Time). []
  19. If you can’t accept Fred Astaire as a seducer for three minutes of screen time, you probably can’t believe that a little girl would fit down a rabbit hole. []
  20. “The Continental” is the longest number in the entire Astaire and Rogers oeuvre, running about 16 minutes. Highlights include a balls-to-the-wall vocal by concertina-wielding Eric Rhodes, letting us know just why they call it show business, a second vocal by Lillian Miles, shimmering in skin-tight silver lamé, some serious strutting by Eric Blore as a waiter with attitude, the “Charleston” section, which features the chorus girls in bathing suits and heels, and Fred and Ginger’s sweeping descent of the staircase in the finale. []
  21. Fast-paced by the standards of thirties farce. []
  22. Unless you’re a bit obsessive, Astaire Dancing is likely to tell you more about Fred than you want to know. []