The Legal Advocate

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Written by guest blogger Judge McGahey


In recent reviews, I’ve mentioned that Hollywood uses domestic relations issues not just as subjects for drama, but also for comedy.  This month we’ll look at three movies about divorce that took the comedy concept one step further – they’re all musical comedies in which divorce plays a central part.

The_Gay_Divorcee_movie_posterWe’ll start with The Gay Divorcee,[1] a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie from 1934.[2] The movie is fun to watch, although obviously dated.  Its central theme flows out of old-style divorce law.  Many of us remember the days before no-fault divorce, when the party seeking the divorce had to have “grounds” to get one. The most common ground was “infidelity” or “adultery.”  Even parties who were willing to divorce amicably had to have grounds, which led to phony set-ups with hired “co-respondents.”  One party or the other was “discovered” with another man or woman, photographs were taken and the judge had the grounds necessary to grant a divorce.  There was very often no real hanky-panky going on, just a sham so an unhappy couple could move on with their lives.

That’s the starting point for The Gay Divorcee.  Rogers plays Mimi Glossop, who’s been separated from her husband Cyril for years.  She goes to England at the suggestion of her aunt (Alice Brady) and the aunt’s incompetent lawyer (Everett Edward Horton.) The lawyer has set it up for Mimi to be caught in a hotel room with one of those professional co-respondents. Unfortunately, the lawyer forgets to hire the necessary private detectives with the necessary camera.

Astaire plays Guy Holden, an American dancer (shocker!) who’s a friend of the lawyer.  He’d met Mimi before and of course fell madly in love with her.  He ends up at the same hotel, Mimi mistakes him for the hired co-respondent, Mimi’s estranged husband show up, the lawyer’s butler (Eric Blore) engages in shenanigans, Fred and Ginger dance and sing, and everything comes out fine at the end.

The Gay Divorcee was based on a Broadway play called the The Gay Divorce.  Hollywood’s censor, the Hayes Office, made the film’s producers change the name, apparently because while the people going through a divorce could individually enjoy themselves, there was nothing humorous or fun about the process.  The Broadway show had music by Cole Porter, all of which was replaced in the movie by other music, with the exception of the classic “Night and Day.”One of those new songs, “The Continental” won an Oscar for Best Original Song, and was used in a twenty-minute dance sequence at the end of the movie. The movie itself was nominated for Best Picture, but lost (deservedly) to It Happened One Night, starring Clark Gable (sans undershirt) and Claudette Colbert.

kissMeKateNext we’ll turn to 1953’s Kiss Me Kate, produced by MGM and starring Howard Keel and Kathryn Grayson as a pair of divorced Broadway stars, Fred Graham and Lilli Vanessi. Fred wants Lilli back, but she isn’t anywhere near to that, at least initially.  Fred gets her to co-star with him in a Broadway musical version of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, where their individual personalities fir the roles of Patricio and Katherine.  (Believe me, this works out MUCH better than it sounds!)  This film is a big-time color movie musical, with terrific songs by Cole Porter and large scale production numbers that were the hallmark of MGM musicals of the time. This movie was, too, was based on a Broadway musical of the same name, making it a movie musical based on a Broadway musical about the production of a Boradway musical.  Got that?

There are four really good reasons to watch this movie.  The first is Cole Porter’s music, with its clever lyrics, snappy wordplay and more than occasional double meanings.  Some of those were cleaned up for the movie, but others weren’t.  Second, you get to watch the best female tap dancer in the movies, Ann Miller, do her stuff.[3] She has several featured dances, and will blow you away with the speed and execution of what she does.  Watch her go from floor to table to room divider and back in “Too Darn Hot.” Third, you get to watch two great character actors, Keenan Wynn and James Whitmore, portray two gangsters who get involved with the cast of the play in the center of the movie. They perform an hilarious number, “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” one of the songs that was considerably cleaned up between Boradway and Hollywood; it’s still funny. You also get to see that many of the actors of that era could hoof like pros.  Finally, this movie is one of the earliest big-studio films shot in 3-D.  Most prints now don’t reflect that, but you can always tell when a 3-D effect was in play: someone is throwing something directly at the audience (a mug, a scarf, a banana, confetti) or cracking a whip, or pointing, etc.

highSocietyFinally, I present for your consideration 1956’s High Society, with a truly All-star Cast including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Grace Kelly and Louis Armstrong.  (And Cole Porter wrote the music for this movie, too!) I won’t summarize the plot for you, because you know it already: this is a MGM Technicolor musical version of The Philadelphia Story, which I reviewed several months back.  It isn’t nearly as good, but it’s still worth watching, to hear Crosby and Sinatra sing Porter’s music, to hear Armstrong play and to watch Kelly in her only musical role and in her last movie before she became Princess Grace of Monaco.  The highlight of the movie is the first and only Crosby/Sinatra collaboration, in a song called “Well, Did You Evah!” in which each singer makes obvious references to the singing style of the other that the audience would have immediately caught.  It’s great fun watching them go back and forth – and hearing two of the great voices in the history of American popular music combine.

You can find all of these movies in various formats, particularly on TCM.  The Gay Divorcee and High Society can be rented on Amazon.  If you like singing and dancing, you’ll love these movies.  Even if that’s not your first movie watching priority, give these three a try.  You’ll enjoy them, I promise!


[1] The title meant something different in 1934 than it would today.

[2] I am a huge Fred Astaire fan.  I think he’s Hollywood’s premier dancer, hands down. I will be happy to debate this with fans of Gene Kelly over a beverage.

[3] Miller could give even Astaire a run for his money.

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