Song of the Week #11: "The Continental"- The Gay Divorcee
If you’re anything like me- and if you’re on this blog, you and I probably have at least a little bit in common- you’re awaiting the upcoming Oscar nominations with bated breath. What’s going to happen? Who’s going to fill out those wild card Best Picture slots? Will the Academy be cooler than the Screen Actors Guild and nominate Kristen Stewart for fuck’s sake? And oh, what five songs will be nominated for Best Original Song? (Spoiler alert, it’ll probably be mostly end credits songs.) Still, as we look forward to the future, now is the time to gaze into the past. And what better way to do that than to take a look at the very first winner in the category’s history- The Gay Divorcee’s “The Continental.”
For those of you who haven't seen Mark Sandrich's The Gay Divorcee... well, you might want to get on that. The first official Astaire/Rogers musical (the two had appeared together in Flying Down to Rio, but they weren't the stars), this 1934 film pretty much set the template for all their pairings to follow. (If anyone thinks Hollywood churning out formulaic crowd pleasers is something new, show them some Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.) And sure, The Gay Divorcee is, in many ways, just a test run for Top Hat, which did more or less everything The Gay Divorcee does, but better. But hey, The Gay Divorcee had Alice Brady, and that's always a plus. And Top Hat didn't win the Oscar for Best Original Song, did it? No. It probably should have, but it didn't. But The Gay Divorcee did! And judging by the types of songs which have won in the years since, you might have some ideas as to what kind of song "The Continental" is. A love song? The movie's main theme? God forbid, an end credits song? Well you'd be wrong on all counts. "The Continental" is none of those things. In fact, it's rather difficult to say what it is. It's probably for the best that you watch for yourself. Hope you've got seventeen minutes carved out!
As I said before, The Gay Divorcee set the formula for all the Astaire/Rogers films which followed it, and "The Continental" is part of that formula. You see, a good chunk of these films ended with big ensemble numbers, complete with long dance breaks and an orchestra in full swing. These numbers are never the best part of the film- they go on for too long and generally happen once most of the film's conflict is fully resolved- although at least by Shall We Dance they'd started incorporating them into the story better. And by that I mean setting the climax of the film in the midst of a nightmarish ballet which would make David Lynch piss his pants. Still, even if these parts of the films always drag a bit, they are at least perfectly entertaining. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were absolutely wonderful dancers, and if you're not in the mood for a little bit of self-indulgence in your production numbers, what are you watching a musical for anyway? But while these numbers were a mainstay for these films, them receiving Oscar nominations didn't remain part of the pattern. Instead, the Academy would go on to nominate the love songs from the films which followed. So why didn't they do that for The Gay Divorcee? Well, that's where things get interesting.
While The Gay Divorcee is based on a preexisting musical, the film adaptation retained very few of the songs from the stage version. The film opted instead to have mostly original songs written by various composers ("The Continental" has music by Con Conrad and lyrics by Herb Magidson, for the record), keeping only "Night and Day" from Cole Porter's libretto. Why did they do this? Fuck if I know. Maybe the producers didn't like Porter's music. Maybe they heard about the upcoming Best Original Song and figured they'd have better odds at nominating if they had as many original tunes as they could. Who can understand the whims of producers? Of course, the rules for Best Original Song didn't explicitly state that the song actually had to be original at this point, so the Academy could have voted for "Night and Day." It's certainly the more awards-friendly tune. But I guess the Academy decided to have some "integrity" and opted to go for a song actually written for the movie this time. And I suppose from that perspective, "The Continental" was certainly their best bet.
For being a musical, The Gay Divorcee is surprisingly light on musical numbers. It might be more accurate to call it a bedroom farce in which singing sporadically happens. And the songs we do get, if I'm being honest, aren't that great. I wouldn't say that they're bad, mind you. Just that they seem to be written more as an accompaniment for the dance numbers than as actual songs in their own right. And with dancing this good, I can't complain too much about that. Conrad and Magidson's other contribution to the film, "Needle in a Haystack" is pleasant, but it sounds like pretty much every other generically pleasant song from a 1930s musical. It's also incredibly repetitive, which is another common trait in a lot of musical numbers from this time period. Still, it's a good showcase for not only Astaire's dancing but his singing, which is quite a bit better than I think he gets credit for. The film's other two original songs, written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, don't fare much better. "Don't Let it Bother You", the song which opens the film, is a pretty basic tune which manages to squeeze in a dance break for some creepy dolls, which is... something, I guess. Still, not much of a song. Meanwhile, "Let's K-knock K-knees" is perfectly cute and all, but really only noteworthy in the fact that it features none other than Betty Grable in a featured role. And if Sgt. Animal Kuzawa has taught as anything, it's that one can never go wrong while looking at Betty Grable. Plus it's nice to see Edward Everett Horton being allowed to get in on the fun for once.
So what of "The Continental" itself? Well, it's perfectly fine. Like the other songs in the film, it's mostly just meant to be a vehicle for the dancing. This is further emphasized by the song's lyrics, which are pretty much all about dancing. What kind of dance "The Continental" is, precisely, I can't quite get my finger on. The lyrics certainly don't help, singing more about the feel of the dance rather than any specific steps. And I guess as far as that goes, it's perfectly fine. They're nothing to write home about- and the extended solo for Lillian Miles, who does not play a character of any significance in the film, is baffling- but they get the job done. They don't add to the scene, but they don't distract from the spectacle. (Once again, this is something which would be improved in later Astaire/Rogers pairings, with perhaps the best combination of lyrical brilliance and excellence in dancing appearing in the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance.) The music is much the same way. It's not spectacular, but it's certainly something you can dance to. It's just not a song you want to listen to on its own.
Of course, that's the thing about movie songs; they don't exist in a vacuum. At least, they shouldn't. And as always, Song of the Week isn't just concerned with the songs themselves, but how they fit in the film from which they come. Looking at it through that lens, it's not hard to see why "The Continental" took home the Oscar that year. Sure, on its own the song might not be anything to write home about. But the scene it accompanies is undeniably pretty spectacular, and I imagine it was considered the highlight of the film by contemporary audiences. Maybe they didn't leave the theater humming the tune, but I imagine it gave them a spring in their step. And there's something to be said for awarding the song which accompanied the most invigorating sequence. Remember when La La Land won its Best Song Oscar for "City of Stars", despite the fact that it was the single most boring song in the film, comprising two of the least interesting musical numbers? Wouldn't it have been more appropriate to give it to "Someone in the Crowd" or "Another Day of Sun"? Probably! Certainly would have been a far more entertaining live performance than John Legend sitting at his fucking piano, but what do I know? Clearly the Academy knows whatever they're doing, which is why ratings keep declining and last year's ceremony was such an unmitigated shitshow!
Sorry about that, I seem to have lost my train of thought there for a minute. The point is, while "The Continental" might not be a great song, it's still part of a pretty damn good scene. And sometimes that's all you can ask, especially in the early days of movie musicals. And besides, "The Continental" gets bonus points for giving Erik Rhodes ample time to sing. That guy is a riot and a half, and letting him take center stage for a couple minutes is an unqualified good thing as far as I'm concerned. So ultimately I give "The Continental" my seal of approval. (I'm sure the writers are relieved.) Much in the same way The Gay Divorcee served as a test run for Top Hat, we can go ahead and say its win was a warmup for the years to follow. And hey, if any of these clips got you interested in checking out some Fred Astaire or Ginger Rogers on your own, then I guess it's done some good for the day!
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