Monday, April 27, 2009

From the Vault: Carefree (1938)

In 1938’s Carefree, the world’s first—and likely last—dance movie about psychoanalysis, Ginger Rogers performs a trick rivaling anything she ever did while going backwards in heels: she manages to make hypnosis and anesthesia sexy.

As Amanda Cooper, she allows her fiancé (a young Ralph Bellamy) to sign her up for psychoanalysis with his friend Tony Flagg (Fred Astaire), to rid her of the issues that are keeping her from getting married. Of course no one says “issues”; instead, Tony tells Amanda about her “two minds”, one of which is located somewhere in the air behind her head. Later in the movie, Tony tries hypnosis, and later still, he tries an anesthetic that allows her a surprising amount of both consciousness and mobility.

In other hands, the plot of Carefree would serve up the standard passive female. In more contemporary rom-com hands, we would see a woman’s adherence to pop stereotype masked as empowerment. But Carefree is ahead of its time—in a strange way. Granted, Amanda is taken to the psychoanalyst by her fiancé; granted, fiancé and analyst decide how to treat her—and there is no waiver or consent form in sight. Granted, she is rendered out of control by the scientific methods these men employ. But throughout the film, Rogers’ Amanda asserts her independence, in whimsical and also in more determined ways.

In one sequence, the “anesthetized” Rogers walks along a city sidewalk intrigued by a truck loaded with an inviting sheet of plate glass. Her attempts to hurl things at the glass are thwarted by a balletic sequence of random acts from passersby, but she finally uses a policeman’s baton to accomplish the deed. During this extended scene, Rogers is both gleeful and sly—to the extent that one wonders whether director Mark Sandrich is playing with the notion of the conscious and subconscious mind. Rogers’ Amanda begins the film playing a trick on Astaire’s Tony, and later, after she has fallen in love with him, she strings him along with a dream full of analysis-ready images and events. It’s not too great a leap to consider the possibility that Amanda uses her anesthesia as license for unruly behavior (including firing a skeet-shooting rifle at the men who have been trying to control her).

(Amanda is not the only woman asserting herself in Carefree. The character actress Luella Gear is in fine form here as Amanda’s Aunt Cora, always telling Judge Travers to “Sit down, Joe.”)

When it comes to the romance that we know is coming between Amanda and Tony, it is Amanda who declares her love, not Tony. (He does love her, but doesn’t come to understand it until later in the movie. Psychoanalysis, indeed.) She turns out to be a woman who knows what she wants and doesn’t hesitate to go after it. Interestingly, she makes her announcement of love while wearing a dress that puts appliqué to innovative use: as a Valentine/Rorschach combination. The dress features a large cartoon-style heart with multiple arrows piercing it from various directions. Tony misses the cue. Where did he get his degree, anyway?

Carefree was the last of five films Sandrich made with Astaire and Rogers, and he already seems to be making a transition away from song-and-dance to straight comedy or drama. Carefree features far less dancing than, say, Top Hat or Shall We Dance. But what there is is full of the grace, athleticism, and originality one expects from Astaire and Rogers. Rogers’ steps are hard to follow beneath the flowing fabric of her gowns, but what is easy to see is the high speed with which she gets whipped around Astaire’s center—without ever giving up any lightness and precision in her dancing. (For a commentary on Rogers’ dancing, see here.) And as for Astaire, Carefree draws attention to an unlikely source of his grace: his unusually large hands. Every time he reaches into the air behind his head to signify the “inner mind”, we are struck by the elegance of the gesture.

By 1938, the Hays Code had been in effect for eight years and enforced for four. It prohibited depictions of various sorts of immorality, including safe-cracking or the taking of illegal drugs. Adherence to the Code is likely the reason why we never see Rogers’ face with a mask over it as she inhales the anesthetic that gives her such freedom. The camera moves to a spot behind Rogers’ head, which is then obscured by the figures of Astaire and another doctor who hover over her as she is drugged. Surely, this is the image the Code enforcers should have found troubling. But they miss the unsettling disappearance of Rogers in this moment. That police baton that Rogers tosses at a plate of glass? That’s what the Hays people should have worried about.


  1. Interesting about Astaire's hands and the use he makes of them .. he often bends the two middle fingers in slightly in the more elegant / romantic routines to disguise their length. It's generally only in the more comic / vaudeville routines that you see them wonderfully employed at full stretch.

  2. I'd have to look again, but now you're making me think of a more elegant variation on Bill Nighy's characteristic gesture (which, apparently, is caused by some genetic inability to bend some of his fingers). Astaire's hands are, of course, thoroughly graceful, like those of a ballerina (or, no joke, a soccer player).