Favorite Movies A-Z: The Gay Divorcee

Now there’s a title with a far different set of implications today. It wouldn’t be the same film at all, at all.

One of the classic pairings of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, it has a fine supporting cast of comic actors around them. Since it’s a stage musical brought to film, other than a few establishing shots, everything is clearly done on a studio lot. And beyond a big theatrical number or two, the dancing is pretty well just Astaire tapping solo or paired with Rogers for a few ballroom inspired dance sets.

This is also a film that requires some understanding of the world as it was 70+ years ago. This is the age before no-fault divorce. It was a time when we at least paid lip-service to the notion that marriage was permanent. As a consequence then, obtaining a divorce could be difficult if one party to the marriage resisted. Even if both agreed, it was not no-fault; someone had to have demonstrable grounds such as abuse or infidelity. Or at least the credible assumption of same.

Here Astaire is Guy, a famous dancer from America visiting his lawyer pal Egbert (Edward Everett Horton) in London. Rogers is Mimi, a young woman visiting her aunt (Alice Brady) in London in order to enlist her aunt’s lawyer (Egbert’s father) in helping her obtain a divorce. Guy and Mimi meet by chance and Guy is immediately smitten though Mimi is less than impressed. After a long string of comic mishaps, she discovers his virtues, falls for him in turn and everything works out in that way which is always so much neater and pat than it is in real life.

Egbert’s father is out of town and, despite leaving explicit instructions that Egbert is to take no legal steps in his absence, Egbert decides he’s capable of helping Mimi. His job is to hire a professional co-respondent to help Mimi feign infidelity, but (as we expect from any character played by Horton) he bungles the matter thoroughly. These obstacles, as I noted above, are basically just pro forma and the plot is about as essential to one’s enjoyment of the film as it is in any Marx Bros. film.

The real delight of the movie is in the dances with Astaire and Rogers and the comedy. Horton and Brady are able enough, but once we reach the second half it kicks into another gear with the addition of Erik Rhodes as hired Italian “lothario” and Eric Blore as the befuddled hotel employee. It works so well, it’s no surprise they rounded up various combinations of these same actors to bounce off one another in a handful of other comic movies.

Though they essentially made the same movie again a year later (with much the same success as here, though it subbed in Helen Broderick for Alice Brady) I slightly prefer this initial outing. Look for Betty Grable in a small part as a dancer at the hotel.

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