Who's got the last laugh now?
In an act of some heresy, I have to admit that I think Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937) is a superior film to the widely regarded Fred and Ginger masterwork, Swing Time (and I like Top Hat better than either. Go figure). A small part of this might be because it was the first Astaire/Rogers film I ever saw - in fact, the first 1930's musical I ever saw (ignoring the fine canon of the Marxes). But I think that a strong case can be made that this is the best comedy of all their films together; it came out at the time of the first major wave of the screwballs, and although it isn't of their company, there is a certain dementedness to the proceedings that simply doesn't exist in a more sedate film like the plotless Swing Time.
The story: Pete P. Peters, professionally known as Petrov, dances ballet but loves jazz. He also loves Linda Keene, Broadway star. A rumor starts that they are married, and to dispel said rumor, they actually do marry, with an eye to getting a divorce. But, well, I don't suppose I'm giving anything away by mentioning that it doesn't quite work like that.
With a couple of sublime supporting turns by regular co-stars Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore, this is the only Astaire/Rogers vehicle that could function really well without the music, not that you'd want to remove it. It's a rather satisfying sex farce, with a handful of jokes that even today seem racy enough that it's a wonder how the Hays enforcers missed them. Ginger reminds us that her first love is acting, and Fred gets to pick up the cutest bad Russian accent you've ever heard (just for a few scenes, don't worry). There's a quiet subplot about the conflict between classical art and jazz, and with a Gershwin score, it should be no surprise which one wins.
Did I not mention that the songs were by George and Ira Gershwin? Well, that's the other reason I love this film - it has, without question, my favorite score of any 30's musical. "Slap That Bass," "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "They All Laughed," and the best song of the decade, "They Can't Take That Away from Me," all were introduced in this film. I've known people to complain that the last of these suffers for not having a dance number - this is absurd. When you've got a song that good, you don't want to weld a dance onto it, just let it rest there. If nothing else, it proves that Fred can sing. Damn well.
(Free tip: when you watch this scene - and I know all of you, gentle readers, have found this series so compelling that you can't wait to find all ten Astaire/Rogers film as soon as humanly possible - keep your eye on Ginger. That is some serious fucking acting, and she has to do it all with her face. Brings a tear to my eye, and I'm not ashamed to admit it).
But that does point to the film's one unforgiveable sin: the dancing just isn't all that good. Astaire, bless him, couldn't really choreograph ballet, and he had to here. The result is the weakest finale of any of their films (the bloated "Shall We Dance"). Of the seven songs in the film, only two get satisfying numbers: "They All Laughed," with Fred and Ginger doing elegant like nobody's business, and the infamous rollerskating of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," a number which required over 150 takes, the pair's record. ("Slap That Bass" is a fun number, but would be much better at half the length). Still, you can only do so much to render Gershwin music untenable, and they both make up for it by turning in what may be the best performances in their ten pairings. Where else can you hear Ginger slam out a line like, "If we get married now, I could start divorce proceedings in the morning"?
The way you you hold your knife,
The way we danced 'til three,
The way you changed my life,
They can't take that away from me.
No, they can't take that away from me.