This blogathon spotlights actors who were once household names but now are relegated to footnotes or film buffs’ ramblings.
My “forgotten star” Randolph Scott isn’t that forgotten, mainly because he became closely associated with westerns over the course of his thirty-five years in movies. He was in over one hundred films, sixty of which were westerns, and he is so closely identified with that genre that his earlier appearances in movies of all sorts are fairly forgotten.
The role that Scott plays in this film is fairly typical for this stage in his career. He’s not yet the tough, stoically honorable cowboy, and still the tall, handsome, sometimes adorably clumsy love interest in musicals, dramas, and comedies.
Before we get to the movie, let’s talk Randolph Scott. He possessed a lovely Southern drawl that was actually real because he was raised in Charlotte, NC, the second of six children in a wealthy family. He attended Woodberry Forest boarding school in Virginia, grew to 6 feet, 2.5 inches tall, and excelled at sports.
Fun fact: his Southern heritage made him a contender for the role of Ashley Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, but the part went to British actor Leslie Howard, just as Scarlett went to Englishwoman Vivien Leigh.
Scott was born in 1898, which made him nineteen years old when the United States entered World War I. He enlisted and was sent to France as an artillery observer. After the war ended, he enrolled in artillery officers’ school and received a commission, though he returned home in 1919.
Scott enrolled at Georgia Tech where he almost became an All-American football player; a back injury ended that dream. He transferred to the University of North Carolina, but dropped out and got a job as an accountant at the textile firm where his father worked.
In 1927, Scott moved to Hollywood. He had small parts in movies and plays until he won his first starring role at the age of 33 in 1931. In 1932, he signed a contract with Paramount, and starred in a series of westerns as well as various other genres, including romantic comedies, melodramas, musicals (though he doesn’t sing or dance) and adventure films like The Last of the Mohicans (1936).
By 1935, Scott was a big star working exclusively on A pictures. Paramount loaned him out frequently, which is how he ended up in two Astaire-Rogers RKO musicals. But he began to focus more and more on westerns like Virginia City (1939) in the late 1930s.
He became lifelong friends with Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, and he was married twice, with the second marriage lasting from 1944 until his death in 1987.
Scott and Grant shared a house for many years in the 1930s and early forties, which led to rumors that they were gay. Staged photos of the pair at home, like the one below, continue to fuel the rumors. But those who knew them maintain that they were just great friends and compatible roommates (and both were notoriously stingy and liked saving money on living expenses!) Fun fact: Scott’s economical lifestyle coupled with good investments meant that he amassed a fortune of about $100 million dollars by the time he passed away.
Scott’s back injury kept him out of WWII, so during the war he acted in war films and toured with the Victory Committee shows. In the 1940s and 1950s, he was appearing almost exclusively in westerns. His career trajectory was not unlike Joel McCrea‘s, another tall, athletic actor at home on horseback. McCrea also acted in all sorts of movies before transitioning solely to westerns.
Fun fact: McCrea and Scott acted together in their swan song as two old, seen-it-all cowboys/lawmen in Ride the High Country (1962). It was Scott’s last movie; he retired at the age of 64 after thirty-five years in Hollywood.
Unsurprisingly, after making sixty westerns Scott became very closely associated with the genre and with playing cool, stoic western heroes.
Fun fact: he even got a shoutout in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), when Sheriff Bart tries to rally the townsfolk. After they refuse his request for help, he says “You’d do it for Randolph Scott.” The townspeople remove their hats, bow their heads, and sacredly intone the words “Randolph Scott” as an off-screen chorus echoes his name in angelic tones. You can watch it here.
But way back in the 1930s, Paramount loaned Scott to RKO for two Astaire-Rogers musicals, Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936). In both films, Scott plays Astaire’s handsome, goofy best buddy.
Roberta was based on a 1933 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was based on the novel Gowns by Roberta by Alice Duer Miller.
The Broadway show’s score was written by Jerome Kern with book and lyrics by Otto Harbach. The movie contains four of the original songs, as well as two more Kern tunes, one written for the film and one older song with new lyrics. More on that later. Musical director Max Steiner makes sure everything sounds great.
Fun fact: The Broadway show’s cast included future Hollywood stars George Murphy, Bob Hope, Fred MacMurray and Sydney Greenstreet.
RKO producer Pandro Berman bought the movie rights to the Broadway show for the whopping sum of $65,000, outbidding MGM and Paramount. He planned it as a vehicle for Irene Dunne, but when The Gay Divorcee (1934) proved to be a success, he decided to reshape Roberta to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, too.
This was Astaire and Rogers’ third film together after Flying Down to Rio (1933) and The Gay Divorcee. Audiences wanted more of the dancing duo, so Berman combined the bandleader and dancer characters from the Broadway show for Astaire and expanded the minor role of the countess for Rogers.
The movie begins at the docks of Le Havre where Huck Haines (Fred Astaire) and his band, the Wabash Indianians, have just arrived from America. They’ve been hired by Voyda (Luis Alberni) to play at his swanky Cafe Russe in Paris. Trouble is, Voyda thought they were “Indians,” not “Indianians,” so he cancels the contract right there.
John Kent (Randolph Scott) is a football player and Huck’s best friend. He grabs Voyda and makes him watch the band perform in the hopes that Voyda will change his mind. Rather stupidly, Huck decides to do one of their novelty numbers where the guys pretend to be an organ.
It’s weird, and Voyda is unimpressed. So now the Wabash Indianians and John are stuck in France without a job. While traveling to Paris, they try to think of anyone they know who might be of help. Huck remembers that a girl he grew up with has an act in Paris, but he can’t recall her name. Then John suddenly remembers his aunt, Roberta, who happens to be a famous couturier in Paris! Perhaps she can help them…
Okay, so John isn’t the sharpest guy. But he’s handsome and sweet, and very loyal to his friends. They arrive at Roberta’s salon, where even the driveway is a masterpiece of moderne styling.
John goes inside and gets stuck in the elevator halfway between the 2nd and third floors. The set is a remarkable three-story affair without a fourth wall, sort of like a dollhouse that you can open up. That allows the camera to ascend through the ceilings and floors following the progress of the faulty elevator. Art director Van Nest Polglase outdid himself on this film.
Fun fact: RKO spent about $750,000 making this movie; one third went to salaries of the stars, and the rest went to production costs like the stunning sets and extravagant costumes.
So now John is stuck in the elevator. He hollers and a lovely woman named Stephanie (Irene Dunne), Roberta’s able assistant, arrives to help. Eventually John is released from his cage.
Fun fact: this scene is included nearly identically in the remake of Roberta, Lovely to Look At (1952).
He tells the woman that he is there to see Roberta, so she offers him a seat and goes to tell Roberta. It’s a bit silly, and tantamount to a random person walking into Chanel, asking to see Coco, and being allowed inside her office. But it works for the movie plot, so we let it go.
While John waits, a model in a lacy negligee saunters over and does her twirl for him. This wholesome American boy gets a little uncomfortable. Stephanie watches and smiles.
When Stephanie tells Madame Roberta that an American is there to see her, she immediately knows it is her dear nephew John. Roberta (Helen Westley) calls him her favorite, and describes him as “a big, affectionate, blundering Newfoundland dog.” High praise, indeed.
Everyone becomes friends very quickly, and John tells his sympathetic aunt about his latest heartbreak. His girlfriend Sophie dumped him because she thinks he is an unsophisticated hick, so he came to Paris with Huck to try to forget her.
A loud argument from next door interrupts their chat, and John goes to see what’s up.
An irate client, the Polish countess Scharwenka (Ginger Rogers), is screaming at Stephanie over a dress. John “saves” Stephanie and pushes the countess onto the sofa.
Once John has defused that situation, he has another problem on his hands. The countess likes this tall, strapping American.
When John learns that the countess has a hit nightclub act, he remembers the band waiting downstairs. He tells them to play something, hoping to impress the countess. The Wabash Indianians are full of novelty acts; a member of the band dons a ringleted wig and sings in a falsetto with Huck. Early 1930s movies are full of such terrifically odd moments like this.
The countess likes the band. But Huck is confused–the countess looks an awful lot like the girl he knew back home…
The countess seems to recognize Huck, too. When Huck and the countess are alone, the whole story comes out. Scharwenka is actually an American named Lizzie Gatz, and she used to put on shows with Huck in her barn when they were kids.
Lizzie came to Paris but couldn’t get anywhere as Lizzie Gatz, so she invented the countess identity complete with an outrageous accent, and suddenly all the nightclubs wanted her. Smart girl! You can watch the scene here.
Now she is famous and rich, draped in furs and diamonds. Paris seems to be full of aristocrats in exile, particularly Russian ones. Roberta tells John that her doorman is actually a Russian prince!
The movie could have done more with the fake countess thing, perhaps with Huck threatening to expose her, or more comic episodes when Lizzie’s accent slips and people almost find out the truth. But instead Huck goes along with it at once, and no one else seems the least bit interested, even when the countess’ accent veers wildly.
Once all the band/countess nonsense is out of the way, we return to Roberta. Apparently the doctors have ordered Roberta to take a nap (foreshadowing) every afternoon, and so the doorman Ladislaw (Victor Varconi) plays while Stephanie sings to put her to sleep.
Fun fact: although Irene Dunne had many non-musical roles, she was a trained soprano and originally hoped to be an opera singer. But she became a musical theater star instead before coming to Hollywood. She starred in Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” on stage before reprising her role in the 1936 film version.
We switch gears to the Cafe Russe, where the band is rehearsing with Lizzie. She sings “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” in her thick Polish accent, and it’s a delightful, loose performance.
Then Huck and Lizzie dance together. Finally, the Astaire-Rogers magic we’ve been waiting for since the movie began!
This is one of my favorite numbers in the movie, and in the canon of Astaire-Rogers duets. It’s one of the more casual, lighter dances the pair ever did without a heavy romantic tone. During this number, Rogers and Astaire grin and laugh and yelp and seem to be having the most wonderful time in a spontaneous expression of joy to be dancing together. No serious faces or yearning looks to be found!
Part of why this number feels so light and joyful is that it is much more improvisational than their other numbers. Or perhaps I should say “improvisational-feeling,” because with Astaire, the king of perfectionists and unending rehearsals, I don’t think anything that ended up onscreen was ever left to chance or spontaneous experiments.
The wonder of Astaire’s choreography, and both his and Rogers’ performance, is that everything they do appears incredibly easy and utterly perfect. So in this dance, instead of nailing each precise movement with controlled grace, they nail each precise movement with controlled spontaneity and the appearance of fun improvisation.
Fun fact: to increase the improvisational, spontaneous feeling of this dance, the number was filmed and recorded with live music playing in the background. This was highly unusual, as pre-recording music and vocal tracks was the established norm. Usually, musical numbers were filmed without sound while the performers danced and lip-synched to a pre-recorded track. Dancers would then go back and record the taps of their shoes to get crisp clacks on the soundtrack. So it is very rare to film a number with live music and sound the way that “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” was filmed.
But it’s really fun to watch and listen to because you can hear Astaire’s exclamations and Rogers’ yelps and giggles as they dance, and the taps echo in the large space in a way the post-recorded sounds usually don’t. The sound, and their “rehearsal costumes,” increase the sense that we are watching a final dress rehearsal of the number before it’s filmed, or watching two talented people goof around.
Another fun fact: “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” is unusual in the pantheon of Astaire-Rogers dances for another reason, too, because it presents Rogers as Astaire’s equal. She keeps up with him throughout the dance as they trade steps and try to outdo the other. Usually, Astaire’s character is the more experienced or talented dancer, and he is shown to be Rogers’ superior, at least when the film begins. (Another exception to this rule is The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the pair’s last film together.)
You can watch “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” here, and I dare you not to smile.
When Voyda arrives, he likes what he hears. But he hates what he sees. He is still angry at being “deceived” by the band’s name. Through some clever lies and manipulation, the countess and Huck convince Voyda to hire the band and to increase everyone’s salary. Lizzie and Huck make a good team!
Then it’s back to Roberta, though we were having a very nice time with Huck and Lizzie.
While Stephanie chats with Roberta, Huck and John, post-makeover, are having a French lesson in the next room. (As you can see, John’s lumpy tweeds have been replaced by an expertly tailored dark suit. I rather liked him in lumpy tweeds, though.) Things get out of hand, as they generally do, and the poor tutor is thoroughly bewildered. It is highly reminiscent of the wonderful “Moses Supposes” number in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) when Donald O’Connor and Gene Kelly let loose on the diction coach.
Then the inevitable happens. Whenever a character has orders from a doctor, or surreptitiously clutches her chest when she thinks no one is looking, you know she is not long for the movie world. And so Roberta peacefully passes away just after Stephanie sang her to sleep with the melancholy tune “Yesterdays.”
Fun fact: the MGM remake of this movie, Lovely to Look At (1952), never introduces Roberta in person. She passes away before the movie begins.
John inherits the business, which we read about on board a ship bound for Paris. Sophie (Claire Dodd), John’s ex-girlfriend, is unsuitably delighted at the story and laughs at how ill-suited he is to run a fashion house. She doesn’t seem very nice.
After this detour to the middle of the Atlantic, we return to Paris. While Stephanie mournfully walks through the rooms and prepares to leave Roberta’s forever, Huck, Lizzie, and John are in conference.
John knows he has no business running a fashion house, so he wants to give the whole thing to Stephanie. Roberta didn’t leave a will, which is why everything went to John by default, but he is certain that Roberta would have wanted Stephanie to inherit the business. Huck and Lizzie think that they should partner up, but John isn’t interested.
I’m interested in Lizzie’s fabulous coat ensemble with its buttons up the back and enormous fur sleeves.
Anyway, John goes to talk to Stephanie, and they agree to be partners. Also, they’re starting to fall in love.
Stephanie admits that for the last several years she has been designing everything, not Roberta. So things should continue without much of a hitch under the new arrangement! Are you ready for the first of many fashion shows?
Stephanie gives John, Huck, and Lizzie a preview of her new designs.
Bernard Newman designed the costumes for this film, and they’re stunning and extravagant and fabulous. Newman was head designer at Bergdorf Goodman before coming to Hollywood and heading up RKO’s costume department. He was at RKO for most of the 1930s, and designed the majority of Ginger Rogers’ costumes while there. He moved to other studios in the 1940s.
I have a special place in my heart for movies like this that seem designed to showcase extraordinary clothes and wow us with their magnificence, even if it’s not strictly necessary. Some people get bored or annoyed at film fashion shows that pause the narrative to spend several seconds on each model as she slowly spins, but not me! Fun fact: some sources claim that the costumes for this film cost a whopping $250,000, a third of the budget! I believe it, and you will, too, when you see the fur coats and exquisitely detailed gowns.
This is my favorite dress from this fashion show:
That elegant gown with its beading and drapery contrasts strongly with this nearly backless one, and it’s meant to.
It looks like something that Scarlett Johansson has worn on many red carpets, but we aren’t supposed to like it here. Huck isn’t a fan, saying it makes the model look like a “peeled eel.”
And neither is John. He expresses his disapproval and Stephanie suggests that maybe if they raise the back a little…but John requests that the dress be wholly removed from the collection because it is too naked and vulgar. Stephanie acquiesces, no problem. You can watch the scene here.
It seems that John and Stephanie’s partnership is off to a grand start! Word spreads about the new owner of Roberta’s, and reporters flock to interview John. Huck hangs around, too, contributing his fast-talking mischief.
The reporter nods and smiles but privately thinks the men are crazy as Huck expounds on Roberta’s new philosophy of clothes. They will design women’s fashions as men think they should be, which to Huck means “not so naked” so that they stimulate the imagination rather than giving the goods away. They also plan to include lots of pockets so that a woman’s escort doesn’t have to carry all her “junk” around in his own pockets.
It’s a comic interlude, but soon we’re back to business. A complication arises between John and Stephanie in the form of bitchy Sophie, who wants a piece of John now that he’s a wealthy couturier. Sophie worms her way back into John’s arms, and he’s too stupid and lovesick to realize she’s terrible. Stephanie accidentally walks in on them. She also accidentally wore a trash bag.
John is embarrassed, and Stephanie is bummed. She really liked John! And she can tell right away that Sophie is the worst.
Speaking of the worst, what is happening with Dunne’s dress? 1930s shiny black pleather? RKO press releases for the film said that one of Dunne’s costumes was so flammable that a fireman was tasked with following her around the lot whenever she wore it. This could be that dress! It looks as though it might spontaneously combust at any moment.
Stephanie doesn’t like Sophie, and Sophie doesn’t like her, but they have to play nice. Sophie wants a gown, so Stephanie shows her some options. (First she changes out of that fire-dress for everyone’s safety.)
How glamorous and wasteful to have models parade around a showroom for every customer! I love it. But Sophie is unimpressed.
I admit that the caterpillar ruff on that striped gown is over-the-top, but otherwise it’s a knockout. (Rather than include detailed views of every gown in the film in this already overloaded post, I’ve tried to control myself and instead will put all of them on my tumblr and pinterest.)
Huck doesn’t like Sophie, either, so he suggests that Stephanie show her that black gown, you know, the one she put aside for that famous customer, wink-wink? Stephanie doesn’t want to, but Sophie falls for Huck’s trick and demands to see the dress. So out it comes. And naturally, vulgar Sophie adores it and buys it at once.
Oh, dear. Trouble’s a-brewin’.
A few days later, our cast is assembled at Cafe Russe for the opening of Huck’s band. Sophie surprises John with the dress that she just knows he’ll love.
He’s furious, mainly at Stephanie for selling it to Sophie, but then Sophie reveals her true character, and he breaks up with her for good. And off she goes, good riddance.
We pause with a very angry, soon-to-be-very-drunk John and get a performance by Huck and Lizzie. They sing “I Won’t Dance” together and then Huck takes to the floor for a solo dance.
Fun fact: “I Won’t Dance” was an old Jerome Kern composition that wasn’t in the Broadway show “Roberta.” The song, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, Jr., had been in the flop musical “The Three Sisters” in 1934. But Dorothy Fields supplied new lyrics for this movie, and that version is now a standard.
Another fun fact: Fields’ lyrics include the line “When you dance you’re charming and you’re gentle/Especially when you do the Continental,” which is a reference to Astaire and Rogers’ big finale number from The Gay Divorcee. Lizzie and Huck even strike a pose from “The Continental” as they sing the line!
Meanwhile, John gets really drunk. So when he sees Stephanie enter the club in a gorgeous pale satin, fur-trimmed cloak and a pearl halo tiara, he’s pretty confused and also angry.
Stephanie is greeted with noble deference and escorted to a back room. Once she arrives, a curtain bearing the Romanov coat of arms is pulled shut. Hmm. Perhaps Ladislaw isn’t the only Russian aristocrat working at Roberta’s…
We follow Stephanie into the Russian room where her companions beg her to sing. She obliges, belting out “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” until wobbly John pulls aside the curtain.
He confronts her about selling the black dress to Sophie, and then she gets mad, too, claiming that the vulgar, obvious gown was perfect for her! John storms off, and she weeps.
Costume appreciation break. Stephanie’s dress in this scene is pretty and angelic, and very different from Sophie’s. It makes for a nice contrast, as if we needed any more evidence that Sophie is bad and Stephanie is good.
The reporter’s article finally breaks, and Stephanie hurries to Roberta’s to try and halt any further damage to the brand. Huck and Lizzie are there, but John hasn’t come in for days, and neither has Stephanie.
Roberta’s won’t last long without Stephanie at the helm, but she doesn’t want to work with John anymore, so it seems they’re sunk. Until Lizzie and Huck tell Stephanie that John loves her, and cleverly manipulate her into designing a new collection and hosting a “musical fashion show.” You knew it was coming!
Naturally, Huck and his band are part of the show, as is Lizzie. Huck starts it off with a musical description of the collection’s sportswear. My favorite is when he gets to the “aviator” in her white trench coat, and speak-sings, “And should Amelia Earhart care to get a breath of air, this is the last thing in the world she’d ever wear.”
Then a lovely parade commences, followed by lingering shots on each model:
Fun fact: I’m fairly certain that the fur coat modeled in the show is the same one that Ginger Rogers wore in one of her next films, Swing Time (1936). Compare:
Anyway, the parade of models pauses while Stephanie sings “Lovely to Look At” in a crazy snow queen dress on a balcony. John arrives in time for her song. It seems he’s forgiven her.
Fun fact: “Lovely to Look At” was a new song written by Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields just for this movie. It was nominated for Best Song, and would appear in MGM’s 1952 remake, which also used the song as its title.
You can understand why RKO racked up such a huge costume bill when you see ensembles like this one:
And this incredible fur coat and glittering gown:
Fun fact: apparently there was a $6,ooo fur coat used in this movie, and I bet it’s that floor length monstrosity.
Another fun fact: Recognize this model? It’s a very young, platinum blonde Lucille Ball in her first on-screen close-ups!
You can watch the whole fashion show and Stephanie’s song here.
The fashion show is capped off by Huck and Lizzie’s dance to “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” Lizzie struts onto the dance floor in a bias-cut, liquid black gown and fur cloak with a long train, plus a diamond cap and large brooch. The weird thing is that her slinky black dress looks an awful lot like the black eel dress that everyone found so distasteful. Right?
Off they go in a romantic duet.
You can watch it here. Magic, as always. Fun fact: rehearsals for this film lasted nine weeks. Astaire was a notorious perfectionist who demanded the same from his partners, and his punishing rehearsals got to even the most seasoned and talented dancers. But Rogers was perhaps the toughest; as Astaire remarked decades later, “All the girls I ever danced with thought they couldn’t do it, but of course they could. So they always cried. All except Ginger. No, no, Ginger never cried.”
After their performance, Lizzie and Huck get engaged in about the cutest way ever. Lizzie says that she supposes she’ll have to give into him, and he says, “What?” They go from there:
Meanwhile, John and Stephanie are back at Roberta’s in the same positions as when they first met. They reconcile, as we knew they would. John even handles the news that Stephanie is a Russian princess with adorable grace.
And then it’s back to the fashion show for a high energy reprise by Lizzie and Huck. She hikes up her skirts and they tear up the dance floor!
Roberta was an expensive film for RKO, but their investment paid off at the box office.
It was more proof, if more was needed, that Astaire and Rogers had something special, and producer Berman quickly got to work planning their next production. They would make six movies together in the next four years, including Follow the Fleet (1936), which also stars Randolph Scott as Astaire’s handsome, bumbling best friend. Fun fact: Follow the Fleet was the loose inspiration for Hit the Deck (1955). Ann Miller‘s character in that later film is named Ginger as an homage to Miss Rogers.
Follow the Fleet wasn’t the only film to be turned into an MGM Technicolor extravaganza. As I mentioned earlier, MGM bought the re-make rights to Roberta in the mid 1940s, and released Lovely to Look At in 1952. That film isn’t a terribly faithful re-make, though it has the same songs and plenty of fashion shows and glittering sets. It stars Howard Keel in Randolph Scott’s role, Kathryn Grayson in Irene Dunne’s, and Red Skelton and Ann Miller in the Astaire and Rogers’ roles.
The film has the added talents of dancers Marge and Gower Champion, as well as Zsa Zsa Gabor and Kurt Kasznar. Since MGM didn’t want competition, or perhaps comparison to the earlier film, they kept Roberta out of circulation except for rare screenings at art museums, and didn’t sell it to TV until the 1970s.
Although Randolph Scott is not entirely forgotten today, most people only associate him with westerns and might be surprised to learn that he was a frequent presence in comedies, dramas, and musicals until the 1940s. For more forgotten stars, be sure to check out the other entries in the blogathon!
Here’s the trailer for Roberta–enjoy! For more, including images of nearly every single costume in the film, follow me on tumblr, pinterest, Instagram, and Facebook! And you can buy this great film here!