Cast & Crew
William A. Seiter
Because he was expecting American Indians, Alexander Voyda, the owner of the Cafe Russe in Paris, refuses to honor his engagement contract with the Wabash Indianians, an all-white jazz band led by the versatile Huck Haines. With no immediate job prospects in Paris, the band follows John Kent, a former college football star who is traveling with them, to Roberta's, an exclusive dressmaking shop run by John's aunt, Minnie. There John meets Stephanie, Minnie's devoted assistant and an exiled Russian princess, while Huck runs into Lizzie Gatz, a former lover who is masquerading as the tempermental cabaret performer, Comtesse "Tanka" Scharwenka. To assure Huck's silence, Lizzie arranges for the Wabash Indianians to audition at the Russe Cafe, unaware that Voyda has already rejected them. In spite of the band's impressive audition, Voyda refuses to hire them until Lizzie threatens to sing at a rival club. Then John, whose snobbish fiancée, Sophie Teale, had broken their engagement because of his simple country ways, is "made over" by Stephanie and Minnie. A short time later, Minnie dies of a heart attack, and John inherits Roberta's. After some argument, John and Stephanie agree to form a partnership and run the business together. When Sophie reads of John's new venture, she leaves America and heads for Paris, her romantic interests suddenly rekindled. Although jealous and hurt, Stephanie, who has fallen in love with John, feigns indifference to her forceful rival. However, when Sophie insists on buying a revealing dress that John had previously ordered removed from the collection, Huck and Stephanie sell it to her, knowing that John will react violently upon seeing it on her. As predicted, John fumes at the sight of the tasteless dress, causing Sophie to storm away from the Cafe Russe in a huff. Then Stephanie, who is singing for a group of fellow Russians, admits that she sold Sophie the dress and is denounced by John. After both Stephanie and John desert the business, Huck fills in for them temporarily but shows no talent for fashion design. To save Roberta's reputation, Stephanie agrees to design a line of clothes for an upcoming fashion show, at which Huck, Lizzie and she will also perform. During the show, John shows up and hears that Stephanie is going to marry Ladislaw, an exiled Russian prince. In spite of the show's success, which has inspired Lizzie to accept Huck's proposal, John prepares to leave Paris until Stephanie confesses her love and assures him that Ladislaw is her cousin, not her lover.
William A. Seiter
Donna Mae Roberts
Pandro S. Berman
P. J. Faulkner Jr.
Robert De Grasse
Oscar Hammerstein Ii
James F. Hanley
Thomas K. Little
Van Nest Polglase
C. C. Thompson
C. J. White
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
Ginger Rogers accent is a homage to the Polish-born actress Lyda Roberti who played the role on Broadway.
During "I Won't Dance," Ginger Rogers sings to Fred Astaire: "But when you dance you're charming and you're gentle/ Especially when you do the Continental," referring to the dance in their previous film, Gay Divorcee, The (1934). The two then strike a pose from that number while the band plays a riff.
Bugle call: see also Gay Divorcee, The (1934), Follow the Fleet (1936).
The original Broadway production featured such actors as Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray, Sydney Greenstreet and 'George Murphy' . In the film, Fred Astaire's role is a combination of Bob Hope and George Murphy's role, and Sydney Greenstreet's role is played by Ferdinand Munier.
The play Roberta was based on the novel Gowns by Roberta by Alice Duer Miller. Both works are credited on screen as sources for the film. Roberta was composer Jerome Kern's last Broadway musical. In the stage play, Bob Hope played "Huck," Tamara portrayed "Stephanie" and Lyda Roberti, whose heavily accented "scat singing" Ginger Rogers imitated in the film, played "Lizzie." Four songs from the stage play-"Smoke Gets in Your Eyes," "Yesterdays," "I'll Be Hard to Handle" and "Let's Begin"-were used in the film. As background music, RKO included three other compositions from the stage play-"You're Devastating," "The Touch of Your Hand" and "Don't Ask Me Not to Sing." "I Won't Dance" was first performed as part of a 1934 Kern/Otto Harbach musical, Three Sisters. Oscar Hammerstein II's lyrics were altered and augmented by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh. "Lovely to Look At" was composed for the film and received an Academy Award nomination. In the onscreen credits, Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh are credited with "additional lyrics." Modern sources comment that, to avoid censorship problems, RKO altered some of Harbach's original lyrics.
Production on Roberta began while RKO's immensely successful The Gay Divorcee, which also starred Rogers and Astaire, was still playing in theaters. According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, RKO postponed shooting on Roberta to accommodate Ginger Rogers' marriage to Lew Ayres. RKO borrowed Randolph Scott from Paramount for the production, which marked Lucille Ball's RKO debut, and was the first film in which dance director Hermes Pan received a screen credit. Roberta was also the feature film debut of actress Virginia Reid, who was better known in the late 1930s and 1940s by the name Lynne Carver. Hollywood Reporter production news items and casting announcements add the following actors to the cast: Lorna Lowe, Chris Mario Meeker, Zena Savine, Anna Delinsky, Madame Borguet, Etienne Girardot, Gene Sheldon, and George Davis. Their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Modern sources complete the above-mentioned casting as follows: Lorna Lowe (Model), Gene Sheldon (Orchestra member), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Teale) and William Davidson (Purser). According to Hollywood Reporter, Lorna Lowe was cast without a screen test after producer Lee Marcus "spotted her" in a crowd of 872 "dress extras."
A contemporary article in Liberty stated that the production cost about $750,000, with a third of the money going to salaries for the principals and two-thirds paying for production costs, including Bernard Newman's gowns, which cost $250,000. An April 1935 Hollywood Reporter news item referred to Roberta as RKO's "biggest drawing card" and noted that the film broke box office records everywhere it had played. The running time for February 1935 previews of the film was listed in reviews as 85 minutes, 20 minutes less than the general release running time, suggesting that considerable footage May have been added to the final release prints.
Modern sources add the following information about the film: While en route to London to see Gay Divorce in December 1933, RKO production head Pandro S. Berman saw the hit stage show Roberta in New York. A few months later, RKO outbid Paramount and M-G-M and bought the rights to the play for $65,000. Just prior to this purchase, RKO bought the rights to Ringstrasse, a play by Hungarian playwright Aladar Laszlo, with the intention of "Americanizing" it as a vehicle for Rogers and Astaire. Allan Scott prepared a treatment for the film version of Ringstrasse, renamed The World By the Tail, and May have hired Kern, who had recently moved to Los Angeles, to work on the project as well. Eventually, however, the Hungarian play was replaced by Roberta. According to a modern interview with screenwriter Allan Scott, several scenes for the film were written during production and were sent by telegram to the set by Scott and Berman, who were traveling across country by train at the time. The rehearsal period lasted for nine weeks. Astaire choreographed his dance routines two weeks before Kern had finished the score. Hal Borne, Astaire's real-life rehearsal pianist and a member of the film's "Wabash Indianians," played piano off-screen as part of a duet with Astaire in the "I Won't Dance" number. Roberta made RKO $770,000 in profits.
Many modern sources comment on the importance of Roberta in the careers of Rogers and Astaire, claiming that the film cemented the performers' partnership in a way that neither The Gay Divorcee nor Flying Down to Rio had. Additional modern cast credits include Mike Tellegen and Sam Savitsky (Cossacks), Howard Lally and Bill Carey, (Orchestra members), Dale Van Sickel (Dance extra) and Judith Vosselli and Rita Gould. Modern Crew credits include Mel Berns (Make-up artist) and John Miehle (Still photographer).
In 1952, RKO sold the rights to Roberta to M-G-M, which remade the story as Lovely to Look At, with Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton and Howard Keel starring and Mervyn LeRoy directing. Modern sources state that because M-G-M owned Roberta, the film was not broadcast on television for many years. Two NBC television versions of the play starring Bob Hope were broadcast in 1955 and 1958. For additional information about the RKO Astaire-Rogers films, see entry for Top Hat.
Released in United States 1935
Released in United States March 1977
Released in USA on laserdisc September 1991.
Released in United States 1935
Released in United States March 1977 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Mighty Musical Movie Marathon) March 9-27, 1977.)