7. Shall We Dance (1937): What makes a musical great? If it requires only great music, then Shall We Dance would certainly qualify. Five of the Gershwin songs it introduced have become standards: "Beginner's Luck," "They All Laughed," "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off," "They Can't Take That Away From Me," and the title song. And if great music isn't enough, Shall We Dance combines highlights from several of the earlier Fred & Ginger films. The main plot is similar to The Gay Divorcée (1934). In that film, Ginger pretends to have an affair so she can get a divorce, and over the course of an evening of dancing with Fred really falls in love with him. In this one, everyone thinks that Fred and Ginger are already married; when Ginger wants to marry someone else, she realizes she can only do so by publicly divorcing Fred first—but to do that, they'll have to really get married. The pretend relationship turning into a real one has rich comic possibilities that are better exploited here than in the earlier film—there's an amusing recurring bit with Eric Blore as an unctuous hotel manager locking and unlocking the door between Fred and Ginger's adjoining suites as his understanding of their marital status changes.
There are borrowings from other films in the series, too. Like Follow The Fleet (1936), it has an extended shipboard tap solo for Astaire: here, he dances to "Slap That Bass" in a huge, gleaming Art Deco engine-room set. Unusually for the time, he's accompanied by an all-black band, and the first verse of the song is taken by the bandleader Dudley Dickerson (though in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972) Arlene Croce writes that Dickerson's voice was actually that of the similarly uncredited Mantan Moreland). Also as in Follow The Fleet there's a gag dance: Astaire dances to a record of "Beginner's Luck" that keeps skipping (in the earlier film it was Ginger who kept getting stuck while the music played on). And Fred and Ginger's roller-skating duet in the rink in Central Park echoes their dance in the gazebo in Hyde Park from Top Hat (1935).
But if Shall We Dance has such excellent songs and seems at times like a greatest hits collection from earlier Fred & Ginger films, why isn't it more enjoyable? Partly it's because the songs aren't always integrated into the action or narrative—sometimes they just happen. Two examples: "Beginner's Luck" (the vocal version) is sung by Astaire to Rogers on shipboard as they're sailing to America. Astaire is Petrov, the principal dancer in a Ballet-Russe-style troupe headed by Edward Everett Horton. (Petrov, of course, is really an American, Peter P. Peters, who loves jazz.) Petrov agrees to tour with the ballet to New York so that he can take the same ship as a cabaret dancer he's become smitten with, Linda Keene (Ginger). He contrives to meet her every evening when she takes her dog for exercise. He finally manages to get her alone, leans on the railing next to her, and sings "Beginner's Luck." But the mismatch between song and situation—since she clearly doesn't yet reciprocate his feelings, why does he feel so lucky?—is rescued only by the charm of Fred and Ginger. And it ends too soon; as Croce reports George Gershwin writing to a friend, "They literally throw one or two songs away," and here that complaint seems justified.
In their famous Central Park rollerskating number, "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," Ginger sings to Fred, "You say laughter and I say lawhfter, you say after and I say awhfter..." But it's Fred who has been (inconsistently) putting on an exaggerated accent as Petrov, while the idea that Ginger would say "lawhfter" or "banawhnah" comes from nowhere. And so the joke of having each complain in the same terms about the other doesn't work, in contrast to the similar but much more carefully constructed "A Fine Romance" scene in Swing Time (1937). Fortunately we're immediately distracted from this lyrical non sequitur when Fred and Ginger then launch into their famous dance on roller skates:
One song that does make sense in the context of the story is "They All Laughed." At a nightclub Linda Keene is coaxed into singing, and the song she chooses is about the evident mismatch between her and her goofy fiancé (William Brisbane in the thankless rival-to-Fred role). But as she tries to head back to her table, Fred gets up and coaxes her into dancing—he does some balletic leaps, she answers with a quick burst of tap, he responds in kind, and then they're off. Fred's intervention changes the song: suddenly it's about both the apparent mismatch between ballet and jazz dance styles and between Petrov and Linda themselves, resolving into a beautiful Fred and Ginger duet. Here's a severely truncated version:
Shall We Dance also contains one of their loveliest ballads, sung by Fred to Ginger on a fog-shrouded ferry as they return to New York for their divorce: "They Can't Take That Away From Me". This gorgeous song, though, cries out for a dance duet, which doesn't happen. The movie's finale to the title song is a surreal number with a chorus of women all holding Ginger masks. If Fred can't dance with Ginger herself, he'll dance with an army of women who look like her. But then one of the women behind the masks reveals herself to look uncannily like Ginger...
Ultimately, though, Shall We Dance falls short. I'd make the case that the best Hollywood musical is Singin' In The Rain (1952), even though its Arthur Freed-Nacio Brown songs—while perfectly appropriate to its late-20s setting—don't measure up to the now-classic Gershwin songs in Shall We Dance. What Singin' In The Rain has that Shall We Dance lacks is a compelling story and songs that are integrated with and suited to the action. Despite the Gershwin tunes and some brilliantly staged numbers to showcase them, Shall We Dance proves that when it comes to musicals, a great score isn't quite enough.
8. Carefree (1938). One problem for the Astaire-Rogers films is that they're suspenseless. "The minute the names of Astaire and Rogers go up on the marquee," Croce quotes their producer Pandro Berman as saying, "the audience knows they belong together." So the main problem the screenwriters faced throughout the series was figuring out ways to keep them apart until the happy ending.
In Carefree, that problem was "solved" by having Fred (as the psychiatrist Tony Flagg) hypnotize Ginger (as Amanda Cooper) and plant a post-hypnotic suggestion that she hates him and is really in love with her stolid fiancé Ralph Bellamy (as Stephen Arden). Tony's been brought in on Amanda's case because she's reluctant to marry Stephen (and that's a mystery?). After her consultation with Tony (and eating heaps of rich food that he's prescribed) she dreams that she's in love—but with Tony, not Stephen—in the number "I Used To Be Colorblind." The design of the set and the lyrics of the song seem to indicate that this sequence was intended to be in color, a suspicion that Arlene Croce confirms. The number does offer two striking innovations: the use of slow motion, which beautifully emphasizes the grace of the dance (Ginger seems to be literally floating around Fred), and an extended kiss between Fred and Ginger at the conclusion—perhaps their first kiss in the entire film series (even in "The Continental" from The Gay Divorcée, which urges the participants to "Kiss while you're dancing," Fred and Ginger's lips never meet):
"Colorblind" leads to another unusual number. Throughout the series the typical pattern has been Fred trying to convince Ginger to dance with him; in the novelty number "The Yam" it's Amanda who wants a reluctant Tony to dance with her:
Amanda's obvious infatuation with Tony is what leads to the implanting of the post-hypnotic suggestion that she really hates him. Of course, the rest of the movie involves Amanda acting on that suggestion and Tony desperately trying to remove it. He almost succeeds when he gets her alone at Stephen's country club (to the strains of "Change Partners"), but Stephen interrupts them before it can happen. Tony has one last chance to reach Amanda—on her wedding day...
If this sounds like the plot of a screwball comedy, there's a good reason. The late 30s were the heyday of screwball comedy; the fifteen months since the release of the previous Astaire-Rogers picture, Shall We Dance, had seen the release of The Awful Truth (1937), Holiday (1938) and Bringing Up Baby (1938). And Ginger Rogers, an excellent comedienne, almost carries it off. Alas, the script lets both her and Astaire down. When Tony hypnotizes Amanda, he tells her that men like him "should be shot down like dogs"—a jarringly brutal formulation that she tries to enact when she winds up at a country-club skeet shoot while still under the influence. The violence doesn't end there. To remove the suggestion, Tony has to render Amanda unconscious again, leading to the disturbing final image of—spoiler alert!—Amanda walking down the aisle sporting a black eye. Even if it's Stephen who has inadvertently given it to her, it's an image that simply isn't funny.
—End of spoiler—
Carefree was the last of the Astaire-Rogers comedies; it was followed six months later by the tragic biopic The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), a movie that has its own charm, but which doesn't really fit with their earlier comedies together. And they then didn't dance together again onscreen for another decade. By then, after a string of Gingerless flops and special appearances in other people's movies, Astaire had retired. But in 1948 he agreed to come out of retirement to take the place of the injured Gene Kelly opposite Judy Garland in Easter Parade (1948). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and a second Astaire-Garland movie was planned. Only this time it was Garland who was taken off the film after she repeatedly missed rehearsals, to be replaced by...Ginger Rogers.
Interestingly, even though it hadn't originally been conceived as an Astaire-Rogers film, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) is an homage to their earlier films together and a parody of their rumored offscreen clashes. (Those clashes have been exaggerated; there's nothing to suggest that their professional conflicts—mainly over their mutual ambitions to do films outside the partnership—were ever personal ones.) Together with Easter Parade, The Barkleys of Broadway launched the second phase of Astaire's film career: he went on to star in some of the most beloved musicals of the 1950s, including Royal Wedding (1951), The Band Wagon (1953), Funny Face (1957) and Silk Stockings (1957). Rogers had won an Academy Award as Best Actress for Kitty Foyle (1940); in 1950 Astaire was given a special Academy Award "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures" (the presenter was Ginger Rogers). But despite their successes apart, they will be forever remembered for their unique partnership, which can be invoked solely with their first names: Fred & Ginger.