The Gay Divorcee, 1934, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers. Directed by Mark Sandrich. B&W, 107 minutes.
Traveling from Paris to London, Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) meets Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) in a most unfortunate manner. Mimi’s dress has accidentally been caught in her Aunt Hortense’s (Alice Brady) trunk, leaving Mimi to try and pull it out, revealing her svelte legs in the bargain. Guy happens upon her and frees the dress, although not quite successfully—it is torn disadvantageously. He loans Mimi his overcoat to cover herself and gives her his London address so she can later return it.
When the coat is delivered to him with no note and, more specifically, no address from Mimi, Guy sets out to find her on the streets of London. Eventually fate strikes again when he rear ends her car. A merry chase ensues, but the ending is not the one Guy hoped for.
Still, all is not lost. Mimi is seeking a divorce, and her oft-married aunt knows just the man to help her. It’s Egbert Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton), Guy’s closest friend and an attorney-at-law. But things don’t just work out from there. This is a romance, and there is no smooth path to love.
The Gay Divorcee was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Outstanding Production (now known as Best Picture), and won one for the song “The Continental.” It also received nominations for Music–Scoring, Sound Production and Art Direction.
The film was based on the 1932 stage musical The Gay Divorce, which starred Astaire and featured Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore, who all appeared in the film. The stage musical featured songs by Cole Porter, but only one made it to the film—”Night and Day.” That number is the seductive, romantic dance with the pair, while “The Continental” is more upbeat, with an incredible Art Deco set in the backdrop. It is worth noting that Astaire and Rogers only danced together for ten minutes in the entire film. Several other dance numbers featured minor characters, including one number by seventeen-year-old Betty Grable.
Rogers’ famous quote that she “did everything Fred did, except backwards and in high heels” is justified in the dance for “The Continental.” While she isn’t dancing backwards too often, she is wearing heels that are notably high.
Common wisdom has it that it was Hollywood censors who insisted on changing the name from the The Gay Divorce to The Gay Divorcee, but according to Astaire in his autobiography, Steps in Time, it was the studio that made the change, because they “thought it was a more attractive-sounding title, centered around a girl.”
This is the first Astaire/Rogers pairing in which the duo receive top billing (they had appeared in Flying Down to Rio the year before, but as featured, not star, players). It is enjoyable fare, with sharp and occasionally biting humor, although not as good as Top Hat or Swing Time. Still, it is well worth the watch for classic movie fans.