Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers co-starred in eight films, and appeared in two additional gems as supporting players. Their young adult charm, their middle-aged charm, their ageless charm continues to draw new and veteran viewers to their reparte, to their fluid and to their staccato movements, to their entrancing presence on-screen. And its their supporting players that bring me back over and over again.
The Gay Divorcee was released in 1934 as their first co-starring vehicle. The movie features a vaudeville-inspired script, a Hollywoodized version of several European cities, our two stars and a broad ensemble of players. Songs include “Don’t Let It Bother You”, “Night and Day” (“Like the beat beat beat of the tom tom, when the summer shadows fall …”), and the endless production number of “The Continental”.
Arlene Croce in her masterwork of nuanced critical writing in the midst of unabashed fandom, the quintessential The Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers Book (1972) begins an analysis of the film in this way (p. 32):
“When one considers that only ten minutes out of the total running time of The Gay Divorcee are taken up by the dancing of Astaire alone or with Rogers, the film’s enduring popularity seems more then ever a tribute to the power of what those minutes contain. For their first co-starring film, the studio surrounded Astaire and Rogers with a great deal of “protective” tissue — a lot of clowning by Edward Everett Horton, the incessant Alice Brady, and two more farceurs brought in from the stage production, Erik Rhodes and Eric Blore. There are songs and dances by other performers than the stars, and there’s a great giddy whirligig of a production number. It all falls away in retrospect.”
I find Astaire and Rogers enchanting of course in this film. I could live in the “Night and Day” production number, and the open gorgeousness of Rogers and the easy smooth movements of their dancing. And yet, and yet … I find the enduring charm of this movie in the supporting characters as much as the stars. I return for soul lightening laughs to a single scene involving Edward Everett Horton as Egbert Fitzgerald and Eric Blore as an unnamed waiter at a seaside resort.
Egbert sits at a poolside table and the Waiter played by Blore approaches. Both characters boast British accents: Horton’s character a bit posh; Blore’s waiter character a bit broader.
Waiter: Pardon, you, you uh rang sir?
Egbert: Who me? Well, my dear fellow, what is there here to ring with?
Waiter: Pardon sir, that’s just a figure of speech.
Egbert: Oh, oh. Uhuh. Well, bring me a .. let me have a .. eh, there there. You see? Your figure of speech has made me forget entirely what I wanted.
Waiter: Could it have been that you require crumpets?
Egbert: No no no, I never ring for crumpets.
Waiter: Would you be the kind of man who would ring for a toasted scone, sir?
Egbert: Scone? Well, now uh, no. no. try me again.
Waiter: Well, then could you, could you imagine yourself with a hankering for a nice gooseberry tart?
Egbert: Oh what an acid thought. Please.
Waiter: No crumpets. No scones. No gooseberry tart. Well that lands both of us in a cul-de-sac doesn’t it, sir?
Egbert: Of course it does. I knew it would.
Waiter: You know I hate to leave you like this. You torn with doubts and me with my duty undischarged.
Egbert: Oh well cheer up old man, cheer up. It will come to me.
Waiter: Was it animal or vegetable sir?
Waiter: Well that leaves us mineral doesn’t it sir. Now sir, was it a bit of half and half, a noggin of ale, a pipkin of porter, a stoop of stout, or a beaker of beer.
Waiter: Tea. Ha. Well isn’t it a small world sir.
The Gay Divorcee (1934). Egbert Fitzgerald and Waiter
© Martha Wade Steketee (November 29, 2009)