On paper, I shouldn’t like this film. It’s a musical and I don’t hate musicals but I don’t love them either, I prefer musicals in the theatre as opposed to films. When I watch musical films, often I’m wondering why they are singing as opposed to speaking or writing a letter? Maybe, I try to contextualise too much into the society and the real life. Maybe they come off too optimistic and happy for my liking. But my, do I love Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They are just two people who together, worked well on screen and RKO milked on their chemistry – creating 9 films together. While Shall We Dance isn’t their most popular known film (The honour goes to Top Hat) it is by far one of my favourites.
Fred Astaire stars as Peter P. Peters but everyone calls him Petrov. He dances for a ballet company in Paris, he dreams of combining classical ballet with modern jazz and when he sees a photograph of Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers), a famous tap dancer. He instantly falls for her – because that is how romance works in 1930s Hollywood. He plots to meet her, but when he does she isn’t amused. They ‘coincidentally’ bump into each other on an ocean liner and Linda begins to thaw. However, when a rumour starts that Petrov is married the press hound on to find out who his mysterious wife is, they exploit that it is Linda who is the mystery wife and a publicity stunt to prove that they are married occurs, which leads their possible romance two steps backwards as Linda is fuming. Eventually, unable to squelch the rumour they decide to get married for real, Linda stating that it’s easier to end it by getting divorced straight away. As she starts to develop genuine feelings (other than distaste) mishap occurs that ends up pushing her away.
I won’t spoil the ending, but you can guess how it ends. It follows the same outline of most of their films that they did with RKO, just different characters and story. A lot of their films revolve around the idea of ‘mistaken identity’ which the audience at the time enjoyed and RKO recycled. The films are from Fred Astaire’s POV, Ginger’s character isn’t an obedience housewife, she first appears cold and icy, Fred has to work for her affections – mainly through dance, but Fred has moves! It works because slowly Ginger’s character develops feelings. Then a bunch of misunderstandings and then – happy ending! Shall We Dance is one of their later films and it becomes clear that the formula was wearing out, the plot relies less on mistaken identity and more on misunderstandings.
So, why do I rank list highly out of all the Astaire-Rogers musicals? I suppose it has to be the dancing. Now, one thing the Astaire-Rogers films showcase is the talent of Fred Astaire: a tap dancer by nature. Astaire choreographs the dances as all the main dances involve him. There is the solo dance, the comedy dance and the romance dance (the last two with a partner). In Shall We Dance, his big solo dance is Slap That Bass and in this sequence, you see the genius of Astaire, a fan of utilising the extended long shot – in the sequence the shot only changes 6 times – you can clearly see his passion seeping through. He oozes a mixture of charm and dorkiness at the same time. The best part of the dance is the mixture of diegetic and non-diegetic sound. For most of the dance Astaire is dancing to music as normal, however then the music stops and he carries on dancing, using the sound of the machinery from the ship as an influence. It’s intriguing to see what he came up with during that scene – one of my favourites is the matrix move (Yes that one from the famous film), around 70 years before the film.
The highlight moment of the film for me is where Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire dance on roller skates. This is one of those scenes that is perfect and should be one of their personal bests. Singing about the pronunciations of words “You say To-may-toes I say To-mah-toes” they then proceed to do a 3-minute dance all on rollerskates! Taking over 150 takes and leaving them with bleeding feet, it is impressive to watch. Only two long extended shot are used but it’s clear that the routine was done with no mistakes – it’s impossible to fake. It really reinforces the old say about Rogers: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels.”
Plot wise, this isn’t the strongest one out of all of them. Frankly, it is slightly creepy and insane – or at least it should be, I don’t know maybe it is the modern-day viewer in me being cynical. For example, Petrov contrives all these ways to woo Linda and are they at any chance romantic? Not really, borrowing a dog from someone so you can “subtly” walk on the deck where she is walking her dog – he later appears with a herd of dogs. Or there is the dance in which all the female dancers wear masks with Linda’s face on to prove his undying love to Linda. Spoiler alert: it works! So, what makes this ludicrous pursuit romantic, or worth rooting for? I was aware of how borderline creepy and obsessive Fred’s pursuit of Linda was. Nevertheless, what makes it work is the chemistry between Astaire and Rogers. Plus, Astaire is not your typical Hollywood leading man material, he hasn’t got the Cary Grant looks, you could argue that his acting is weak but he gives off charm. Katharine Hepburn mentioned that “Ginger brought sex, Fred brought class” and she is right. Rogers made Astaire a big more Hollywood material. The plot also delves into the behind-the-scenes of showbiz. The main root of their issues is the rumour about marriage which is started by Petrov’s manager, while it isn’t taken seriously in the film, it does provide a small inkling into Hollywood and how managers and studios would release false information to make sure their star is still a star and not ruin their image.
This is one of those films if you are watching for the story, it will not satisfy you. As I said, it is clear that they were running out of ideas in a used formula, but this film should be watched more to see the impeccable pairing of Astaire and Rogers, they are able to salvage the film through their performances and the real main attraction of the film: their dancing. This is a musical but it isn’t about singing (their voices aren’t bad, just not impressive), the dancing is the main attraction and the appeal and even if you hate dance, you can’t help but appreciate the talent in Shall We Dance.
Shall We Dance
Director: Mark Sandrich
Scriptwriter: Allan Scott; Ernest Pagano
Starring: Fred Astaire; Ginger Rogers
Running Time: 104 minutes (1 hour 44 minutes)