Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Regards: Fred and Ginger

"THE GAY DIVORCEE" (Mark Sandrich; 1934)

A really delightful, sweet and peppy beginning to the tux-and-coattail musicals pairing the delightful Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, The Gay Divorcee ('34) features a lively fusion of screwball comedy misreckoning and slick, toe-tapping synchronizations.

The two leads are irresistible, but the supporting cast of Alice Brady, Eric Blore and especially Edward Everett Horton supply a good dose of the tongue-tied whimsy.

The twenty-minute show-stopper comes courtesy of "The Continental," an original song which took home the first Oscar of its kind and gives us some sweet Ginger Rogers lyrics. Betty Grable even shows up to sing "Let's Knock Knees" in one of the film's few numbers granting our two stars a breather - fortunately for us, they come back. [A-]

"TOP HAT" (Mark Sandrich; 1935)

Perhaps the greatest of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, Top Hat ('35) is sheer perfection from top-to-bottom, combining the witty, screwy misidentification of The Gay Divorcee ('34) and hinting at some of the more elaborate dance numbers in Swing Time ('36).

Irving Berlin's brilliant score and songwriting provide Top Hat with the best soundtrack of any Astaire and Rogers production, including the titular "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" and "Cheek to Cheek" with my personal favorite "The Piccolino," in which Rogers playfully plucks at air and sings along, closing out the film in grandiose faux-Italiano style.

Of course, the film closely resembles the plot to The Gay Divorcee and even returns almost the entire cast in their respective roles, yet we have no problem seeing the events unfold similarly. We've fallen in love with these characters before, but with those songs and that graceful tapping, it's love all over again. [A]

"SWING TIME" (George Stevens; 1936)

Regarded as one of the best of the Astaire and Rogers collaborations, Swing Time ('36) is undoubtedly an impressively choreographed ride, but it lacks the charming banter, the screwball insanity and the supporting cast of its predecessors.

Jerome Kern's score and musical numbers hit some highs like on the instantly recognizable smash-hit, "The Way You Look Tonight" and the cutesy "A Fine Romance," but it's Astaire who carries the instrumental "Bojangles of Harlem" tribute in a showstopper dance sequence in which Astaire pays homage to Bill Robinson while tapping in front of - and antagonizing - a trio of his own shadows.

The finale, the well-oiled "Never Gonna Dance" fills out the proceedings, but Swing Time never feels as giddily endearing or as saccharinely chipper as Top Hat or even The Gay Divorcee. [B]

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