“A Heart-Load of Maddening Beauties.. In Gasping Gowns.. A Fortune in Furs.. A Ransom in Jewels.. In a Song-Studded Romance of Paris in Lovetime!”
Director: William A. Seiter
Cast: Irene Dunne, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
Synopsis: John Kent, visiting Paris with his bandleader friend, Huck Haines, suddenly inherits his aunt’s fashionable dress shop in the city. Although clueless about the fashion world, John and Huck get help from designer Stephanie and the fiery Countess Scharwenk…
The Broadway version of ‘Gowns by Roberta,’ upon which this movie is based, boasted a cast which included Fred MacMurray, Bob Hope and Sydney Greenstreet, which must have been something to see, but RKO filled the movie with an equally stellar cast including Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their third pairing, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, who smokes a pipe and says ‘Gee, that’s swell’ a lot. It’s unusual to see Scott out of his Western uniform and looking so young, but he provides able support to Astaire, whom the producers presumably felt was too funny looking to trust with a romantic lead. Astaire certainly is skinny, but he oozes class when he gets on the dance floor, and his leanness gave him a speed and dexterity that others lacked.
The story is the usual trifle. Astaire is the leader of a band called The Wabash Indianians who are mistakenly booked for an engagement in Paris and find themselves stranded without work when the mistake comes to light. Fortunately, John (Scott) has a wealthy fashion designer aunt named Roberta (Helen Westley) in Paris, so the band strike up at her place in the hope of some help. It just so happens that one of Roberta’s biggest clients is a fake Countess, Scharwenka (Rogers) who just happens to be an old flame of Astaire’s, and who is able to find the band work. At the same time, John falls for the charms of Stephanie (Dunne) his Aunt’s assistant. The usual romantic entanglements and misunderstandings follow, but it’s not the storyline that’s important. Astaire and Rogers movies were designed not only to showcase their dancing prowess, but to provide its audience with a glamorous escape from the harsh reality of a world in the midst of a global depression.
Roberta effortlessly succeeds in doing just this. It takes place in a world that never really existed outside of a Hollywood studio, a world in which outlandish coincidences are accepted without even the arching of an eyebrow and in which deposed Russian princes work as doormen. Astaire and Rogers light up the screen every time they enter into a dance number, but they’re prevented from doing so as often as we’d like thanks to the intrusive romantic sub-plot played out by Scott and Dunne. Dunne also gets a few numbers to sing, but she possesses one of those high, warbling voices that you feel could break glass if delivered just a little more forcefully.
Unfortunately, the rhythm of the movie is spoiled by the interminable fashion parade that takes place in the final act (and which features an un-credited Lucille Ball). The romantic misunderstandings I mentioned earlier revolve around a slinky black evening gown to which John objected. Well I’m here to tell you the man’s a fool: the frock was top class, and the model filled it out very nicely.
(Reviewed 27th July 2013)