Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fearmakers (1958)

Jacques Tourneur first attracted attention as a director as part of Val Lewton horror B-movie unit at RKO in the 40s, helming such classics of subtle horror as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man before moving on to direct one of the greats of film noir, Out of the Past. His later movies don’t get so much attention, apart from Curse of the Demon (generally recognised as one of the finest horror films ever made). This is a little unfair. His 1957 film noir Nightfall is quite superb. His 1958 film The Fearmakers seems to have fallen through the cracks altogether and that’s a great pity.

The Fearmakers concerns Alan Eaton (Dana Andrews), a Korean War veteran who spent two years being brainwashed in a North Korean prisoner-of-war camp. But while the brainwashing angle is significant it’s not significant in the obvious way you might expect. This film is nothing at all like brainwashing movies such as The Manchurian Candidate.

After being released from a veterans’ hospital Eaton returns to Washington where he is a partner in a public relations firm. On the airliner bound for the capital he encounters Dr Gregory Jessup (Oliver Blake). Jessup tells Eaton he is a nuclear physicist who wants to stop nuclear war. He belongs to an organisation dedicated to doing just that. Everyone wants peace, don’t they? Alan Eaton however is no fool and being in public relations he knows all about the ways people can be manipulated by loaded questions. He is, quite rightly, suspicious of people like Dr Jessup who peddle simply answers for their own ends.

There is a nasty surprise waiting for Eaton is Washington. His partner in the PR business is dead, and the day before he died he sold out the business to the fast-talking rather sleazy Jim McGinnis (Dick Foran). Eaton now has no business to return to, and the money his partner got for the business has disappeared. Eaton is jobless and penniless. Then McGinnis pulls another surprise. Eaton can work for him as a consultant. It will mean a fat salary for very little work.

At this stage Eaton is uneasy about McGinnis but he puts this down to his dislike of pushy fast-talkers. Then he meets reporter Rodney Hillyer (Joel Marston) who suggests that the circumstances of the death of Eaton’s partner were not entirely straightforward. In fact Hillyer suspects murder. And then Eaton has a talk with an old friend, Senator Walder (Roy Gordon), who informs him that McGinnis has attracted a lot of new clients to Eaton’s old firm, and that some of these clients are very unsavoury indeed.

Eaton decides to take up McGinnis’s offer of the consultancy job but his real intention is to do a bit of nosing about. It doesn’t take long for his suspicions to be further aroused. Much of the company’s work has always been in the field of public opinion polling but now the company is doing the polling on behalf of politicians. Eaton has no ethical qualms about using the various techniques of public relations to help sell laundry powders but he finds the idea of using these techniques to sell politicians very unsettling. He’s even more uneasy when he takes a look at some of the polls they’ve conducted. They’re clearly biased and full of loaded questions and various other dubious techniques. It seems his old company is in the business of trying to control public opinion rather than merely measuring it. That’s bad enough but it appears that McGinnis’s shady clients are not just unscrupulous politicians but paid foreign agents. McGinnis is in the business of political propaganda. He’s also linked to organisations, like Dr Jessup’s phony peace group, that are fronts for subversion. There is more than one kind of brainwashing.

It also becomes obvious that taking an excessive interest in McGinnis’s activities can be a dangerous undertaking and not only is Eaton’s life is in danger, he has also unwittingly endangered the life of McGinnis’s secretary Lorraine Dennis (Marilee Earle) who has been helping him in his unofficial investigating.

Tourneur was a director who always managed to be stylish without being obtrusive. He used cinematic tricks sparingly but effectively, the objective being to enhance the story rather than distracting from it. There’s a scene in this film where Alan Eaton is talking on the telephone in his office and Tourneur unexpectedly employs a high-angle shot. It’s not showy but it does rather nicely emphasise that Eaton is in danger of being isolated and marginalised. 

Dana Andrews is a terribly underrated actor. His approach was always low-key and you find yourself so convinced by his characterisations that you don’t notice his acting. And that of course is the whole point of acting. He gives a typically fine performance here. The supporting cast is adequate with Dick Foran as McGinnis making an amusing if not very subtle bad guy.

The Fearmakers is often dismissed a red scare movie which is a complete misunderstanding of the film. In fact it’s nothing of the kind. Some of the bad guys may be foreign agents but others are just common-and-garden crooked politicians. This movie is concerned with the broader issues of manipulation and the ethics of political lobbying in general. Everyone would like to get their point-of-view across to the public. Everyone would like to persuade other people of the quality of their product or the rightness of their opinions. At what point do these things cross the line and become outright propaganda and cynical manipulation? In the 1950s people still had the quaint idea that politicians should serve the public rather than exploit and manipulate them. The movie tackles these issues pretty well. The idea of public opinion polls being used to control public opinion makes a pleasingly original and interesting central premise.

MGM’s made-on-demand DVD offers a good open matte transfer with no extras.

Tourneur’s skill as a director combined with Dana Andrews’ subtle and complex performance are major assets. It’s an offbeat and slightly cerebral thriller with some nods to film noir. It’s original, provocative and entertaining. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Italian Job (1969)

The Italian Job is one of those movies that could only have been made in the late 60s. It has style over substance, it has a vaguely surreal air and it has Michael Caine as a loveable criminal.

Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) has just been released from prison to discover that fellow criminal Beckerman (Rossano Brazzi) has just been bumped off by the Mafia. Beckerman has come up with an ingenious plan for a four million dollar gold robbery in Turin. Beckerman’s dying wish is for Croker to carry out his plan.

It’s an ambitious plan and Croker will need a crack team behind him plus lots of money for the equipment that will be needed. He tries to enlist the help of master criminal Mr Bridger (Noël Coward). Mr Bridger is in prison as well but he doesn’t cramp his style one little bit. He practically runs the prison. Mr Bridger is initially uninterested until he discovers that the gold to be stolen is Chinese gold. He decides that the robbery would be a splendid opportunity to strike a blow for Britain. Mr Bridger might be a criminal but he is intensely patriotic. This will be a robbery for God, Queen and Country.

With Camp Freddie (Tony Beckley) as his lieutenant Croker begins to train his team. The plan will require quite a few cars, including three Mini Coopers. Why Mini Coopers? Because the plan requires cars that are small and agile as well as fast. 

The plan will also require a computer expert. That’s where Professor Peach (Benny Hill) comes in. Professor Peach’s main interest is very big women but he does know his computer stuff.

The first two-thirds of the film is taken up by the planning and training for the heist but there’s nothing dull about this part of the film. In fact this movie has no dull bits at all. 

Troy Kennedy-Martin’s script ended up being altered quite a bit and the changes were not always to his liking. He was particularly unhappy about Professor Peach. It’s not hard to understand why Kennedy-Martin wasn’t too thrilled by the changes. He had envisaged a taut action thriller and it ended up being as much a comedy as a thriller. The end result is delightful but it obviously was not quite what Kennedy-Martin had hoped for.

Producer Michael Deeley had to fight hard to get Michael Caine for the lead. Paramount wanted Robert Redford. Thankfully Deeley stuck to his guns and got his way. Caine is so perfect for the role (which Kennedy-Martin wrote specifically for him) that one wonders what on earth Paramount was thinking. Caine is obviously having a grand old time and relishing the sparkling dialogue. This is also one of the few movies (probably the only one)  in which you’re going to get to hear Michael Caine sing.

Noël Coward had been a kind of mentor to director Peter Collinson and although Coward had retired by this point Collinson had no difficulty persuading him to take the role of Mr Bridger. It was a bold and unconventional piece of casting but it works superbly and Coward’s eccentric but inspired performance adds considerably to the movie’s surreal quality.

The supporting cast is full of odd but surprising successful choices, with Irene Handl and comedian Fred Emney being particularly delightful. Among the robbers look out for Robert Powell in a minor role and also Michael Caine’s brother Stanley.

L'Équipe Rémy Julienne had the reputation of being the best stunt driving team in Europe. This movie enhanced their reputation even further. They, along with the Mini Coopers, are arguably the real stars of the movie. The famous car chase in The Italian Job might not be the most exciting car chase ever filmed (I personally think the chase in Bullitt is more exciting) but it is definitely the cleverest and wittiest. It’s this chase that made the movie famous and it lives up to its reputation. The producers bought huge numbers of clapped-out cars destined for the wreckers’ yards and found countless imaginative ways to destroy them.

The ending caused a great deal of trouble. Kennedy-Martin wrote half a dozen endings, some of which were filmed. Producer Deeley thought they were all anti-climatic and eventually wrote his own ending. Paramount liked his ending and agreed to it. Apparently nobody in the cast or crew liked it at the time but they eventually admitted that it worked and it gives the movie an even quirkier flavour.

The oddest feature of this film, especially considering it was made in 1969, is that it’s cheerfully and unabashedly patriotic. The patriotic theme, of showing that English criminals are the finest in the world, is partly played for amusement but the humour is very much at the expense of bumbling Europeans who cannot possibly hope to match the flair and the skill of Englishmen. 

The Region 4 DVD includes an audio commentary and a lengthy “making of” documentary. The transfer is excellent.

The Italian Job is offbeat but while some 1960s attempts at offbeat movies went off the rails this one comes together beautifully. It combines whimsy, humour and action into a superbly entertaining package. Highly recommended.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Waikiki Wedding (1937)

Waikiki Wedding is a lightweight 1937 Bing Crosby musical. And when I say lightweight I mean lightweight. It’s still quite fun.

Musicals don’t require much in the way of plot which is just as well since this movie has a plot that is about as thin as could possibly be imagined.

Tony Marvin (Crosby) is a lazy but brilliant advertising man whose latest brainwave is the Pineapple Girl promotion for the Hawaii-based International Pineapple Company. The Pineapple Girl gets lots of money and a free trip to Hawaii. All she has to do is pose for pictures with pineapples and write a newspaper column telling how she found fun and romance in Hawaii. The only trouble is that Pineapple Girl Georgia Smith (Shirley Ross) hasn’t found any fun or romance in that tropical paradise. In fact she hates the place. She can’t wait to get away from Hawaii. Somehow Marvin, accompanied by his comic relief sidekick Shad Buggle (Bob Burns), has to persuade Georgia to stay in Hawaii. The obvious way to do that is to offer her fun and romance.

That isn’t too difficult since Marvin and Georgia hit it off fairly well. To keep the movie going there’s a sub-plot about a sacred pearl that has been stolen, which is bad news for the people of one of the islands since that man the volcano god will be angry and when volcano gods get angry things tend to get nasty. This sub-plot turns out to be not exactly what it appears to be.

Georgia also has a comic relief sidekick in the person of Myrtle Finch (Martha Raye). In a desperate effort to pad the movie out to its modest 89-minute running time there’s a bit of a romance sub-plot between Myrtle and Shad.

Of course a movie romance has to have obstacles in its path and in this case the obstacles are largely of Tony Marvin’s making, Tony being a guy who can be too clever for his own good.

The songs are OK and Bing Crosby is in fine voice.

This is a fairly lavish Paramount production and they even did some second unit filming on location in Hawaii which has the effect of opening up the picture compared to most of the entirely studio-bound musicals of its era. Even the rear projection work is done pretty well. Director Frank Tuttle had a long and varied if not overly distinguished career and his work here is typically solid if uninspired.

Bing Crosby does his laid-back cool guy thing and does it very well. Crosby was a pretty effective romantic lead and always handled light comedy well. He doesn’t have to stretch his acting muscles - all he has to do is to rely on his effortless charm and it works. Shirley Ross is an adequate if slightly bland leading lady. Bing Crosby was seen to better advantage when he had a more accomplished leading lady, such as Carole Lombard in We’re Not Dressing or Marion Davies in Going Hollywood.

Bob Burns manages to be mildly amusing without being too annoying. Sadly the same cannot be said for Martha Raye who is gratingly irritating and relentlessly unfunny. Shad’s pet pig supplies a few laughs.

Look out for a very young Anthony Quinn as a Hawaiian.

There’s also a scene between Martha Raye and a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee? Well Hawaii is tropical isn’t it? So it must have jungles. And where you have jungles you obviously have chimpanzees.

Waikiki Wedding is one of five movies included in the Bing Crosby: Screen Legend Collection DVD boxed set. It gets a very good transfer.

Waikiki Wedding is almost too lightweight even for a frothy comedy musical romance but it’s harmless and reasonably entertaining and at times genuinely amusing. Bing Crosby fans will certainly want to see it. Recommended as long as you don’t set your expectations too high.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Raffles (1930)

The stories of the gentleman-thief A.J. Raffles by E.W. Hornung, written between 1898 and 1909, enjoyed immense popularity at the time and are still in print and still have a strong following to this day. It was inevitable that they would attract the attention of movie-makers and there have been quite a few movie adaptations, the best known being the 1930 version with Ronald Colman in the title role.

Raffles was a true anti-hero and an extremely complex character. A celebrated cricketer (renowned as the finest spin bowler of his day), Raffles makes his living as a burglar. And a very successful burglar indeed. Unfortunately none of the character’s complexity and none of the subtle nuances of the stories make it into the 1930 film. That’s not to say that it isn’t an enjoyable movie. If you’ve never read the Raffles stories you’ll probably find the movie an absolute delight. If you have read Hornung’s stories you’ll be a little disappointed by the movie although you’ll probably still enjoy it.

The movie opens with Raffles, having fallen in love with Gwen (Kay Francis), vowing to renounce his criminal career. Unfortunately his old friend Bunny (Bramwell Fletcher) has landed himself in very hot water by writing a very large cheque which he cannot possibly cover. Bunny faces disgrace, social ruin and quite possibly prison. Raffles is not a man to let down an old friend so he decides to help him in the only way he knows how to, by stealing a valuable necklace in order to obtain the money to cover Bunny’s cheque.

A weekend house party at the home of Lord Harry Melrose (Frederick Kerr) provides the ideal opportunity. Lady Melrose (Alison Skipworth) owns a necklace which is more than sufficiently valuable to provide the funds Bunny needs. The presence of Gwen at the house party makes things rather more complicated and they are made more difficult still by the presence of the indefatigable Inspector McKenzie (David Torrence). And to add further to our hero’s problems a team of professional burglars are also on hand, also after that necklace.

Inspector McKenzie is confident he’ll get his man but Raffles proves to a hard man to catch. The real problem for Raffles is that he doesn’t want to lose Gwen and he certainly doesn’t want her to know that he’s the celebrated Amateur Cracksman.

The plot lacks both the sparkle and the cleverness of Hornung’s stories. Ronald Colman is good although it’s a great pity he wasn’t given the opportunity to stretch his acting muscles by playing the real Raffles. Kay Francis adds glamour although the romance sub-plot does cramp Raffles’ style.

What makes the original stories so interesting is the ambiguity of Raffles as a character. He is not in fact a gentleman. He is almost one, but not quite. He has the public school education but he does not have the breeding to qualify, nor does he have the money to live like a gentleman. That’s his tragedy - he’s too well-educated to be satisfied with a middle-class lifestyle but he does not enjoy the advantages of birth that would give him an entrée into the world of fashionable society. His prowess as a cricketer has made him more or less accepted in that society but he is keenly aware that he is tolerated rather than being entirely accepted. He is also penniless. He could earn a good living as a professional cricketer but that would disqualify him entirely from acceptance as a gentleman. Thieving not only allows him to live the life of a gentleman, it also gives him a kind of revenge.

There are other complexities to his personality. He is charming, cultured and capable of great kindness, but there is a darker side to him. He is manipulative and can be gratuitously cruel.

All of this makes Raffles one of the more interesting characters in fiction but alas these complexities are ignored in the movie. As played by Ronald Colman he is merely a charming but rather bland gentleman-thief. If you want to see the real Raffles then you need to watch the truly superb 1977 British television series Raffles with Anthony Valentine as the famous Amateur Cracksman. Valentine perfectly captures the mix of charm and manipulation, of generosity laced with a hint of sadism, that is the true A.J. Raffles as Hornung portrays him in his wonderful stories.  

If you haven’t read the original stories I urge you to do so. You need to start with the first short story collection, The Amateur Cracksman.

The Warner Archive made-on-demand DVD includes both this 1930 version and the 1939 version with David Niven (which I haven’t yet had time to watch).

The 1930 Ronald Colman Raffles is a good deal of fun, but it’s not quite the genuine article. Of course it may have been thought that an authentic portrayal of the ambiguous thief would have perplexed American audiences to whom the subtleties of class distinctions in English society may have been somewhat impenetrable. Despite its weaknesses it’s an entertaining enough if lightweight and light-hearted romance/crime melodrama. Recommended, with reservations.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Producer-director Norman Jewison described his 1968 crime thriller The Thomas Crown Affair as an exercise in style over content and that sums it up pretty well. It has plenty of style, and zero content. That’s either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view.

Thomas Crown (Steve McQueen) is a wealthy Boston businessman who decides to pull off the perfect crime. He recruits five guys to rob a bank. The five guys don’t know each other and in fact they never meet until the time of the robbery. They also do not know the identity of the man they are working for. The robbery occurs very early in the film and it’s something of a stylistic tour-de-force. It makes extensive use of a multiple screen technique, this being a technique that seemed to fascinate American film-makers at this time. A similar technique is used (quite successfully) in several of producer Ross Hunter’s movies, notably Pillow Talk (1959) and Airport (1970).

The Thomas Crown Affair is arguably the movie that makes the most ambitious use of the technique and it uses multiple screens rather than just a split screen. It works very well in the robbery sequence and it neatly emphasises the key point of Thomas Crown’s plan, the use of people who have never met before and are therefore playing their parts in the heist more or less independently.

Lieutenant Eddy Malone (Paul Burke) is the cop assigned to the case and he has few clues to work with. The insurance company that is now facing a major pay-out assigns its own investigator, the beautiful and glamorous Vicki Anderson (Faye Dunaway). She and Eddy agree to work together but it soon becomes apparent that they are not exactly on the same side.

Vicki’s standard investigative technique seems to be to go to bed with the men she’s investigating. Having identified Thomas Crown (more on the basis of instinct than evidence) as the chief suspect she proceeds to do just that. The chess seduction scene is one of the cleverest in the movie and is an object lesson in how the sexiest scenes in movies are the ones where the characters keep their clothes on.

Naturally Vicki gets a little more involved with Crown than she had intended and pretty soon she seems to be wondering if she really wants to bring such a hunky romantic criminal to justice.

The centrepiece of the rather thin plot is the three-way cat-and-mouse game played out between Vicki, Thomas Crown and Eddy Malone. The romance between Vicki and Crown is the movie’s main focus. The actual hunt for the criminal is of lesser importance because the audience, Vicki and Eddy Malone all know who pulled off the heist. All Vicki and Eddy need is the evidence and to be honest the ways in which they go about gathering this evidence are not very interesting.

Boston lawyer Alan Trustman had never written a movie before and his screenplay is little more than a predictable wish-fulfillment fantasy. To be fair to Trustman he did go on to write the script for a later (and infinitely better) Steve McQueen hit, Bullitt.

McQueen had the reputation for being something of a director’s nightmare and Jewison described him as the most difficult actor he’d ever worked with. McQueen had been very keen to land this rôle although he hardly seemed the ideal actor to play a wealthy sophisticated Boston aesthete. He handles the part fairly well although he never seems entirely comfortable. To be fair to McQueen this may reflect the fact that the part is seriously underwritten and Thomas Crown’s motivations are ludicrously unconvincing. He wants to rob a bank to strike a blow at the Establishment, man. This rather juvenile motivation is one of the movie’s major weaknesses, although it’s the sort of motivation that would certainly have appealed to a middle-aged Hollywood film-maker like Jewison in the late 1960s. Thomas Crown seems initially to be a very shallow character and as the movie progresses he becomes even more shallow.

Dunaway is fun to watch but Vicki’s motivations are equally dubious. Like Thomas Crown she’s acting out a tedious middle-class wish-fulfillment fantasy. Paul Burke is more impressive as the cop although again the script offers us no insights whatsoever into the character.

The whole movie has a rather smug feel to it. In many ways it typifies everything that was worst in Hollywood in the late 60s and the 70s, with its desperate pandering to the infantile counter-culture of the time. We’re supposed to see Thomas Crown as a handsome romantic rebel but really he’s just a self-indulgent narcissist, but then Hollywood loves self-indulgent narcissists.

Listening to a director’s commentary track often makes me appreciate a movie more but in this case listening to Jewison talk about the movie simply made me more irritated with it.

With all these faults it has to be admitted that The Thomas Crown Affair is extremely stylish. This is almost enough to compensate for its essential emptiness. Worth a rental for its slick visuals.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Singapore (1947)

While Singapore aims for the same sort of feel, and the makers of the film were clearly hoping to emulate the success of Casablanca, this is not by any means a retread of the Bogart-Bergman classic. Singapore stands up  perfectly well on its own.

I’m a sucker for old movies that take place in tropical settings and if the movie has a strong dash of film noir that’s even better. And Singapore certainly has more than a hint of film noir.

It’s 1947 and Matt Gordon (Fred MacMurray) has just arrived in Singapore. He’d been there before, in fact had spent quite a colourful and adventurous time there. He hasn’t returned just to rekindle old memories. He has some unfinished business in the city. Old memories are however very much on his mind as well. In fact this movie is all about old memories.

Gordon left Singapore just before the arrival of the invading Japanese. And he left a girl behind. He didn’t intend to leave her but things were rather complicated. She’s dead now but the memories are very much alive.

Gordon had been a pearl smuggler, on a fairly large scale. He had made a very big haul and he had a fortune in pearls hidden in his hotel room. The Japanese invasion made it impossible for him to to retrieve the pearls but there’s no reason to think they aren’t sitting just where he’d left them. The war has made pearls even scarcer so his stash is now worth even more than it had been. Matt Gordon would really like to get those pearls.

The rather sinister Mr Mauribus (Thomas Gomez) also wants the pearls. Mr Mauribus is a dealer in various commodities, but not a very honest one. In truth he’s a gangster. His henchman Sascha (George Lloyd) was supposed to get the pearls back in 1941 but had failed to do so. Now Mr Mauribus and Sascha are confident that Gordon will lead them to the pearls.

Deputy Commissioner Hewitt (Richard Haydn) is also interested in the pearls. Mostly though he wants to arrest Matt Gordon for smuggling. It’s nothing personal but Gordon had been a bit of a thorn in his side and besides Hewitt is the kind of policeman who likes to tidy up loose ends.

Matt Gordon has meanwhile found that old memories can come back to haunt a man in very unexpected ways. The past is not always as dead as one might think. And the past can make the present very complicated indeed.

Michael Van Leyden (Roland Culver) and his wife Anne will also discover just how much impact the past can have on the present.

Singapore is not quite film noir but it utilises classic noir techniques such as flashbacks, and it has an atmosphere that combines elements of the exotic with noir. The real focus though is on the tangled love story.

The film benefits from superb performances from all the supporting players. Thomas Gomez and George Lloyd are wonderfully slimy villains. Richard Haydn is excellent as the dedicated but good-natured policeman. Roland Culver is outstanding. Michael Van Leyden is a man with his own secrets and those secrets involve, like so much in this movie, memories. He’s a complicated man and he gets more complicated as the film progresses.

Ava Gardner is of course the woman at the centre of things and her problems with memories are particularly tricky. She’s not a femme fatale but she’s complicated in her own way. Gardner is an underrated actress and she handles the rôle with skill. 


Fred MacMurray is even more underrated. Anyone who thinks that the stars of the golden age of Hollywood merely recycled the same performance over and over should watch a few of MacMurray’s movies. He could play a slimy and scheming ambitious junior officer in The Caine Mutiny, or a total sleazebag in Double Indemnity. Or, as in Singapore, he could play a very sympathetic and romantic character, albeit a slightly ambiguous character. Matt Gordon is not exactly scrupulously honest but he’s no hoodlum. Even his nemesis, Deputy Commissioner Hewitt, likes him. He’s an irresponsible adventurer who discovers that eventually adventurers have to grow up. MacMuray is superb.

John Brahm directed the movie with considerable panache. While it’s obvious that it was shot in the studio and on the backlot the atmosphere of tropical intrigue is created very convincingly.

The only readily available edition of this movie is an Italian DVD, but don’t despair. It’s an excellent transfer and both the Italian dub and the original English soundtrack (with removable Italian subtitles) are included. 

Singapore is an engaging love story with a bit of film noir-style intrigue and plenty of exotic background, superbly acted and extremely well-crafted. It’s the sort of movie that Hollywood did so very well in the 1940s. Both the movie and the Italian DVD (available from amazon) are very highly recommended.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee was not the first pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers but it was the film that really put them on the map and established the classic formula that would make them RKO’s biggest stars.

The first Astaire-Rogers movie, the 1933 release Flying Down to Rio, had the pair in supporting roles but they were so clearly the highlight of the picture that RKO drew the obvious conclusion and had them top-billed in the following year’s The Gay Divorcee.

They’re not just top-billed but they hold centre stage throughout. While most of the Astaire-Rogers movies are delightful some do suffer from pacing problems and drag just a little when the dancing stops. That is most emphatically not the case in this movie. The effervescent script, the superb performances and the sure comedic touch of all the players mean that there is really never a dull moment. The comedy sparkles and the main romance works to perfection.

The plot is ideally suited to a light-hearted feel-good musical. Dancer Guy Holden (Fred Astaire) encounters Mimi Glossop (Ginger Rogers) as they are coming ashore at Dover. Guy instantly falls for Mimi but Mimi doesn’t want to know.

Guy’s friend Egbert 'Pinky' Fitzgerald (Edward Everett Horton) is a bumbling lawyer trying to handle a divorce case on his own for the first time. Mimi is his client. Egbert has everything planned, or at least he thinks he has. Mimi will go to a seaside hotel where a phony assignation has been arranged with Rodolfo Tonetti (Erik Rhodes), a voluble Italian who earns his living as a professional co-respondent. Since Egbert is not entirely confident about handling the case on his own he asks Guy to accompany him. Of course Guy has no idea that it is Mimi’s divorce that Egbert is handling. He’s been desperately trying to find Mimi since their first encounter. And naturally when they meet again at the hotel there is much confusion as wires get hopelessly crossed. This all ensures that Guy and Mimi will end up together but only after a series of zany and very funny misunderstandings.

Flying Down to Rio and The Gay Divorcee were the only pre-code Fred and Ginger musicals and The Gay Divorcee does get quite risque at times. Unlike many pre-code comedies in this case the risque humour is not only done with style and with a light touch but is genuinely funny.

A major plus is the superb supporting cast. Edward Everett Horton’s role is a substantial one and he’s in top form. He even gets to sing! Eric Blore has great fun as a waiter, sharing some gloriously amusing banter with Horton. Erik Rhodes goes way over the top as Tonetti but it works. Alice Brady provides even more humour as Mimi’s aunt Hortense, the bane of poor Egbert’s life. Look out for a very young Betty Grable in a minor supporting role.

Van Nest Polglase’s art deco-inspired art direction is always a huge asset to an Astaire-Rogers movie and this one is no exception.

The dance numbers are terrific, there are some good songs, the costumes are exquisite. Ginger Rogers gets to wear some gorgeous gowns and Fred Astaire shows just how good men used to look when they wore hats and superbly tailored clothes. The beginning of the decline of western civilisation can be dated to the time when men stopped wearing hats.

All of this would be enough to make a wonderful movie but then there’s the inspired extended musical sequence The Continental. It was intended as a spectacular show-stopper and that’s exactly what it is.

The Warner Home Video DVD release (in their Astaire-Rogers Collection volume 2) offers a fine transfer. 

The Gay Divorcee is magnificent entertainment. Very highly recommended.