“We’re the only two people in New York who don’t think we’re married.”
“Think? I know we’re not.”
“I’m beginning to have my doubts.”
He was one of the worlds most influential dancers. She was a highly revered star in Hollywood who succeeded in all corners of entertainment, and together they glided their way to unparalleled virtuosity by making a screen team like no other.
The above passage refers to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the commercially successful dance partners whose iconic collaboration spanned for sixteen years. The couple first came to the fore in 1933, when they played supporting roles in Flying Down To Rio, alongside acting veteran, Dolores del Rio. From that moment on, audiences knew that they were in for a visual treat of spectacular dancing.
Although they are best known for their memorable turns in productions like Top Hat and Swing Time, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers prospered in everything they did. By 1937, the two seemed to have developed a continuous pattern of success. That same year they teamed up for the seventh time in the romantic comedy, Shall We Dance, a film that combines the art form of ballet with tap dancing.
Shall We Dance may have earned less at the box office than the previous Astaire & Rogers films, but that doesn’t mean that the production was flawed. A large part of the films eminence is due to George and Ira Gershwin’s association with the vehicle. Without the Gershwin’s input, Shall We Dance could have been a disastrous affair, but instead, the famous songwriting duo helped propel the film to super-stardom.
The Gershwin’s are often hailed as the sole contributors of success for Shall We Dance, but the instrumental force behind the production was Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who brought the film to life. The idea was first conceived in 1936 when On Your Toes was a victorious hit on Broadway. Initially, the play was envisaged as a motion picture starring Fred Astaire, but Astaire declined the offer, thinking that his character would closely mirror his debonair image that was developed in his contemporary films. At first it was a major disappointment for the studios, but Astaire’s refusal eventually led them to presenting it as a stage production.
Ray Bolger, who is best remembered today for his memorable portrayal of the Scarecrow in The Wizard Of Oz ( 1939 ), played Astaire’s role in the stage production. At the time, Bolger was still relatively unknown to audiences, but with the success of On Your Toes, Bolger’s status ascended, and soon he discovered that a promising career in Hollywood was on the horizon.
This was a busy period for Fred Astaire. Three months before the filming of Shall We Dance commenced, Astaire and his wife, Phyllis decided that a short vacation to Europe was on the cards. The two had been yearning for a relaxing holiday for a while, but due to Astaire’s hectic schedule they were unable to get away. A few days before departure, Fred received a call about an offer to appear on the radio for the coming fall season. He knew from the start that this was something that he could not pass up. The proposal was for a thirty-nine week, one hour variety show, in which Fred was to be the master of ceremonies as well as performing four of five songs and dances that were accompanied by comic sequences. Initially, Astaire saw this as a challenge, but he was determined to vanquish any fears that he may have had.
While Fred Astaire was busy preparing for his role in Shall We Dance, Phyllis consumed all of her free time on the planning and blueprints for the building process of their long awaited dream home. This was a task that proved to be tedious, especially since Phyllis insisted on having a property with an extra two acres. However, Fred was too absorbed in rehearsals for Shall We Dance to even worry about the plans that Phyllis was making.
After their long association, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were eager to nurture solo careers of their own. Outside of their partnership there were territories left uncharted that they desperately wanted to explore. Director, Mark Sandrich, who helmed several of the Astaire/ Rogers vehicles was well aware of their plans, but he had different ideas that didn’t parallel. Instead, Sandrich and RKO were more interested in the popularity of their on-screen relationship, and started to map out their upcoming film schedule.
Directed by Mark Sandrich, and produced by Pandro S. Berman with the screenplay by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano, Shall We Dance is a romantic tale of false misunderstandings. Set in the world of dancing, the story revolves around Peter P. “Petrov” Peters ( Fred Astaire ), an American ballet dancer who dances for a leading ballet company in Paris. Much to the disapproval of Jeffrey Baird ( Edward Everett Horton ), the owner of the ballet company, Peter becomes immersed in the idea of combining ballet with the “warmth and passion of tap dancing”. His sudden interest in tap makes him discover Linda Keene ( Ginger Rogers ), a famous tap dancer who he develops a strong affection for and desperately wants to meet.
“I told you, I haven’t even met her. But I’d kinda like to marry her… I think I will.”
Peter’s obsession ultimately leads to a rather awkward meeting with Linda who is currently stuck in her own quandary and wouldn’t care if Peter faded out into the horizon. To Linda, Peter is just another one of her admirers, but for Peter, Linda is more than a distinguished tap dancer. She is the object of his affection, and he yearns to be in her presence even if it means following her on the same ocean liner that is headed to New York.
Linda is looking forward to sailing to New York the following day and eluding all her existing troubles in Paris, but what she don’t know is that Peter will be on the same ship waiting for her, and a series of misadventures will arise, including a fast spreading rumor that Peter and Linda are secretly married.
Shall We Dance was initially intended as a farewell vehicle for the famous screen team, but with their popularity soaring to astronomical heights, Astaire and Rogers were destined to remain dancing partners for a little longer. The couples soul focus at this point was to branch out and disseminate their talents individually. However, their goals of achieving acclamation alone would have to be put on abeyance for a while. They’re triumphs as a duo guided them to starring roles in Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle and The Barkley’s of Broadway.
“What are the grounds for divorce in this state?”
Some reviewers have stated that the film is not in the same league as Top Hat and Swing Time, but despite those critical remarks, it’s hard to determine where the fault lies. Shall We Dance benefits from George and Ira Gershwin’s exceptional music input. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a long association with the Gershwin’s and had formed a close friendship. In his autobiography, Steps In Time, Astaire wrote, “George Gershwin was with me a lot through the making of Shall We Dance. We enjoyed reminiscing about our past associations on the stage with Arrons and Freedley. George was very keen about the progress of the entertainment world. He was always impressed by the growing numbers of talented new young people and their ideas.” Sadly, George passed away shortly before the films release, but at least audiences are treated to a phenomenal showcase of their songs to remember them by.
The Gershwin’s may have committed all their energy into making Shall We Dance the spectacular motion picture that it is, but it’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers who make the film utterly entertaining. Astaire and Rogers are the ones that draw our attention. They’re magnetic chemistry, and their indelible dancing abilities are factors that cannot be denied. It also helps that their characters are always amiable, sympathetic and possess an air of comicality. Peter P. “Petrov” Peters and Linda Keene embody all of the following ingredients, and they make “us” the audience wish that we were in their presence.
Fred Astaire perfectly executes the role of Pete Peters, a suave and sophisticated hoofer who is the epitome of virtuosity. His capabilities as a dancer make him the pillar of admiration. He is just as adept at jazz and ballroom as he is ballet, and its because of his current enthusiasm for tap that he becomes embroiled in a scheming fake marriage plot with Linda Keene.
Ginger Rogers deftly portrays Linda Keene, the disillusioned musical comedy star who wants to withdraw from performances to focus on getting married. Her plans are halted when she crosses paths with Pete Peters whose main intent is to pursue a romantic relationship with her. In the long run, Pete’s motives create havoc and leave the two in turmoil when they have to try to squash a never-ending rumor that both Pete and Linda are secretly married.
An honorable mention goes to Edward Everett Horton whose portrayal of Jeffrey Baird, Peter’s bumbling manager brings comicality to the mix. Horton also starred alongside Fred and Ginger in The Gay Divorcee and Top Hat, but his performance in Shall We Dance is a favorite among many film enthusiasts.
Another feature that I find redeeming is the fact that the film doesn’t rely heavily on the music to carry it through. While some films don’t seem to have a story-line, Shall We Dance has what Fred Astaire describes in his autobiography, Steps In Time as a “complex plot” and a “background that has plenty of scope for different dance ideas”. What Astaire wrote is true. This is one movie that has a synopsis that has the power to put their talents to use. It’s not just the plot however that makes Shall We Dance succeed on so many levels. The film boasts an array of popular music scores, which include, I’ve Got Beginner’s Luck, They Can’t Take That Away From Me, and Slap That Bass, where Astaire dances in the ships art-deco style engine room while the African-American’s are hard at work. This particular number was unusual for its time, but the mixed race elements of the scene are done with great care. Of course, there are many other wonderful music scores that help elevate the production. The films most pivotal number and my personal favorite is Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off, where we see Astaire and Rogers tap dancing on roller skates around Central Park’s skating rink. In this scene Astaire uses the circular form of the rink to introduce a variation of the “oompah-trot” that he and his sister Adele made famous in vaudeville.
Once you combine all the elements together, what you get is a frothy and delightful romantic comedy that is brimming with plenty of wit, verbal sparring, astute dialogue and a cleverly constructed script. Shall We Dance is a testament to the talents of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers whose presence make this film magical.
At the end of the roller skate dance number in the park the stars flop onto the “lawn”. In the film both Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appear uncomfortable as they get up. This is because both were bruised from more than fifteen earlier takes and were actually in pain.
Fred Astaire: Born, Frederick Austerlitz on May 10th, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. Died: June 22nd, 1987 in Los Angeles, California. Aged: 88.
Ginger Rogers: Born, Virginia Katherine Rogers on July 16th, 1911 in Independence, Missouri. Died: April 25th, 1995 in Rancho Mirage, California. Aged: 83.
Edward Everett Horton: Born, Edward Everett Horton on March 18th, 1886 in Brooklyn, New York. Died: September 29th, 1970 in Encino, California. Aged: 84.
This post was written for the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Blogathon, hosted by Michaela from Love Letters To Old Hollywood and myself. To view the other entries being exhibited during this event, please click here.