“Colorblind,” and maybe just a little bit tone-deaf
Breaking up is hard to do. But getting back together, well, that’s even harder. After the semi-failure of Shall We Dance in 1937,1 Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers went their separate ways. But things didn’t quite go as planned,2 and only one year later they were back in the studio together. Fred and Ginger needed to get all the breaks to make their 1938 reunion in Carefree a success, and they didn’t quite get them.
RKO reassembled the team that had created such box office winners as Top Hat and Follow the Fleet, including composer Irving Berlin. The idea was to use the old team to create a new Fred & Ginger, to get away from the old, stylized, top hat, white tie, and tails formality. To add further excitement, the studio intended to shoot the film in Technicolor, a very new process in 1938.3
It might have worked. But the script was patchy, sometimes clever and sometimes leaden. And Berlin wasn’t up to his old form – none of the songs he wrote for Carefree were comparable to “Cheek to Cheek” from Top Hat or “I’m Putting All My Eggs in One Basket” from Follow the Fleet. Worst of all, RKO bailed on the use of color, apparently at the very last minute, because Berlin wrote a song, “Colorblind,” obviously intended for a color picture, which is in fact used in Carefree, in a set and dance number that presuppose a color film. Go figure!4
Carefree starts off in approved screwball fashion with elegant man-about-town Stephen Arden (Ralph Bellamy) staggering with a snoot full in broad daylight. He’s stressed out over his fiancé, radio-singing star Amanda Cooper (Ginger), who’s broken off their engagement for the third time!5 He consults with psychiatrist acquaintance Dr. Tony Flagg (Fred, naturally), demanding that Tony straighten the chick out.
Fred, trying to look dignified in a three-piece suit, presides over an ultra-modern psychiatric laboratory that includes what is quite possibly the only art deco armillary sphere in the world.6 Fred’s act isn’t too convincing, but he does sound quite Freudian when he uses his Dictaphone to sum up his views on women prior to Ginger’s arrival. They tend to be “dizzy pampered dames” more in need of a spanking than a doctor!7 When Ginger arrives, Fred ushers her into his office and then rushes off to the lab to handle some crisis. Ginger wanders about while she waits, accidentally touching off the Dictaphone and getting an earful of Dr. Fred’s theories regarding the second sex.
When Fred reappears, he gives Ginger a brief rundown on the conscious and unconscious mind.8 But Ginger, having had a look at Fred’s unconscious, isn’t terribly impressed, and refuses to be analyzed.
The scene shifts to the Medwick Country Club, a vast, rambling structure that suggests an explosion in a flagstone quarry.9 Ralph, who apparently spends all his free time there, has invited Fred so he can continue his analysis of Ginger, even though she (understandably) considers him to be a “quack.”
Fred, who’s no more enthusiastic about the analysis than Ginger, decides to go golfing instead. A mocking Ginger interrupts his backswing and he plows up a monster divot. Nettled by her presence, he decides to impress her with his prowess as a golfer/dancer in an instrumental-only number, “Since They Turned Loch Lomand into Swing.”10 The number is entertaining, though not one of Fred’s greatest. Astaire, an avid golfer, really did enjoy showing off his golfing ability, and smacks about a dozen perfect drives. But it’s all for naught, because a singularly perverse Ginger splits before he’s finished, depriving him of his triumph.
Despite this setback, Ralph insists on keeping the party going, and puts them all on bicycles. Fred and Ginger pedal together, and Ginger explains to Fred that she doesn’t care for his attitude toward women. Somehow, Fred manages to convince her that he didn’t mean what he said.11 Things are going well, but suddenly they start to go downhill, literally, and Fred crashes when his bike loses its chain. The impact is such that his hair is actually mussed (a sign of extreme duress in an Astaire film12), which stimulates Ginger’s maternal instincts.
Good friends now, they have dinner, and Fred plies Ginger with “dream-inducing” foods to assist in psychoanalysis, a not-very-inspired plot twist. After pigging out on seafood cocktail (with whipped cream), Welch Rabbit, lobster, and strawberry shortcake, Ginger heads home and has a dream, one of the first Hollywood dream dances, “Colorblind.” Hollywood dreams are always an invitation to disaster, and it’s remarkable that “Colorblind” isn’t a failure. We’re on a misty riverbank, with lush, flowering trees and towering storybook castles in the background. The river itself is covered with huge lily pads. Fred and Ginger are on the shore. Ginger’s in a filmy, “prom queen” gown, while Fred, though not in a tux, looks awfully formal for dancing on lilypads.13 He sings “I used to be colorblind,” implying an emotional awakening for both of them. As they begin their dance over the lily pads, they suddenly shift into slow motion, a dangerously gimmicky bit that works remarkably well. Ginger’s filmy garments flow with appropriate grace, and neither performer ever looks awkward.14
As the dance ends, Fred bends Ginger over backward and leans over for a kiss. Ginger rises to his kiss and embraces him firmly! Wow!
Most of the rest of the film is taken up by Fred’s efforts to first unlock Ginger’s unconscious, and then to lock it up again (via hypnosis) once he finds out what’s inside. Finally, in a clever touch, his own unconscious (his reflection in a mirror) comes to the rescue, telling him to “kiss her, ya dope!” Along the way, there are two more dances, “The Yam,” a boisterous showpiece sung by a dubbed Ginger,15 and “Change Partners,” a “hypnosis” dance that is reminiscent of, but not equal to, the great “Night and Day” (Gay Divorcee) and “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” (Follow the Fleet) numbers.16 )
With a lot of luck, Carefree could have been a true oddity – a successful psychiatric/ dream/hypnosis musical comedy. Instead, it’s got four good dances, a few good laughs, and not a few longueurs. Yep, breaking up is hard to do. But sometimes it’s for the best.
See the my author page for more reviews of Astaire/Rogers films.
- The film turned a profit, but didn’t do nearly as well as previous entries. (Justly so, because it wasn’t as good a film, being particularly short on dancing. [↩]
- Astaire’s one film apart from Ginger during this period, A Damsel in Distress, available on video, is highly enjoyable, but doesn’t have the romance of the great Fred & Ginger films. Ginger made two semi-musicals without Fred during this period, Vivacious Lady (opposite Jimmy Stewart) and Having Wonderful Time (with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.). Both films were produced by the same team that did the Fred & Ginger musicals, but are almost unknown today. They’re not available on video, although dedicated Ginger buffs can track them down on cable. Ginger sang one song in Vivacious Lady and didn’t sing at all in Having Wonderful Time, although the picture did feature two numbers, both performed by Betty Rhodes. Ginger was probably smart enough to figure out that, on her own, she’d never equal the work she did with Fred, and so ultimately segued into dramatic roles. [↩]
- The first Technicolor feature film was Becky Sharp, released in 1935 and based on William Makepeace Thackery’s novel Vanity Fair. Becky Sharp isn’t available on video, except in Germany, so you’ll have to read the book, which you ought to do anyway. [↩]
- There are two different stories (at least) regarding the use of color for Carefree. According to Arthur Mueller (author of Astaire Dancing), RKO intended to shoot the entire film in color, but bailed because of the costs involved. According to Arlene Croce (author of The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book), only the “Colorblind” sequence was to be shot in color, and in fact it was shot in color, but the quality was poor, so the studio went with black and white. [↩]
- Screenwriters (and, presumably, the public) simply never get tired of this bit. See The Philadelphia Story, The Runaway Bride, Suddenly Susan, Friends, etc., etc. [↩]
- Armillary spheres (“bracelet spheres”) were developed by ancient astronomers as an aid to mapping stars in the heavens. They can be made to function as sundials and are frequently used for decorative purposes in parks. Why a psychiatrist would need one, unless he practices astrology on the side, isn’t clear. To see a seriously baroque armillary sphere, go to www.princeton.edu/~his291/Pomarance_Armillary.html. [↩]
- The scriptwriters definitely missed a beat by not providing a little backstory to explain Fred’s hostility toward women, which would also explain why he resists admitting that he’s in love with Ginger. [↩]
- Carefree was one of the first films to use psychoanalysis as a plot device, so the ground rules have to be explained pretty carefully. [↩]
- In trying to make a break from the earlier pictures, the writers substitute the suburban comfort of a sunlit country club for the uptown saloons of Top Hat and Swing Time. [↩]
- In 1937, singer Maxine Sullivan had a monster hit with a swing version of “Loch Lomand,” which led to an avalanche of pseudo-Scottish folk/swing, nicely parodied by W. C. Fields’ jumpin’ jive version of “Coming Through the Rye” in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break. [↩]
- But why didn’t he? [↩]
- Fred’s hair is mussed when he’s drunk and desperate in The Sky’s the Limit (1943). [↩]
- Among other things, he’s wearing spats. [↩]
- Ginger deserves particular kudos for holding her line unwaveringly when Fred lifts her for a double spin. [↩]
- Apparently, Ginger, who was not much of a singer, didn’t have the chops for the number. Her voice is clearly dubbed, but neither Arthur Mueller nor Arlene Croce have the nerve to mention it. [↩]
- The problem with “Change Partners” is that there’s no sense of emotional movement in the dance. Fred hypnotizes Ginger immediately, but she doesn’t come to realize that she loves him. “Night and Day,” on the other hand, is a straightforward seduction, while “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” moves from a spirit of despair to one of “dance today, die tomorrow.” (Okay, as a philosophy of life it isn’t much, but it does get them off stage, and that’s what counts. [↩]