The Continental Hop

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We had Marvelous Mary round for dinner, and we were all set to watch GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, which is one of Fiona’s top ten films but which Mary had never seen. But then the butternut squash took a long time to cook, and I put the Busby Berkeley extracts disc on to pass the time, and by the time dinner was ready we were all Busbied out. His version of b&w is particularly intense — obsidian dance floors that wait like inky pools to swallow the milky flesh of luminous chorines, the whole studio-enclosed universe a fractal yin-yang. (Of course, when Busby got his hands on Technicolor ooh boy!)

So we jumped sideways from Warners to RKO and watched THE GAY DIVORCEE instead.

Of course, the film is structured entirely as a vehicle for Fred & Ginger as they disport themselves before the same rear-projection screen that held King Kong (Night and Day!), but it has a good farce plot — Ginger’s marriage to a geologist is on the rocks; she engages a professional co-respondent to produce grounds for divorce; but Fred has already fallen in love with her and an unlikely coincidence (“Chance is the fool’s name for fate”) causes him to be mistaken for the paid philanderer…

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On top of this, the supporting cast, starting with Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady, and then escalating to Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, bring a huge amount of subsidiary entertainment. The Erics are fascinating. Blore varied his schtick very little over his career, but he didn’t need to. He was perfection. And Rhodes’ performance as Tonetti the professional co-respondent raises the fatuous to the sublime. (Always note at this point that his performance got the film banned in Mussolini’s Italy.)

“I wonder if he’s wearing co-respondent shoes,” said Mary. It turns out that these are brogues in two colours. But we didn’t get a clear shot of his feet. After all, he’s not Fred.

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And then the Continental started, and never seemed to end. I’m sure this number isn’t the actual longest musical interlude in screen history, but it seems to set out to create the impression that it is. Mary and Fiona kept asking me if it was nearly over. “Not until they get to the Russian montage part,” I said.

“Are they going to chuck a baby down those steps?” asked Mary.

The Continental continued. It may be that it is continuing still, that, like Philip K Dick’s Roman Empire, it never ended.

“It was a different age, I suppose,” mused Mary.

“It was by the time they’d finished doing the Continental,” I said.

But somehow the story resumed, and was wrapped up in a clever way, and then Fred and Ginger danced off to a reprise of — the Continental.

“SHE’S wearing co-respondent shoes!” declared Mary. And she was.

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7 Responses to “The Continental Hop”

  1. “Fate is the foolish thing so take a chance!”

  2. A funny script, a terrific cast, and a delightful film – even if the Continental goes on a bit long. Still, I love the fact that Erik Rhodes gets to sing. The number with Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton (what a couple!) is endearing, too.

    Maybe you should do a series of posts about the supporting players in the Astaire-Rogers films, as you did for the Marx Brothers. (Are you going to end with The Story of Mankind, or is that a conceptual reach too far?)

  3. bensondonald Says:

    It’s the kind of farce where the key misunderstandings hinge on people continuing to unwittingly say or do the precise wrong thing. It’s tricky, as you either laugh at how impossibly high the house of cards gets, or you get frustrated that you’re supposed to worry that the house of cards will NOT fall down.

    “Top Hat” is similar: Ginger erroneously thinks Fred is married to her old chum, so his attentions are unseemly and offensive. The three characters talk together, and the conversation is carefully contrived so she never reveals her assumption (and isn’t trying to hide it), while Fred and the chum never say a word that reveals the chum’s husband is somebody else.

    “Swing Time”, a personal favorite (great Kern songs), is no less frothy but at least not dependent on wobbly misunderstandings. Fred has permission to marry a girl if he proves worthy by earning a certain amount of cash. He meets Ginger. On the one hand he’s Spoken For and is honor-bound to resist the chemistry (and can’t bring himself to tell Ginger why), but at the same time he carefully avoids earning enough money to marry the other girl (even bargaining his price DOWN in a negotiation).

    “Shall We Dance” makes Fred and Ginger the victims of perpetrated misunderstandings. Unable to disprove rumors of a secret marriage, they have to get a real divorce — which requires a real secret marriage anyway (great scene of them in adjoining rooms, as Ginger painfully resists the temptation of legal sex). There IS a standard misunderstanding over a girl in Fred’s room, but the marriage issue is a neat twist.

    “Carefee” is just plain weird. Psychiatrist / Hypnotist Fred agrees to make Ginger fall in love with a friend, but she takes to Fred instead. He resorts, successfully, to hypnosis. Then he decides he wants her and has to lift the spell or whatever. It raises all kinds of questions about the nature of love and medical ethics.

  4. I’m wavering over The Story of Mankind. In a way, too easy, since it is composed almost entirely of non-Marxian elements. Climaxing with Duck Soup seems more appealing.

    Wobbly farce plots are OK if the farce is funny — the Roger Rabbit rule of “only if it’s funny” is quite a good one, I think. I can understand why a friend of mine gets frustrated by Othello and Blood Simple and others, where the plots would collapse if any of the “good” guys said what was on their minds. But I’ll put up with elaborate, shaky constructions in drama too, if there’s thematic or emotional gold at the end of the gerry-built rainbow.

  5. bensondonald Says:

    True. But really enjoyable farce has some suspense — you’re worried for the good guys momentarily on the happy side of the misunderstanding or lie.

    “Some Like It Hot” makes convincing drag a matter of life and death; then you have the vulnerable Sugar in a romance built on lies and Jerry belatedly realizing it has to end with the truth.

    “Sons of the Desert”, meanwhile, makes clear that the boys’ deception has already failed (they saw the newsreel). The wives are now grenades with the pins pulled; the suspense is in how deep a hole the boys can unwittingly dig themselves before the explosion (Ollie’s sublime confidence before the seething Mae Busch is funnier than his slapstick fate).

    The same suspense exists in any comedy where the hero is caught up in an imposture (or is simply assumed to be more heroic or competent than he actually is) and cruises, willingly or not, to exposure. We know “The Freshman” will find out he’s nothing but a joke. And flipping that slightly, Charlie knows in “City Lights” that someday the girl will see him. Whatever the ending, we know That Moment is dead ahead.

    There are stakes. And often, a nervous inevitability.

  6. Oh, farce is an extremely suspenseful form. But my Big Theory, soon to be published, includes the idea that musicals don’t usually benefit from TOO much dramatic tension — you do want some, but you have to be able to suspend it almost completely for the songs, so it shouldn’t be too nerve-racking.

  7. chris schneider Says:

    I love the Eric Blore/Fred Astaire routine in GAY DIVORCEE about the word “whumsical,” which I take to be a tweaking of Pooh author A.A. Milne.

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