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teaser Roberta (1935)

After three films together, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers officiallybecame a team in Roberta (1935), an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. Thetwo had scored with a novelty number, "The Carioca," in FlyingDown to Rio (1933), in which they only played supporting roles. Then thestudio tried them out together as stars in The Gay Divorcee (1934),adapted from Astaire's stage hit The Gay Divorce. But their rise tobecome the screen's top musical duo would not be clearly established untiladvanced word on that film led RKO studio head Pandro S. Berman to re-shapeRoberta to incorporate his two new stars.

Roberta had been a stage success in 1933, before the Astaire-Rogersteam was even born. In fact, Berman bought the Jerome Kern show as avehicle for the studio's reigning star, Irene Dunne. Despite a recentdecision to cut expenses, he outbid MGM and Paramount for the screen rightsto the tune of $65,000. Dunne was set to play a Russian princess who hascarved a new career as a fashion designer in Paris when she falls for thebumptious American nephew of her elderly employer. With strong advanceword on The Gay Divorcee, Berman got to work developing a newvehicle for the Astaire-Rogers team. Meanwhile, he combined twosupporting roles from the stage version of Roberta to create astronger part for Astaire (He combined the bandleader character originally played by Bob Hope with the dancer played on the stage by George Murphy). For Rogers, he transformed the bogus Polish countess played by Lyda Roberti from a minor romantic complication for theleads to a new love interest for Astaire. Jane Murfin, who had craftedmany of RKO's most successful women's pictures, was assigned to shape theromantic story, while Sam Mintz, Glenn Tryon and Allan Scott were hired topunch up the gags. Scott would go on to contribute dialogue and scenes for the next fiveAstaire-Rogers films at RKO.

The film retained four numbers from the original Jerome Kern score,including "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," which would provide both a vocal solofor Dunne and a dazzling dance duet for Rogers and Astaire, and "I'll BeHard to Handle," a comic number that provided the dancers with their firstbig number in the film. That duet was a rarity in the team's filmstogether. It's improvisational nature, with the two trading steps as theband rehearses the song in the background, presented them as equallyskilled dancers, something that occurs in only one other Astaire-Rogersmusical (The Barkleys of Broadway, 1949). In most of their filmstogether, Astaire is always presented as the better of the two. To keepthe number's improvisational feel, they recorded the music live on film (asopposed to pre-recording it and playing it back while shooting the sequencewithout sound). Although some of the taps aren't as crisp as in othernumbers, the live sound retains Rogers' spontaneous yelps of joy as theytrade steps.

The score also included two Kern numbers not heard in the stage version. For thefashion show, he wrote "Lovely to Look At," teaming with lyricist, DorothyFields for the first time. They would win an Oscar® nomination forBest Song and go on to several successful collaborations, including theOscar®-winning "The Way You Look Tonight," written for Astaire andRogers a year later for Swing Time. Also new to the film was "IWon't Dance," though the number had been around for a few years.Originally, Kern had written it with Oscar Hammerstein, Jr. for TheThree Sisters, a musical that had flopped in London. Fields suppliednew lyrics, including a reference to the earlier Astaire-Rogers dance hit,"The Continental," and it provided Astaire with a dazzling dancesolo.

RKO produced Roberta on a lavish scale with a budget of $750,000, agood portion of which went to the film's costumes. In addition to thepicture's climactic fashion show -- which includes a very young, veryblonde Lucille Ball in her first on-screen close-ups -- Robertafeatured a $6,000 fur coat worn by Dunne. Press releases revealed to viewersthat the star had to be followed around the lot by a fireman to protect onehighly flammable haute couture creation.

The extravagance paid off when Roberta opened at the Radio CityMusic Hall to rave reviews and socko box office. But for decades, those1935 audiences and a few art-museum patrons were the only ones lucky enoughto see the film. MGM bought re-make rights in the mid-'40s, though it tookthem until 1952 to release their own version, Lovely to Look At.The re-make stars Kathryn Grayson in Irene Dunne's role, with Red Skeltonand Ann Miller as the bandleader and his dancing girlfriend. To protecttheir investment, MGM kept Roberta in the vaults for decades exceptfor occasional screenings at art museums. The picture was not sold totelevision until the '70s.

Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: William A. Seiter
Screenplay: Jane Murfin, Sam Mintz, Allan Scott, Glenn Tryon
Based on the Musical by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach and the novel GownsBy Roberta by Alice Duer Miller
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase, Carroll Clark
Music: Max Steiner
Principal Cast: Irene Dunne (Stephanie), Fred Astaire (Huck Haines), Ginger Rogers (Countess Scharwenka/Lizzie Gatz), Randolph Scott (John Kent), Helen Westley (Roberta/Aunt Minnie), Victor Varconi (Ladislaw), Claire Dodd (Sophie), Luis Alberni (Voyda), Lucille Ball (Mannequin).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.

by Frank Miller

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