“Roberta,” Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ third film, is set in the world of Paris fashions and is arguably my least favorite of their 10 films together.
They co-star with Irene Dunne, one of the reigning queens of RKO, although the reality is that Dunne and fourth-billed Randolph Scott share the main plotline. If you remove the dances, Fred and Ginger are supporting players.
It’s an odd mix, and it’s frustrating for today’s audiences to watch this film, knowing what Astaire and Rogers are capable of and wondering why they would be reduced to comedic sidekicks. Perhaps RKO, unsure of how “The Gay Divorcee” would play out, put this film into production with Dunne in case the duo flopped. Perhaps RKO needed to give Dunne’s career a boost and paired her with the duo, allowing her to show off her lovely voice. I even have one book that says “Roberta” was acquired for Astaire/Rogers before “The Gay Divorcee” was put into production.
Whatever the story, the contrived plot doesn’t allow these three to properly shine, while Scott’s wooden performance is a major deficiency.
The best parts of the film are several glorious dances from Astaire and Rogers, including an Astaire solo that is mind-blowing in its technical brilliance. If anything, the importance of “Roberta” is the maturing of the Astaire-Rogers team. If the story around them seems leaden, they display a chemistry and unity that clearly has progressed since “The Gay Divorcee.”
The movie is based upon a musical called “Roberta,” which in itself is based upon a book called “Gowns by Roberta.” The 1933 stage musical (which featured Bob Hope in the Fred Astaire role!) was written by Jerome Kern (whose string of hits include “Show Boat” and “Sweet Adeline”) and Otto Harbach. With “Roberta,” Kern departed from period pieces to do something contemporary and wrote some songs in the new style of swing, which he apparently was resisting. “Roberta” was a major stage hit and is considered one of the most successful Broadway musicals of the 1930s.
So it makes sense that the material would be snatched up by RKO. In fact, RKO outbid both MGM and Paramount for the rights to “Roberta.”
For the third straight film, Astaire plays an entertainer. This time, like in “Flying Down to Rio,” he’s a musician, Huck Haines, traveling abroad with his band, The Wabash Indianans. The group has arrived in Le Havre, but they are fired on the spot because the café owner who hired them wanted real Indians, not Indianans.
The group breaks out into an impromptu “Pipe Organ” number where the band members don white and black gloves and hold their hands in front of Huck replicating the keys on an organ. It’s a nifty little bit, but the café owner is still unconvinced. So the band boards a train to Paris in hopes of finding a gig.
Scott plays John Kent, a member of the band who announces that he has a wealthy relative in Paris, Aunt Minnie, who is also known as Roberta, the famed fashion designer.
“They tell me in Paris if you don’t buy your gowns from Roberta, you’re not dressed at all,” John announces.
So off they go to Roberta’s, where John meets Stephanie (Dunne), his aunt’s beloved assistant. They exchange verbal barbs and it’s clear at this point where their relationship will go. Meanwhile, John is reunited with Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley), who announces he’s her only worthwhile relative. She also talks about a client, the Countess Scharwenka (Rogers), who sings at the Café Russe and might be able to help the band find a job.
Thankfully, the Countess is at Roberta’s. John motions to the band outside to start playing, so they break into “Let’s Begin” in hopes of impressing her. When the Countess steps onto the balcony, Huck recognizes her as Lizzie, a girl he knew back in Indiana.
Lizzie gets them the job but makes Huck promise not to reveal her identity. The entire first section of the movie is top-heavy with the plot. It takes forever to introduce characters, delineate relationships and set up the conflicts, and it’s more cumbersome than interesting.
But then comes the crown jewel of this movie, “I’ll Be Hard to Handle.” It’s a rehearsal at the Café Russe. Lizzie starts off singing, then Huck and Lizzie lounge on some stairs, remembering old times. The dance is meant as an “improvised” tap number, so both are dressed in a relaxed manner, with her in bell bottom slacks.
It starts off as some good-natured clowning around that becomes a full-blown routine, complete with a “tap-off” and a burst of energetic moves at the climax. With this number, Fred and Ginger show just how far they have come since their last movie, “The Gay Divorcee.” In particular, Ginger looks completely at ease. In fact, one reason the number works so well is that Lizzie drops the Countess act for this rehearsal, so Astaire/Rogers are seemingly dancing beyond the plot – you can easily remove this dance from the film and screen it on its own without needing any set-up, and for five minutes you feel the chemistry and see the brilliance. It’s one of their best-ever numbers.
At the end of the dance, they fall into chairs, and the staff bursts into applause. Apparently this was the film where time was added at the end of their dances for movie audiences to applaud.
Unfortunately, once the dance ends, the plot resumes, and it plods along. There’s a sad moment, then the arrival of John’s old girlfriend. You find out about Russians living in Paris, a discarded dress, and the running of the shop.
Dunne gets to sing a few lovely songs, including “Yesterdays” and “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” But again, the best moments belong to Astaire and Rogers.
First off, as the floor show at the café, Astaire presents “I Won’t Dance.” In fact, the number begins with Astaire on the piano, then the two of them singing, with Rogers giving a line that refers to “The Continental,” a nice in-joke reference to their last film. Then Astaire takes to the floor in a solo dance number of such technical brilliance that you wonder how someone can dance that quickly and superbly. It’s breathtaking and magical.
The film ends with a climactic fashion show set to “Lovely to Look At.” Dunne sings again, but the final moments belong to Astaire and Rogers, once again lovely to watch as they reprise “I Won’t Dance” but as a duo and in a less frenzied manner.
In “The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book,” author Arlene Croce writes, “Scharwenka and Huck seem to be the most spontaneous characters in the film, while Stephanie and John are caught in the machinery of a plot that has stopped moving.” In addition, it’s hard to grasp what attracts Stephanie to John other than his looks, because she clearly can do better (Scott, below left, with Dunne).
In fact, it’s hard to figure out what John does. He arrives in France as part of the band, but he’s never shown performing in that band or working on behalf of the band.
If there’s one saving grace about “Roberta,” it’s that RKO pursued it over another possibility for the Astaire/Rogers pairing – and that was to copy the chic musicals/light operettas featuring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. That would have been a huge mistake.
Plus “Roberta” has several hallmarks of the pairing’s films so far, including the chic art deco sets and gorgeous clothes for the actresses.
Thankfully, Astaire and Rogers finally come of age in their next film, “Top Hat.” It would finally define their style and flair, and it proves that these three films were just the beginning.
This year, I’m tackling all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films in sequence. Please see my posts on “Flying Down to Rio” and “The Gay Divorcee.”