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Musical Paris
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Friday July, 27 2018 at 09:30 AM

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

Roberta had been a stage success in 1933, before the Astaire-Rogers team was even born. In fact, Berman bought the Jerome Kern show as a vehicle for the studio's reigning star, Irene Dunne. Despite a recent decision to cut expenses, he outbid MGM and Paramount for the screen rights to the tune of $65,000. Dunne was set to play a Russian princess who has carved a new career as a fashion designer in Paris when she falls for the bumptious American nephew of her elderly employer. With strong advance word on The Gay Divorcee, Berman got to work developing a new vehicle for the Astaire-Rogers team. Meanwhile, he combined two supporting roles from the stage version of Roberta to create a stronger 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 the leads to a new love interest for Astaire. Jane Murfin, who had crafted many of RKO's most successful women's pictures, was assigned to shape the romantic story, while Sam Mintz, Glenn Tryon and Allan Scott were hired to punch up the gags. Scott would go on to contribute dialogue and scenes for the next five Astaire-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 solo for Dunne and a dazzling dance duet for Rogers and Astaire, and "I'll Be Hard to Handle," a comic number that provided the dancers with their first big number in the film. That duet was a rarity in the team's films together. It's improvisational nature, with the two trading steps as the band rehearses the song in the background, presented them as equally skilled dancers, something that occurs in only one other Astaire-Rogers musical (The Barkleys of Broadway, 1949). In most of their films together, Astaire is always presented as the better of the two. To keep the number's improvisational feel, they recorded the music live on film (as opposed to pre-recording it and playing it back while shooting the sequence without sound). Although some of the taps aren't as crisp as in other numbers, the live sound retains Rogers' spontaneous yelps of joy as they trade steps.

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

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

The extravagance paid off when Roberta opened at the Radio City Music Hall to rave reviews and socko box office. But for decades, those 1935 audiences and a few art-museum patrons were the only ones lucky enough to see the film. MGM bought re-make rights in the mid-'40s, though it took them until 1952 to release their own version, Lovely to Look At. The re-make stars Kathryn Grayson in Irene Dunne's role, with Red Skelton and Ann Miller as the bandleader and his dancing girlfriend. To protect their investment, MGM kept Roberta in the vaults for decades except for occasional screenings at art museums. The picture was not sold to television 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 Gowns By 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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