The Gay Divorce (1934)
Director: Mark Sandrich
Writer: George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost, and Edward Kaufman; based on Gay Divorce 1932 musical by Dwight Taylor
Cinematographer: David Abel
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
by Jon Cvack
It’s odd when certain films seem to occupy almost no position in memory. I struggle to recall which Ginger Rogers/Fred Astaire pairings I’ve seen, only to remember that Top Hat (1935)was one of the more disappointing movies I’ve seen from the era and it looks like I gave Swing Time (1936) the same three star rating and gave The Bang Wagon four stars, and yet I can’t tell you a single scene that separates one film from the other; other than Top Hat’s “I’m in Heaven” score and that’s mostly because of its involvement in The Green Mile (1999). All of these films operate in that strange musical transitional period, in which if the songs and dance numbers were removed, it would have absolutely no impact on the story, all while being the best parts.
I had a blast with The Gay Divorce, as at last so it seems right now, both the plot and characters seemed incredibly memorable. It involved famed dancer Fred Astaire as Guy Holden and his neurotic friend and lawyer Egbert (Edward Everett Horton; one of the great character actors from the period) as they travel across Europe. Opening at a nightclub, we get a pretty funny scene as Egbert and Guy watch a show, only for the waiter to drop off their check and Egbert to realize he’s forgotten his wallet; revealing Guy’s worldwide fame and forcing him to do a quick tap dance to avoid the two having to wash the dishes throughout the night.
Later in England, Guy meets the gorgeous Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) and falls in love at first sight. Not wanting to give him the time of day, Guy continues to pursue, going so far as to get in a car chase, blocking her at an intersection, and revealing a picnic he packed. Still she remains cold and soon Guy and Egbert are forced to depart to head back home.
With Egbert’s father out of town, he’s left to manage the law firm; later approached by both Mimi and her Aunt Hortense (Alice Brady). Mimi is in need of a divorce from her geologist husband, Cyril Glossop (William Austin), who’s always overseas. Just ten years prior to the film being made in 1924, divorce was finally granted to women who could prove adultery. It’d be another three years in 1937 when divorce would be granted to women due to alcoholism, insanity, or desertion. Take a moment to think of that for a moment - less than a hundred years ago, a man could be cheating his wife and never be home, off on drunk benders, leaving her to care for the children and there’d be nothing the woman could do about it.
Mimi attempts to gain the divorce by having Eghert hire a performer who’ll pose as Mimi’s lover, for her husband to then catch and prove the grounds for the divorce. Suffice it to say, this was an incredibly progressive film.
Guy and Eghert arrive in a small beachside town to complete the mission where there’s an incredibly sexy and revealing song and dance number with women showing off every bit of their legs and bodies; nearly driving Eghert to sexual madness. Eghert has hired a Frenchman performer Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes) to pretend to be in bed with Mimi, who has to be one of the funniest characters I’ve seen from the period; playing an aloof man with a great heart, who’s unable to keep up with the fleece. Looking deeper, this man was called a co-respondent and who was a person charged with philandering with the husband’s wife; essentially in order to prove the divorce, this individual would then need to testify under oath.
One of the cleverest and funniest pieces of the film is when, while deep into love sickness and on the brink of giving up, Guy defends his pursuit by saying “Chance is a fool's name for fate.” Eghert finds this line incredibly profound and decides to give the quote to Rodolfo and Mimi in order for the two to find each other, though of course Rodolfo forgets the line, ranting off a non-stop barrage of hilarious alternatives, including: chance is the foolish name for fate, give me a name for chance and I am a fool, fate is a foolish thing to take chances with, I am a fate to take foolish chances with, chances are that fate is foolish, fate is the foolish thing, take a chance.
Meanwhile, Guy recites his actual line back to Mimi who then thinks that Guy is the co-respondent, inviting her back to his room, where just before anything happens, Rodolfo, still reciting the wrong lines to which the two sneak out to an extensive and massive song and dance number that goes on for about ten minutes before Mimi and Guy return and Rodolfo remains until the next day when Mimi’s husband Cyril finally finds them; to which one of the waiters reveals that he’s seen Cyril before on the ship with his other “wife”.
Something about this movie just felt great from start to finish. It’s the film I’ve been waiting for when hearing about the 10-volume collaboration between Rogers and Astaire. At a little under two hours, the film somehow feels less than ninety minutes as it races between settings, pulling you along with a fascinating plot, and then entering into a hilarious comedy of words. The song and dance numbers are so impressive that you forget out how superfluous they are, and how fun it’d be to have American films reintroduce the format; of a feel good story where to break into the numbers is done for no other purpose than to provide further escape.
BELOW: Songs that serve no purpose other than being pretty
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