Shall We Dance
is the seventh of the ten Astaire
-Rogers musical comedy films
. The idea for this film originated in the studio's desire to exploit the successful formula created by Richard Rodgers
and Lorenz Hart
with their 1936 Broadway
hit On Your Toes
, which featured an American
dancer getting involved with a touring Russian ballet
company, and which featured the famous "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue" satirical ballet created by the Russian
émigré choreographer George Balanchine
. In a major coup for RKO, Pan Berman managed to attract the Gershwins (George Gershwin
wrote the score and Ira Gershwin
the lyrics) to score this, their first Hollywood
Astaire was not enthused by the proposal to blend ballet with popular dance, and it shows. Neither, it appears, was George Gershwin—who had become famous for blending jazz with classical forms—as he makes no reference to this concept in any of the songs. While the film—the couple's most expensive to date—benefits from quality male comedy specialists, opulent art direction by Carroll Clark under Van Nest Polglase's supervision, and a timeless score which introduces three classic Gershwin songs, the extremely convoluted plot and the curious absence of a romantic partnered duet for Astaire and Rogers—a hallmark of their musicals since The Gay Divorcee (1934)—contributed to their least profitable picture to date—a clear indication that audiences might be tiring of the Astaire-Rogers' magic. Ginger, in particular, looks tired in the picture and had already requested a break from musicals.
Astaire was no stranger to the Gershwins having headlined, with his sister Adele, two Gershwin Broadway shows: Lady Be Good! in 1924 and Funny Face in 1927, and George Gershwin accompanied the pair on piano in a set of recordings in 1926. Ginger Rogers first came to Hollywood's attention when she appeared in the "Embraceable You" number (choreographed by Astaire) in the Gershwin's Girl Crazy in 1930.
Hermes Pan collaborated with Astaire on the choreography throughout and Harry Losee was brought in to help with the ballet finale. Astaire often appears either dismissive or uncomfortable with the central ballet/popular dance idea. While he made further attempts—notably in Ziegfeld Follies (1944/46), Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Daddy Long Legs (1955) it was his rival and friend Gene Kelly who would eventually succeed in creating a modern original dance style based on this concept. Some critics have attributed Astaire's discomfort with ballet (he briefly studied ballet in the 1920s) to his oft-expressed disdain for "inventing up to the arty".
- "Rehearsal Fragments": In a brief segment which seeks to motivate the film's core dance concept, Astaire illustrates the idea of combining "the technique of ballet with the warmth and passion of this other mood" by performing two ballet leaps, the second of which is followed by a tap barrage.
- "Rumba Sequence": Astaire watches a flip-picture book illustrating a brief but beautiful rumba sequence for Ginger Rogers and Pete Theodore choreographed by Hermes Pan—her only partnered dance without Astaire in the 10 film sequence of Astaire-Rogers musicals.
- "(I've Got) Beginner's Luck (dance)": A brief comic tap solo with cane where Astaire's rehearsing to a record of the number is cut short when the record gets stuck.
- "Slap That Bass": In a mixed race number unusual for its time, Astaire encounters a group of African-American musicians holding a jam session in a spotless, Art Deco-inspired ship's engine room. Dudley Dickerson introduces the first verse of the song whose chorus is then taken up by Astaire. The virtuoso tap solo which follows is the first substantial musical number in the picture, and can be seen as a successor to the "I'd Rather Lead A Band" solo from Follow the Fleet (1936)—which also took place aboard ship—this time introducing a vertical element to the predominantly linear choreography, some pointedly dismissive references to ballet positions, and a middle section similarly without musical accompaniment but now imaginatively supported by rhythmic engine noises. George Gershwin's colour home-movie footage of Astaire rehearsing this number was discovered only in the 1990s.
- "Walking the Dog": George Gershwin composed this jaunty and beautifully orchestrated number—only published in 1960 as "Promenade" — to accompany two pantomimic routines for Astaire and Rogers, constructed with the care and precision of a dance routine although they include no formal dance moves. It was the last orchestral piece George Gershwin wrote.
- "Beginner's Luck (song)": Astaire delivers this jaunty number to a non-committal Rogers, whose scepticism is echoed by a pack of howling dogs intervening at the close.
- "They All Laughed (At Christopher Columbus)": In the film's most impressive number, Ginger Rogers provides a sparkling introduction of Gershwin's now-classic song and is then joined by Astaire in a comic dance duet which begins with a ballet parody: Astaire in a mock-Russian accent invites Rogers to "tweeest" but after she pointedly fails to respond the pair revert to a delightful tap routine which ends with Astaire lifting Rogers onto a piano.
- "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off": The genesis of the joke in Ira Gershwin's famous lyrics is uncertain: Ira has claimed the idea occurred to him in 1926 and remained unused. Astaire and Rogers sing alternate verses of this quickstep before embarking on a partnered comic tap dance using roller skates on an ice-rink. Astaire uses the circular form of the rink to introduce a variation of the "oompah-trot" he and his sister Adele had made famous in vaudeville, and while critics have acknowledged the number's affectionate charm and originality, some have noted both partners' technical limitations with roller skates and the ensuing limited choreography, while pointing out that the skating sounds—which as usual were dubbed in post-production—are unnaturally loud and precise. In a further dig at ballet, the pair strike an arabesque pose just prior to toppling onto the grass.
- "They Can't Take That Away from Me": The Gershwins' famous foxtrot, a serene, nostalgic declaration of love—one of their most enduring creations and one of George's personal favourites—is introduced by Astaire in one of the film's few genuinely touching and romantic moments. Rogers' reactions are a testimony to her considerable dramatic abilities. As with "The Way You Look Tonight" in Swing Time (1936), it was decided to reprise the melody as part of the film's dance finale. George Gershwin was unhappy about this, writing "They literally throw one or two songs away without any kind of plug". Astaire subsequently acknowledged the error, and finally put matters right in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), his final reunion with Rogers, creating one of their most admired essays in romantic partnered dance, and it remains the only occasion on film when Astaire permitted himself to repeat a song he had performed in a previous film. George Gershwin died two months after the film's release, and he was posthumously nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song for this song at the 1937 Oscars.
- "Shall We Dance": The film's big production number begins with a ballet featuring a female chorus and ballet soloist Harriet Hoctor whose speciality was performing an elliptical backbend en pointe, a routine she had perfected during her vaudeville days and as a headline act with the Ziegfeld Follies. Astaire approaches and the pair perform a much-criticised duet to a reprise of the music to "They Can't Take That Away From Me" with Astaire appearing diffident and uninvolved. After a brief routine for Astaire and a female chorus, each wearing Ginger masks, he departs and Hoctor returns to deliver two variations on her backbend routine. Astaire now returns in top hat, white tie and tails and delivers a sparkling rendition of the title song—urging his audience to "drop that long face/come on have your fling/why keep nursing the blues" and follows this with a zestful half-minute tap solo. Finally, Ginger arrives on stage, masked to blend in with the chorus whereupon Astaire unmasks her and they dance a brief final duet. This routine was referenced in the 1999 romantic comedy Simply Irresistible.
- The score is probably the largest source of Gershwin orchestral works unavailable to the general public, at least since the advent of modern stereo recording techniques in the 1950s. The movie contains the only recordings currently available to Gershwin aficianados (unfortunate because not all the incidental music composed for the movie was used in the final cut.)
- Nat Shilkret, musical director for the movie, hired Jimmy Dorsey and all or part of the Dorsey band as the nucleus of a fifty-piece studio orchestra including strings. Dorsey was in Hollywood at the time working the "Kraft Music Hall" radio show on NBC hosted by Bing Crosby. Dorsey is heard soloing on "Slap That Bass," "Walkin' the Dog" and "They All Laughed."
Fred Astaire: Steps in Time, 1959, multiple reprints.
Arlene Croce: The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Galahad Books 1974, ISBN 0-88365-099-1
John Mueller: Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films of Fred Astaire, Knopf 1985, ISBN 0-394-51654-0
Robert Stockdale: "Jimmy Dorsey: A Study in Contrasts", Scarecrow Press 1999, ISBN 0-8108-3536-3