Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Back in standard screwball comedy form, the Astaire-Rogers series takes in a madcap ocean
cruise and utilizes another romantic mixup to energize itself. This time it's not mistaken identities
but mistaken marital status. A convenient fib backfires into an embarrassing scandal that
requirest the lovers to seek a sham marriage -- in order to get a sham divorce.
American Peter P. Peters (Fred Astaire) dances ballet under the professional
name of Petrov, and is sick of his agent Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton) deciding his
life for him. He courts the exciting American entertainer Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers) but makes a
mess of his first attempts to get friendly. Petrov rashly elects to take a boat to New York just
to be with her. Not helping are Jeffrey's meddling rumors that Petrov and
Linda are secretly married - a ruse initiated to fend off the amorous glamour girl
Lady Denise Tarrington (Ketti Gallian). Linda's agent Arthur Miller (Jerome Cowan) spreads more
false publicity, humiliating everyone and tearing the now-interested couple apart. It's even worse
for the manager of a New York hotel (Eric Blore), who can't stand the confusion over whether or
not Petrov and Linda are a bona fide legal couple.
Savant tries to avoid getting too personal in movie reviews, with the exception of pictures seen
in childhood that can only be understood in terms of adolescent nostalgia. But the universality
Fred and Ginger movies reaches over generations and decades to form personal, concrete memories.
I remember seeing Shall We Dance in college. Associate professor Bob Epstein found out
that very few of us UCLA 19 and 20-year-olds had ever seen an Astaire-Rogers picture and told us to
hang onto our hats. When he sings They Can't Take that Away from Me, Astaire is regretting a
great romance that might never get started. I was at the point where I realized a relationship I
was in probably wasn't going to work either, so the song sunk in deep. Even now, the feeling is
inseparable from memories of that particular afternoon in 1972 ...
Shall We Dance gets away with a fusion of ballet and show dance that few musicals have even
tried. There is a cheat in that 'Petrov' is really a hep Americaine fond of tap and ballroom dancing.
But when Astaire cavorts and leaps around as a ballet star, it's entirely convincing that
he could easily have been the real article. The show-stopping ballet number billboards Harriet
Hoctor's amazingly painful-looking toe dancing specialty. It's almost too sensational to be
in a variety show: While pitty-patting on her tiptoes, she arches over 90o
backwards, balancing like an impossible porcelain sculpture.
Sea cruises were the plot device of last resort for many a 30s comedy, the kind of setting where the
rich hang out with 'the right people,' an elitist attitude we hear Rogers' Linda express more than
once and not entirely with irony. Her efforts to retain her dignity are thwarted by a rumor mill
that makes everyone on board think she's been secretly married to Petrov all along.
This has to be the only movie about Dog Walking on an ocean liner, let alone
underscored by George Gershwin. An
impromptu dance called Slap that Bass puts Astaire into tap mode in the engine room, a
tremendous Art Deco concoction that looks to be made from white glass, with chrome railings.
Once back on dry land, Shall We Dance has an equally memorable dance on roller skates in
Central Park. The characters talk about visiting the zoo; this may be the zoo set that was dusted
off and re-used for Val Lewton's The Cat People five years later.
Other memorable songs are standards of equal reknown. Let's Call the Whole Thing Off is a
lyrical tongue-twister. The
truly sophisticated They All Laughed is an oddly-cadenced melody that sounds hard as heck to
sing. Rogers tosses it off with ease.
The other great musical innovation of the 30s were the surreal visual creations of Busby Berkeley
over at Warners. He had great music but usually not the best of dancers to work with, and instead
made gigantic concept creations of form and motion involving myriads of white pianos, kaleidoscope-
patterned female bodies, etc. On one of the discs an interviewee author says that the Astaire-Rogers
pictures were superior because they didn't cut the songs and performances up into bits, as Berkeley
often did. The commentary is really comparing apples to oranges. Fred and Ginger often went through
takes to get an entire dance in one shot, perfectly; their governing idea was to preserve the
performance to prove it was real. Creating his number in the camera, Berkeley as director and
designer was more often than not the key performer. When he displayed ballroom
specialty numbers (as in The Lady in Red from In Caliente) Berkeley worked with wide
shots and longer takes just as Astaire did.
The writers and director Mark Sandrich do cute trick with a Berkeley idea at the end of
Shall We Dance. Petrov has made his dance chorus wear blonde wigs and use Linda Keene masks
because 'he only wants to dance with her anyway.' It's a gloss on the I Only Have Eyes for You
song from Berkeley's Dames where the screen is filled with multiple images of Ruby Keeler's
face. In Shall We Dance the device functions as a romantic trigger. Linda responds to Petrov's
gesture and takes the place of one of the dancers. He gets a flash of the real Linda behind one of
the masks, and has to do a quick improv on the number to find her again. In contrast to Berkeley,
this similar 'gag' idea keys directly into the romantic theme.
Edward Everett Horton is his predictable self, and Eric Blore has a fine time as a charmingly prudish
hotel manager who doesn't know if he's preventing hanky-panky or facilitating secret marrieds getting
Warners' DVD of Shall We Dance keeps up the high quality of the series. The picture seems
grainer only because of foggy scenes with low contrast, and the old audio track has been optimized
handsomely. Pianist Kevin Cole provides a commentary with his friend Hugh Martin, a songwriter from
the era. Their remarks have a refreshing point of view.
The Music of Shall We Dance concentrates on the Gershwins' contribution to show tunes and
film work of this time, and the vacancy created by George's death not long after Shall We Dance
was released. A musical short called Sheik to Sheik is a painfully unfunny collection of
Arab stereotypes pitched just this side of burlesque. The color cartoon Toy Town Hall is a
musical dream of toys coming to life. Loyal animation fans might go for it, but it was heavy labor
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Shall We Dance rates:
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Commentary, featurette, two short subjects
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 7, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson