Well, to get an impression of where I stand when I dismiss the musical aspects of this film, Fred and Ginger are, next to William Powell and Myrna Loy, the most watchable, most cinematic on-screen couple of the decade—urbane, witty, effortless. It is not their dancing together that impresses, not for me. Fred has done much better dancing in Easter Parade. The staging is most of the time uninteresting, spotlight on them, dull camera. And they are not what you would call superb actors by the contemporary sense of the term.
It is the bubble of spontaneity and feigned amazement, the air of pleasant light friction they manage to sustain between them; a sense of soft clouds gliding against each other, the rain and lightning all for show.
As said, the musical aspect doesn’t touch me, it seems onedimensional— give me the self-reflexive dance in layers of something like Busby’s Footlight Parade.
What IS interesting about this, and their cinematic coupling in general, is that it is so much more than a cocktail party, that would be William and Myrna’s charm (do see The Thin Man if you haven’t). It will seem superficial at first, indeed most viewers have dismissed the story as a trifle rehash of their Gay Divorcée. It was probably seen as harmless at the time. The thing is basically a screwball with a few numbers.
It probably excites me and not others, because my ongoing premise is that each film right down to the most crude, can be understood as a consciousness at the mercy of images it creates—the fun all in riding whims of perception as they enter the fray and stitch illusion.
Let me unspool a bit of what goes on in the story to illustrate that. You have two lovers who curiously explore each other. We know they are destined, audiences knew then, it’s as if they are already together and all this is being reflected back on. The place is Venice, the Hollywood studio version—the perfect scenery for embellishment and dreamlike digress, because it is so falsely idyllic. It really is an amazing set; imagine being a studio carpenter and going to work there every morning, what bliss..
Now as fate would have it, there is the misunderstanding (mistaken identity) and all it kicks off. This is mirrored in a friendly couple, where imagined adultery is actually real and comes to the surface. You have the Italian dressmaker and annoying manservant as comic relief, both of whom act roles at one point or other, incidentally both are celibates so without anchor. On a third level, you have both lovers fabricating a supposed shared memory from the past, with Fred’s, here’s the magic of the couple in full effect, slyly improvised on the spot on top of Ginger’s.
Fateful changing of selves; splintered, older version of the reality of the characters; and third parallel mirror in obviously fabricated memory about veiled sex, which is at the core of everything. In Fred’s story, he supposedly met Ginger years ago in Paris, who was going then by Madeleine—’Mad’ in short.
How can anyone who has intimately known Vertigo see this and not sit back? Can’t we say that some things enter the vocabulary with such power, they transform in retrospect everything else.
Oh, the abstraction is empty as we have it. This is a comedy, so we have too much control of the plot; there are whims in perception, but we are never lost.
And all of it has been so deftly annotated since Vertigo and on, that there’s nothing to take from it anymore, the next two or three steps have been taken. But there must have been a window, say no more than 10 years, when this really tickled the imagination.