Sunday, December 2, 2012

Fred and Ginger: 'Shall We Dance'

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“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. 

 
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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. 

 
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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.” 

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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.


11 comments:

  1. Filmboy, a most enjoyable post on this, to me the most underappreciated of the Astaire-Rogers films. The music in their movies was always provided by the best Tin Pan Alley songwriters and they introduced many standards. But I have a special fondness for the Gershwins, so I like the songs in this one the best of any in the Astaire-Rogers movies. If the film is short on dance numbers between the two, it does have the fantastic "Slap That Bass" number in the ship's engine room and of course the roller skate number in Central Park. At their best, their dances together could be utterly transporting, but the roller skate number is in a class by itself. The grace and control they achieve while on the skates is to me astounding, even for these two!

    I liked your observation about how the picture "showcases Fred and Ginger as fully developed stars." In their earlier films I always had the feeling that Ginger was secondary to Fred. Her character was sketchier than Fred's, and he got to sing the best songs. That started to change in "Swing Time" and continues here. His character may still get more emphasis, but as you say, as stars they seem to be getting pretty much equal treatment.

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  2. Hi R.D., thanks for stopping by. I do love the music in this one, and it's interesting that the songs didn't become hits right away. The roller skate number is pure delight, one of their best. As for Ginger, in her autobiography she talks about how much she didn't like working with Mark Sandrich, that he tended to focus more on Fred. But she enjoyed working with George Stevens on Swing Time, and even though she was back with Sandrich, her character is stronger and she's a better actress.

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  3. Brian,
    I'm glad you gave this film it's due! I have to admit that I'm one of the rare few that like this film, Fred and Ginger's chemistry and their routines better than Swing Time. As you pointed out here, they had better chemistry and perhaps they had fine tuned their choreography plus I did enjoy the script.

    You pointed out Let's Call the Whole Thing Off. My favorite number of the film. I could watch that dance on a loop. Yes, I imagine they could dance while on pogo sticks.

    I always enjoy your thoughtful reviews and your honest take on films and this one didn't disappoint.
    I hope all is well your way as you prepare for the holidays.
    Page

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    1. Hi Page, Glad you enjoy this film, and I agree I can watch Let's Call The Whole Thing Off over and over again.

      All is well here ... today we hosted our annual Christmas party, about 25 guests. Very nice! No time to write up Carefree but hopefully tomorrow.

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  4. I always wondered who made the decision for Fred to dance with Harriet Hoctor to "They Can't Take That Away From Me." A rare misstep for a consistently wonderful series of films.

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    1. I know it's a misstep, but I just wonder at this point -- seven films -- if the ideas just weren't there. Who knows? At least the film has many enjoyable moments in it.

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  5. CFB, I think you are right on the money about this Fred/Ginger flick. I was really disappointed in it because of the lack of their wonderful dance numbers. I did love Let's Call the Whole Thing Off, the song is great, and the dancing was fun gimmick. But I didn't really like the number with the masks, and having to wait a whole hour for any dance at all was indeed frustrating! Frankly, I felt a similar frustration with Follow the Fleet. For me, the only good reason to watch it is their fabulous Let's Face the Music and Dance, their best in my opinion. Great post!

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  6. Fred and Ginger are going to dance. Read all about it

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  7. Your Fred and Ginger series is great! I do like this film, but feel the musical numbers are a bit rushed - great songs like 'Let's Call the Whole Thing Off' and 'They Can't Take That Away From Me' deserve more time than they get, so I can see why the Gershwins had their concerns. Sadly George Gershwin died a few weeks after the film was released - a pity he didn't get a posthumous Oscar for 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', which was beaten by 'Sweet Leilani' from 'Waikiki Wedding'!

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    1. I know ... how crazy is that? Oh well ... if Bing sang the phone book, he'd win awards for it.

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  8. Fred and Ginger shall we dance has been explained here.read all about it

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