Ballet star Pete "Petrov" Peters arranges to cross the Atlantic aboard the same ship as the dancer he's fallen for but barely knows, musical star Linda Keene. By the time the ocean liner reaches New York, a little white lie has churned through the rumor mill and turned into a hot gossip item: that the two celebrities are secretly married.
Fred Astaire ... Peter P. Peters
Ginger Rogers ... Linda Keene
Edward Everett Horton ... Jeffrey Baird
Eric Blore ... Cecil Flintridge
Jerome Cowan ... Arthur Miller
Ketti Gallian ... Lady Denise Tarrington
William Brisbane ... Jim Montgomery
Harriet Hoctor ... Harriet Hoctor
DivX 5 / MP3
SHALL WE DANCE (RKO Radio, 1937), directed by Mark Sandrich, which reunites Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers for the seventh time on the musical screen, ventures them into a new world of dance, the art of ballet. But while the opening credits focus silhouettes of ballet dancers in the backdrop, the movie itself is not essentially devoted to ballet, but only a combination of both ballet and modern dance.
Fred Astaire plays Petrov, an American dancer born under the name of Peter P. Peters of Philadelphia, P.A., who has won fame as a Russian ballet star with the help of Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton), his impresario. While in Paris, where the first portion of the story takes place, Petrov is in love with Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers), an American dancer whom he hasn't met, but knows of her by profession and still photographs he keeps with him. After Petrov briefly meets Linda in her hotel room, by which he made no impression (especially with that Russian accent that sounds more like Charles Boyer than Mischa Auer!), he soon learns that she is leaving Paris and returning to New York by sailing on the Queen Anne. In order to get to know her better, Petrov agrees to an engagement in New York to dance at the Metropolitan only if Jeffrey arranges for him to book passage on the Queen Anne, which he does. Before sailing, Petrov meets up with Lady Denise Tarrington (Ketti Gallian), his former ballet dancing partner whom he now wants out the way. This is done when Jeffrey tells her that Petrov is married, with Petrov filling in on the details that he is the father of five children (with a set of twins). When news of Petrov's marriage reaches the media, compliments of Denise, the passengers, who have read about the secret marriage in the ship newspaper, believe Linda Keene to be the wife, since they have been seen constantly together. In order to prevent Linda from quitting her dancing career so she can marry the well-to-do but dull Jim Montgomery (William Brisbane), Arthur Miller (Jerome Cowan), Linda's manager, joins forces with Jeffrey to keep the marriage and scandal alive, even it it means playing tricks or practical jokes. After boarding in New York, Petrov and Linda find that in order to stop the rumors, they must actually get married (in New Jersey) and then file for divorce.
A casual reworking and revamping of the earlier Astaire and Rogers themes, SHALL WE DANCE (an appropriate title for the team) succeeds on a higher level with a bright score and creative dancing by Astaire than on the flimsy plot with the usual misunderstandings and amusing one liners. Aside from Horton making his third and final engagement with the team, Eric Blore returns for the fifth and final time playing the bewildered Cecil Flintridge, a New York City hotel floorwalker. Coming in late into the story, Blore is seen to good advantage, having more screen time and doubletakes with Horton and others than he did in his previous outing. The scene where he gets arrested and telephones for Jeffrey to bail him out, and having to spell out the Susquhanna Street Jail, where he is being held, letter for letter, is amusing in itself, in spite that it looks more like an Abbott and Costello comedy routine. While Rogers usually has female companions to accompany her, mainly middle-aged women, such as Alice Brady or Helen Broderick (and later Edna May Oliver) for moral support, she has no such bonding here. Jerome Cowan as Arthur Miller steps in for them.
On the musical program, with words and lyrics by George and Ira Gershwin, the songs include: "Slap That Bass" (sung by Mantan Moreland and Fred Astaire, who later does a dance solo in the ship's engine room surrounded by machinery of rhythm); "Walking the Dog" (instrumental); "I've Got Beginner's Luck" (sung by Fred Astaire); "They All Laughed" (sung by Ginger Rogers/ danced by Rogers and Astaire); "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" (sung and danced by Astaire and Rogers on roller skates); "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (sung by Astaire); "They Can't Take That Away From Me" (ballet dance with Astaire and Harriet Hoctor); "Shall We Dance?" (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Rogers); and "They All Laughed" (reprise by Astaire and Rogers).
A notch below their previous efforts, SHALL WE DANCE takes a while to get down to business. In fact, Astaire and Rogers don't get to dance together on screen until almost a hour from the start of the story. Astaire gets a dance solo as does Rogers, briefly with an actor named Pete Theodore, but after that, the plot moves briskly as complications become more on the amusing side, followed by one good song after another, all standards in the Gershwin songbook. There are a couple of songs introduced here that aren't followed by dancing, something unusual for an Astaire film, but then again, not so unusual. Of the tunes selected for this production, "They Can't Take That Away From Me" was nominated for an Academy Award as best song, but lost to "Sweet Lelani" in WAIKIKI WEDDING starring Bing Crosby. This is the song Astaire sings to Rogers in the foggy night on the Staten Island ferry, with the brief closeup of Rogers with tears slowly building up in her left eye. A sentimental moment and a memorable one well handled.
But after seven musicals opposite Rogers, Astaire manages to not repeat himself when it comes to the dance numbers. Other than dancing in the steam room surrounded by black stokers, another memorable moment occurs with "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" in which Astaire and Rogers dance on roller skates in Central Park. As difficult as it was to stage this, it appears simple and casual, and at times amusing. One wonders what they could have done on ice skates to compete with the recent performer of Sonja Henie of 20th Century-Fox musicals? After a lengthy ballet dance towards the end of the story featuring Astaire and Harriet Hoctor (who arches her head to her heals, and dancing like a swan), it returns to familiar territory when Rogers steps in for the "Shall We Dance" number.
Also seen in the cast are Emma Young as Tai, Linda's maid; Ann Shoemaker, Ben Alexander and Charles Coleman in smaller roles.
One final note. Ketti Gallian, whose brief Hollywood movie career was coming to a close, usually a blonde now seen in this production as a brunette, plays Denise, Petrov's former ballet partner. While her part is relatively small, with scenes occuring in the beginning and near the end of the story, why is it that Harriet Hoctor does the ballet dancing instead of Gallian. Better yet, why couldn't Hoctor have played the role as Denise, so all this could make sense? But overlooking these minor flaws, SHALL WE DANCE, is true to the word as a formula Astaire and Rogers musical, ranking one of their most revived films, alongside THE GAY DIVORCEE (1934), TOP HAT (1935) and SWING TIME (1936).
*The scene where Fred and Ginger dance on roller skates took about 150 takes, according to one of the VHS versions of the film.