“Shall We Dance” is an intriguing entry in the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers series for a myriad of reasons. Depending upon when you see this one in relation to the others, it either plays as charming and fun or labored and rehashed.
As the seventh entry in the series, the film features a variation on the formula that has worked so far, although perhaps it’s a bit forced if you’ve seen the other films. The music is by the Gershwins and it’s marvelous. But what’s shocking is that it takes nearly an hour for Fred and Ginger to dance together. Since the endings of the Fred and Ginger films are a foregone conclusion, it’s the chase and the dances that matter at this point.
Fred plays the amazing Petrov, whose real name is Pete Peters. He’s infatuated with the idea of combining tap dancing with ballet. Ginger plays Linda Keane, a successful singer and dancer, and this is the first film where both play successful entertainers from the start. In fact, we see Linda dancing with a different partner first, but she’s tired of her partners making passes at her.
Petrov is eager to meet Linda, and both are traveling on a cruise ship from Europe to New York City. Somehow it’s reported that Petrov is married, and so the two need to pretend to be married.
“Shall We Dance” at it best showcases Fred and Ginger as fully developed stars. Her acting has sharpened; his sense of choreography on film continues to become more inventive and exciting. Together they are as mesmerizing as ever. If “Swing Time” constructed a strong plot that concludes in an anticlimactic way, “Shall We Dance” provides a nondescript plot that builds to a fun climax.
As for the numbers, the audience is teased right off the bat with a one-minute solo from Fred called “Beginner’s Luck.” Unfortunately, this immediate tease makes the wait for the real thing all that more agonizing. “Slap That Bass” is Fred’s solo number on the cruise ship. He’s dancing in fantastic art deco engine room that’s unrealistically spotless. The machinery provides the rhythm; choreographer Hermes Pan said Fred got the idea from a cement mixer on the lot. The dance reflects the conflict of Petrov – ballet vs. tap, and it’s a joy to watch.
There’s a charming scene with Linda walking her dog and Petrov finding a dog to walk so he can speak with her. The rhythmic walking of the animals back and forth sets up a delightful meeting between the two, but again we are waiting for them to ditch the puppies and dance on their own.
Finally it happens with “They All Laughed.” After Linda sings the song at a rooftop restaurant, Petrov swoops in and essentially challenges her to dance with him. It combines the improv nature of “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from “Roberta” with a more classic Fred and Ginger line. It’s a terrific dance, but it’s the only “traditional” number the two perform together in the entire film.
In reality, it’s the next number, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” that makes you wonder if Fred and Ginger could jump on pogo sticks and make it work. Here they start with an argument that launches into the famous lyrics, which then launches the duo – who are on roller skates, no less – into an energetic number that manages to infuse dance moves, including tap dancing, as they whirl around the floor. While this may be a novelty number, it’s an uplifting one.
Then comes the lovely “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” which Petrov sings to Linda as they travel to get married so they can divorce (don’t ask). However, instead of bringing the two back together again, Petrov attempts to combine his two favorite art forms into a new Broadway show and brings out ballet star Harriet Hoctor, whose contortionist backbends while on point are of interest as a side show would be. Unfortunately, it simply emphasizes how much Fred and Ginger should be dancing instead. Hoctor had played herself the year before in “The Great Ziegfeld,” but she had worked with Ziegfeld so her presence in that film makes sense. Here it’s a distraction from what we want to see, which is Fred and Ginger in the reprise of “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Thankfully, the film climaxes with a wonderful bit where Petrov, unable to dance with Linda, instead is surrounded by a chorus of girls all sporting Linda Keane masks. But the joke is on him when Linda grabs a mask and slips into the lineup.
Interestingly enough, the Gershwins were initially unhappy with the result. The songs didn’t click with audiences at first, and George wrote to a friend, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should.” Ira later said that they really were happy with their contributions to the film and perhaps the note was a momentary frustration. The brothers were nominated for an Oscar for their song “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
The supporting cast includes usual players Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore as well as Jerome Cowan and Ketti Gallian. Mark Sandrich returns as director, which Ginger was not too happy about as the two didn’t get along well with each other.
Despite its faults, “Shall We Dance” is easy to watch, and if seen before others in the series can be a lot of fun. However, the formula is showing its age, and the lack of dancing between the stars during the film’s first half is a detriment. After seven films together, everyone needed a break, and that’s what happened before being reunited more than a year later.