ROBERTA (William A. Seiter, 1935)

Many years ago, a doo wop group called the Platters recorded “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” one of the songs composed by Jerome Kern and written by Otto Harbach for Harbach’s 1933 stage musical Roberta, based on Alice Duer Miller’s novel Gowns by Roberta. The monotony of the Platters’ harmonizing and the mindlessness they applied to the lyric convinced me that the song was treacle. In addition, this standard was roundly parodied at school, beginning with this revised opening: “They asked me how I knew/ That gopher guts are blue . . . .” Even the greatest American singer, Ella Fitzgerald, reacting to an onstage moment when she was swinging the song, changed the refrain to “Sweat gets in your eyes.” There’s a lot here to overcome—but I hadn’t yet seen and heard Irene Dunne’s version of the song in the 1935 film Roberta. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” with its fanciful lyrics shoehorned into Kern’s glorious and mysterious melody, is probably now my favorite pop tune of all time. Categorize it as operetta-torch. Dunne hits the emotional jackpot with it: delicate, soulful romantic heartbreak.

Crowned by a tiara, her eyes glistening with tears, Dunne’s Stephanie sings “Smoke” to her fellow diners at a private table in a dinner club as she watches the man she loves, because of a foolish misunderstanding, walk out on her, she fears, forever. This is the heartsocking high point of a melodious musical romance. The director of the film is William A. Seiter, who rises to the occasion of Kern’s musical guidance in order to create a lovely meditation on transience and love’s frailty.

The setting is Paris, the world capital of couture and a haven for transients, many of whom hide behind false identities. The House of Roberta, Paris’s premier high fashion establishment, is owned by “Roberta”—really, Aunt Minnie (Helen Westley), who has long since left the States—and is run by her assistant, Stephanie, a Russian princess displaced by the Bolshevik Revolution. Unable to find work at home, Minnie’s favorite nephew, John Kent (Randolph Scott), has arrived in Paris with the band he is part of, the Wabash Indianans, who inadvertently introduce the theme of false identity on a comical note; the club owner who has hired them mistakenly believes he has hired a Native American band, the Wabash Indians. The band members have thus come a long way, displaced by the Great Depression, only to be denied the job that they thought was guaranteed and that they desperately need. One of the other band members bears the name most touchingly associated by Americans with transients, vagrants, the displaced, the uprooted: Huckleberry. This is “Huck” Haines, who discovers in Paris his girlfriend from back home, Lizzie Gatz, who has become a club singing sensation masquerading as Tanka Scharwenka, from Poland. What luck: Lizzie gets the band employment, rekindles her romance with Huck, with whom, in private, she can at last drop the phony accent, and, under Aunt Minnie’s pleased eye, John and Stephanie fall in love. Early on, though, Aunt Minnie dies, leaving the business to John, the new “Roberta.” John, a former football player, it turns out, knows as little about women’s clothes as he does about his beloved, including her royal identity. His puritanical American nature keeps getting in the way.

Minnie’s death from a bad heart—a more good-hearted soul is unimaginable—bathes everything we see in a gentle breeze of transience, the melancholy of life’s passing. This theme is supported by the other famous Kern-Harbach song taken from the Broadway show: the immemorial “Yesterday,” which Stephanie sings to Minnie as she naps into the hereafter, in effect giving warm voice to Minnie’s life-adventure about to be let go of: “ . . . youth was mine . . . .” The cultured, old-fashioned European air of “Yesterday” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” collides with the jazzier, lighter songs newly composed for the film, including the rousing, effervescent “I Won’t Dance,” by Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. Somewhere between these two very different musical styles is another new song, “Lovely to Look At,” by Kern and lyricists Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Yost, and sung by Stephanie—a signal of her capacity to adapt to life’s vicissitudes. She brings the old to the new while embracing the new; she is a survivor. And she brings the depth of her European experience to John’s American attitude—now, carefree; now, petulant, even arrogant. These two were never fated to be lovers; they become lovers by choice. John, too, is a survivor. They will survive together.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers play Huck and Lizzie/Scharwenka. It was not the case that either Flying Down to Rio (Thornton Freeland, 1933) or The Gay Divorcée (Mark Sandrich, 1934) had a melancholy undertow—nor would Top Hat (Sandrich, 1935). But Roberta is the first Astaire-Rogers film to have this; Follow the Fleet (Sandrich, 1936) and Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936) also would have this. Not coincidentally, these are the three of the series that are rooted in the Depression, which they address. However, in the case of Roberta the Astaire-Rogers characters seem to exist in the ether of their charm, joy, and propensity for lighthearted humor; Stephanie and John are the guardians of the melancholy here. The two later films derive considerable additional poignancy by touching the Astaire-Rogers characters themselves with this melancholy.

Never have Astaire and Rogers seemed so free together, so utterly relaxed with one another, as here. The narrative key to this, of course, is that Lizzie can be herself with Huck. What a release and relief! Rogers is very funny; her offhanded Lizzie, quite formidable as Scharwenka, encapsulates American zest compounded by a hankering for Old World glamor and experience. There should always be Paris for the likes of Lizzie Gatz—and in a few years there would not be. This is the knowledge we bring to each viewing of Roberta that helps make the film a more heartrending event than ever it could be when originally shown. Roberta expands in our hearts to include subsequent world history.

Astaire is credited as the film’s choreographer; Hermes Pan, as assistant choreographer. There are no “ensembles” here—dance production numbers; Astaire either dances solo or with Rogers. Strange, the appearance of Astaire’s name in the credits. Although he always served as the lead choreographer for his dances with Rogers in the 1930s, Pan or someone else—David Gould in the case of The Gay Divorcée—was credited as the film’s dance director. I’ve always assumed that, say, Gould devised the ensembles in The Gay Divorcée while Astaire choreographed himself and Rogers; I have no idea what the industry politics or protocols were that routinely kept Astaire’s name off a film’s credit sheet except as actor. (I’m a little clearer as to why Hitchcock didn’t get a writing credit when he almost always contributed to the scripts of his films.) Therefore, I have no idea whether it means anything special that in this one instance Astaire is credited as the film’s choreographer. But the dancing is unlike that in any other Astaire-Rogers film. It seems happily unfinished; it has a raw energy to it. It’s looser—loosey-goosey, in fact. Rather than rehearsed, every dance seems like a rehearsal, with Rogers in one electrifying instance dancing with Astaire and, afterwards, collapsing into an offstage chair with hardly a break in movement in between. All this suits the edge on which these characters live, either struggling to survive, with poverty gaping below, or reinventing themselves without certainty of the outcome, or both. There are no capital-D “dramatic” dances here, nothing like the near-danse macabre of the final dance, to “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” in Follow the Fleet. However, the last Astaire-Rogers dance in Roberta, to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” is one of their loveliest, its grave accents a hint of the problems of the Depression that ground the entire American aspect of the narrative. Roberta is one of the very best of the Astaire-Rogers series.

Oh, Dunne, as Stephanie, is flat-out marvelous in one of her indomitably jawed, tear-stained roles.

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One thought on “ROBERTA (William A. Seiter, 1935)

  1. I just love your review of this film! You hit the nail on the head on just about every detail. This is one of my favorite Irene Dunne films! Irene made so many good films, didn’t she? If you appreciate Irene Dunne, I am Irene on myspace. I have two Irene pages. The address to one of them I put in the above “website” spot, the other is http://www.myspace.com/irenedunnemusic , where you can hear Smoke Gets in Your Eyes and Lovely to Look At. I hope you will take the time to check them out! Have you ever seen Theodora Goes Wild? It is my personal favorite of Irene because you see so many different sides of her. I think she gives her best acting performances in Theodora and I Remember Mama. Of her five Oscar nominations, she was robbed of the Oscar for her Mama performance. In Life With Father, she as adorable as Vinnie….what a sense of humor! And only Irene could have made it work so well! I guess I have bored you enough with little tidbits on Irene……thanks for the wonderfully written review of Roberta!

    Actually, I would never describe myself as a “fan” of Irene Dunne, a few of whose performances I have liked a lot, however. As for 1948, when Dunne was Oscar-nominated for George Stevens’s I Remember Mama, based on the films released in the U.S. that year, my first choice would be Lisbeth Movin in Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s 1943 Day of Wrath; second choice, Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair; third choice, Vera Maretskaya in Mark Donskoi’s 1947 A Village Schoolteacher; fourth choice, Joan Fontaine in Max Ophüls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman; and fifth choice, Anna Magnani in Luigi Zampa’s 1947 Angelina. The five Oscar nominees I would rank thusly in descending order of performance merit: Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Wyman (who won), Olivia de Havilland, Dunne, and Ingrid Bergman. Wyman, of course, won for Jean Nugelesco’s Johnny Belinda, in which her Belinda is a deaf-mute. Her Oscar acceptance speech is famous: “I won this award for keeping my mouth shut. I think I’ll do it again.” This is without doubt the most important Oscar the Academy ever bestowed. With her trophy at home, Wyman (as winners often do) dumped her spouse, who thus became available to date Nancy Davis, who helped mold the dumpee’s right-wing politics and encouraged him, through the years, for better or worse, all the way into the White House.

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