Shall We Dance, 1937, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Music by George Gershwin, lyrics by Ira Gershwin. B&W, 109 minutes.
Ballet dancer Petrov (Fred Astaire), aka Peter P. Peters, is an American dancer posing as a Russian and starring in a Russian ballet troupe. Secretly he longs to tap dance, and he dreams of partnering with dancer Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers). His feelings aren’t reciprocated, and he connives to spend time with her aboard an ocean liner headed from Paris to New York.
Linda is running away from an amorous dance partner, and has no desire to return to the stage. For his part, Peter is escaping a former love who wishes to be his partner in dance and life. To protect him, Peter’s manager Jeffrey Baird spreads the rumor that Peter is married to Linda. Once she catches on, it seems unlikely Peter has a chance to truly win her over.
But the romance is only beginning.
Shall We Dance is filled with memorable numbers by George and Ira Gershwin, including “Slap That Bass,” in which Astaire performs with group of black musicians lead by Dudley Dickerson. Actually, he doesn’t directly dance with them at any time. It’s unclear whether that was because of racial distinctions or simply that Astaire was the star.
The music is among the last written by George Gershwin, who died of a brain tumor two months after the film was released. In addition to the dance numbers, there are a number of scored sequences, such as “Walk the Dog,” which are just as entertaining in their own way and contribute to the overall fun of the film.
Rogers later wrote in her autobiography that she, Astaire and Hermes Pan were batting around ideas for one of the dance numbers, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” when they hit upon the idea of using rollerskates as an “authentic” thing people do in Central Park. Astaire was initially hesitant, but eventually the pair found the number “a ball to do.”
Another of the Gershwin’s songs, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” was later said to be a favorite of both Astaire and Rogers. It was also the only song Astaire sung in two separate films; the pair used it again in their final film, The Barkleys of Broadway. The number also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song.
Shall We Dance is a tremendous amount of fun with fantastic music and a typical, yet appealing, story line for this famous pair. While not as popular today as Swing Time or Top Hat, and perhaps with good reason, it is still a treasure.