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The musical The Gay Divorce was based on the unproduced play An Adorable Adventure by J. Hartley Manners. The working title of the film was The Gay Divorce. According to a July 1934 New York Times article, RKO changed the title to avoid censorship problems with the PCA. Modern sources contend, however, that the title change was instigated not by the Hays Office, but by RKO itself, which offered fifty dollars to any employee who could come up with a better title. In his autobiography, Fred Astaire claims that director Mark Sandrich told him that the title The Gay Divorcee was selected because the studio "thought it was a more attractive-sounding title, centered around a girl." Modern sources claim that studio executives changed the word "divorce" to "divorcee" because, while they believed that a divorcee could be gay, a divorce could not. The original stage title was restored for British release prints.
Astaire, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore appeared in the Broadway production and recreated their roles for the film. Only one song from the stage musical, "Night and Day," was used in the film. According to a March 1934 Hollywood Reporter news item, RKO executive producer Pandro Berman approached Fox's Roy Del Ruth to direct, but refused to pay Ruth's $40,000 a picture salary. A Hollywood Reporter news item announced that Sandrich filmed shots for the English countryside scenes in Clear Lake, CA, and RKO production files indicate that additional exteriors were shot in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara, CA. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Brandon Hurst was cast in the film, but his participation in the final film has not been confirmed. According to files contained in the MPAA/PCA files at the AMPAS Library, in a June 22, 1934 letter, James Wingate, Director of the Studio Relations Office of the MPAA/PCA, warned Berman that "considering the delicate nature of the subject upon which this script is based...great care should be taken in the scenes dealing with Mimi's lingerie, and... no intimate article should be used." Wingate added that the word co-respondent should be replaced with "something less pointed," and insisted that none of the actors appear in pajamas in the film. In a July 2, 1934 letter, Wingate noted that the song title "Let's K-nock K-nees" had been rejected by his office and suggested that the phrase also be delected from the lyrics. (It wasn't). In a studio memorandum, music soundman Murray Spivack advised the producers that "due to censorship, it was necessary to change [the] lyrics to 'Let's K-nock K-nees,'" but added that because songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Revel were busy working on a production at Paramount, another writer would have to be hired to do the rewrites. The identity of the songwriter has not been determined, but according to a August 4, 1934 letter from MPAA/PCA director Joseph I. Breen, the second chorus of "Let's K-nock K-nees" was altered and approved "from the standpoint of the Production Code and censorship." Breen cautioned in a July 31, 1934 letter that "the scenes having to do with Mimi's skirt being caught in the locked trunk should all be handled with great care to avoid any objectionable exposure of her person." Con Conrad and Herb Magidson won the first Academy Award for Best Song for their composition "The Continental." (The song "The Carioca," which was the big Astaire-Rogers number of RKO's 1933 musical Flying Down to Rio, was also included in the balloting.) The film was nominated as Best Picture but lost to Columbia's It Happened One Night. Other Academy Award nominations included Best Art Direction (Van Nest Polglase and Carroll Clark), Best Score (Max Steiner) and Best Sound Recording (Carl Dreher, head of RKO's sound department).
Modern sources add the following information about the production: After the success of Flying Down to Rio, the first RKO film to team Rogers and Astaire, the studio planned a follow-up film, in which Rogers and Astaire would be the stars, called Radio City Revels. When RKO's acting production head, Pandro Berman, suggested that The Gay Divorce, then a hit play on Broadway, be used as a follow-up to Radio City Revels, Lou Brock, who had produced Flying Down to Rio and was slated to produce the follow-up pictures, ridiculed the idea. Although Brock disliked the play and its libretto, which he thought was antequated, Berman went ahead and purchased the screen rights for $20,000 after seeing the play in London. Plans for Radio City Revels were eventually dropped, and Brock went on to produce another film, Down to Their Last Yacht, which had been considered briefly as a replacement for Radio City Revels. (In 1938, RKO made a film called Radio City Revels, but that film had no connection to the Astaire-Rogers project.) After Berman chose to produce The Gay Divorce himself, he asked Cole Porter to write new songs for the film but was turned down. Berman hired Mark Sandrich and then assigned Zion Myers, Sandrich's cousin, to supervise the production. Before Flying Down to Rio had established itself as a hit, RKO considered hiring Claire Luce, Astaire's stage co-star, to appear as "Mimi" in the film. When Astaire balked at the idea of casting Rogers, who he felt would not be right playing the refined English woman of the stage show, Berman supposedly offered him ten percent of the film's profits as incentive to concede. The studio originally wanted Helen Broderick to play "Hortense," but the actress was unavailable for the part.
According to Astaire's autobiography, the cast "rehearsed for about six weeks on the dance routines, those tricky ones like 'Night and Day' and the table dance I brought from the stage show." (Astaire at one point wanted to drop the "Night and Day" number from the film because he felt the song had been overexposed.) Choreographer Hermes Pan acted as a liaison between Astaire, who was adapting his stage choreography, and credited choreographer Dave Gould. While Pan planned the majority of the group choreography for the film, Gould worked on the cinematic aspects of the dancing, planning camera angles and creating the look of the choreography. As part of the film's promotion, RKO organized "Continental" demonstrations and parties and encouraged dancing instructors and ballrooms to teach and highlight the dance. Although the film was a success, "The Continental" failed to catch on as a popular dance. However, Polglase and Clark's set design in the "Continental" sequence reportedly caused an increase in the sales of venetian blinds.
Modern sources credit Ben Holmes as dialogue director, Hal Borne as Astaire's rehearsal pianist, Mel Berns as makeup artist and Elizabeth McGaffey as researcher. In addition, modern sources credit actors George Davis and Alphonse Martel as French waiters. For more information about the Astaire-Rogers RKO films, see entry for Top Hat.