Approved, which is funny because the movie kind of reminds me of the sweetest version of a pre-code film. Yeah, it's Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but it is all about adultery, affairs, and divorce. It kind of glorifies it too. It's a really weird narrative to have for a movie from 1934. But also, the movie would only kind exist in the bubble it is in. It's this paradoxical mix of conservative values coupled with ultra progressive ideas. Regardless, despite having a whimsical tone, it actually is oddly dark the more I think about it.
DIRECTOR: Mark Sandrich
I need to come to terms with the fact that I don't know everything. Every time I think I understand how history and culture work, there's something like The Gay Divorcee to remind me that I know nothing (Jon Snow). It's not like The Gay Divorcee is even remotely revolutionary. We're looking at an era of spectacle. This is as fluffy as a movie can get. But as I mentioned in my MPAA section, it's absolutely bizarre that a light-hearted romantic comedy musical can be so aggressively uncomfortable at times. I mean, my wife is also mad that I watched this without her, so there's a lot of emotions swirling this blog entry.
I mean, at a basic look, it is the comedy of errors. I always find the format of the comedy of errors remarkably complex. It's a murder mystery of absurdity (not literally) and all of the pieces have to fit for anything to make sense. The audience has to be believe that coincidence exists outside of a vacuum. It hinges on the most impressive dramatic irony possible and assumes that everything is going to work out. But with the message of The Gay Divorcee, there's such a level of absurdity to get to a true happy ending that it almost boggles the mind. After all, Mimi has to be intentionally caught in a tryst so that her husband will have no choice but to divorce her. That's the actual goal of the film. Her best case scenario is that she gets divorced from her husband. I don't know if that's the cheeriest of plots. But to couple with the ickiness factor, famous dancer Guy Holden spends the majority of the movie aggressively hitting on Mimi. When she reveals that she's married, he's oddly cool with the fact that they're getting a divorce.
Now, perhaps I'm an old stick in the mud, but any time a romantic comedy plays fast and loose with adultery, I get a bad taste in my mouth. I watch Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies because I absolutely adore the dancing. (I'm also comfortable with my admiration for really impressive dancing.) So on the one hand, we have a really light-hearted comedy full of really impressive dancing whenever it gets the chance to show it off. But on the other end of the scale, the film is just about adultery and ignoring "no means no". Because that is the message of the movie: "No" really means "Yes". Guy Holden, as sweet as he seems with his friends, is rejected time and again. He's actually deservedly rejected because he does the chauvinistic thing when given a choice.
For the sake of comedy, we have a parallel repeat of that scene from It's a Wonderful Life. While George Bailey telegraphs that he wants to see Mary in the buff, he definitely leaves it as a joke. Sure, we can condemn George Bailey for this joke that may have aged badly. But Guy Holden does exactly the opposite of what Mimi asks. She specifically asks for a very simple favor: get the porter to help her get her dress out of the case. From a comedic standpoint, we all get the comedy. But Mimi doesn't know that she is in a comedy. From her perspective, she is in a very vulnerable position where a modicum of empathy would allow her to go on with her day unharassed. But because we're meant to side with charming Guy Holden, this joke plays out for the sake of an uphill romance.
It's also absurd that Guy Holden is so smitten with Mimi that the entire film revolves and spins around a complicated plot. Guy's plan, literally, is to walk around London and see if he can find Mimi again. The film even stresses that Guy's plan is borderline impossible. This is all part of the comedy of errors format, again, but there's a bit of an ask on behalf of the filmmakers. Because the movie even stresses that it is nearly impossible that these two people would meet again, it makes the third coincidence even more absurd. Guy's involvement in the actual plot in the latter half of the movie is beyond the pale. But this is where you yell at me to "Lighten up". After all, I admit that I wouldn't hold Shakespeare to the same standard.
But what is the message of The Gay Divorcee then? Around the Great Depression, people actually consumed more arts and entertainment as a means to run away from their lives. Because people didn't want to think about their problems and hunger, these movies stressed the glitz and glamour of Hollywood. The protagonists were among the rich. Melodrama reigned supreme. The more spectacle a musical could show off, the happier the stories were. So realize than an audience of the hungry would watch a story of tuxedoed Fred Astaire dancing to "The Continental" while more and more visuals were thrown at the screen. (By the way, spending that much attention on a song like "The Continental" is a crime when "Night and Day" is just sitting there.) The problems of Guy and Mimi seem like such fluff when the entire world is just falling apart. While it may not be the intentional message of the film, the movie seems like it is fundamentally disconnected from reality.
Because Guy Holden keeps barking up the Mimi tree for the extent of the movie, there's an odd message of perseverance behind everything. I suppose that might be uplifting for the Depression era'ed audience. But because Guy Holden is carefree about finances, his problems all seem so extravagant. Mimi not only has a husband, but she wants a better husband. Her husband is revealed to have a second family. Mimi's aunt goes through rich husbands whimsically. Everything in the movie isn't about life and death. It's about having more and needing more. There's a scene with Guy and Egbert where Guy gets out of paying a check for a dance. He's put out by the idea that he has to dance for his dinner, which really reads as disconnected from its audience. But I'm the one looking back on history with a bit of scorn. Clearly, the audience didn't mind something that was so distant from reality that it just came across as fun.
Is The Gay Divorcee fun? Yeah. But there's a reason that it might not be at the top of a lot of lists. It's a remarkably forgettable film. Musicals are right on the precipice of being something a little bit more serious. Because The Gay Divorcee is meant to be a distraction from the misery of humanity, a lot of the bigger moments really get forgotten under a borderline stupid plot. It's funny and cute, which is fine. But in terms of greatness, it is lacking some of the panache that other Astaire and Rogers films bring. But again, I know that this movie has a low key following. So enjoy it for what it is: a really weird look at marriage with an intense final number.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.