(On Cable TV, February 2019) From 1933 to 1945, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine movies together, revolutionizing the movie musical along the way. While I think that The Gay Divorcee is the funniest of those movies and Swing Time the best from a dancing standpoint, Top Hat is usually mentioned as the most successful of those nine pictures. It certainly gets a lot of mileage out of the classic “Cheek to Cheek” number, but perhaps the best thing about it is how it distills the Astaire/Rogers formula to its purest: A romantic comedy, with catchy music and terrific numbers spanning the gamut from funny to classy. There’s a solo tap-dancing showcase for Astaire, there are gorgeous costumes (wow, that feather dress!), there’s screwball comedy of mistaken identities, there’s an astonishing multi-storey set meant to present a fantasy version of Venice and, of course, there’s the idealized couple dancing away. With that formula, it’s a guaranteed fun time. The comedy is formulaic to the point of having miscommunication naturally escalates to good-natured slapping, which is in-keeping with mid-1930s comedy. If the Astaire/Ginger partnership worked so well compared to some other Astaire partners, it’s because the age difference between the two was a “mere” 12 years, but also because Rogers could keep up with him better than others. (If you’re paying attention to the other perennial issue in Astaire movies, that of consent in romantic pursuits, it’s still here but not as blatant as in other films.) Top Hat may not be all that substantial, but it remains exhilarating entertainment in the classic Hollywood glamour tradition. Since seeing the film, I managed to find a DVD copy—just so that I can watch it at any time.
(Second viewing, On Cable TV, June 2018) I recall seeing The Gay Divorcee in university, having borrowed the VHS tape from the university library to finally see what the fuss was about Fred Astaire. I loved it then and I’m still loving it now—perhaps especially even more so given that I’ve been diving deep into classic movies lately, no longer making much of a difference between colour and black-and-white, and being able to place the film in its proper context. While its sexual ethics are dodgy (Astaire comes across as a bit of a creep who can’t take a “no” in some early scenes), the film easily hits high points whenever Astaire and Ginger Rogers start dancing. Some great numbers are in here, including “The Continental”, the silly “Let’s Knock Knees” (which I still remembered from a previous viewing twenty years ago) and the romantic “Night and Day”. Still, the story itself has its comic highlights, with supporting actors playing broad comic archetypes and some very good dialogue along the way. The Gay Divorcee is not a great movie (and even as an Astaire one it paved the way to bigger successes) but it’s an enduring one because it’s fun.
(In French, On Cable TV, May 2018) It’s easy to see why Monkey Business is often considered to be a loose follow-up to Bringing up Baby—Howard Hawks is back with a fast-paced comedy, Cary Grant reprises his silly intellectual mode, Ginger Rogers steps in as the wilder female partner and the film is at its best when it’s just goofing around. Thanks to a high-concept premise (what if a serum gave you back your youth … or at least made you regress back in age mentally?), there are plenty of opportunities for random silliness. The film never gets better than seeing Day play at being a bratty schoolgirl, although seeing Marilyn Monroe vamp it up as a voluptuous secretary is also fun. While it’s technically a science-fiction film, Monkey Business is best seen as a farce reteaming Hawks and Grant together and just having fun along the way. (This being said, the film’s best laugh comes early on in the opening credits sequence, as the director tells Grant “not yet” and to go back behind the door before making an entrance. Alas, the film doesn’t go back to metatextual comedy.) It’s really not quite up to Bringing up Baby’s standards—the film is occasionally annoying (the monkey), occasionally dull (anything with the scientists), occasionally offensive to modern sensibilities (never mind “the secretary”; I have in mind the “Indian scalping” schoolyard playing.) It’s still not a bad time thanks to the aforementioned goofing off, but it could have been better.
(On Cable TV, February 2018) Any review of Swing Time risks being high on praise yet low in details, as much of the charm of the film lies in the dance numbers and physical performances from both Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. After what feels like an overly lengthy setup, the film starts heating up whenever Astaire meets Rogers and gets down to the dance moves. There’s undeniable charm to their shared numbers, and their technical proficiency is undeniable—even today, eighty years later, it still looks fantastic and a pleasure to re-watch. I’m torn on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, though—while toe-tapping and technically far before its time with rear projection used as special effects, it does feature Astaire in blackface, and even making the segment a homage to Al Johnson isn’t enough to ease modern discomfort. Far less objectionable is “Waltz in Swing Time,” perhaps the finest footage of Rogers and Astaire together. While Swing Time itself may be slight (although it’s fun to step back in mid-nineteen-thirties Manhattan), the dance numbers are terrific, and that’s nearly all that matters.