Somehow the title of the musical play, The Gay Divorce, in which Fred Astaire starred on Broadway in 1932 and in London in 1933, got changed to The Gay Divorcee when it was produced as a movie at RKO. The reference isn’t to same-sex marriage, of course, but to happiness, more generally. Astaire wrote in his autobiography that director Mark Sandrich told him that the studio thought the new title “was a more attractive-sounding title, centered around a girl,” but some write that the production code censors decided that a divorcee could be gay, but they didn’t want to suggest that a divorce could be. The original title was used in Britain so probably the newly powerful code office, which governed films allowed to be shown in the United States, was responsible. There were a number of memos back and forth between the code office and the producers, some of which worried about how much of Ginger Rogers’ lingerie was visible in the scene where her dress gets caught in a steamer trunk, and others which changed some of the lyrics to one of the songs. This shows how active code enforcement was at this time.
A play by Hartley Manners was adapted by Dwight Taylor, Kenneth Webb and Samuel Hoffenstein for the original musical, which had music and lyrics by Cole Porter. Screenplay was by George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost and Edward Kaufman. The director Mark Sandrich would later direct some of the most notable movies in the Rogers-Astaire series, including Top Hat and Shall We Dance, and after that, the 1942 Holiday Inn with Astaire and Bing Crosby. The Gay Divorcee was photographed by David Abel. The score was by Max Steiner. Returning collaborators from Flying Down to Rio included Carroll Clark as art director, Walter Plunkett as costume designer, and dance directors Dave Gould and Hermes Pan. It was filmed from June through September, 1934 and was released that October.
Pandro Berman, the producer, tried to get Porter to write new songs for the picture, but he refused. Berman held out for The Gay Divorcee as the next project for his new team, against others in the studio who wanted a more anonymous “revue” in the fashion then commonplace. Reportedly he also offered Astaire a percentage of the film’s profits to mollify him because Astaire felt Rogers wasn’t right for the leading role, who was a refined Englishwoman in the play. Since Berman couldn’t get Porter to play ball the numbers were by various hands. Porter’s “Night and Day” remained, but other songs were by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, and Con Conrad and Herb Magidson. Future films would feature the work of a single songwriter or team. Nearly all the elements of the classic string of Astaire-Rogers films were in place – the two couple structure (Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady were the comic foils here), the plot where Astaire woos a reluctant Rogers with his dancing, essential supporting players like Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, and the capable integration of the numbers into the storyline, something Sandrich aimed at achieving. The film was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. It lost in that category to It Happened One Night, which swept its year almost completely. Con Conrad and Herb Magidson won the first best song Oscar ever given, for “The Continental”. Carroll Clark and Van Nest Polglase were nominated for best art direction, Max Steiner for best score, and Carl Dreher for best sound recording.
Two books, Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book from 1972, and John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing from 1985, provide marvelously opinionated and incisive reviews of the dance art preserved in these films. Croce thought The Gay Divorcee a combination of great dancing and pedestrian script and acting. “When one considers that only ten minutes out of the total running time of The Gay Divorcee are taken up by the dancing of Astaire alone or with Rogers,” Croce wrote, “the film’s enduring popularity seems more than ever a tribute to the power of what those minutes contain. . .The dances are poetry; even the best prose of which RKO was capable can’t console us for what seem wasted minutes.” About Astaire’s dance solo “A Needle in a Haystack” Mueller wrote “In this, his first full-blown solo in a film, Astaire was determined to show what he had to offer. The solo, as might be expected, is virtuosic – but the brilliance is controlled, understated, leavened with wit, and serves to emphasize a point in the plot. Among other things, the number clearly and firmly establishes – declares – Astaire’s choreographic credo: the economy of structure, the originality, the jokes that seem to emerge naturally and almost incidentally out of the choreographic texture, the careful attention to music, lyric and situation. The number is also the first in which his camera aesthetic emerges: in the dance portion he is always shown full-figure, and although the dance involves vaulting over furniture and throwing props around, it is recorded in a small number of shots – in this case, one.” Croce writes, about the same solo, “Everything comes easily to him, and we believe in him as in no screen hero since Keaton.” About “Night and Day”, the central dance between Fred and Ginger in this film, she wrote, “This incomparable dance of seduction is a movie in itself. . .Astaire adapted his stage choreography, and no more thrilling or more musical dance had ever been presented on the screen. . .(Rogers’) style is brilliant and she knows exactly what she’s doing. The wonderful ending is all her: the way she gazes up wordlessly at this marvelous man she’s been dancing with exalts him, her, and everything we’ve just seen.”
I wasn’t able to schedule all the Rogers-Astaire films in the time I had, so, with your permission, I will show another of their dance numbers after we see this movie. It is “I’ll Be Hard to Handle”, danced to the wonderful Jerome Kern-Bernard Dougall song, and it appeared in Roberta, their next picture, released in March, 1935.