Cine-East Film Club Presents #27: 1937, Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich)

by George_East on October 20, 2013

Petrov: ‘We’re the only people in New York who think we’re not married

There are some images that are so indelibly bound up with cinema that they have become part of our common visual language. Hollywood Golden Age cinema, is what I am talking about here.  Think of Gene Kelly singin’ and dancin’ in the rain or a trilby wearing Humphrey Bogart in his rain mac or  the impassive close up face of Garbo.  We can all summon up those images without even a second’s pause.  They ooze glamour and sophistication and yet are as familiar as close friends. Each of them is as ubiquitous and resonant as that iconic portrait of Che Guevara or, say, The Beatles crossing Abbey Road.

Or, as in this Week’s Cine-East presentation, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers floating across a dance floor.    Magical. Fantastical.  Beautiful.  The Fred and Ginger films are pure escapist delight – the kind of film that film director, John Lloyd Sullivan, in Preston Sturges’ depression-set masterpiece Sullivan’s Travels (1941) will realise that the public really wants to see in the bad times and not the social issue picture he so wants to make.  That greatest of all creators of cinematic  fantasy worlds, Federico Fellini, would call one of his late films simply, Fred and Ginger.

Astaire and Rogers made 9 films together in the 1930s (and 1 a decade later in 1949), debuting in Flying Down To Rio (1933).  Shall We Dance was their seventh appearance together.  It is perhaps not as celebrated as some of their other films, like Top Hat, Swing Time and The Gay Divorcee, but I have chosen it as this week’s Cine-East presentation because it is a film which brought together two remarkable pairings:  Astaire and Rogers as the stars, and the incomparable talent of brothers Ira and George Gershwin for the songs and the score.

Like many screwball and musical comedies of the period, Shall We Dance has an implausible comedy of errors plot (but then hey aren’t Shakespeare’s comedies including the one that gave us that term, pretty much all completely implausible?).

In outline terms it goes something like this: Petrov (Fred Astaire) is a famous ‘Russian’ ballet dancer (really Pete P Peters from Philadelphia) who prefers tap dancing and jazz to the ballet that has made his reputation.  He wants to meet and dance with an equally famous jazz dancer, Linda Keene (Ginger Rogers).   They end up on the same liner from Paris to New York and a result of a misunderstanding are thought to be secretly married, which once the story gets out, causes a sensation.  Petrov is rather happy about the idea – it was after all part of his reasons for wanting to meet her, but Linda is much less so as she is engaged to a rich New Yorker, Jim Montgomery (William Brisbane), who is her ticket out of the dancing game, something she wants to do as a result of all of the lechy leading men she has to dance with and their unwelcome advances.

Linda’s manager, the improbably named, Arthur Miller (before the Arthur Miller had been heard of) (Jerome Cowan) can’t afford for Linda to retire from dancing, he will be bankrupted (for the third time) if she does, so it is in his interests to keep the story that Petrov and Linda are married going, to scupper the real intended marriage with Montgomery.  WIth the use of a wax work dummy of Linda he fakes a photograph of her beside Petrov’s bed, which ends up on the front page of the newspapers.  No one will now believe they are not married.  The only way out of it is for Petrov and Linda to actually marry  so they can then divorce and she can then be free.   They do this by sneaking off across the Hudson river to New Jersey (hilariously this is treated as if it is so far away that they would not have heard of the very marriage that everyone in New York knows about).   Of course by the time this has happened Linda has also fallen for Petrov. A final misunderstanding, involving Petrov’s pursuer, Lady Denise Tarrington (Ketti Gallian) who started the rumour off in the first place and a set piece dance sequence at the end is all that then stands between them and a classic living happily ever after ending.

Phew, have you followed that?   No matter if you haven’t because this is an Astaire and Rogers film.  It is not therefore about what it is about.  It is about the expectation of the pair dancing together.  And this is where the film takes a very different tack from many of their other films.  The two don’t dance together at all until an hour in (the film is about 1hr 49 minutes), unless you count an hilariously choreographed dog walking scene on the deck of the liner, that is.

Remember this is why the cinema seats were full (at this time many many millions of people would have come to see it – cinema was the primary form of working class entertainment) – they’ve come to see Fred and Ginger dance together – but like Petrov and Linda’s marriage in the film, they are not really together and as with their adjoining hotel suites once they reach New York, the film keeps them locked apart in dance terms until they start falling properly for each other.

The first hour of the film is instead devoted to Fred Astaire’s virtuosity.  From the moment that his manager, Jeffrey Baird (played by Astaire and Rogers comic ever-present, the wonderful Edward Everett Horton) catches him in his own room behind the main ballet company’s studio practising tap that is so quick and extraordinary that you can barely keep up with his feet, director Mark Sandrich is going to use the apartness of the pair, to show what the greatest dancer film as ever seen, can do.

Astaire’s ability to effortlessly glide across the floor while executing complex and lightning fast tap steps is still a wonder to behold.  Gene Kelly, who was a great dancer and even better choreographer, had, I think the wrong shaped body ever to match the elegance of Astaire at his best.  Kelly was kind of square shaped, whereas Astaire with that small head and long thin body, was all lightness of step and grace of movement.  Even at his most frenetic, it never looked like any effort was needed, and you can imagine him doing the same moves with a plate balanced on his head, his poise is that precise.

There is a modernist aspect to Astaire’s solo dances in Shall We Dance which I love, in particular in the scenes on the liner. For a popular entertainment, these can sit squarely in the avant garde European art tradition. There is undoubtedly a self-conciousness about this.  The liner itself has an art design which suggests the influence of Le Corbusier, Mondrian and Matisse.   The scene in which the modernist influence is shown to the most extreme effect, is a dance that Astaire does to the rhythmic sounds of the ship’s engine, as its heavy turbines turn.   There is no other musical accompaniment other than these rhythms as Astaire performs taps and turns in harmony with the ship’s own music.

The ability of Astaire to glide across surfaces is underlined in a dance he does do with Rogers in the later part of the film, in which they go roller-skating in Central Park and end up doing a full dance routine on roller skates (shown in the clip – there is only one cut just before the final speed skating sequence).  It is a wonderful and gob-smacking scene of dance.  As ever with Astaire/Rogers scenes there are barely any cuts, so that the dance sequences are done more or less as a whole in a single take.  The genius it took to achieve this beggars belief.

The final sequence of the film also has an unsettling modernist quality, as in the (initial) absence of Linda, Petrov decides to dance with a whole troop of Lindas (the female dancers are all kitted out in Linda masks).  This feels like a precursor to the breathtaking mirror scene with Rita Hayworth in Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai (1947).   They are both pieces of pure cinema.  It is only with the unmasking of the real Linda that we revert to what Fred and Ginger’s audience would have expected to see – with a wonderful extended dance sequence as a finale to the film.

Shall We Dance can then be seen as a bold declaration that low culture (jazz, tap dance and yes cinema) can stand proudly in the company of traditional high cultural pursuits like ballet and painting.   And this brings me on to the Gershwins.  The signal that we are in the company of the greats is given over the title sequence – with a short refrain from Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue over the credit sequence.   There is no difference it is suggested by Sandrich between the symphonic Rhapsody In Blue and the glorious Great American Songbook songs that appear in Shall We Dance.  It is the film that features as its signature tune, Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off (shown in the clip), which is, in my view, as fine a piece of art as anything in any form.   It also includes such classic as They Can’t Take That Away From Me, They All Laughed, Beginners Luck and the title track, Shall We Dance.  Like many of the best musicals, the film isn’t saturated in song – so when one comes along, it is an unadulterated pleasure to hear.

Save for an of its time but unfortunate racial stereotyping in one scene, the whole film is an all-encompassing endlessly re-watchable delight.  The comic relief from, as to be expected with Hollywood Golden Age films, fantastic character actors – Everett Horton as the ever anxious Jeffrey and the brilliant Eric Blore as the hotel floor manager determined to ensure decency (and as a result forever locking and unlocking the door between the suites of Linda and Petrov, as he is told they are married, not married and then married again, much to his confusion)  in particular are hilarious.   Whereas the songs and the dancing are simply sublime.

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