Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Film Passion 101: Falling in Love Again


Watching a console TV for long stretches from the living room floor and a distance of not more than a few feet was a good part of a typical day for most tots of my era. Much of what we watched was “old movies,” because, for many years, the films of what we now call "The Golden Age" aired morning, noon and night on local stations in need of hours of not-too-expensive programming. On top of this, I grew up in a movie-loving home. Mother, a child of the ‘30s and young woman of the ‘40s, had been one of the countless kids who was terrorized by King Kong when it was a first-run release and she was among the many teenagers who lined up to see Gone with the Wind when it was breaking box office records. Later, after she came to live in Southern California during World War II, she had chance encounters with one or two movie stars that she never forgot. Dad wasn't a movie fan in the same way, but he did love Cagney. And he favored Westerns. One night, when my brother and I were in his charge, he took us to see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was the only night out at the movies we ever had with just dad.

Since movies were a part of my life from the beginning, is it any mystery that I knew who Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Tyrone Power were before I knew the names of some of my relatives? I recall noting in my diary when I was about nine that I had watched The Great Lie, “starring Bette Davis.” I remember first being enchanted by Tyrone Power when he smiled at Dorothy Lamour just after they met on a staircase in Johnny Apollo. And there was the time I watched Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder every night, five nights in a row, on a channel that ran the same feature film every week, all through the week.

But as I got older my interests multipied to include music and boys and so many other things. And time continued to pass...



It was summertime and I was living in a beach town where I’d taken a part-time job at a veterinary clinic until the fall term began. I usually listened to records or sometimes watched TV when I got home from work an hour two before dinner. Channel surfing one day, I tuned in to an L.A. TV station that aired "old movies" in the afternoon. I hadn’t seen any of the musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at that point and was curious, so I sat down to watch when it turned out the movie of the day would be The Gay Divorcee (1934).

Without complaint I slipped away from the casual, au naturel 1970s and tumbled, headlong, into a fantasy realm of early 1930s glamour, style and romance. There, for the next 107 minutes, I was in a world that was all music, music, music and dancing, dancing, dancing offered up on stylized sets of enormous white Art Deco buildings and rooms glossy and plush. The intense contrast of dark and light, with accents of chrome and gleam, was everywhere - and eye-popping. This was a universe of pure elegance where even the conversation sparkled.

Resort set
The Gay Divorcee was the first in a string of musicals Astaire and Rogers headlined together and it set the mold for the greatest of their classics. In this one, he's Guy Holden, a cocky Broadway hoofer on holiday in Europe, traveling with his dim and dizzy sidekick, Egbert (Edward Everett Horton), a British attorney of sorts. Astaire is up and dancing within the film's first minutes: pressed into service to pay for dinner at a Paris nightclub, Guy puts on a floor show of his own, improvising a slapdash dance routine on the spot.

The prototypical Astaire/Rogers meet-cute takes place dockside in London. He is instantly smitten, she is promptly put off. When he later begins to pine for her (though he protests, "girls pine...men just suffer"), he warbles a lovesick tune, "Needle in a Haystack," and breaks into a nifty dance around his hotel room as he gets dressed. Irving Berlin was on the money when he said, "As a dancer he stands alone, and no singer knows his way around a song like Fred Astaire."

"It's just like looking for a needle in a haystack...still I've got to find you..."
A collection of eccentric screwball types surrounds the pair. Alice Brady prattles madly as Mimi's (Ginger Rogers) Aunt Hortense, a many-times-married-and-divorced scatterbrain who was once engaged to Egbert. Married Mimi is desperate to divorce her absentee husband and Hortense enlists inept Egbert to serve as her attorney; this, of course, has mixed results.

Also on hand lending comic support are Eric Blore as an unctuous waiter with an eye and ear for detail and Erik Rhodes as an enthusiastic, if hare-brained, professional "co-respondent" ("Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti"). Briefly featured is 18-year-old Betty Grable as a bit of platinum strudel intent on k-knocking k-knees with Egbert.

Betty Grable to Edward Everett Horton:  "Let's K-knock K-knees"
Most of The Gay Divorcee is set at a lavish resort on the faux English seaside - the Bella Vista, a glittering monument to Art Deco. When Guy spies Mimi at the hotel, he pursues and coaxes her into dancing with him in an empty ballroom overlooking a moonlit sea. He sings Cole Porter's glorious "Night and Day," they dance, and as the heat between them builds, her resistance begins to melt. It's a palpably seductive moment and he literally dances his way into her heart. The expression on Mimi's face when the music ends says it all...


Naturally, there's a cleverly contrived identity mix-up that derails the romance for a while. It centers on time and place and the phrase, "chance is the fool's name for fate" (repeated variously as "chance is the foolish name for fate," "fate is a foolish thing to take chances with," "chances are that fate is foolish," etc.).  But Guy and Mimi unravel the misunderstanding and it isn't long before they're dancing again, this time in the musical centerpiece of The Gay Divorcee, "The Continental," a many-phased, grand-scale, 22-minute production number. Here are excerpts from the finale:


Headed for matrimony in the end, Guy and Mimi prepare to leave the resort together by taking one last turn in her hotel room to strains of "The Continental." And when Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced up and over the dining table and chairs and out the door, my heart went with them.

It was then that my dormant affection for "old movies" reawakened and became a full-blown passion. Soon it was more than classics on TV and keeping up with the latest new movies (many of them now legends of the New Hollywood) for me. I began to haunt "revival houses," where retrospectives of Hollywood classics were shown, and "art houses" that screened foreign films old and new. And that was just the beginning.
 
Thinking back on it, the experience of reconnecting with classic movies and recognizing, consciously, what they meant to me wasn't too unlike what had happened when I returned to my hometown for the first time after many months away. It was springtime and as the car descended into the valley where I'd grown up, the scent of orange blossoms drifted up, growing stronger and stronger. Tears suddenly sprang into my eyes. The smell was so powerful and exotic...and yet so intimately familiar. That beautiful scent had been a part of my life for as long as I could remember but I'm not sure I fully appreciated it until that instant.

~

The Gay Divorcee was a box office smash and established the Astaire/Rogers formula for the best of their films at RKO. The picture was nominated for five Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Art Direction (Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark) Best Music/Score (Max Steiner), Best Sound Recording (Carl Dreher) and the first Best Music/Original Song award, which it won, for "The Continental" by Con Conrad and Herb Magidson.

The film was based on a 1932 Broadway hit, Gay Divorce, in which Astaire had starred with Claire Luce. Only "Night and Day," of the thirteen songs Cole Porter had written for the original stage production, was kept in the film version, but the plot remained intact and both Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes reprised their Broadway roles onscreen. The original title of the musical was changed at the insistence of the Hays Office in the belief that suggesting a divorcee could be happy was safer than implying divorce might be a cause for frivolity.


Erik Rhodes and Fred Astaire, "Chance is the fool's name for fate..."

Turner Classic Movies is honoring Fred Astaire as Star of the Month in December. For more about him and the line-up of his films this month, Click here.
 
~

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie Blog Association's Film Passion 101 Blogathon. Click here for links to participating blogs!


33 comments:

  1. Splendid collection of movie memories! I especially liked your comparison between rediscovering the classics and coming home again. And quite fascinating to hear about the title mini-controversy.

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    1. Thank you, Fritzi. Of course, there were many movie memories to choose from and hundreds since then.

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  2. Wow - that was just wonderful! You made me think back to the first time I really paid attention to Astaire & Rogers (one of the drawbacks to lots of TV during the 60s was that my first introduction to these great stars was as old men & women - Astaire was Robert Wagner's dad in "To Catch a Thief."). I was so overcome with emotion at the beauty and elegance that I instantly knew what "the best" meant. And your comment about the orange blossoms brought a little tear to my eye.

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    1. Yes, watching "The Gay Divorcee," I instantaneously understood what all the hubbub about "Fred and Ginger" was about. He was a brilliant dancer, so elegant and sophisticated and fluid, and she seemed to float along and complement him perfectly.They're in a class all their own.

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  3. I agree with Fritzi, your comparison between you going back to your hometown and the rediscovering of classic film is nicely done. My folks were not avid movie lovers. In fact, they always wondered, aloud, about where my obsession with film came from. I have not seen this Astaire/Rogers film but it must be a treat to watch. I miss the revival houses. When you went to these theaters you knew you were with kindred spirits who appreciated the art of film. This has been a great blogathon and your contribution only adds to the glitter.

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    1. "The Gay Divorcee" will always be my favorite Astaire/Rogers film, even though I'd rank "Top Hat" and "Swing Time" as their best. "Chance is the fool's name for fate" (and all it brings to mind) still makes me smile. By the way, you can record or watch "The Gay Divorcee" on TCM tonight, John! (I miss the revival houses, too)

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  4. "Since movies were a part of my life from the beginning, is it any mystery that I knew who Bette Davis, Clark Gable, Greta Garbo and Tyrone Power were before I knew the names of some of my relatives?" I think we grew up in a parallel universe. I never had the scent of orange blossoms -- I envy you that -- but the sense of the classic film world as "home" was the same. Lovely post.

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    1. Thank you, Jacqueline. Your reference to the classic film world providing a sense of home brought TCM to mind. Several years ago, our local cable service promoted a "free weekend" of TCM (as it often did with HBO, etc.). I took one look and knew I'd found a home on TV.

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  5. Your sincere sharing has gone straight to my heart. It's a lovely and bewildering contrast that by taking us away from our everyday to their glamorous world, Fred and Ginger take us to the place we belong.

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    1. You put it beautifully, Paddy, and it's so true.

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  6. What a wonderful movie to spark your passion for movies. It makes me really want to watch the film again. Thanks!

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    1. I'm so grateful to Fred and Ginger and that afternoon movie show for what they gave me that day. "The Gay Divorcee" is on TCM tonight - hope you have a chance to see it.

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  7. Eve, this is one of my favorite of your posts! I can't get over a TV station showing the same movie all week--that's fascinating. As for THE GAY DIVORCEE, it was my first Astaire-Rogers movie and I loved it (and still do). I'm not sure why it's sometimes considered a notch below TOP HAT, SWING TIME, and SHALL WE DANCE. Those are all wonderful films, but TGD has its share of brilliant songs (uh..."Night and Day" anyone?), inventive dance numbers, and it's one of the funniest of all the Astaire-Rogers pictures. Erik Rhoades is a hoot (and you included my favorite line of his: "Your wife is safe with Tonetti, he prefers spaghetti"). Well done!

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    1. Well, thank you, Rick! I think that "Top Hat" and "Swing Time" are improvements only in that they are more technically polished and each has one or two more great songs. But "Divorcee" is my favorite and always will be. It is very funny - sparkling wit, non sequiturs, double entendres - and, in every way, a total delight.

      I was happy to see that TCM's Astaire/Rogers collection is on the Cafe's list of suggested gifts this holiday season.

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  8. LOVE this movie, my favorite Astaire/Rogers, and your post. This one was a very close second pick for me for this event. But after reading this I'm glad I didn't choose it. Tonetti still makes me laugh heartily today. Just can't get enough of this band of glorious people. Wonderful read!

    There was a station in the NYC area that also showed the same movie like 20 times in the same week. Can't remember which though.

    Aurora

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    1. Ah, Tonetti...and his concertina and his smoking jacket. Fabulous character, played to a tee.

      By the way, your reflection on "Meet Me in St. Louis" (an all-time favorite of mine and my favorite of Judy Garland's films) for this blogathon is incredibly unique and moving, a joy to read.

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    2. Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)

      Aurora

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  9. What a lovely post! I think your description of the glamour and elegance is spot on. It is magical to see Fred gliding across the floor with the radiant Ginger dressed to the nines. Add to it the subtle humor of Edward Everett Horton and Erik Rhodes. And the truth is so obvious: they just don't make movies like this any more.

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    1. Toto, How nice to hear from you, and thank you! They sure don't make them like this anymore and they won't ever again. Thankfully, "The Gay Divorcee" and the other Astaire/Rogers musicals have been preserved and are readily available to be watched on screens large and small.

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  10. Excellent choice Lady Eve and beautiful review of the film and its significance, to you and to film generally. It is one my favorites too and one I was thinking of for the blogathon. The supporting cast that continued in the Astaire/Rogers films are unbeatable as comic elements. I have a personal connection too as my great aunt made the female costumes including Ginger's under Walter Plunkett, his last under RKO (until he got better terms). With censorship etc, emphasis on the dance substituted for sex, hence the look on Ginger's face, and Fred getting a cigarette and offering one to her right after their Night and Day dance number. Their dancing and its filming was revolutionary.

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    1. Christian, I noticed that Walter Plunkett had done costumes only on "Flying Down to Rio" and "Divorcee" and wondered why. Ginger's gowns and ensembles in this film are lovely - and your aunt made them!

      I can't help smiling when I watch the bit of business that follows "Night and Day." He dusts off his hands as if to imply he's just proven himself and offers her the cigarette - then we see her expression of enchantment/contentment/fulfillment. So elegantly suggestive. Love it.

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  11. I love, absolutely love, how you've written this – especially this: "I tumbled, headlong, into a fantasy realm..." Also, the description of your returning home for the first time was so vivid.

    About the film, how could a person NOT fall in love with Rogers & Astaire? I watched a few minutes last night and I always become mesmerized by their dancing.

    You've captured the glamour and awe of these wonderful 30s musicals. Thanks for sharing your memories with us.

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    1. Thank you, Ruth, so happy you liked this piece. As for Fred and Ginger, I'm so glad TCM is featuring Fred Astaire as Star of the Month in December - with different Astaire/Rogers musicals (and more) every week of the month. What a gift!

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  12. I'm at a disadvantage here, your Eveship...I've never seen The Gay Divorcee. Actually, I thought I hadn't seen any of the Fred & Ginger movies but I was mistaken: I have seen Top Hat.

    But as you mentioned, Fred Astaire is TCM's SOM so maybe I'll get an opportunity to catch up on what I missed. Great write-up!

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    1. Ivan, "The Gay Divorcee" was shown this Wed. night, but the next big Astaire/Rogers night is December 25 (a Christmas gift) with "Top Hat," "Swing Time" and "Shall We Dance" (also "Carefree" and "The Barkleys of Brodway"). However, I'm also holding a drawing for a copy of Vol. 1 of TCM's Greatest Classics collection of Astaire/Rogers musicals - hope you enter!

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  13. Your recollection of watching a movie with your father almost made me cry.

    I loved doing fun things with my father as well, because those times were so rare. One of my favorite movie-related memories is of him making chicken salad sandwiches one Saturday when mother was out of town. We ate the sandwiches while watching Hello Dolly! (On my recommendation! I felt so important because he listened to me.).

    Thank you for sharing.

    -- Java

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    1. Java, What a great movie memory with your dad! As you say, times with dad were more rare and for that reason even more special (not to take anything away from mom, of course).

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  14. What else can be said about Astaire/Rogers? Well, you managed to really personalize it, Eve, by capturing a significant time in your life. Your sensory description of "descending into the valley" of your childhood was so vivid, it made me feel almost like I was there. Great piece.

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    1. Thank you MCB, glad you liked this post and that my description gave you a sense of being there...perhaps 'twas a bit of "deja vu all over again"...

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  15. I've said it before and I'll say it again -- If you ever write a book I'll buy it! You are an awesome writer who has added to my knowledge and appreciation of film. Now I also know how it all started! Thanks Lady Eve!

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    1. Gilby - With encouragement like yours, maybe I WILL write that book one day...thanks!

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  16. Patty,
    realm of early 1930s glamour, style and romance.Perfectly put! Everything that encapsulates why I and so many love 30s films. When I was a little girl I used to tell my parents that I wanted to grow up to be a flapper. Of course they just stared at me not wanting to get into another explanation of why that wasn't possible.

    Astaire and Rogers certainly did provide our household hours of fun and entertainment as well.

    Such a perfect contribution to the Blogathon, Patty and it's a treat that you allowed us to know a bit more about you and how your found your passion. : )
    Talk to you soon!
    Page

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    1. I fell in love with '30s style with "The Gay Divorcee" - still love it, as well as so many of the movies and the stars of that era. Thanks, Page!

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