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Shall We Dance

Shall We Dance
Warner DVD
1937 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 109 min. / Street Date August 16, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Eric Blore, Jerome Cowan, Ketti Gallian
Cinematography Joseph F. Biroc
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor William Hamilton
Music George Gershwin
Written by Ernest Pagano, Allan Scott from the story Watch Your Step by Harold Buchman, Lee Loeb
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by Mark Sandrich

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 of these 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 dozens of 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 together.

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 for Savant.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Shall We Dance rates:
Movie: Excellent
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

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