Originally appeared in the UK's Telegraph on June 6, 2006
By Benjamin Secher
The American independent film writer and director Walt Stillman tells Benjamin Secher how Mark Sandrich's The Gay Divorcee (1934) inspired his work.
'I'm not sure how this will tie in to your question," says Whit Stillman, adopting the nervous yet determined gaze of a man who is about to give an extraordinary answer to an ordinary question, "but I think some of Fred Astaire's dance performances prove the existence of God."
Since sitting down, half an hour earlier, the celebrated director of Metropolitan (made in 1991, but released on DVD for the first time next week) has been talking in the kind of disarmingly articulate sentences favored by the preppy characters in his most famous film. But the thought of a suave, faun-faced man hot-stepping across the screen leaves him dumbstruck. "Some of Fred Astaire's dances are simply transcendental," he reiterates, at last. "And The Gay Divorcee has two of them."
Mark Sandrich's 1934 film marks the first production in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared top-billing; the moment that sealed their reputation as the golden couple of musical cinema. The pair went on to work with Sandrich often - most famously in Top Hat - but Stillman believes that they never topped The Gay Divorcee. "It is," he says, "a true original from the golden age of cinema."
The film, adapted from a stage musical, introduces us to an unhappily married American beauty (Rogers) who voyages to London to seek her aunt's advice on how best to arrange a divorce. Astaire is the friend of a lawyer who is hired to help. After falling in love with Rogers, he determines to win her reluctant affections, jumping through various farcical hoops along the way.
But the delightfully footloose plot counts for nothing compared to the unforgettable dance sequences, including the two glorious numbers in which Stillman sees God, and which even the most atheistic viewer will recognise as pure cinematic heaven.
In the first, set in a moonlit ballroom, an argument blossoms into song and dance, Fred and Ginger's barbed banter melting into the gentle lyrics of Cole Porter's Night and Day as they glide across the floor. "The scene starts out completely minimalist, just nothing, and then turns into one of the most romantic dance sequences ever," says Stillman. "Everything comes together in that episode: the best performances, the best song, the best dancing."
The second dance, set on the esplanade of a grand Brighton hotel with a supporting cast of hundreds, is fabulously overblown. High-kicking chorus girls nestle in revolving doors, synchronised couples whirligig around their balconies, and Fred and Ginger ripple down a monumental marble staircase as silkily as cream over strawberries. It is, quite literally, show-stopping. "That dance sequence must be one of the longest ever done. I clocked it this morning at 18 minutes," says Stillman. "I think the small things in it are greater than the big things." He smiles like a child in a sweetshop. "But the big things are wonderful too."
Stillman's fanatical love of musical comedies stretches far beyond Fred Astaire. "If I could, I would go to see Guys and Dolls every single night," he says. "That would be my favorite thing in life". Which rather begs the question: why has he never made a full-blown musical himself? "I'd absolutely love to," he says. "I've thought about it a lot. In a funny way, I consider all my films to be musical comedies in the form of something else."
Metropolitan, which earned Stillman a well-deserved Oscar nomination, feels in many ways like a musical that never was. Despite being set during the debutante season in New York City, in which every night brings another society ball, there is scarcely a glimpse of dancing contained within its elegantly written scenes. Instead, we are treated always to the aftermath of the musical moment, the talky after-parties where the young characters sit around in their gowns and dinner jackets, absurdly anatomising society or making charming, fragile attempts at romance.
"I like to think the film has the soul of a musical comedy: a certain kind of joy or transcendence that we feel in music and dance," says Stillman. "People call that spirit escapism, but I think that is a pejorative way of looking at it. Take The Gay Divorcee. That film was made, between wars, at a time when in Europe and the States things were very tough. Yet even then people made an effort to seek out something happy. They were aspiring to be as beautiful as possible, to be as well dressed as possible." It is an era in which Stillman, unfashionably dapper with his floppy fringe and blue blazer, might have felt at home.
"Everything was aiming higher; there was no aspiring to lower," he continues. "In today's society you can see that, OK, some things like medicine, or telecommunications might be at the highest point they've ever been, but I think that it should be recognised that there has been a decline elsewhere."
"I think, for example, that the change in cinema is best understood in terms of decline and decadence." He slowly, sadly shakes his head. "Something great was achieved with films like The Gay Divorcee that hasn't been touched since."