“Lovely to Look At,” the title of one of the songs featured in Roberta, would have made a perfect title for the film itself. It is lovely to look at, featuring glamorous mid-thirties movie fashion, delightful dances by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, songs sung by Irene Dunne, and requisite hunkiness from the handsome Randolph Scott. I imagine it must have been a wonderful escapist treat for people struggling through the Depression.
The story itself is a fluffy trifle, as these things tend to be. Randolph Scott is a big, strapping country boy football player from America who inherits his aunt’s chic Parisian fashion house when she dies. Irene Dunne is a fashion-savvy exiled princess who worked there as his aunt’s assistant. The two become partners in the business, fall in love, have misunderstandings and get back together.
Fred Astaire is Randolph Scott’s friend, who has brought his band to Paris. Astaire runs into Ginger Rogers, a girl from his hometown in Indiana, who is now a singer pretending to be a countess. She helps him get a job at her nightclub and they dance, sing and fall in love.
It’s really not about the plot at all. It’s about the songs, dances and fashion.
The songs in the movie are great, and some of them are still standards we know and love today, particularly “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “I Won’t Dance.” Irene Dunne had the kind of trilling, operetta-ish voice that was so popular at the time. It’s not my cup of tea, exactly, which is one of the reasons I’ve never made it through a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy movie. Dunne’s voice is lovely, actually, but I guess that old-fashioned style of singing is an acquired taste.
Dunne doesn’t do a lot in this movie other than sing sweetly and look pretty, which is a shame. She was the big star and received billing above Astaire and Rogers (all of whom were billed above the title, unlike Scott, who was still in the below the title “with Randolph Scott” phase), but she wasn’t the funny, sassy Irene of The Awful Truth yet. Her wonderful comedic self was just around the corner, in 1936’s Theodora Goes Wild.
The real scene stealers in the movie are Astaire and Rogers. Where Irene Dunne’s long ballads, shot in close up, are very much of their time, the Astaire and Rogers numbers are still as fresh and full of fun as they were 74 years ago. This was their third picture together. Fred Astaire choreographed the dances in Roberta, and they’re some of the best I’ve seen from him. I read somewhere that he always counted his dance with Rogers to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” among his favorites ever.
Ginger is sweet, spunky and adorable as Liz/the countess. That silly fake accent! Fred’s character, Huck, is completely charming and very funny! He has the best lines of all the characters and delivers them with so much zing that I laughed out loud a lot. Astaire and Rogers are what really make this movie worth watching.
Take a look at this scene, in which they dance to “Hard to Handle”. This, to me, is what pure joy looks like. They make it seem so spontaneous – the way they just sort of fall into the dance together, with Ginger laughing in such a natural, happy way. This number is right up there with their “Pick Yourself Up” dance from Swing Time as one I can watch over and over and still find completely entrancing.
Isn’t Ginger’s outfit great? She looks so good in those high-waisted, wide-legged trousers.
A bit of trivia — a very blond Lucille Ball appears ever so briefly in Roberta during the final fashion show. It’s a blink-and-you-miss-it moment, but it’s fun to catch her if you can.