REVIEW: Shall We Dance [1937]

“The first time I’m in love, I’m in love with you”

They just don’t make movies like this anymore and there definitely isn’t a comparable screen duo working today. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaborated on an astounding ten films together; most described jokingly by my friends as having the same plot and being mere vehicles to showcase their dance moves. Astaire and choreography partner Hermes Pan—who would dub Ginger’s taps and teach her the steps after each routine was crafted—infused some spectacular pieces in these movies, many shot with one continuous take. Shall We Dance is one such example, a romantic comedy of celebrity tabloid mix-ups and the true love underneath the deceptions. A complicated plot with twists and turns as far as who is tricking whom, it would have lasted a reasonable hour and half or so if the dance sequences were removed. But those interludes are what makes the film what it is; the fact they add an extra thirty minutes, making it overlong and plodding at times, simply needs to be accepted. You need the plot and you need the dancing, not one moment can be cut.

The fact this plot could have been rectified in short work might have added to the slogging pace, however. Astaire’s Petrov is a gent from Philadelphia, now the world’s greatest ballet dancer—Peter P. Peters just doesn’t have the bravado of a one-word Russian moniker—growing restless in his France-based company. Spying a playbill for tap dancer Linda Keene (Rogers), he automatically falls in love, needing to meet her and divulge his feelings. She too is getting ready for a change, however, threatening manager Arthur Miller (Jerome Cowan) with a plan to return to America and marry the wealthy Jim Montgomery (William Brisbane), whom she knows will accept. More a ploy to anger Miller’s pocketbook and cause him to scramble for a replacement than any real want of retirement, the simple idea of marriage soon becomes a media frenzy, especially when Petrov enters the fray. His own handler Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton) happens to spin a yarn that the dancer is secretly married in order to get rid of an old flame and partner of his, Lady Denise Tarrington (Ketti Gallian).

As an outsider looking in, one could see this all as a most fortunate opportunity. Petrov needs a wife to get Tarrington off his case and Keene needs a husband to have reason for quitting Miller’s act. The fact they have finangled themselves on the Queen Mary at the same time—for completely different and comical reasons concerning Astaire’s hope for love—should be the perfect catalyst for everyone to get what they want. Except there is one problem: Keene can’t stand Petrov, not the real man’s adoration of her from a photo or the brazen, faux Russian egomaniac he pretends to be in order to show how snooty she herself is. So, when the gossips on board catch wind of Tarrington’s leak to the papers that Petrov is married, it’s assumed with Keene. Their fake relationship becomes a necessity to keep their images clean, scandal hoping to be avoided at all costs. And, like any romantic comedy, whether from 1937 or last week, his love and her disgust turn to his acceptance of her disinterest and her discovery of actual feelings, finally culminating in the eventual realization they were the ones for each other after all.

Shall We Dance is a very funny movie as its convoluted plot is ripe for antics. Astaire and Rogers have their own tug of war with feelings and actions, but the real belly laughs come from the supporting cast. Cowan’s Miller is the kind of man willing to do whatever is necessary to keep Keene in his show, bringing in an audience and therefore holding his creditors at bay. If he has to stage photos by using a life-like dummy of the starlet, so be it. He also has no qualms about poking fun at Horton’s Jeffrey, a naïve businessman whose photo is most likely next to the word gullible in the dictionary. Horton’s comedic timing is impeccable and his slapstick, over-exaggerated expressions only add to the appeal. Some gags are simple like Astaire rocking back and forth, feigning choppy water to make his manager sick; some manic and broad like riling him up to evacuate a ‘burning’ ship while still in his underwear; or completely over-the-top with an extended telephone bit opposite Eric Blore’s Cecil Flintridge, himself a memorable comic addition also. And one shouldn’t forget the misinterpretation gags sprinkled throughout with strangers overhearing a conversation about one thing, but thinking another. It is something that reminded me of a “Soap” episode I recently saw, oddly enough a show directed by Jay Sandrich, son of this film’s general Mark.

The humor is great, but the dancing is what stands out and ultimately makes the piece. Astaire does wonders in his solo sequences, graceful in his ballet leaps and a composed in his tap jigs, an intriguing state of meticulously composed wild flailing—you’ll understand when you see him. My favorite is probably a sequence very early on showing him tap to a record playing in his office, slowing down as the player dies, him constantly going back to fix the needle until finally falling from the sluggish pace. The larger routines, set to Gershwin music throughout, hit home as well, especially an impressive duet with Rogers on rollerskates, supposedly taking over thirty takes to get right. Astaire is a master at all times, whether singing, dancing, or acting, but I’ll admit to being a bit indifferent on Rogers, effective in her quiet, expressive moments, yet appearing to try too hard when being loud and assertive, making me think Fred was too good to bother chasing her. Kudos to his creative last-ditch effort to finally win her over, though—this ruins nothing; it’s a romance after all. With a bang-up job by the prop department creating Ginger masks with surprising realism, a prolonged ‘shushing’ match, and the extra-creepy flexibility of dancer Harriet Hoctor contorting into unthinkable positions, I was waiting for Rebekah del Rio to come onstage whispering “Silencio”, the credits then showing how the finale was helmed by David Lynch.

Shall We Dance 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

photography:
Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in the 1937 film “Shall We Dance.” Photofest.

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