Thursday, December 26, 2013

Shall We Dance (RKO, 1937)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the 1937 film Shall We Dance, a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical (the seventh in the series) brought down by the tiredness of some of the series formulae but enlivened considerably by a superb George and Ira Gershwin score that generated three songs that have become standards — “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed” (the last my choice for unofficial theme song of the AIDS dissident movement). Arlene Croce’s The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book has a good deal of scorn for this movie, not only for the central conceit — Astaire plays Peter P. Peters of Philadelphia, PA, a dancer whose manager (Edward Everett Horton at his absolute queeniest) has had the idea to sell him as a ballet star by passing him off as the Moscow Ballet’s premier danseur, Petrov — but also for the casting of Harriet Hoctor as Astaire’s other dancing partner. “Not even in his satin premier danseur tunic can Astaire be taken for a ballet dancer, but Miss Hoctor can be taken for nothing human,” Croce wrote. “She was a contortionist whose specialty, a horseshoe backbend on point, was already well known to movie audiences. (In this position she would kick herself in the head.)” Unlike those other movie contortionists, the Ross Sisters — who did so much to liven up the otherwise dreary 1944 MGM musical Broadway Rhythm — Hoctor is all too “serious” about this move, and not only does she perform the maneuver exactly the way Croce described it, director Mark Sandrich makes it worse by filming it, not from the expected side angle, but dead on, with Hoctor starting out with her back to the camera and then exposing first her face (upside down) and then her breasts, which end up resembling two marshmallows on top of a vanilla ice cream sundae. After she duly kicks herself in the head as promised — first with her right leg and then with her left (or was it the other way around?) — Sandrich mercifully cuts away. Shall We Dance is an uneven movie — great stars, great supporting players (particularly the marvelous Jerome Cowan as Rogers’ manager — he and Horton have a relationship that verges as close to the homoerotic as the tight Production Code enforcement of 1937 would allow!), great songs and a creaky, committee-made script (Lee Loeb and Harold Buchman are credited with the story, P. J. Wolfson with its “adaptation” and Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano with the actual screenplay — but at its best it’s marvelous and a great deal of fun in the best Astaire-Rogers tradition. — 9/21/98


Charles and I watched one of the films in Turner Classic Movies’ last day of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Fred Astaire. It was quite surprising that, for an Astaire tribute that ended on Christmas night, they did not show Holiday Inn, but instead they decided to go with the five films in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers canon they hadn’t run on the opening night four weeks earlier: Top Hat, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree and The Barkleys of Broadway. The one we watched was Shall We Dance, made in 1937 and the seventh of the nine Astaire-Rogers films made in the 1930’s for RKO (Barkleys was an MGM film made in 1949, a decade after the RKO cycle, and in it Rogers was a last-minute replacement for Judy Garland, who had one of her breakdowns and got fired from it). It was also a reunion between Astaire and songwriters George and Ira Gershwin — Astaire and his sister Adele had had some major hits with Gershwin musicals on stage in the 1920’s but they hadn’t worked together on a film until this one. It’s an indication of how much Gershwin’s star had fallen in the commercial worlds of music, movies and theatre that George and Ira got only $50,000 to write the score for Shall We Dance — a formidable sum but only half what Fox had paid them six years earlier for the film Delicious. In the meantime Gershwin had had three consecutive stage flops (Let ’Em Eat Cake, Pardon My English and his opera Porgy and Bess, in a problematical production by the Theatre Guild with spoken dialogue replacing Gershwin’s original recitatives and one of the score’s most powerful and wrenching numbers, “The Buzzard Song,” cut because the Porgy, Todd Duncan, was performing the role eight times a week and leaving it in would have wrecked his voice from the strain) and that had sent his asking price way down. His billing, too; where the opening title of Delicious had advertised “JANET GAYNOR and CHARLES FARRELL in DELICIOUS with GEORGE GERSHWIN MUSIC” (indicating that Fox had paid the Gershwins $100,000 in hopes that their name would be box office in itself), for Shall We Dance Astaire and Rogers got above-the-title billing while the Gershwins got a title card to themselves but only in the middle of the ones for everyone else. (When the names of George and Ira Gershwin appear on screen, the soundtrack cuts in with a snatch of the Rhapsody in Blue, then as now George’s most famous composition.)  

Shall We Dance was also the last production involving George Gershwin’s music to be premiered during his lifetime — before his untimely death he’d finished the songs for Astaire’s next film, A Damsel in Distress, and written about half the projected score for the film The Goldwyn Follies (Vernon Duke finished the project after Gershwin’s death), but he died two months before Damsel started shooting. He was not a happy camper about the movie; he wrote to a friend in New York, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should. They literally throw one or two songs away without any plug. This is mainly due to the structure of the story, which does not include any other singers than Fred and Ginger, and the amount of singing one can stand of these two is quite limited.” (Irving Berlin and Cole Porter both told interviewers that they’d rather have a song of theirs introduced by Fred Astaire than anyone else, but apparently Gershwin didn’t feel the same way — even though some of his greatest and most enduring songs, both on stage and on film, were first performed by Astaire.) He’s right; future generations have lamented that Harry Woods’ “Sweet Leilani” won the 1937 Academy Award for Best Song over “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” but the performance of “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in Shall We Dance — Astaire sings it to Rogers as they’re on a ferry to New Jersey, where they’re going to get married because the world already thinks they are married, and therefore Rogers must publicly divorce him so she can marry her millionaire boyfriend (which, of course, she doesn’t), but they don’t dance to it and the great ballad is thrown away — shows why Academy voters rejected it.

Shall We Dance has its problems — the story asks us to suspend disbelief that ordinary common-Joe American Peter P. Peters (Fred Astaire) has somehow managed to become a huge international ballet star under the sobriquet “Petrov” (and while it was actually fairly common for American ballet dancers to take Russian names and pass themselves off as Russians, Astaire’s attempts at ballet illustrate both his superb control over his body and his stylistic unsuitability for that sort of dancing), and it’s structured so there are too many scenes in which he and Rogers’ character, musical star Linda Keene, hate each other and not enough in which they love each other — but it’s actually a quite witty film, with a great Gershwin score, a witty, wisecrack-filled script by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano, and an interesting plot conceit: the reluctant Petrov falls in love with Linda (“I haven’t even met her, but I’d sort of like to marry her — in fact, I think I will”) as well as with her style of dancing (there’s a nice scene at the beginning where Astaire takes a break from ballet rehearsals, closets himself in a secret studio, and does a hot tap routine to a swing record of Gershwin’s “Beginner’s Luck” — the record sticks in several places and ultimately winds down, as often happened in those days because a lot of record players were still powered by clockwork). The film starts in Paris, where Petrov wants to stay because Linda is performing at a local nightclub — only he overhears that she’s sailing that night for New York, whereupon he tells his imperious manager Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton at his dippiest — I hadn’t realized before last night how much Horton resembled George W. Bush, particularly in that deer-in-the-headlights look both men had at their moments of crisis) that he’s leaving that night on the same liner. 

She too has an imperious manager, Arthur Miller (the marvelous Jerome Cowan, playing a queeny stereotype quite far from his usual casting — Cowan was a very underrated performer and his reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that his most famous role was as Miles Archer in the 1941 Maltese Falcon, in which he’s killed in the first reel), who’s worried that her impending retirement to marry a millionaire is going to kill him financially; when she says of her impending nuptials, “I’m facing happiness for the first time,” he says, “And I’m facing bankruptcy … for the third time.” (One wonders why he doesn’t sell his backers 25,000 percent of Linda’s next show and deliberately make it so bad it flops.) On the liner, Petrov — who’s already alienated Linda by visiting her room and playing the haughty Russian artiste pose to the max (when she asks if he has another name besides Petrov, he says in an hilariously bad “Russian” accent, “Like Caesar, only Napoleon, and just Garbo, so Petrov, she is enough, too”) — cruises her on deck as she’s walking a dog (to a piece by George Gershwin variously called “Promenade,” “Walking the Dog” and “Strictly Instrumental,” which Michael Tilson Thomas had transcribed for his 1985 Gershwin album and which now regularly appears on programs of Gershwin’s concert music). The ship’s radio operator hears a rumor that Petrov and Linda are secretly married (there are at least two sequences in this movie in which various shipboard and hotel officials hear discussions of Astaire’s and/or Rogers’ relationships and, though the truth is both morally and Production Code-wise innocuous, the Scott-Pagano dialogue makes it sound considerably racier than it is, leaving the eavesdroppers shocked) and it becomes an international news story (“It must have been a slow news year,” I joked), leading to that odd scene in which the two hatebirds comment that they’re the only people in the world who don’t think they’re married to each other, and Linda hits on the solution of actually getting married so they can then get divorced.

Shall We Dance is a bizarrely mixed film whose biggest problem is that, in a plot centered around the clash between ballet and popular dancing, the pop side is represented by Astaire and Rogers at their peak as a team (even though, of the three numbers they have together only one, “They All Laughed,” is actually a dance; the others are that instrumental dog-walk on the deck of the ocean liner taking them from France to the U.S., and a roller-skating sequence to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”) and the ballet side is represented by hideous choreography by Harry Losee (fresh from doing Sonja Henie’s skating routines in the film Thin Ice) that Arlene Croce, in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, derisively called “turned-in toe dancers rumbl[ing] around in clumps.” With the plot temporarily splitting Astaire and Rogers in time for Petrov’s big opening at Arthur Miller’s rooftop nightclub (the first rooftop nightclub had been opened by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1912 and the most popular — or at least best-known — example was the New York Rainbow Room owned by NBC, RKO’s parent company)— he’s accepted Miller’s offer after New York’s Metropolitan Ballet has fired him for his “scandalous” behavior with Linda Keene — Astaire’s dance partner for the big number at the end is someone or something called Harriet Hoctor. Croce is withering about her: “Not even in his satin premier danseur tunic can Astaire be taken for a ballet dancer, but Miss Hoctor can be taken for nothing human. She was a contortionist whose specialty, a horseshoe backbend on point, was already well known to movie audiences. (In this position she would kick herself in the head.)” And while directors of her other movies (there were other Harriet Hoctor movies, which is rather amazing in itself) usually shot her self-kicking sequence in profile, the director of Shall We Dance, Mark Sandrich (making his fourth of five movies with Astaire and Rogers), shoots it full on, making Hoctor look like a submarine suddenly upending itself to do a crash dive, with her breasts as the conning towers. Nonetheless, there are quite a few interesting elements in Shall We Dance, including the queeniest set of supporting performances in an Astaire-Rogers movie since The Gay Divorcée — in one audacious sequence Jerome Cowan gets Edward Everett Horton drunk on champagne and damned if it doesn’t it look like he’s getting him plastered so he can have his wicked way with him! — and a series of astounding visual representations of Rogers that form a probably unintentional but nonetheless amusing spoof of celebrity culture.

We first see Ginger Rogers in this film as a dancer in a flip-book of photographs sold at the club where she performs, and which Astaire shows to Horton to illustrate the woman he hasn’t met yet but thinks he’s going to marry. (In the original script there was an even more elaborate introduction; Astaire was going to mention to Horton that he’d seen a poster of his dream girl, and in a sequence apparently patterned on the beautiful “A Needle in a Haystack” scene in The Gay Divorcée he was going to dance through the streets of Paris until he came upon the theatre where she was performing, which would be showing a film of her dance on a small monitor to let audiences know what they would be in for if they paid to see her, and then the film would dissolve to her actual dance with her partner — only the bean-counters at RKO decided this wouldn’t be worth the extra $50,000 it would have added to the budget, while the song the Gershwins wrote for it, “Hi-Ho,” went into storage and wasn’t unearthed and published until 1967.) Then there’s a life-size model of Rogers of almost unearthly realism, which Miller and a photographer in his employ sneak into Astaire’s bedroom and take a picture of him with the model Rogers in his bed, then release it to the papers to establish that Petrov and Linda are in fact married to each other. And there’s the final sequence in which Astaire decides that if he can’t dance with Rogers in his big number, he’ll dance with images of her; he has photographic masks of her face made up and has every chorus girl in his “Ballet Meets Broadway” routine hold one in front of her face as she dances the routine. Ginger shows up with her rich idiot fiancé, sneaks backstage, dresses in a chorus girl’s costume and joins the line, at one point letting her mask slip so Astaire’s character will know it’s the real Rogers onstage behind one of the Rogers masks — but which one? He dances his way through the chorus line, “unmasking” each one in turn. “If this were a Romantic ballet,” Croce wrote, “he would have gone on hunting forever, but the music races on in a new key, the lights come up bright, and after a bit of dancing (a very little bit), the movie ends with, ‘Ho, ho, ho, who’s got the last laugh now?’” It seems odd that the “Promenade” has been transcribed and included in concert programs of Gershwin’s music while this final scene — with its daringly dissonant music when it isn’t incorporating the melodies of the film’s songs — hasn’t been; it would be nice to hear it outside the distraction of Losee’s boring choreography. — 12/26/13