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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. Written by
Diana Hamilton <firstname.lastname@example.org>
The big takeaway on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is how well they danced together. My big takeaway from "Shall We Dance" is how well they acted.
It's one thing to give a good performance in a musical like "Carousel" or "Singing In The Rain", and quite another to deliver amid the creaky jokes, plummy patter, and contrived plot twists that make up "Shall We Dance". But they do, and thanks to them, the show turns out not only okay but rather fine.
Astaire is a faux-Russian ballet dancer, Petrov, who dreams of pairing up with celebrated tap dancer Linda Keene (Rogers) both on-stage and off. Linda just wants to retire, but Petrov's earnestness begins to win her over - until she is led to believe he is using her. She leaves him just as word spreads that the two are married (and really spreads, in the form of front-page news stories and radio flashes), forcing them to face a surreal prospect.
"We're the only people in the world who don't think we're married!" Linda exclaims.
People watching "Shall We Dance" for the first time need patience. Astaire and Rogers don't dance for an hour, their one musical moment all that time involving walking a dog around a ship in time to a musical theme (provided by one George Gershwin, who did the score with his lyricist brother Ira). Matters are too often dominated by Edward Everett Horton's over-the-top eye rolls and leaden asides as Petrov's snooty, disapproving manager. Later on William Brisbane arrives as Linda's rich-guy suitor, adding more overbaked ham to the menu.
But Astaire keeps his end up, dancing to a skipping record or later overplaying a mock Russian accent in his first face-to-face with Linda. "You don't want to dance with the great Petrov," he declares, playing up a Slavic superiority trip. "Don't be a silly horse." The way he elongates that last "o" is positively indecent.
Some reviewers here say Rogers seems bored in this film. She's playing a withdrawn character, though, and does give off passion when called upon. A big musical moment between her and Astaire, when he declares "They Can't Take That Away From Me", is a remarkable duet despite the fact she doesn't sing a note, just looks off with tear-filled eyes. Yet she gets the song's one close-up, and rightly so. When they have their first performance in front of an audience and he dances up a storm by way of an introduction, the look on her face is priceless. "What am I supposed to do?" she deadpans.
Give director Mark Sandrich credit for keeping things light. Too light at times, like when Linda's manager somehow gets a photo of the couple in bed together by using a manikin of her he just happens to have in his closet (better I guess we don't know why he does). Sandrich does make the good scenes better with doses of gentle humor, like the capper to a roller-skating dance that is the movie's best moment. There are some nice dissolves from scene to scene, like a flip-book view of Linda dancing that melts into the real thing.
Watching this the first time, the minutes stretched like rubber. The second time things flew much faster, because I knew what I wanted to see and could look forward to its arrival. I guess audiences of the 1930s had that expectation built in, one reason perhaps why these movies were so popular and no one cared when they were a bit inane.
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