Fred Astaire reprises his Broadway role in “The Gay Divorcée” (1934) as a rascally hoofer, who in this film wanders among night clubbers in Paris and London with his pal Edward Everett Horton, falls in love with an uninterested Ginger Rogers and spends most of the film trying to get her interested.
Ginger has her own predicament, stuck in a loveless marriage and turning to lawyer Horton to arrange a divorce. Mr. Horton arranges for her to be caught with a hired professional corespondent in order that her husband might be enraged into divorcing her.
Edward Everett Horton, who always seems somewhat like an upper class Gomer Pyle, has some fun scenes as a bumbling second banana, and even gets to sing and caper a bit with a young Betty Grable in the “Let’s Knock Knees” number. Alice Brady is the scatterbrained man-chasing aunt of Ginger who gets some good lines, and Erik Rhodes, who, like Fred Astaire, reprises his Broadway role as Rudolfo Tonetti, a gloriously absurd professional homewrecker and operatic tenor.
It is difficult to listen to the wonderfully precise intonations of Mr. Horton without being reminded of his narration of the “Fractured Fairy Tales” on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Though some smart aleck remarks by just about everybody keep the comic ball rolling, the film is a bit slow moving, particular at the beginning, and we see right off in the “Looking for a Needle in a Haystack” number an early example of Mr. Astaire’s agility and inventiveness in dancing all over furniture. The film is a time capsule of 1934, with platinum blondes with short, bouncy curls, bathing suits with belts, pleated trousers, architecture held together with chrome and black lacquer, and enough Art Deco accoutrements to choke a horse.
They end up at a seaside resort where the meridian lines painted on the shiny floor of an outdoor courtyard/dance floor are intended to give the set some depth. Here Ginger and the pseudo-suave Tonetti are to engage in a pretend tryst. No fear for Ginger, as Tonetti proudly exclaims his motto, “Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti.”
But Fred intervenes and there is a case of mistaken identity when Ginger thinks he is the hired corespondent. Ginger changes into a negligee with more doodads on it than a drum majorette’s costume, and Tonetti eventually arrives with his concertina and, all business, slips into a smoking jacket, the standard uniform of roués.
The big production number here is “The Continental,” which won the Academy Award for Best Music and Best Original Song. It is a very long staged number, where after Fred and Ginger get their turn, an army of dancers flows onto the set like locusts in an assortment of black and white evening attire. They form geometric patterns and eventually become increasingly acrobatic, like a Superbowl halftime show.
Eric Blore, in his typical oily, comic, but clever servant’s role, comes inadvertently to the rescue and Fred and Ginger leave us with another waltz over the furniture in her suite. It was their second of ten films together, and by now the pattern was as set as their remarkably precise and impeccably structured dancing.
Here is a bit of Fred and Ginger dancing “The Continental.”