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.
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.
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.
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.
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.