Sunday, April 10, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Shall We Dance'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Right off the bat, I suppose I should make something clear to any fellow copy editors who might be reading this: The title of this movie does not have a question mark. Don’t know why; the budget seems to have been lavish enough so that you’d think an extra piece of punctuation wouldn’t have sent RKO into bankruptcy.

There’s no question, however, that this 1937 film, directed by Mark Sandrich, is a typical Astaire-Rogers vehicle. Of course the plot is ridiculous – you were expecting maybe “Death of a Salesman”? (Come to think of it, one of the characters – an impresario played by Jerome Cowan – is named Arthur Miller.) But criticizing 1930s musicals for having silly plots is a little like criticizing a junkyard dog for having fleas – they do tend to come with the territory.

And to a great degree it’s mighty nice territory, and if you’re in the mood it’s a pleasantly familiar turf, what with the usual plot misunderstandings and secondary characters played by a couple of the best character actors of their time – and quite possibly of all time.

I must admit that for years I didn’t really appreciate Edward Everett Horton. I knew him mostly as the voice who narrated the Fractured Fairy Tales on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. But in the Astaire-Rogers films, he’s one of the ones who has to carry the burden of keeping the movie going while Fred and Ginger are resting. If Horton isn’t the fussiest of all the movie fussbudgets, he comes pretty close – and his arsenal includes some of the best double takes in the business.

If Horton weren’t enough (he plays Astaire’s manager, if you’re keeping score), you also have Eric Blore (below) as a hotel manager – lisping, blundering, easily frustrated. Horton and Blore have one brief scene together and a longer scene in which they’re kind of together – Blore in jail, talking to Horton on the phone. Both scenes are very funny (it’s hard to forget Blore, on the telephone, trying to spell “Susquehanna”), but when the two of them are physically together and trying to understand each other, the result is sublime, kind of a mutual stupefaction society.

Besides the musical numbers (the closing one, which also resolves the plot, is quite clever if a bit odd), perhaps “Shall We Dance” is best known for its songs, by George and Ira Gershwin.

True, you don’t hear “Slap That Bass” and “Beginner’s Luck” that much anymore, though the latter is kinda catchy. But then you have “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” I don’t know about you (obviously), but whenever I see the first performance of a song that was written for a movie and became a classic, I always get at least the beginnings of goose bumps. And I always wonder: Did the audiences at the time know right then and there that they were listening to an indelible part of the national culture?

Then I stop wondering and just sit back and enjoy a form of entertainment that will probably never be done as well.


VP81955 said...

If you like Horton in this movie, check him out in Lubitsch's "Design For Living," where he plays the luckless fall guy in a romantic triangle...but he's not part of the triangle. See the film to understand what I mean -- it's pre-Code all the way.

Mark Murphy said...

Thanks for all your comments.

I'm guessing you're the person behind Carole & Co. Very nice site. "My Man Godfrey" is one of my favorite movies, and I finally found a good version, recently released by Universal as part of its centennial celebration.

As to Horton, I haven't seen "Design for Living." I've seen at least most of "Holiday," where his character, as I recall, is different from what he usually does --sardonic, even. I seem to recall reading that the character was based on Donald Ogden Stewart.

You're apparently a copy editor, I see. If you're a newspaper copy editor, I hope you're surviving OK.

You also say you're a Syracuse native. I'm a member of the cinephile society and sometimes attend Cinefest.