Roberta, 1935, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott. Music by Jerome Kern. Directed by William A. Seiter. B&W, 106 minutes.
Huck Haines (Fred Astaire) and his friend John Kent (Randolph Scott) have just arrived in Paris along with Huck’s orchestra, The Wabash Indianians. Unfortunately, once they meet up with the man, Alexander Voyda (Luis Alberni), who booked them and brought them over from America, they’re dismissed because they’re not American Indians.
At a loss with where to go next, Huck remembers a long-ago girlfriend who is now in Paris, while John looks up his Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley), owner of the world-famous fashion design house Roberta. It’s there he meets her attractive young assistant, Stephanie (Irene Dunne). The two take an immediate liking to each other, although John confesses to his aunt that he’s still in love with a woman back home.
On that same initial visit to his aunt’s, John meets a temperamental young client of hers, Countess Scharwenka (Ginger Rogers). Stephanie encourages John to have his friends perform for the Countess because of her influence in the Parisian entertainment community. While the band is playing, Huck recognizes the Countess as Lizzie Gatz, the long-ago girlfriend.
Lizzie, or Tanka Scharwenka as she prefers to be known, has Huck and his orchestra audition for the very man who rejected them earlier. With some fast talking and a bit of trickery on the part of Huck, Voyda turns around and offers the orchestra a contract.
While Huck and the Countess are enjoying good luck, John’s Aunt Minnie is suffering heart trouble. When she dies, she leaves the fashion house to John, who quickly forms a business partnership with Stephanie. It turns out she has been the true designer for Roberta for many years.
But complications arise, and there’s no clear path to love for John and Stephanie.
Unlike the Astaire-Rogers films that followed, including Top Hat later that year and Swing Time the following year, Roberta did not fully capitalize on the draw and talents of the famous duo. Dunne was the star of this film, and her singing was featured more heavily than either Astaire or Rogers. However, today the film is perhaps better known by fans of the latter pair than fans of Dunne. Still, with dance numbers choreographed by Astaire, there is plenty for Astaire-Rogers fans to enjoy. In fact, the two received more critical acclaim than Dunne, with the studio taking note.
In all fairness, the film didn’t fully capitalize on the talents of Dunne, either, save her operatic singing voice. Later films, particularly those with director Leo McCarey such as The Awful Truth and Love Affair, showed off her performing talents to a much greater degree.
Roberta was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Music-Original Song for the song “Lovely to Look At.” That song, along with “I Won’t Dance,” both were number one hits in 1935. They were added to the film after several songs from the play on which the movie is based were dropped.
Gowns for the film were designed by RKO head costume designer Bernard Newman, a favorite of Dunne’s.
If you’re looking for a film like Top Hat or Swing Time, you’ll be disappointed in Roberta. Still, overall Roberta has great entertainment value and was a hit for RKO, with good reason. It is classy and chic fun, appropriately set in Paris, and a film well worth the watch.