This afternoon I've been vegging out watching the Fred Astaire movie Shall We Dance, and all I've got to say is this: today's movies of yesterday are nothing when it comes to yesterday's movies of yesterday. Shall We Dance, you see, is a classic movie that was made before there were any other classic movies to imitate. It's got plenty of iconic film moments and bizarre experiments with sound and visual that later became standard techniques. And when it wants to imitate the classics, it turns to other artforms altogether. As a film it does a great impression of a stage musical, touring ballet, set of gramophone songs, a vaudeville act, a theatrical comedy, and a light comic novel.
Same goes for the principal actors: as an actor, Ginger Rogers does a great impression of a singer, and Fred the actor is really great as a dancer. At the beginning of the movie, Fred does a good imitation of an American with a bad imitation of a Russian doing a passable imitation of a French accent. (No, that's all right, Fred didn't get it either.) And at the end, Ginger reciprocates by imitating a mannequin imitating a French woman imitating a Russian man. (I think).
As anyone with a passing acquaintance of the Fred and Ginger juggernaut would know, as they made more and more films, the plots became entirely superfluous, an excuse to match the pair up, usually romantically. I can almost write the Hollywood promotion lines for their Hollywood characters now, so I will.
He was the great Petrov, a star of the stage, but with a carefree heart! She was a beautiful and famous popular dancer and jazz singer, desired by all - but there was only one man who could win her heart! Shall We Dance, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers!
But the plot, though entirely contrived, is still enjoyable and it has an interesting moral. The newspapers are conned into spreading a story about marriage between Astaire and Rogers. They spend most of the rest of the movie contriving against the papers, and against one another. In the meantime, their managers either contrive against them, against one another, and against the newspaper stories. It makes for some great situational-comedy jokes, an enjoyable confused plot, and a rather creepy set piece at the end, where Fred dances around the stage with a whole bunch of female dancers wearing Ginger Rogers masks, singing 'Who's got the last laugh now?' It's not a very good conclusion (others, such as Wodehouse, were much better at this sort of thing) but it's a very interesting comment on the fickleness of appearances, both in public and private.
The jokes are excellent, and original:
- At one point, for no reason at all (which is a very good reason indeed), Fred starts doing an enthusiastic tap dance to a record player. This is a particularly fusty and useless record player, which keeps on getting stuck in a groove, or finally getting slower and slower (Fred's dance cleverly imitates the music).
- Fred's manager bursts into his room after having read the latest stories about his star, and rouses him, crying, "You're having a baby!" After being informed of the details, Fred declares angrily, "And you're the father!"
- Fred and Ginger discuss how to thwart the papers, with increasing frustration, until Fred declares, "We're the only two people in New York who don't think we're married." "Think?" replies Ginger. "I know we're not." Fred answers, to some consternation, "I'm beginning to have my doubts."
And this is not to mention a weird method of courting involving people marching back and forth in a kind of semi-dance with their dogs, an imaginative set-piece dance with roller skates, and a frustrated citizen turning up at the offices of a random US police station: "I'm in jail for battery, and I want you to get me out. I'm at the Susquehannah Street Jail . . . Susquehannah! Susquehannah - S-U-S-Q-U-Q! Q! You know, the thing you play billiards with . . . Billiards! B-I-L-L-..." The policeman replies: "What is this, a spelling bee?"
All in all, I can think of few better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than watching an Astaire and Rogers movie on the telly. Maybe I'll go on doing just that, then, eh? Pip pip!
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