When Judge Diane Wild calls the whole thing off, she has to use a bullhorn so that the moose and curlers can hear her all the way down in the valley.
Pete: We're the only two people in New York who don't think we're married.
Shall We Dance is the seventh Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, made memorable by the music of George and Ira Gershwin. The plot is flimsy, the jokes are lame, but it's Fred and Ginger, George and Ira, and you can't take that away from me.
Facts of the Case
Ballet star Pete Peters (Fred Astaire), known professionally as Petrov, longs to experiment more in his dancing and finds himself dwelling on a tapdancer named Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers)…and not just for her moves on the dance floor. He follows her back to the United States on a trans-Atlantic ship, where he contrives to woo her until rumors that they're secretly married drive her away. Facing scandal if they prove that they're not married, but jeopardizing her impending marriage and his reputation if they don't put the rumors to rest, they decide to marry so they can then get publicly divorced. It wouldn't be a Fred and Ginger movie if their feelings for each other didn't get in the way of that plan.
As with many Astaire-Rogers films, it seems necessary to get a critique of the script out of the way before we get to what really matters. The plot doesn't bear much scrutiny, with suspension of disbelief taking on unbelievable proportions. The minor characters are either annoying or personality-less, especially Linda's bland manager and her fiancée. Many of the gags go on far too long, for example a painful scene involving a jail phone call and spelling. And many of the jokes either fall flat or are deliberately corny ("What does your watch say?" "It says tick tick tick tick."). One does stand out for being ahead of its time—when Linda asks the town hall clerk: "What are the grounds for divorce in this state?" and he replies: "Marriage."
Peters puts on a deliberately horrible Russian accent in his initial encounters with Linda, but luckily it's not sustained for the whole movie. As it turns out, despite the professional pseudonym, no one really thinks he's Russian anyway. And Astaire's shy charm contrasted with these over-the-top moments is what saves the scenes from hamminess.
But the real emotion and comedy of the movie come through the magnetism of the leads and the music and dance, rather than script. An early humorous moment shows Peters dancing to a malfunctioning record player, tapping exhaustively to the stuck needle, or dancing in slow motion as the player winds down…After that, Shall We Dance is full of well-loved tunes that showcase not only the dancing ability of Astaire and Rogers, but their marvelous chemistry as well. From the cleverly funny "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" ("you say tomato, I say tomahto…") to the poignancy of "They Can't Take That Away from Me" when they discuss the impending divorce, plus other memorable tunes, Shall We Dance uses its music to bring more to the script than the words on the page.
The dance numbers are inventive, with the mechanized percussion of "Slap That Bass" in the ship's engine room, and the sparkling roller skating sequence of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off"—which apparently took 150 takes, and still Rogers looks particularly awkward. However, the setup and finale to the sequence perfectly allows for any awkwardness, and it comes across as winning rather than jarring. Many of the non-dancing sequences also show elements of choreography, including an orchestrated dog walking scene, and one that has Peters trying to make his manager seasick by bobbing around to mimic being rocked by the motions of the boat. Even when he's running through a hall or doing pratfalls after rollerskating, Astaire's grace is undeniable.
The frothy plot is tempered a bit by some of the lyrics, which don't completely deny the depression-era setting. "The world is in a mess. With politics and taxes And people grinding axes, There's no happiness," are some of the words to "Slap That Bass." But for the most part, this is a film that catered to those wanting to forget about the troubles of the world, not analyze them.
As is to be expected, the film's mores are dated, with a central scandal that was risqué for its time but not for ours. When Peters and Keene are discovered together smoking (him) and knitting (her) in supposed confirmation of their union, it plays like a ridiculous commercial for domestic bliss, 1930s style.
Director Mark Sandrich adds some eye-catching techniques, such as introducing the character of Keene through Peters flipping through a book of her dancing, causing a stop-motion kind of effect, which blends into shot of her in action. There's also a touching shot looking through the windows of their adjacent suites, showing them torn between longing for each other and hesitation over the status of their relationship.
The technical quality of the DVD is impressive, given the age of the film. The clear, black and white picture shows great contrast and minimal grain and damage, with only some fluctuation in brightness to quibble with. The mono sound is equally clear and though it's a shame we can't hear the soundtrack in a more modern mix, considering the limitations of the source material, it does a serviceable job on the music and dialogue.
Warner Brothers has done a fine job assembling relevant extras for this release, including a commentary with songwriter Hugh Martin and pianist Kevin Cole, who are both Gershwin and Astaire-Rogers aficionados and bring an insider's knowledge to the music of the film. There are a couple of treats from the era, a musical short called "Sheik to Sheik" and the "Toy Town Hall" cartoon, but the most revealing bonus is the 20 minutes featurette "The Music of Shall We Dance."
It's unusual for an extra to be more emotional than the movie itself. But the featurette not only brings critics, Astaire biographers, and his daughter to speak about the music of the film, it ends as a lovely tribute to George Gershwin, who died at 38 of a brain tumor and never saw the Oscar nomination for "You Can't Take That Away from Me," which he was particularly proud of. The documentary gives the song another layer of meaning with the revelation that Ira Gershwin felt that song's message gave his impetus to continue on without his beloved brother and writing partner.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by songwriter Hugh Martin and pianist Kevin Cole
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