Comedy · Musical

How Fred Astaire Sells Musical Comedy

Go Fred! Image: tumblr

Naturally, we love Fred Astaire‘s dancing. He’s Fred Astaire, for pete sake.

Yet, when we recently watched the musical comedy Shall We Dance (1937), we realized Astaire is also a gifted salesman.

First, a little about the film, a madcap look at celebrity gossip and the media. Astaire plays an American ballet star saddled with the pretentious stage name “The Great Petrov”. Happily, Astaire’s character isn’t the type who reads his own publicity.

We see Astaire’s self-effacing nature early in the film, when his outraged manager (Edward Everett Horton) finds him rehearsing tap dancing instead of ballet:

Horton: “What on earth are you doing?”
Astaire-as-Petrov: “I’m just having fun.”
Horton: “Fun?! The Great Petrov doesn’t dance for fun!”

Besides tap dancing, Astaire’s character has another passion: a musical stage star played by the fabulous Ginger Rogers. Rogers’ character is Fed Up with celebrity life, and is retiring from the stage to marry some schmo in New York City.

From here, the movie explores the business side of dance, the hungry entertainment media and the relationship between Astaire and Rogers.

“I am The Great Petrov!” Image: Dr. Macro

As for Astaire, he starts working on his customer from the first scene, and he never lets his sales pitch lose momentum.

For example, when he first introduces himself to Rogers, Astaire arrives – uninvited – at her Paris apartment with flowers and his “PETROV” calling card. As she reads the card, Rogers asks, “Petrov? What’s a Petrov?”

Astaire then bursts into the room with a little dance and launches into a Russian Prima Donna act. He pours it on thick: heavy accent, clicking heels, grand gestures – the whole bit.

As he prepares to leave, Astaire says, in his ridiculous accent, “I must go. I must GO, to Mos-CO [Moscow]. HEH HEH HEH. Funny, no?”

It’s corny and marvelous. Not only is Astaire utterly engaging, he separates himself from the competition in the eyes of the customer.

Ginger Rogers tries to be un-amused. Image: Pinterest

Frankly, Astaire doesn’t have typical Leading Man looks. He’s short of stature with a slender frame and a receding hairline.

But he has a beautiful smile and Charm, against which customer resistance is futile. For example, when Astaire learns Rogers is sailing from Europe to New York, he hurries to book passage on the same ship – much to Rogers’ consternation. Astaire, aware of her displeasure, adopts a wistful What-Else-Could-I-Do?-You’re-Too-Wonderful stance.

Aboard the ship, Astaire learns Rogers takes her dog for daily walks on the deck. Never one to miss an opportunity, he “rents” a dog so he can establish a rapport with the customer. But Rogers ain’t buying, so the next day Astaire shows up with seven dogs, who half-walk, half-drag him around the deck. (You see, a good sales pitch uses clever marketing tools.)

In Shall We Dance, Astaire is determined to make a customer for life, even if he has to play Hard To Get. We know this because later in the film, Rogers tries to invite Astaire into her hotel room. Astaire, convinced their romance is Over, politely refuses and starts down the hallway. Each time Rogers offers him something – a drink, a cigarette – Astaire briefly pauses mid-step, then resumes walking. His expression is a study in itself: flattery, amusement, resolve.

So with all of this, Fred Astaire woos his customer.

But the customer isn’t Ginger Rogers. It’s us, the audience.

Romance on roller skates. Image: tumblr

Although Shall We Dance starts to feel a bit long after 90 minutes, it’s a delightful film with laugh-out-loud lines and a timely message about how easily media stories can be manufactured for publicity and profit.

The music, composed by George and Ira Gershwin, features songs that are still familiar today, such as “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me“.

If the legendary team of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire is new to you, we beg you to watch Shall We Dance. You’ll see what we mean about Fred Astaire’s ability to sell musical comedy.

This is part of the REEL INFATUATION Blogathon hosted by Font and Frock and yours truly.

Shall We Dance: starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton. Directed by Mark Sandrich. Written by Allan Scott & Ernest Pagano. RKO Radio Pictures, 1937, B&W, 109 mins.

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29 thoughts on “How Fred Astaire Sells Musical Comedy

  1. Oh, what an interesting perspective! I never would have thought of him as a salesman, but you sold me on it. His wooing via dance is often written about to the exclusion of anything else, but dance is not the only part of his pitch, as you show.

    You also make me want to watch this one again. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a perfect post! Shall We Dance is such an underrated film, but it’s one of my absolute favorites. I think I might even love it more than Swing Time, which so many people consider to be their best.

    I’m glad you looked at Astaire’s acting rather than his dancing. I adore the man, and I think sometimes we tend to focus on his incredible dancing rather than his superb comedic ability, sweet sensitivity, and his enormously charismatic presence. He’s easily one of my favorite people to watch in anything ever.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Michaela! Yes, I prefer Shall we Dance to Swingtime. I personally feel it’s the better film, but there’s certainly lots to love about Swingtime.

      I agree that Astaire’s acting is often overlooked. That’s a shame because he had real talent as an actor…plus great comedic timing. The pairing of Astaire and Rogers was pure genius.

      Like

  3. The first time I saw this, it was part of a home video triple-header that also included TOP HAT and THE GAY DIVORCEE, so the specifics have kinda blurred with time. I do remember liking the dancing, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh yes, I can see how the three movies would have blended together if a person watched them all in one evening. But what a great evening of viewing! 😉

      The dancing is incredible, isn’t it? They make it look so easy. I have a niece who hated old films as a kid, but loved to put on her tap shoes when an old musical was on TV. She liked to dance a little with the movie…much to the consternation of her mother.

      Like

  4. What a fresh, clever take on an awesome film! This is one of my fave of the Astaire-Rogers films, and you more than do it justice. Astaire certainly was charming and impossible to resist, but never more so than when teamed up with Rogers.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I really haven’t seen enough Fred Astaire films, but I always thought he was a quite likable man. So, this post gives me another one to add on my list! 🙂 I loved your post. It was truly lovely! And hey! I dance for fun too! Here I come Fred!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. OMG, the scene with Astaire renting the dogs is hilarious! Thanks for reminding me of this! Shall We Dance is a nice film, and your writing is even more engaging than the film itself.
    Thanks for co-hosting this great event!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Le! Shall We Dance is such a fun film, isn’t it?

      This blogathon is always a pleasure. Nor only do people write admiringly about screen crushes, they write lovingly about film itself.

      Like

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