The name Gershwin is synonymous with “The American Songbook” and part of the draw of Shall We Dance is how it included two of them: both the brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Ira would tragically pass away that same year. However, together they provided the compositions and lyrics for the film which, in some sense, feels like an atypical Astaire and Rogers vehicle.
While Mark Sandrich is in the director’s chair once more following The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Follow The Fleet (1936), there are some unprecedented deviations from the normal foolproof formula. Namely, Astaire plays Peter P. Peters, an American who trades in his taps for a Russian ballet company. He’s certainly will always be a hoofer in most people’s eyes, and it does feel oddly out of character.
What hasn’t changed is his instant infatuation with Rogers, a famous tap dancer in her own right, named Linda Keane. But he must contrive some sort of gimmick and thusly takes up the persona of the touchy Russian dancer “Petrov” to antagonize her on the road toward love. Meanwhile, he tries his very best to evade the flirtations of his former dance partner Denise (Ketti Gallian) who looks to snatch him up.
Of the earliest offerings, Astaire gives us the treat of his cane dancing like he did in Top Hat and then there’s a fine boiler room number, “Slap that Bass” supported by a host of African-American performers thrumming with a healthy dose of character.
The film’s most catastrophic mix-up comes when the newspapers begin promoting a secret marriage between our two stars, thanks to a cockamamie story Peters cooked up on the spot to keep his former suitor at bay as he leaves on an ocean liner.
Petrov and Keane develop some chemistry dog walking together on the deck of the ship only for the gossip swirling about to reach a fever pitch. Astaire’s bumbling boss, Mr. Beard (Edward Everett Horton) uses it as the perfect chance to get rid of her for good. Meanwhile, Eric Blore as his ever-huffy hotel clerk tries his best to figure out the marital status of Petrov and Ms. Keane when preparing their rooms. They leave him ceaselessly befuddled.
Then, a second nefarious scandal is cooked up by Keane’s road manager (Jerome Cowan feeling out of place with the screwball elements), who does his best to kill the upcoming marriage his star has embarked on. Thanks to some late-night photography and a mannequin bearing a striking resemblance to Linda, the news spreads like wildfire. What are his motives, you ask? He’s got his own reasons.
Not surprisingly, the closest thing we get to the Astaire and Rogers numbers of old are also the film’s finest entries, including the comic tune “They Laughed at Me” sung by Rogers before being joined in a routine by Astaire. After they sneak out to get away from the publicity hounds, “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” proves a handy follow-up number.
The extended sequence purportedly took a plethora of takes, upwards of 100, while the final fall into the grass left Fred and Ginger with black and blue backsides. They suffered and yet as the audience, we no doubt reap the benefits, especially because Shall We Dance hardly has their traditional big numbers like a Top Hat (1935) or Swing Time (1936) so seeing them on skates together is nearly consolation enough.
They show everyone by getting married, making it easy enough to get divorced so Linda can marry the man she’s meant to. Since their movies always took a page out of screwball comedies anyway, it makes sense this picture is another riff on the comedy of remarriage, which could be a sub-genre all its own.
Ultimately, two shows are merged in an instance of inspiration and yet that doesn’t mean that Petrov’s got the girl. An oddly disconcerting final number follows as Astaire dances with a host of gals all donning Ginger Roger’s face, disrupted by a shushing war instigated by our favorite misfits Blore and Horton. Though the picture could have used a feisty female like a Helen Broderick or Alice Brady, there’s also never enough of Blore and Horton to suit their faithful fans. They make every film a little more colorful, and it would hardly be an Astaire-Rogers picture without a stellar supporting cast of veteran jokesmiths.
Surveying Shall We Dance, it’s certainly not at the top of the pantheon of the movie musicals that these two icons made together, but it’s ripe with some of the usual delights in spite of a laborious plot and a different brand of dancing than we’re used to. It’s hard to complain too much about the results. There’s no doubt the entertainment value for true aficionados still remains.