Roberta

The 1935 film “Robert” stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott and takes place in a fashion house and a nightclub in Paris.  Astaire, as Huck Haines, arrives in Paris with his band, Huck Haines and the Wabash Indianians, to play an engagemen at Caffe Russe.  Unfortunately, the hot-headed owner Voyda (Luis Alberni), believed the troupe to be actual American Indians, so he refuses to book them.  Huck’s friend, John (Scott) then meets with his aunt Roberta (Helen Westley), who owns a popular dress shop in Paris called “Gowns by Roberta.”  Roberta agrees to do her best to help the band, so she encourages the band to audition for Scharwenka, a fake Polish countess played by Rogers.

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne in "Roberta."

Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Irene Dunne discuss dressmaking in “Roberta.”

When Huck arrives at the dress shop, he instantly recognizes the Countess as Liz, a girl and musical partner of his from back home in Indiana.  At that point, the movie almost becomes a typical Astaire-Rogers film, except that Huck and Liz like each from the start.  In other films starring the pair, the Rogers character usually dislikes the Astaire character at first, creating the conflict.  Roberta shifts the conflict over to a second couple, John (Scott) and Stephanie (Dunne).  The conflict heats up when John, a football player and farmer, takes over the dress shop with Stephanie as his partner.

Irene Dunne lends her operatic style of singing to three songs, including a Russian lullaby and a long rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”  Although I’ve liked Dunne in so many movie roles, her classical approach to singing and straightforward but languid acting slow the pace of the film.  In a key scene, Dunne as Stephanie decides to sell a dress to John’s former fiance Sophie (Claire Dodd) at Huck’s continued prompting.  John objects to the dress and Huck knows he’ll have a row with Sophie about it.  Stephanie should delight in the ruse, but she seems unsure of herself before deciding to sell it.

I’m not sure why the sophisticated Stephanie falls for the country bumpkin John, but Roberta describes him as a “big, affectionate, blundering Newfoundland dog.”  Since John doesn’t do anything in the film henceforth to dispel that description, I’m willing to accept the incongruity of the love affair with Stephanie and the idea of a clueless football player running a fashion house.  Thankfully, the film shows us dozens of beautiful models in stunning outfits designed by Bernard Newman.  The gowns and the Astaire-Rogers songs and dances, particularly the “I Won’t Dance” number, make this movie an overlooked gem.

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