Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Astaire and Rogers: Shall We Dance (1937)

Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates to
"Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," a song
they inspired by their different ways of
pronouncing the word "either."
Fred and Ginger dance to Gershwin in this 1937 outing. How can you not get excited about the greatest dance team of the 20th century performing to music of the greatest American composer of the 20th century? I personally cannot help loving a movie that features the songs "They All Laughed," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" and "They Can't Take That Away from Me," but there are a lot of other things to admire as well. Not only did Gershwin write all the show tunes in this picture, but he also composed all the incidental music as well, all of which is quite wonderful.

Fred Astaire plays Petrov, the "Russian" ballet star (whose real name is Pete Peters). Petrov scandalizes his impresario--played by Edward Everett Horton--by falling in love with musical comedy star Linda Keene--played by Ginger Rogers. Sick of being chased by men, Linda refuses even to consider Petrov's advances. Instead she plans to marry a dull millionaire friend of hers and retire from the stage forever.  In the typical style of these films, however, Fred Astaire's good humor and persistence eventually win her over.

Since celebrity romances were even more a subject of gossip back then than they are today, the two dancers soon find their names plastered all over the papers. And it only gets worse when a rumor surfaces that the two are married and that Linda is pregnant. This does not sit well with Linda's rich fiancĂ©, and when trumped-up evidence is produced for her marriage to Petrov, she realizes that the only way she can silence the papers is to procure a divorce from him. That, of course, requires a marriage, so the two elope for a marriage in name only, but Petrov wants to convince her to make it real. Can he do it? I really can't tell you what a great screwball comedy it is, full of absurd situations and great one-liners. I think it's the best-written movie they did together.

Now, about the dances. First off I have to say something about the "Lets Call the Whole Thing Off" roller skate number. It truly is a sight to behold, a combination of dancing and skating the caliber you'd be likely to see in the Olympics. The trouble is that all the other dances seem to be a let-down after that. "They All Laughed," is a great tune, but the dance is unspectacular, though it does get better near the finale. The only other dance number is this weird ballet hybrid featuring an odd contortionist/ballerina. Although this is a marathon chorus number with several different permeations, Fred and Ginger only dance together for less than thirty seconds, which leaves me feel cheated in that respect.

Despite the comparative lack of dancing, however, everything else in this movie is so strong that I can't help loving it anyway, and it remains one of my favorites in the Astaire/Rogers collection. And if I haven't pressed the point hard enough already, the roller skating number is incredible.

I rate this movie an 8 of 10. Had the dances been better, it could have easily been a 9.

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