I wanted to run the videotape I’d brought over: the 1935 film Roberta, with Jerome Kern’s great stage musical brought to vivid cinematic life by Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Perhaps it was because this movie was suppressed as long as it was — MGM took it off the market in 1952 by buying the remake rights from RKO and producing their own version, Lovely to Look At, which had the virtue of casting Randolph Scott’s part from the original with someone who could actually sing (Howard Keel) and was in color but had little else to recommend it otherwise — but Roberta acquired a very “special” reputation among Astaire-Rogers fans (Arlene Croce wrote, “Roberta came as close to plotlessness as that ideal Astaire-Rogers musical we all like to think they should have made,” though she added, “but this was presumably unintentional”) during the years it was unseeable — and when I finally got a chance to see it when MGM re-released it theatrically in the late 1970’s I thought it was a sheer delight despite an elephantine plot line and some wisecracks that were modestly amusing but nowhere near as funny as the script’s multiple writers (Jane Murfin, Sam Mintz, Allan Scott and Glenn Tryon) obviously thought they were.
Today Roberta strikes me as a near-masterpiece, despite sluggish direction by William A. Seiter. Despite Croce’s comment that “none of the characters has much definition and the story makes very little sense,” the film actually seems more emotionally moving than most musicals of the period. The character of Roberta herself — really Aunt Minnie, who emigrated from America to France and adopted the “Roberta” monicker to build herself up as a couturiére — is a strangely appealing one, low-keyed in her casual flirtation with a British lord her own age (Ferdinand Munier) and with a genuine attachment to her nephew (Scott) who has come over to Paris with a band led by Astaire. (Charles noted bemusedly that there was no particular reason for him to be traveling with a band — since he couldn’t sing, couldn’t dance, there was no attempt to suggest he could play an instrument and he was neither the band’s manager nor a roadie — though actually he is described as the manager in the dialogue.) Her head designer, Stephanie (Dunne), is really a princess from Russia, who hangs out with a whole group of Russian emigrés in Paris who are sitting around, working low-class jobs (her cousin, Prince Ladislaw, is the doorman at the Roberta salon) and waiting for the Soviet Union to fall so they can go back and take over the country again. Ginger Rogers is a faux Polish countess who calls herself “Tanka Scharwenka” even though she’s really yet another impostor, an American nightclub singer named Lizzie Gatz who grew up in the same small town as Astaire and dated him before they drifted apart and she went to Europe and adopted her noble disguise because “you have to have a title to croon over here.” In the stage version from 1933 — which starred Ray Middleton in the Randolph Scott role (though a “trivia” item on imdb.com says it was Fred MacMurray), Tamara in the Irene Dunne role, Fay Templeton as Minnie/Roberta, Sydney Greenstreet (in a musical?) as the British lord she’s dating (sort of) and made an instant star of Bob Hope in the part played by Astaire in the film (George Murphy appeared as well, in a role that was restored in the 1952 remake and played by Gower Champion but was eliminated from this script) — Rogers’ role was played by Lyda Roberti, who really was Polish and had a thick accent Rogers mimics here as she clowns her way through the great song “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” (which Ann Miller did as a hoochie-coochie routine in the remake). Casting Ginger in this part meant adding yet one more character who’s disguised to a script that already featured more disguises than your average James Bond movie!
Roberta is an unusual musical in many ways. The romantic complications seem more serious than usual (Randolph Scott’s contempt for the Russian nobility and the shiftless lives they’re living in Paris seems heartfelt and not just a plot device) and someone actually dies in the plot — Madame Roberta quietly passes away of old age while Stephanie is singing “Yesterdays,” in a beautiful and moving scene lifted almost exactly from the stage version, in which the lights subtly go down as the flame of Roberta’s life is extinguished. Even before, we’ve fallen in love with her ourselves and used her emotional reactions to the characters as an index of what our own should be. And Dunne, who made surprisingly few musicals (even though she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera but dropped her operatic ambitions to sign with RKO as an actress!), probably never had a film that showcased her voice so well. She gets some great songs to sing, including the standards “Yesterdays” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” as well as “Lovely to Look At” (written especially for the film by the composer of the stage version, Jerome Kern) — with a haunting verse that is usually left off the song when it’s performed today (in the remake this song, though used for the title, was virtually thrown away as a brief number for Howard Keel), and while RKO’s sound recording doesn’t do justice to her high notes the voice itself is a very appealing mezzo-soprano, perfectly suited to this sort of material. At the same time, though the comic lines may not exactly be immortal, her marvelously deadpan delivery of them may have helped convince director Leo McCarey (incidentally the only director besides Seiter who worked with both Laurel and Hardy and the Marx Brothers) to cast her in his comedy classic, The Awful Truth, which revolutionized her career and convinced producers she could do comedy as well as the soap operas she’d been known for previously. And the physical production of this film is properly massive and impressive — though I wish that, as long as RKO was stretching their usual budgets on this production (it cost $750,000, a great deal for a 1930’s movie with a contemporary setting, including $65,000 just for the story and song rights), they’d kicked out the jams and shot the final reel in three-strip Technicolor, which would have made the dresses in the big fashion-show finale look better (“A pity the dresses designed for the film are ugly to look at,” Croce sniffed — Bernard Newman gets the “gowns” credit) and would also have given us color footage of Astaire and Rogers at their absolute peak as a team. Still, Roberta is a really special movie (“their most ebullient film,” wrote Croce), a worthy successor to The Gay Divorcée and predecessor to Top Hat in the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre. — 9/11/98
Charles and I watched the third film in the first night of Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Fred Astaire: Roberta, the third of the nine Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies made at RKO between 1933 and 1939. (They showed the first three in sequence — Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcée and Roberta — and then jumped one to Follow the Fleet, then caught the very end of the cycle with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, and closed out the evening with two later Astaire films that didn’t co-star Ginger Rogers, Second Chorus and The Sky’s the Limit.) Roberta has long remained the stepchild of the Astaire-Rogers series, not only because Irene Dunne got top billing (in 1935 she was not only a bigger “name” than either Astaire or Rogers, she was also a capable actress equally at home in soap operas, romantic comedies and musicals — for which she used her own voice; she was an operatically trained mezzo-soprano and had actually auditioned for the Met before RKO signed her) but because in the 1940’s RKO sold the rights to the film to MGM, which remade the basic story — Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberta — as the 1952 film Lovely to Look At. As a result, the Dunne-Astaire-Rogers Roberta was kept in the MGM vaults, unseen, from the late 1940’s to the mid-1970’s and was not part of the initial RKO package that first put the Astaire-Rogers movies on TV in the 1950’s.
The stage version of Roberta was written by Jerome Kern (music) and Otto Harbach (book and lyrics) and premiered November 18, 1933, just months after the publication of Miller’s book — and the film was shot from November 26, 1934 to January 21, 1935, copyrighted February 26, 1935 and premiered March 9, 1935— yet another indication of how much faster properties moved from page to stage to screen in the 1930’s than they do today! The stage version featured Tamara in the lead role of Stephanie (played by Irene Dunne in the film), an exiled Russian princess who has become the principal designer of the famed haute couture salon Roberta (as in “Gowns by … ”), while Roberta herself has her own incognito — she’s really an American named Minnie Kent, who at some point decades into the backstory found herself in Paris, opened a salon and became a star of the world of fashion. The set of Roberta’s salon contains a working elevator in the middle that was part of the stage set as well and plays an important part in the plot; when Roberta premiered on Broadway the presence of a working elevator on stage was much talked about. An American bandleader, Huck Haines (played by Bob Hope onstage — it was the part that made him a star — and Fred Astaire in the movie), brings his band, “Huck Haines and His Wabash Indianians,” to Paris to play jazz at the exclusive Café Russe, owned by another White Russian émigré, Alexander Voyda (Luis Alberni). Only the band is fired before they even have a chance to start work because Voyda was expecting bona fide American Indians and got “Indianians” instead. Huck’s manager, John Kent (Randolph Scott — future movie star Fred MacMurray played his part on stage), remembers that his old Aunt Minnie runs a high-end fashion house in Paris as “Roberta,” and he decides to approach her for help. In the original story there were three sets of couples — John and Stephanie (who of course have one of those hate-at-first-sight-that-blossoms-into-love relationships that abound in movies, then and now), a pair of dancers that come out with the band, and Huck with Countess Tanka Scharwenka, yet another dispossessed noble who’s making her living as a singer at the Café Russe.
On stage she was played by Lyda Roberti, a thickly accented Polish-American entertainer whose delightfully fractured attempts at singing in English could be heard in the films Million Dollar Legs (1932) — a loony comedy which cast her as “Mata Machree, The Woman No Man Can Resist/Not Responsible for Men Left After 30 Days” — and Nobody’s Baby (1937), and onstage in George Gershwin’s last Broadway musical, Pardon My English (1933), in which she introduced the song “My Cousin from Milwaukee” (later recorded far more engagingly by Ella Fitzgerald on her 1950’s Gershwin Songbook album). In the film this part is played by Ginger Rogers, but the writers (Jane Murfin, Sam Mintz, Allan Scott, Glenn Tryon — actor-turned-writer father of actor-turned-writer Tom Tryon — and an uncredited Dorothy Yost) made her an American — Lizzie Gatz, former girlfriend of Huck Haines — who adopted the Tanka Scharwenka identity because “you have to have a title to croon over here.” She’s the star attraction at the Café Russe and she manages to win Huck and his band the job back as long as he promises not to “out” her. Minnie Kent a.k.a. Roberta is lively enough to have a boyfriend, British Lord Henry Delves (Ferdinand Munier, playing a part Sydney Greenstreet had played on stage — Greenstreet was a famous character actor for decades, known particularly for playing Sir John Falstaff, before he made his film debut at age 61 in The Maltese Falcon in a part that “typed” him for films as a black-hearted villain), but she’s also got a bad heart and, in a beautifully filmed, moody scene that’s quite well staged (by director William A. Seiter, copying the way it had been done on stage), she asks Stephanie to sing her to sleep with the song “Yesterdays,” and as the song ends so does her life — symbolized economically when her arm falls off the couch on which she’s resting. (Earlier in the film Stephanie had sung her a traditional Russian lullaby in Russian, but no source I’ve seen — not Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, not the American Film Institute Catalog and not imdb.com — has identified it.)
Once Roberta croaks Stephanie and John try to run the business together, realizing (like Donatella Versace after the murder of her brother Gianni Versace) that their first show after Roberta’s death will be heavily scrutinized and the business’s future will hang on its success — only the two have a jealous hissy-fit over John’s ex-girlfriend Sophie Teale (Claire Dodd). Sophie dumped John for being a hayseed but since then he’s been made over by Stephanie and has a sophisticated job co-running a fashion house, so now she’s after him again — only Huck sabotages their reconciliation by having Sophie dress in an especially revealing dress the rather prudish John had wanted dropped from Roberta’s line. (Quite a few of Fred Astaire’s films reveal this nasty streak in his screen persona — worst of all is Holiday Inn, whose entire plot is the vicious tricks he and Bing Crosby pull on each other to steal away each other’s girlfriends — which I’ve suggested in the past could have enabled Astaire to have pulled off the same transition Dick Powell, the other great male musical star of the 1930’s, did and start playing tough guys in films noir; oddly, out of all the actors in Hollywood during the classic era, Astaire came closer to Dashiell Hammett’s physical depiction of Sam Spade than anyone else, leading me to imagine an alternate-universe film of The Maltese Falcon with Astaire as Spade, Barbara Stanwyck as Brigid and Edward Arnold as Gutman.) Huck and Scharwenka try to keep Roberta’s going but are unable to do so without Stephanie’s knowledge, and though her relationship with John is on the rocks — especially since not only is she jealous of Sophie, he’s jealous of her cousin Prince Ladislaw (Victor Varconi, whose best-known credit was as Pontius Pilate in the 1927 Cecil B. DeMille King of Kings and who was also in William Wellman’s proto-noir masterpiece Safe in Hell) — nonetheless she pulls together a new show for Roberta and Huck and Scharwenka put on entertainment in the form of songs (Irene Dunne gets a beautiful ballad called “Lovely to Look At” which hadn’t been in the original show: Kern, Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields co-wrote it for the film — and though the song’s chorus is pretty comfortably within a pop singer’s register, its verse soars quite high and shows off Dunne’s operatic chops) and a rather banal rap commentary by Astaire on the various clothes being shown.
Among the models in the fashion show is a woman who would become very famous in a much different context later; RKO put out an ad asking for women who’d worked as models at the famous Bergdorf Goodman store in New York. Lucille Ball, who’d had a brief career as a Goldwyn Girl (she made her film debut in Roman Scandals as part of a Busby Berkeley number, set in an ancient slave market, in which she and the other chorines wore nothing except very long wigs strategically placed to cover the “naughty bits”), had never actually been employed by Bergdorf’s but had worked a fashion show a promoter had put on there, so she figured she qualified, got the job and managed two brief shots in a feathered dress strikingly like the one Ginger Rogers would wear in the “Cheek to Cheek” number in the next Astaire-Rogers film, Top Hat. (When, after years in the vault, this film was revived at the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco in the late 1970’s, the audience gasped when they recognized her.) The fashion show is a success, John and Stephanie are reunited, Huck and Scharwenka ditto — showing that despite Dunne’s top billing RKO knew who the real stars were, the final scene is a dance reprise of Astaire and Rogers together doing “I Won’t Dance” (a Kern song from another show, Three Sisters, which Dorothy Fields adapted for Astaire, including throwing in the line, “When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle/’Specially when you do the Continental,” an in-joke reference to the big Academy Award-winning hit song from The Gay Divorcée) which Astaire had earlier performed as a ratcheting tap solo on the floor of the Café Russe.
Roberta has acquired a “special” aura that sets it apart from the rest of the Astaire-Rogers output, partly because it was unavailable for so long but also because even more than the rest of the movies in their series, it has the insouciant, free-for-all spirit that Astaire and Rogers epitomized. “Because they share billing with Irene Dunne, a legend has grown that it’s a minor and unrepresentative film,” Arlene Croce wrote in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. “On the contrary; it’s a key film. It widens their range and establishes them unshakeably as a team. Astaire and Rogers become Astaire-Rogers in this film — you can see it happening. It’s true that the roles they play are inflated supporting roles, but since none of the characters has much definition and the story makes very little sense, that doesn’t diminish their impact. It lets them soar. Roberta gives us that soaring spirit in such abundance that, in a way, it does stand apart from the rest of the series. It’s their most ebullient film.”
It’s somewhat weakened by the way the plot requires Rogers to retain her “Scharwenka” identity throughout the movie, thereby preventing her from singing in her real voice, and it also doesn’t help that the male romantic lead, Randolph Scott, is good enough as a “type” (his fame in Westerns, then and even more later, helps him be credible as the kind of plain-spoken American “type” he’s supposed to be playing, lost in the world of high-fashion Paris and its White Russian émigré, but he couldn’t sing and as a result RKO had to relegate some of Kern’s best songs from the original score, including “You’re Devastating,” to background music — they also did that to “The Touch of Your Lips,” a duet for Stephanie and Ladislaw in the play, even though Victor Varconi could sing), but the film’s biggest missed opportunity is that, though they spent a good deal on the production ($65,000 for the story rights alone — outbidding Paramount and MGM — and quite elaborate sets, including a supposed Paris street as flagrantly unrealistic and stylized as Venice in Top Hat), they didn’t spring for the budget to shoot the last reel in the then-new three-strip Technicolor process. Arlene Croce rather snippily says, “The dresses designed for the film are ugly to look at,” which is being unfair to them; they seem quite appropriately chic to me (not that I have anything like the world’s greatest fashion sense!) but it’s clear they would have been far more impressive in color — and so would have the Astaire-Rogers dance to a reprise of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” the show’s other big ballad hit (besides “Yesterdays”), stunningly sung by Irene Dunne to a balalaika ensemble accompaniment and later danced by Astaire and Rogers in a brief but breathtaking sequence. “The dance is almost humble in its brevity and simplicity — a few walking steps, a sudden plunge, a silky recovery, and it’s over,” writes Croce. “But the spell that blooms while you are watching it is powerful, and there are astonishing moments, like his very tender gesture of pressing her head to his shoulder as they walk.” To have a clip of Astaire and Rogers dancing together at their peak in color — sigh, what a missed opportunity. (They ultimately did make a color film together, The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949, but that was a late-career reunion and, as Croce politely put it, “Rogers had developed a muscular thickness in her back and arms that robs her gestures of their former beautiful transparency.”)
Nonetheless, and despite a relatively weak director, William A. Seiter (“a jovial hack,” Croce calls him), whose two greatest films were this one and another vehicle for a legendary team (Laurel and Hardy’s Sons of the Desert), Roberta emerges as a real charmer, stunningly well cast, vividly staged and with Kern’s imperishable score (even if some of the lyrics were bowdlerized by the Production Code people — Roberta bears Production Code Certificate No. 608, and one of the qualifications was the deletion of the line “Love’s no sin” from “Let’s Begin”), fully worthy of its place in the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre between The Gay Divorcée and Top Hat and far better than any treatment of the same story since. The 1952 MGM Lovely to Look At altered the storyline — the third couple deleted by the RKO screenwriters were put back in (and played by real-life dancing couple Marge and Gower Champion) and Roberta died in the backstory, not on screen — and benefited from color and a male lead (Howard Keel) who could actually sing, but everything else was a major step down. Irene Dunne’s role was taken by Kathryn Grayson (a technically superb singer but a much less interesting screen personality), Astaire’s by his former Three Little Words co-star Red Skelton and Rogers’ by Ann Miller, who turned “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” into one of her typically brassy, almost assaultive solo tap numbers. What’s more, the dresses for the final fashion scene (directed, uncredited, by Vincente Minnelli even though Mervyn LeRoy did the rest of the film and was the director of record for all of it) are so horrid one wonders what Croce, who said the 1935 dresses were “ugly to look at,” thought of them; they’re the work of a totally demented designer who seemed to think that the way to make clothes to look “fashionable” was to blithely and blatantly ignore the bilateral symmetry of the human body. Bob Hope repeated his original stage role on TV twice, in 1958 and 1969, and there are more recent Roberta films from the Philippines in 1979 and the U.S. in 1999 that have nothing to do with this story — but it’s this one that encapsulates so much of what Roberta, 1930’s musicals in general and the world of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in particular were about. — 12/5/13