Shall We Dance
is the seventh of the ten Astaire
-Rogers musical comedy
films. It was released in 1937. 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 symphonic underscore and Ira Gershwin
the lyrics) to score this, their first Hollywood
Hermes Pan collaborated with Astaire on the choreography throughout and Harry Losee was brought in to help with the ballet finale. Gershwin modeled the score on the great ballets of the 19th century, but with obvious swing and jazz influences, as well as polytonalism. While Astaire 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 orchestral 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. The increasing complexity and chromaticism in Gershwin's music can be detected between music for this sequence and Gershwin's earlier effort at a rumba, the Cuban Overture, written 5 years earlier. Scored for chamber orchestra.
- "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": This jaunty number was only published in 1960 as "Promenade" to accompany two pantomimic routines for Astaire and Rogers. This is the only part of the score besides Hoctor's Ballet to be published for performance in the concert hall, thus far. Scored for chamber orchestra. (Not all of the Walking the Dog sequence heard in the movie is in the published score, the ending of the scene features the themes following each other in a round (music).)
- "Beginner's Luck (song)": Astaire delivers this jaunty number to a non-committal Rogers, whose skepticism is echoed by a pack of howling dogs intervening at the close.
- "They All Laughed (At Christopher Columbus)": 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. 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. 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.
- "Hoctor's Ballet": 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 duet to a reprise of the music to "They Can't Take That Away From Me." This number runs directly into:
- "Shall We Dance/ Finale and Coda": 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 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. Other musical nods are interwoven referencing the previous ballet sequences. 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 of some of the instrumental pieces currently available to Gershwin aficionados (unfortunate because not all the incidental music composed for the movie was used in the final cut.) Some of the cuts arranged and orchestrated by Gershwin include: Dance of the Waves, Waltz of the Red Balloons, Graceful and Elegant, Hoctor's Ballet and French Ballet Class (for two pianos). The instrumental track Walking the Dog, however, has been frequently recorded and has been played from time to time on classical music radio stations.
- Nathaniel 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," "Walking the Dog" and "They All Laughed."
Gershwin was already suffering during the production of the motion picture from the brain tumor that was shortly to kill him, and Shilkret (as well as Robert Russell Bennett) contributed by assisting with orchestration on a few of the numbers.