Monday, November 23, 2020

Mark Sandrich | The Gay Divorcee

 under the hide

by Douglas Messerli

George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost. and Edward Kaufman, with additional dialogue by Robert Benchley, H. W. Hanemann, and Stanley Rauh (screenplay, based on Dwight Taylor and Cole Porter’s stage musical The Gay Divorce), Mark Sandrich (director) The Gay Divorcee / 1934

The Gay Divorcee (1934) was the second of ten Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals, and established the pattern for many of the films which followed. In each of these Astaire, playing a different-named dancer by profession falls passionately in love with the various named Rogers characters, doing anything he can to woo the resistant and strong-willed woman who most often confuses him and his intentions with someone else.

     This time the soon to-be-object of Astaire’s desire, with the improbable name of Mimi Glossop, is a hopeful divorcee who does not actually get unhitched in the film despite the fact that she ultimately falls in love, after a great deal of chasing, with the Astaire figure, Guy Holden, the Hays office actually forcing the studio into a slightly more scandalous title than the original stage musical’s The Gay Divorce. Evidently it was preferable for a woman to be joyful about her upcoming divorce, than to allow the divorce itself to be seen as a celebratory event. Yet, obviously, by postponing the divorce the film allows its audiences to enjoy all the delights of sexual attraction and even a symbolic consummation of their love in their 20-minute-long performance of Herb Magidson’s and Con Conrad’s The Continental which lavishly celebrates with its “dangerous” and  “daring” rhythms that have “a passion” “Because you tell of your love while you dance” and encourages you to go ahead and “kiss.” Certainly, none of these things might have been approved for any of the junior high and senior high school dances I attended in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A head leaning on a shoulder perhaps, but no tossing female torsos through the air or body drops into the waiting arms of waiting male suitors as played out in Mark Sandrich’s film were permitted. 

      The score of the original stage musical was by Cole Porter, of which only one of his songs remains, “Night and Day.” It’s easy comprehend why Porter’s lyrics such as those to “Why Marry Then?” didn’t make it to the screen:

When I see troops of carriages

go marching to marriages

My heart always bleeds for the bride,

For I know that her honeymoon

Will soon seem a funny moon

When alone she sits nursing her pride.

For all men are polygamous,

At heart at least bigamous,

And when the night falls

Their eyes start to roam,

So it's pure asininity

To save ones virginity

For a husband who hates to come home.

Or why the He and She duet of “I’ve Got You On My Mind” would never be recorded to celluloid in 1932.


You're not wild enough,


You're not gay enough,


You don't let me lead you astray enough.


You don't live enough, you don't dare enough,

You don't give enough,


You don't care enough....

     Yet “Night and Day” as sung and danced by Astaire and Rogers isn’t exactly the kind cute ditty which the Hays people preferred as opposed to this song’s open references to sex:

Night and day under the hide of me

There's an, oh, such a hungry yearning

Burning inside of me,

And its torment won't be through

Till you let me spend my life making love to you

Day and night, night and day.

     Fortunately, the censors didn’t really know the urban language of day, evidently being perfectly happy with passing on the song Betty Grable warbles to Edward Everett Horton (playing the discombobulated lawyer Egbert Fitzgerald), Mack Gordon and Harry Revel’s “Let's K-nock K-nees,” with several dancing chorus lines following, the first of which is three chorus boys with arms around each other wildly kicking up a storm. On the streets “knocking knees” is a phrase used to describe sexual intercourse.

      In fact, in almost all the Astaire/Rogers romances the studios and their directors let the dances tell the story of straight-forward heterosexual romances that allowed critics such as The New York Times’ Andre Sennwald to declare that the actors and music “help to make the new Music Hall show the source of a good deal of innocent merriment."   

      Meanwhile, the musicals themselves, in their topsy-turvy like situations—in this case Mimi at first snubbing Guy because she is still married and later mistaking him for the correspondent the lawyer has sent to help her get her divorce—create enough chaos with characters rushing in and out of doors to hide themselves from one another to match nearly any Georges Feydeau farce.

       As in Howard Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby Astaire’s character early on accidently rips Mimi’s dress, and chases after her through the London streets and countryside long enough to convince most viewers that the story is really about true love attempting to find a way to openly express itself in a world of bungling idiots such as Horton’s Egbert, Mimi’s absurdly forgetful and eternally confused aunt Hortense (Alice Brady), and the linguistically and sexually discombobulated correspondent Tonetti (Erik Rhodes), along with their smug valets and waiters (Charles Coleman and Eric Blore). 

        Yet the true comic heart of almost all of these films relies on these seemingly supporting actors who are provided by an entire cadre of writers (in this case George Marion Jr., Dorothy Yost, Edward Kaufman, Robert Benchley, H. W. Hanemann, and Stanley Rauh) with enough hilariously bawdy and often queer double entendres to spice up the blandly-conceived general plot. If the beautifully attired Mimi and Guy dance their way into ordinary American’s hearts, it is these other figures that make The Gay Divorcee and later works of its kind worth watching.

      In all of these Astaire films it is never explained why the dapper and sophisticated dancer might ever have come to befriend the befuddled Horton let alone why he seems to live in his friend’s homes, staterooms, or apartments. It’s not that Horton, in this case Egbert, is exactly averse to marrying women—he does so or has a wife in most of the RKO pictures, and in The Gay Divorcee he ends up marrying the woman from whom he has been running for much of his life, Hortense. But nonetheless, nearly all these works portray him as a queer who lives apart from women with his dancing friend as his permanent guest.

      Early in the 1932 film Egbert, receiving a telegram from his father who’s addressed his message to “Pinky,” makes his sexual preference quite clear: My father always called me Pinky ever since I was a golden-haired little tot padding about the ancestral home in pale pink pajamas.”

     Throughout most of this movie, Egbert attempts to escape Hortense and any other woman who looks his way for more than two moments, having earlier escaped the clutches of Mimi’s constantly remarrying aunt by running off to India to supposedly hunt for elephants.

      In almost all of these films, moreover, he is both confounded and reassured by the presence of Eric Blore, in this film his waiter in a Bristol hotel where he has gone on business with Guy to procure Mimi’s divorce. A bit like Hortense, when Egbert goes to order breakfast he cannot recall what he wants. Always the correct and well-meaning servant, Blore begins to suggest the possibilities, finally approaching them through a series of alliterative associations. When Egbert can still not call up the word, the waiter stubbornly refuses to abandon him: “I hate to leave you with my duty undischarged.” Ignoring the obvious scatological joke, we also read it as a statement of sexual readiness being held in retention. And when Egbert finally recalls that he wants “tea,” the waiter slyly smiles suggesting that it is his favorite as well. Again, in urban street language “British tea” is another expression for putting one’s scrotum into a sexual partner’s mouth, later adapted into American slang through the phrase “tea-bagging,” when gay dancers bend their bodies to allow their balls to flop upon their admirers’ heads (see John Waters’ film Pecker).

       At regular intervals throughout the film, Egbert and Guy are seen playing with the hand-puppet dolls that were at the center of a nightclub act they attended in the first scene of the movie. Egbert, however, cannot quite seem to get the hang of it, his fingers stubbornly refusing to dance just as he later remains fairly inert even after Grable’s sexual encouragement. Catching him working with the finger puppets at another moment, Hortense responds, “Oh, Egbert, I didn’t know you liked dolls. (Turning to her niece) He always had the mother instinct.” Throughout we realize that if Egbert is not precisely gay, he is a kind of sterile heterosexual who will forever be defined by that pink-clad childhood, more at home with other men than with people of the opposite sex.

       Even Hortense gets the chance to mouth a couple of zingers. Plotting together with Egbert for her niece’s divorce, she sighs, “You know divorces make me so sentimental. [Directly looking at Egbert] Don’t you wish it was ours?” Later, when the lawyer observes her about to join Mimi who is on her way to her hotel room to meet with the correspondent, he calls her back, “You can’t have a clandestine affair between three people.” Hortense quips, “Oh, that’s what you say.”

      The would-be correspondent, Tonetti is the most obvious openly gay figure in this film, even though he too is married. Apparently, however, he seldom sees his wife given his line of business, and when he faithfully attempts to telephone her, hears a male voice in the background wonders whether that be there another man with her in the kitchen. After hanging up, he announces, “Isn’t it wonderful! At only 9 years of age by son’s voice is changing.” Tonetti has not a clue about women, demonstrating later that he doesn’t even know how to pretend love between him and his client when her husband walks through the door. When Egbert warns Tonetti that he must be careful with Mimi regarding his behavior, the correspondent assures him not to worry. “My slogan is: Your wife is safe with Tonetti. He prefers spaghetti.” Even without an explanation of what that might mean, we recognize that Tonetti is sexually harmless with regard to women. The writers, in this case, snuck in another street term, spaghetti describing the excretion of smegma during oral sex.

      With Tonetti on the loose, moreover, the romancer himself, Guy, becomes connected with the gay sexual innuendos. As he and Mimi attempt to find a way to slip out of the house, Guy suddenly picks up a newspaper and cuts out a image declaring that cutting out paper dolls was something he did as a boy, which of course reminds us of the hand puppets he was seen manipulating early in the film. In this case the images, placed on a record player, serve as shadows to trick Tonetti into believing that they are still dancing in the next room while they escape to participate in “The Continental” with the crowd below.

       When morning comes we see Guy tied up at the ankle by a rope that connects him to Tonetti, supposedly placed there to make sure that the correspondent would not interfere with Mimi. But we recognize it, metaphorically speaking, as a kind of sexual bonding that proves to us that, if nothing else, they spent the night sleeping together.

        When the waiter (Blore) arrives with morning breakfast the three of them, Tonetti, Guy, and Mimi, share the table, Mimi saying that it is pleasant sharing breakfast with the two men she has come to like. Guy responds, “I’d like to have breakfast with you every morning,” to which Tonetti, presuming Guy was addressing him, replies “Yes? Thank you.”

        Mimi continues the conversation, “I’ve never had breakfast with two gentlemen before.”

     Guy retorts: “I’ve tried it. It’s no fun,” hinting, obviously, that he may have once tried out a homosexual threesome before sharing breakfast the next morning with his sexual partners; or, perhaps it was the fact that they were gentlemen that made it “no fun.”


         When the long-expected knock at the door by Mimi’s husband Cyril is finally sounded, Guy and the waiter are hurried away to the bedroom as wife, clumsily embraced by Tonetti, and husband encounter one another for the first time in a long while. Cyril dismisses Tonetti immediately, recognizing him for what he is, a ploy to make him give his wife a divorce. When Guy is called to the rescue the situation, Cyril also sees him no threat, telling Mimi that he can easily forgive her while still refusing a divorce. When finally, the waiter enters he recognizes Cyril as his geologist friend—Blore has previously declared that he has a passion for rocks—with whom he had once met to discuss geology along with the man’s wife, a French woman who hardly spoke any English. Cyril, it turns out, is the true adulterer, and Mimi is finally free—at least in the future— to marry Guy, the man she loves.  

         Innocent merriment? Perhaps, if you can accept the fact that at least in the terms of the signs and language of the cinema, Guy has already slept with Egbert and Tonetti and danced “The Continental” with Mimi. What else, we can only wonder, is left? A man and woman can only dance around the room so many times.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020).    




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