Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Shall We Dance (1937)



Director: Mark Sandrich

Honors:

Gather together Hollywood’s greatest musical stars of the late 1930s with a pair of the greatest music writers of their age and you get Shall We Dance. For the seventh time RKO matches the successful combination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and, as they did with Irving Berlin before, they collaborate with original music by some of the most popular song writers of their time George and Ira Gershwin. Just as George Gershwin had done to mold together classic band music with jazz, so does this film in fusing jazz with ballet in both music and dance under the work of star and choreographer Fred Astaire.

Shall We Dance is a musical comedy about a famous ballet dancer that falls in love with a famous tap dancer inspiring him to dance in a manner that he only wished he could, marrying the grace of ballet with the energy of jazzy tap. Peter P. Peters (Astaire), an American ballet dancer known by the stage name of “Petrov” for the famous Russian ballet company, becomes infatuated with a lovely and famous tap dancer, Linda Keene (Rogers). His infatuation leads him to following her around in creative ways where love begins to bloom until a publicity stunt leads the press to believe they are married, much to the chagrin of Linda. After many unsuccessful attempts to disprove the false press, Linda decides the only way to end the rumor is to actually marry only to immediately divorce. However, Linda begins to really love her new husband, but then she discovers him with another woman, no giving him time to explain. As in any Astaire/Rogers motion picture, the way back to her heart is by the hero dancing, this time in a large stage production with all dancers wearing masks of her, emphasizing the love Peter has for Linda, which, as planned, works.

This Astaire/Rogers picture, once again, rides low in the plot department and high in the musical department. With the team of George and Ira Gershwin, rather large names of the period, headlining the music, the score and songs are heavy on this particular film as it seems. Songs are song in many areas of the picture, with lyrics by Ira Gershwin, but it is the musical orchestration written by George Gershwin that is truly of display, hinted in the titles of the film as a short segment of George Gershwin’s very popular number “Rhapsody in Blue” reveals the credits of the song writing team.

Perhaps because of the lesser success of Astaire/Rogers had had in films leading up to Shall We Dance, this feature feels a bit more tame. Mark Sandrich, director of the duo’s previous titles Follow the Fleet, Top Hat, and the very popular The Gay Divorcee, the film lacks the magical romance seen in the earlier works of the stars, leaning a bit more to the whimsy. The story of two dancers from different ends of the dancing spectrum finding they have more in common then they originally thought plays as a rather simple plot, as most Astaire/Rogers films were, but in this case it feels a bit more tired.

The dance number which strands out the most from the picture that consists the two stars together is a dance of roller skates. Perhaps it is the writing, based off a Broadway hit purchased by RKO called “On Your Toes,” that makes the overall dancing in this movie seem to have less of a spark, but the film does lack the most signature aspect of any of Astaire and Roger’s pairings for the past few features, a prolonged romantic dance by the two. The skate dance is rather brief and is more whimsy than romantic, and the pair dancing in the finale as a passionate couple is even briefer.

The highlight of the musical pairing of Astaire and Rogers in Shall We Dance is a duet that would be infamous through the years as a tune about dueling dialects. “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” would be creative melody that though it would not be honored at the time of the feature’s realese, would live on as one of the more memorable tunes about opposites attracting and finding too many differences in each other, poking fun at romance through song. In 2004 AFI would honor the song penned by the Gershwins as their #34 song on its top 100 tunes of American cinema.

Familiar faces appear in the picture to provide added humor to the film. Edward Everett Horton, the rather well used character actor, works once again as a side character to Astaire, this time as the man that runs the Russian ballet starring Petrov. It is up to Horton’s character to keep an eye Petrov, assuring that he does not get out of line, but Astaire always seems to get from under his watch. Eric Blore too returns in his usual character as a slightly effeminate English that serves to help both Astaire and Rogers.

Astaire and Rogers were somewhat the meat and potatoes of the money making for RKO studios in the mid-to-late 1930s, but business seemed to be slipping for the popular duo. Profits for Shall We Dance were nearly half that which they brought in on their previous feature, Swing Time, topping somewhere just about $400,000. Their star as a team was fading. Sadder yet was the news that followed just months after the film’s release that George Gershwin, an American treasure in the realm of the early 20th century music, passed away from a brain tumor, which he suffered from through the production.

Shall We Dance is a fun musical with some entertaining moments, but overall lack the punch of the pair’s previous work. Perhaps it was their work together that was getting old, but the money did not lie. Astaire and Rogers would continue to make more films in the near future; after all they still brought in a profit. However it was only a matter of time when the team would split up for good under RKO.

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