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William A. Seiter
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Football player John Kent tags along as Huck Haines and the Wabash Indianians travel to an engagement in Paris, only to lose it immediately. John and company visit his aunt, owner of a posh fashion house run by her assistant, Stephanie. There they meet the singer Scharwenka (alias Huck's old friend Lizzie), who gets the band a job. Meanwhile, Madame Roberta passes away and leaves the business to John and he goes into partnership with Stephanie. Written by
Diana Hamilton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
When John Kent arrives in Paris and goes to the building where Roberta lives, the doorman tells him that she is on the "troisième étage " and indicates that John should press the corresponding button. John is eventually taken to Roberta on the third floor, which is incorrect since the "troisième étage " corresponds to the fourth floor. In France, the "premiere étage" (first floor) is not the ground floor but the next one up. See more »
ROBERTA (RKO Radio, 1935), directed by William A. Seiter, from the then current Broadway play, and from the novel, "Gowns by Roberta," marks the third pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but a return to playing comedic supporting roles, yet, having more footage than from their initial pairing in FLYING DOWN TO RIO (RKO, 1933). Not as well known nor popular as their other musical outings, ROBERTA may come off today as a disappointment, in fact, a rather dull musical film, but in reality, it's a different kind of Astaire-Rogers film, which centers mostly on displaying the latest fashions from Paris than on dance numbers. It is also a rare case found in their musicals where one of the central characters dies. When Astaire and Rogers dance on screen, they succeed into making every precious moment count, while the romantic plot involving its leading stars, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott, presents itself as satisfying but not entirely interesting. And as with the early Astaire and Rogers musicals, this one, too, has the Continental flavor or European background, this time opening in La Havre and later settling down to Paris, France. Again, this is a reworking of a stage play and looks it, without the use of real projection backdrops of the streets of Paris nor a car chase to speed up the pacing.
Let's begin: John Kent (Randolph Scott), an All-American football player and coach comes to Paris to visit his Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley), known nationally as "Roberta," who has left the United States years ago earning her fortune in Paris as a dressmaker. Accompanying John is his friend, band-leader Huckleberry "Hunk" Haines (Fred Astaire), and his group of Wabash Indianians. John later becomes acquainted with Stephanie (Irene Dunne), Roberta's head designer, and her cousin, Ladislaw (Victor Varconi), who works as a doorman. Unknown to John, Stephanie and Ladislaw are both of Russian royalty. Along the way is a Polish countess, Scharwenka (Ginger Rogers), who shows she's hard to handle towards Stephanie when unsatisfied with the dresses presented to her. When Hunk is introduced to the countess, he recognizes her as Elizabeth "Lizzie" Gatz, a former girlfriend from back home. Because of her influence in Paris, Lizzie helps Hunk and the band obtain jobs at the Cafe Russe. All goes well until Roberta dies, leaving John to inherit the dress shop, and the visitation of Sophie Keel (Claire Dodd), a snobbish girl John once loved, now back in his life, complicating matters between him and Stephanie.
While the plot plays at a leisure pace, the songs, by Jerome Kern, with additional lyrics by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, help it along. The musical program includes: "Let's Begin" (sung by Fred Astaire and Candy Candido); "Russian Folk Song" (sung by Irene Dunne); "I'll Be Hard to Handle" (sung by Ginger Rogers/danced by Astaire and Rogers); "Yesterdays" (sung by Irene Dunne); "I Won't Dance" (sung by Rogers and Astaire/ dance solo by Astaire); "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (sung by Irene Dunne); "Lovely to Look At" (sung by Dunne, later reprised by Astaire and Rogers); "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" (instrumental dance by Astaire and Rogers); and "I Won't Dance" (finale, danced by Astaire and Rogers).
Many of the songs presented are pleasing to the ear, with Irene Dunne solos hitting the high note. ROBERTA plays more like a 1940s MGM musical, in slower tempo scoring and minus Technicolor. In fact, it was MGM that later purchased the rights to ROBERTA and remade it as LOVELY TO LOOK AT (1952) starring Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton and Howard Keel. Both film versions are currently presented on cable's Turner Classic Movies for comparison.
Of the ten Astaire and Rogers musicals, ROBERTA was the only holdout to commercial television, destined not to ever be seen again. Whether it was because MGM had a hold on it so not to have it compared with its splashing Technicolored remake, or that the movie itself would not hold any interest towards a newer generation of movie goers, is anybody's guess. Fortunately, ROBERTA was brought back from the entombment of a studio vault in the 1970s, first at revival movie houses, then to commercial television. When ROBERTA made its New York television premiere September 25, 1977, on WOR, Channel 9 (the former home of the RKO Radio film library), and for Astaire and Rogers devotees, it was a long awaited event. Unseen commercially since the early 1940s, one critic of a local newspaper complimented Channel 9 for bringing back this long unseen musical gem, and writing, "It's about time!" Availability on both VHS and DVD should assure lasting appeal.
With a combination of Irene Dunne's singing, Randolph Scott's repeatedly reciting the catch phrase of "swell," and a very lengthly fashion show finale with models (one of them being the very blonde Lucille Ball) in fashion gowns pacing the floors back and forth, the classic moments, which are few, are Astaire's solo dancing to "I Won't Dance," and the beautiful duet of Astaire and Rogers dancing to "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes."
One final note, Ginger Rogers displays some fine comedic talent playing a Polish countess and supporting an thick accent that echoes that of comedienne Lyda Roberti. And why not? It was Roberti who appeared as Scharwenka in the Broadway production. Because the Astaire and Rogers combination was hot, it was obvious that Roberti would not get to reprise her original role, nor anyone else for that matter.
ROBERTA does have its moments of greatness when it comes to dances, and slow points when it comes to its plot, but all in all, it's worth viewing. And to get to hear the songs, like "Opening Night," "The Touch of Your Hand" and "You're Devastating," which were all discarded from this version, but heard as instrumental background, one would have to sit through the 1952 remake. While LOVELY TO LOOK AT (1952) has color, ROBERTA (1935) has class. (****)
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