Erik Rhodes plays the impossibly funny Rudolfo Tonetti in “The Gay Divorcee” (1934), a role which he created on Broadway. Playing a number of European types in a couple dozen comedies through the 1930s, Mr. Rhodes was actually born in Oklahoma when it was still Indian Territory. Though he had real singing talent with a powerful tenor voice, he was used mainly as a comic foil even more than a specialty act. He played his strutting, hapless, beaming Tonetti completely over the top.
Unable to remember the passwords, “Chance is the fool’s name for fate,” which will allow him to hook up with the character played by Ginger Rogers, whom he has not met, the unfortunate Tonetti bungles the line in various versions and gets slapped and belted until he is rescued and pointed in the right direction. His phone call to his wife Maria is both sweet and screwball, and when he is about to be pushed aside by Fred Astaire, whom he thinks is another paid corespondent in Ginger’s divorce case, indignantly asks him, “Are you a union man?”
Mr. Rhodes did some television in the 1950s, but his film career reached it height twenty years earlier with characters like Tonetti, who were larger than life. But character actors like Billy Gilbert or Alan Reed would have played Tonetti in a different way, where Mr. Rhodes plays Tonetti with a charming, self-effacing silliness more than caricature.