Monday, March 14, 2016

Roberta (1935)

Absence makes the heart grow stronger. A lesson well-learned while watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' third film together, as the dynamic duo play second fiddle to Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott's soggy romance.

No one goes to a Astaire/Rogers movie for the plot, so in brief: Americans Astaire and Scott are in Paris; Scott fall for Russian princess Dunne (barely attempting an accent), while Astaire chills with old flame turned fake Countess turned successful singer Rogers. Shenanigans ensue around the titular Roberta fashion house, interspersed with songs by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach.

Far too much screen time is given to Dunne and Scott, whose old hat movie courtship of meet cute, breaking up over misunderstanding, and final reconciliation sealed with a clinch, is played mostly straight, and bogs down the film. To help slow the pace further, Dunne somberly and shrilly sings four songs, including the classics "Yesterdays," "Smoke Get in Your Eyes" and "Lovely to Look at."

Compared to Dunne's glass-shattering operetta, Astaire's melo crooning and Rogers' wisecracking are welcome respites. Together, they are a joy; the "antagonism turning into love" arc that populates so many of their movies is nowhere to be seen, and they begin and end as pals, kidding around, even when they're dancing.

And what dancing! My God, all their numbers here are classics. Astaire gets two lighthearted solos, "Let's Begin" and "I Won't Dance," and 3 duets with Rogers: The fun "I'll be Hard to Handle,"

the divine "Lovely to Look at" that follows Dunne's trilling,

and the knock-out, boisterous finale that closes the movie.

It's a tribute to the silver-screen sparkle Astaire and Rogers could create together that the movie is watchable. Without them, it would have been a forgotten triffle. With them, it's a minor classic with moments of magic.

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