As a kid, I loved staying up to watch old movies on TV, and some of my favorites were the musicals with such performers as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In a fit of nostalgia the other night, I persuaded (as in coerced) Thor to watch “The Gay Divorcee” with me, and this seemingly frivolous romp raised all kinds of questions. We felt like time travelers peering across the gulf of 80 years.
The dancing remains wonderful—how I still long to wear one of those swirly feathered gowns and float gracefully across the dance floor like a lovely swan! We found ourselves actually applauding after the first beautiful number with Astaire and Rogers to the Cole Porter tune “Night and Day,” which seems to transcend time. (Though Thor started sighing heavily during the lengthy, campy production number of “The Continental,” which I loved but he compared to a numbingly endless superhero-movie battle scene.)
Of course by the end, despite ditzy confusions, guy gets girl and all is well. But we couldn’t help pondering this time capsule through our 2014 future-lens. What did Great Depression-era audiences find in these musical comedies featuring rich, decadent characters in opulent hotels, with seemingly nothing to do but change outfits for the next song and dance number? In 1934, the year the film was released, the head of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association William Hays stated that “no medium has contributed more greatly than the film to the maintenance of the national morale during a period featured by revolution, riot, and political turmoil in other countries.” The commonly-accepted explanation seems to be that people in grim times were looking for escapist entertainment, and even though people were strapped for cash, they still flocked to the movies. Maybe not so different from the fascination today with celebrity culture, encouraging us to imagine ourselves hobnobbing with the rich and famous? And our movie stars still tend toward a type that film critic Pauline Kael, discussing 1930s screwball comedies, referred to as “Americans’ idealized view of themselves — breezy, likable, sexy, gallant, and maybe just a little harebrained.”
Some of the assumptions in “The Gay Divorcee,” though, were definitely of that different era. Fred Astaire’s famous-dancer character falls instantly head-over-heels upon his first glimpse and mocking conversation with Ginger Rogers’s rich American, who’s also traveling on the Continent. He then proceeds to pursue her relentlessly, despite her refusals to give him her name or number, which leads to a car chase where he traps her on a country road by putting up a fake Road Closed sign. Long before that moment, most any woman today would be pulling out her smartphone and sensibly calling the police to report this creepy stalker, but it’s all cheerfully presented as romantic courtship. Thor found it uncomfortable, and I had to agree. Some things have certainly changed for the better!
The story premise rests on the need at the time to establish adultery as grounds for divorce, and Rogers is trying to find grounds to ditch her husband, who is always gone and only contacts her for money. She reveals that he was her instructor in college, which raises no eyebrows. It certainly would at universities today, where professors are fired for having affairs with their students. It’s only when she mentions his profession that people seem perturbed: He’s a geologist! Thor (a geologist/paleontologist) got a kick out of that, dangerous rock-obsessed fiend that he is. We may have missed some cultural referent there….
The film carries an oddly paradoxical attitude toward love and marriage, with characters very casual about their multiple marriages and divorces. The aunt of the Rogers’s character, thoroughly scatter-brained, can’t remember her different husbands’ names but states that men are all alike except for different ties. She didn’t bother getting married during the economic crash because one never knew if their money was real. Now they need to stage a fake affair for Rogers, so she can be caught in flagrante and trick her derelict husband into divorcing her. Many misunderstandings and jokes ensue, including a hilarious British waiter who proves key to the happy outcome. But throughout the muddle, Rogers remains properly virtuous, and love at first sight, with marriage its natural conclusion, is never questioned. I guess every era has its contradictions.
All in all, a fascinating tripping of the light fantastic down memory lane. Even as I was wistfully remembering when a writer could use the word “gay” or “gaily” in its original definition, I didn’t doubt it was a minor loss compared with the progress we’ve made toward social equality on many fronts. As Thor mused, these old films let us see and feel the popular culture of the time with a visceral immediacy—and to reflect that we’ve come a long way, baby!