“Life is short, we’re growing older . . .” — Ira Gershwin’s key lyric in Shall We Dance
Excrutiatingly slow while introducing its characters and launching an overly complicated plot, once it kicks into gear the seventh of the Astaire-Rogers musical romances (and the last in the RKO cycle to register as a financial success*) is explosive, gripping, shimmeringly beautiful. Can Peter P. Peters, stage name Petrov, and Linda Thompson, stage name Linda Keene—that is, ballet and tap—come together? Everyone thinks these two celebrities have married—their marriage has been gossiped into existence; they get married just so they can divorce, just so they can get on with their lives. They cannot admit to each other their love. But they must; life is short. As Robert Browning put it, “Love is best.”
Shall We Dance, I now believe, is the most purely romantic, hence tragic, of the Rogers-Astaires save Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936). Aiming at reconciliation, it conjoins opposites, breathes along borderlines. At the outset it sets up the chief opposition: ballerinas on their toes while Petrov, the great ballet dancer, is tapping to jazz in a private, soundproof chamber on the other side of a common wall. Other “borderlines”: Central Park in New York City; blankets of fog—solid, liquid, dense, diffuse; reality vs. image. After Linda has abandoned him to seek divorce, Petrov dances onstage with a bevy of beauties each of whom wears a Linda-mask. “He said if he can’t dance with the real you, he will dance with your image,” Linda is told opening night, causing her to transcend her unhelpful defensiveness and slip into costume and behind one of those haunting masks—a visual echo of the Linda-dummy that had been used for the compromising photograph of Linda and Peter “together,” unbeknownst to either of them, in a hotel room bed. Only by now, unlike what happens in the first of their three dances together (the middle one is on roller skates), where we watch Peter and Linda dance, we are watching Fred and Ginger, whose brief final dance—its brevity underscores the theme of transience—is among their most poignant and electrifying.
No other film by Mark Sandrich is as full of feeling as this, as lost in feeling as in a melancholy fog where one’s love of a lifetime might be lost forever; at the same time, Sandrich draws from Eric Blore, as moralistic hotel manager Cecil Flintridge, one of the funniest performances I’ve seen. Linda and Peter are equals in stardom, and Rogers is radiantly assured—and every bit as good here as in, the same year, Gregory LaCava’s Stage Door, the film that set Rogers down the path to her best actress Oscar a few years hence. Astaire’s fake Russian accent is not quite as funny as Rogers’ fake Polish one in Roberta (William A. Seiter, 1935), but his farcical mugging is fine.
Perhaps the songs by the Gershwin brothers, George and Ira, are better remembered than the dances: “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and the one that should have won the Oscar, “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” the ironical point being, “they” can: Everything about Peter’s beloved may dissolve in an instant into her perpetual absence. Here is one of the four or five greatest songs of the Depression.
Hitchcockians, take note! That unforgettable gesture of Norman’s in Psycho (1960), when he covers his mouth in horror after seeing Mother’s motel bathroom handiwork, derives from Shall We Dance. Astaire enacts the moment twice, but with surprise rather than horror, and in neither case is Peter’s mother involved. Indeed, adding to the film’s general sense of all-but-lost souls, there are no families at all in this film, biological or marital. No children. Peter and Linda are left with only each other, and who knows for how long. Audiences knew that Ginger wanted out of the partnership. They did not yet know she shared a mother with Norman Bates.
* This is wrong. I have now learned that Carefree (1938), which is dreadful, also made some money.
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