Shall We Dance, the seventh out of ten films starring Fred and Ginger, certainly proves the dancing duo had tweaked their formula since the all dancing, no plot film that was The Gay Divorcee. Featuring several legendary songs composed by the Gershwins (most famously, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”), jokes that land, and a movie filled with several comic twists and turns, Shall We Dance proves Astaire and Rogers haven’t run out of steam yet!
Petrov (Astaire), the famed ballet dancer, falls for singer Linda Keene (Rogers). Linda doesn’t feel the same about Petrov, but that doesn’t matter as they both end up on the same boat sailing over the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Petrov’s attempts to push away an amorous lady leaves people believing Linda and Petrov are actually married. The two find themselves forced to play out the ruse, falling in love in the process.
Where The Gay Divorcee found the narrative secondary to the dancing, Shall We Dance reverses that, and in a way gives us too much plot in the process. We have the love/hate relationship between Petrov and Linda established in the beginning, creating conflict; from there the two are placed in a fake marriage, complete with fake children that their scheming managers (Edward Everett Horton and Jerome Cowan) stoke the flames of; after that, once we’re on dry land, the two play out a divorce only to realize their true intentions for each other. And don’t forget the fact that Linda’s engaged to another man, as Petrov (real name Peter P. Peters in a fun reveal) has a formerly married woman to spurn.
Much of this plays like requisite screwball and it’s all fun throughout. Astaire’s Petrov sounds like Franck from the Steve Martin Father of the Bride, and the film makes sure to give him the added depth of wishing to blend ballet with jazz dancing. Said dream culminates in the presentation of a show where Petrov’s surrounded by a sea of women wearing Ginger Rogers face masks. Making things even funnier is the fact that the masks, and a full-size Ginger Rogers doll/sculpture used to “authenticate” the two’s relationship, looks creepy as all get out, akin to something out of Silence of the Lambs.
One of the high points of The Gay Divorcee was Edward Everett Horton and I’m hoping I’ll continue to see him this week because he’s consistently hilarious! As Petrov/Peter’s beleaguered manager, Jeffrey, he’s given more room to flex his comedic chops. Gone is the knock-kneed guy constantly lusted after by women. Here, he finds himself in collusion with Cowan’s Arthur, Linda’s mildly effeminate manager. Interestingly enough, there’s a fair bit of homoeroticism between Arthur and Jeffrey playing out throughout the film. Arthur’s affected manner and pencil-mustache aside, the two end up drunk on champagne, left alone after everyone’s gone to bed, a moment preceded by the camera lingering on Arthur’s scheming face; getting Jeffrey drunk is just the start!
As for the singing and dancing, it’s found that sweet spot between spontaneity and controlled, over-the-top and mystifying. Astaire’s character still make much of their surroundings, and here we’re treated to a dance in the ship’s belly. Astaire dances, jumps, and taps in rhythm with the various machines powering the ship. It’s also great watching him interact with the African-American workers helping the ship run, a subtle moment showing Astaire’s tolerance and acceptance of others, while also showing him as an outsider, different from the snobby characters we usually see in these “at sea films.” The bulk of the dancing happens once the couple gets married. A sequence on roller-skates is inventive and of the times. I also thoroughly enjoyed the songs as they’re incredibly familiar. Astaire singing “potato, po-ta-to” presented an overcovered song in a way that felt off-the-cuff.
Although, much like The Gay Divorcee, this still felt like Astaire’s movie. We’re given additional context into his and Linda’s relationship. There’s at least some interaction between them before he declares his love for her. And the addition of a fake marriage/children will remind fans of Rogers’ past situation with a fake family in Bachelor Mother (1939). Rogers character has more conflict heaped on her, forced to choose between a requisite fiancee and the man she hates to love, but it never feels like she’s fully in control of her destiny. When the two find themselves reunited, Linda secretly hiding behind the mask has a great bit of irony in it.
With familiar songs, great dances, and a tighter (if not stuffed) script, Shall We Dance rights the ship after the uneven Gay Divorcee. I still don’t believe I’ve found the Fred and Ginger film I adore, but this was good stuff.
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