ROBERTA (1935) B/W 106m dir: William A. Seiter
w/Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Randolph Scott, Helen Westley, Claire Dodd, Victor Varconi, Luis Alberni, Ferdinand Munier, Torben Meyer, Adrian Rosley, Bodil Rosing
Charming, leisurely-paced musical about a group of American entertainers who find themselves running a Parisian dress shop. Consistently entertaining, but the film really takes off whenever Fred and Ginger hit the dance floor.
This was only the third effort together by the famed dance team, after FLYING DOWN TO RIO and THE GAY DIVORCEE, and it's seldom seen. But, as Arlene Croce says in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book , "... 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, this 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."
From the website Alternate Ending (www.alternatending.com), this 2007 article about the film by Tim Brayton:
"By 1935, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were officially 'Fred & Ginger': RKO's biggest box-office draw, with a proper formula and screenplays being written just for them. But before their Golden Age began in earnest with the autumnal release of Top Hat, they had one last film on the learning curve: an adaptation of the Jerome Kern musical Roberta, co-starring Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott.
"(Full disclosure: there is only one actress from the 1930s that I have a bigger crush on than Irene Dunne. Her name is Ginger Rogers. Does this bias me in favor of the film? Hell, yeah).
"The clearest sign of the team's rising stock with RKO comes on the title card. Dunne was at this time one of the most popular actresses in America, and it goes pretty much without saying that she received top billing, but she had to share it. The opening credits go a little bit something like this: 'Radio Pictures Presents IRENE DUNNE / FRED ASTAIRE / GINGER ROGERS in ROBERTA.' Poor Randolph Scott, whose role was every bit as big as Ginger's and more central to the plot, would have to wait for the 'Also Starring' card.
"I've absolutely no familiarity with the play on which the film is based, but as it stands it feel curiously imbalanced, as though the Fred and Ginger characters were beefed up to justify their billing. It's really a four-lead romantic comedy: Huck Haines (Astaire) brings his band and his best friend John Kent (Scott) to Paris for work. Kent attempts to get his aunt Roberta (Helen Westley), the owner of an internationally famous dress house, to help find Huck employment, when he meets Roberta's dazzling assistant Stephanie (Dunne) and her biggest client, the Comtesse Scharwenka (Rogers) AKA Lizzie Getz, Huck's childhood sweetheart. Roberta's sudden death launches all of the expected romantic complications, as John and Stephanie try to run a dress shop, and Huck and Lizzie flirt and dance.
"Roberta usually gets slagged for having one of the weaker plots in the RKO cycle, but I don't know why. True, it's not as farcical as The Gay Divorcee or Top Hat, and it's nowhere near the screwball of their last two comedies, Shall We Dance and Carefree; but this can hardly be called surprising. Dunne was not a screwball comedienne yet (really, her only significant work in that genre would be 1937's The Awful Truth, but that film looms so large in the modern appreciation of the actress that I suppose we should forgive those with the impression is that she was an important comic actress), and this is at heart Dunne's film. It's really much more of a gently amusing romantic film, with most of the outright comedy coming from the interplay between Fred and Ginger, or just from Ginger being sarcastic. Shocking.
"So while there's no doubt that this is the most tonally disparate film the duo made between 1934 and 1938, it's not really fair to judge it that way. And set in its proper context --- the year 1935 --- it fares considerably better. Still not a masterpiece for the ages, but perfectly rewarding. It's one of those things where if you don't like old movies, you won't change your mind. The direction by William Seiter doesn't help at all --- Mark Sandrich, right out of the box, was a better fit for Astaire's rather anal needs, even though he didn't always flatter Ginger. Seiter was much more of a contract director, if that makes sense --- get 'er done, don't care if it's interesting (also, he directed my least favorite Marx Bros. film, Room Service, but that's not really his fault). I will confess that he, perhaps inadvertently, oversees the film that really nails the art deco look in sets and costumes that were introduced in the last film and will dominate the cycle going forward.
"Although it's easy to look forward at the great numbers to come and sniff disdainfully at what we see here, the dances are all a step up from The Gay Divorcee, 'Night and Day' notwithstanding. Above all, this is the first time that we see what would become an Astaire & Rogers specialty: the dance where Fred does something fancy to outclass Ginger, she peevishly does it right back, etc. They're the 'improvised' dances, if you will, insofar as they're designed to look like the actors are making them up on the spot, although that's of course not the case at all. Anyway, the dance in question is 'I'll Be Hard to Handle,' a cute number where Ginger sings (in a fake Polish accent that works many times better than Fred's Russian in Shall We Dance) about how she's too much for any man. It's a little sexy, but much more like a couple defiant kids, and it's both one of the most-motivated and best-achieved of these types of dances.
"The biggest problem is that there's nothing else for a good long while. Like so many '30's musicals, Roberta is a film in which there are scattered songs, but most of the dancing is held up for the end. So we get to see a couple of fine Fred solos: 'Let's Begin,' which is annoyingly cut up and hard to follow, and the famous 'I Won't Dance' (ported over from another Kern stage musical), which is certainly his most fun solo dance in any film to this point; but Fred & Ginger don't get to do their thing again until the last ten minutes of the movie.
"In the meantime, there are two songs performed by Irene Dunne, 'Yesterdays' and 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.' Both of them are lovely as such --- I hardly need to mention that, 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes' is one of the most famous songs of the 20th century --- but Dunne ... okay, every single source I can find assures me that Dunne had a lovely, operatically-trained voice (strike one: I hate that period of opera singing), but it's really hard to tell. The sound recording technologies of 1935 were, how shall we say, limited, and all of her high notes are harsh and unpleasant. It's nobody's fault, and yet it's a significant flaw in the film, anyway. I'm sorry to have to say it.
"So, the end comes: a lengthy, Ziegfeld-style revue number written for the film called 'Lovely to Look At,' in which Fred talks about clothing, then the plots resolve (the obligatory scene where Fred and Ginger become engaged is just about the sweetest in any of their films together), and the two dancers return for an encore. There's no point to it, plotwise, but it's the highlight of Roberta: 'Lovely to Look At,' then 'Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,' then 'I Won't Dance' all get reprised, with Fred and Ginger doing what they do. It's not shockingly innovative, that won't come for another film, but it's charming and wonderful. What they do, after all, has never been improved on. As low-key as it is, Roberta is unquestionably a fine romantic musical. Legends are built on fine foundations.
"They asked me how I knew,
My true love was true,
I of course replied,
'Something here inside
Can not be denied.'
"They said, 'Some day you'll find,
All who love are blind,
When you heart's on fire,
You must realize,
Smoke gets in your eyes.'"
ROBERTA was nominated for an Oscar for Best Song ("Lovely to Look At" by Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh).