Saturday, January 23, 2010

Fred & Ginger Part 4: Shall We Dance and Carefree

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.


  1. Pessimisissimo, these are both wonderful, intelligent reviews you've done on these two brilliant Astaire-Rogers films. I mostly agree with you, but I have a question:

    1) You admitted that the score of "SIngin' in the Rain," though great, isn't as strong as "Shall We Dance," yet you still think it's the greatest Hollywood musical. What about movies like "My Fair Lady" (1964), "West Side Story" (1961), or even SitR's doppelganger "The Band Wagon" (1953, and also starring Astaire) that have, along with fully-integrated compelling plots and brilliant screenplays, top-notch scores?

    [Also, I loved the "violent" parts of "Carefree." I'm certainly no sadist, but those parts were so bizarre and out-there that I wouldn't have thought anyone would take them seriously. The scene of a hypnotized Ginger trying to shoot Fred in the woods would be more expected in a movie made forty years later (maybe a Monty Python movie), so seeing it turn up in Fred & Ginger movie made me double over!]

  2. ILoveLouisa, thanks very much for your comment. (And for readers who may not be familiar with The Band Wagon, "I Love Louisa" is the title of one of its songs.)

    I agree that My Fair Lady (Lerner/Loewe), West Side Story (Bernstein/Sondheim) and The Band Wagon (Schwarts/Dietz) all have excellent scores (and scripts). In my estimation none of them matches Singin' In The Rain as a movie musical, though. Since you asked...

    The Band Wagon is an integrated musical about putting on a number musical, and how you feel about it depends in large part on how you feel about the musical-within-the-musical. I'd be happy never to watch "Louisiana Hayride" or "Triplets" again, and in general I'm a bit allergic to Nanette Fabray.

    West Side Story, exciting as it is, is handicapped (in my view) by the performances of Natalie Wood and (especially) Richard Beymer as Maria and Tony.

    My Fair Lady has many virtues, but it lacks dance numbers for the principals since Rex Harrison couldn't really dance. (Or sing, either, but he managed to employ an effect style of "talk-singing" for this role and others.)

    As for Carefree, I found much of the slapstick to be pretty funny--Ginger Rogers is terrific in the film. But the phrase "men like him should be shot down like dogs" (during the hypnosis scene) and the punch Amanda takes to her face were both jarring moments that, for me, fatally disrupted the comic atmosphere.

    Thanks again for your comment!

  3. I don't really care for Shall We Dance all that much, but Top Hat is one of my favorite films, from the moment he upends the sand onto the hotel room floor to the gazebo dance to the stage extravaganza... It's like they made it just for me. :-)

    I'm afraid my tastes are low, or at least uninformed, because in spite all the wonderful musicals you've listed I would prefer Oklahoma! or Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Don't hit me with a tomato!

  4. Ajnabi, your "uninformed" tastes have singled out two of the most beloved film musicals of all time. And Oklahoma! is a historically significant musical--its stage version (1943) furthered the development of the integrated musical initiated by Showboat (1927). Oklahoma! even has recurring musical motifs (which Stephen Sondheim, a protegé of Oscar Hammerstein II, would go on to employ to yet greater effect).

    I'm one of those who used to dismiss Oklahoma! as pure kitsch--or maybe I should say corn as high as an elephant's eye. But in fact, as I discovered when my partner did the lighting for a local production, it's a rather dark portrait of the struggles on the frontier not just between ranchers and farmers, but between individual eccentricity and the pressures of communal conformity. And it's been many years since I've seen Seven Brides (1954), but when I saw it as a teenager I found it hugely entertaining--it's probably time for a re-watch. So no tomatoes here.

    I'm with you--I think Top Hat and Follow The Fleet are Fred & Ginger's peak achievements. The other five films in which they star (or have second billing) are all worth seeing for their great scores and individually brilliant numbers, but they also have major flaws in their scripts. And last and least, Flying Down To Rio should be avoided unless you're in a particularly giddy and forgiving (or completist) mood.

    Thanks for your comment!

  5. I don't dislike Rio all that's just wacky! Ginger seems more relaxed in many ways than she is through the 'main' F&G films, more like the wisecracker from 42nd Street, plus, since it's pre-code, it's a bit racy as well! I have great love for Swing Time, myself.

  6. Ron, wacky is a good description for Flying Down To Rio, but I felt that there was much too little of Fred and Ginger, and much too much of Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio.

    And Swing Time has a great Jerome Kern score and some of Fred and Ginger's loveliest numbers together, so I can see why so many people rate it so highly. But the story is among the most contrived of the series, and that's why I prefer some of their other films.

    Thanks for your comment!

  7. BTW, I do love your F&G postings....very good stuff indeed. I certainly agree with you about Gene Raymond and Delores Del Rio! I accept that Swing Time's plot is convoluted...but it has a lot of warmth (Stevens' direction?) and even in this series the songs and dances are simply amazing.

    My single favorite dance number is however, "Let's Face The Music And Dance" from Fleet!

  8. Ron, I think I share your feelings for "Let's Face the Music and Dance," with "Cheek to Cheek" (from Top Hat) perhaps a close second.

    Many thanks for the kind words!

  9. Spent a few wonderful hours watching Astaire-Rogers dance clips on your blog! Thanks so much for posting these!

  10. Don't thank me--thank the folks who originally posted these clips on YouTube and other services.

    (I notice that at least one clip has been taken down thanks to a complaint by Warner Bros. That's extremely short-sighted--the availability of short excerpts from the films increases, rather than decreases, the interest in them.)

    But I'd like to thank you for spending some time here, and for your comment!