A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Shall We Dance (Mark Sandrich, 1937)

This was the seventh teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and the fatigue is beginning to show, despite a score by George Gershwin and songs with his brother Ira. Shall We Dance is marred by a tired script -- credited to Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano -- that reworks the familiar pattern: The Astaire and Rogers characters meet cute, feel an attraction to each other that they resist, find themselves in farcical misunderstandings, and several spats, songs, and dances later assure themselves that they are in love. In this one, Astaire plays a faux-Russian ballet dancer called Petrov -- he's actually Pete Peters from Philadelphia, Pa. -- who really wants to be a tap dancer. The idea of Astaire as a danseur noble is absurd from the start, and Astaire knew it -- he had turned down the lead in the 1936 Broadway production of the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart musical On Your Toes, which like Shall We Dance centers on a production that combines ballet with Broadway-style dance. Gershwin, too, was not entirely happy about the idea of composing ballet music, but both men were eventually persuaded to go along with the idea. The plot gimmick is that Peters/Petrov has fallen for tap dancer Linda Keene, who initially spurns him, and through a series of mishaps the rumor gets started that the two are secretly married. After much ado, they really get married so she can divorce him and put a stop to the rumors, but by then they of course have really fallen in love. One problem is that, unlike the best Astaire-Rogers films, Top Hat (Mark Sandrich, 1935) and Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936), the songs in Shall We Dance don't grow organically out of the screenplay. They have to be wedged in, like Astaire's number "Slap That Bass," which takes place in the engine room of the ocean liner on which Petrov and Linda are traveling -- one of the oddest of the Big White Sets for which the Astaire-Rogers musicals were famous: It's the cleanest engine room ever seen. The biggest Astaire-Rogers dance duet in the film is "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," which is performed on roller skates in a park when Petrov and Linda try to evade pursuing reporters; it, too, seems designed more to get Astaire and Rogers on skates than to contribute to the plot. On the other hand, there's an obvious missed opportunity for a romantic duet to the Oscar-nominated song "They Can't Take That Away From Me," which Astaire sings to Rogers, but he doesn't follow through by dancing with her. He does dance to a few bars of the song when it's reprised later in the film, but his partner is Harriet Hoctor, a dancer whose specialty was a deep back-bend that she performed while en pointe. There's a sequence in which Hoctor does her thing while dancing backward toward the camera, which she is facing, that's flat-out creepy. Astaire-Rogers film regulars Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore are on hand to do their usual fussbudget routines. Blore's bit in which he tries to tell Horton over the phone that he's been arrested and is at the Susquehanna Street Jail, constantly being interrupted in his attempts to spell "Susquehanna," is the film's funniest moment.

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