Shall We Dance was filmed from December, 1936 through March, 1937, and released in May, 1937. This was the seventh film in the series. It was directed by Mark Sandrich, from a script by Allan Scott and Ernest Pagano. Returning colleagues included David Abel as cinematographer, Carroll Clark as art director, Hermes Pan working on dance designs, and both Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore. Costumes were by Irene. The music was by George and Ira Gershwin, who were at a low point in their careers after a series of Broadway flops, and consequently were paid much less by RKO than either Irving Berlin or Jerome Kern had been.
By this point in the series, it was hard for the participants to think of ways to differentiate this film from its predecessors. The scripts had similarities, the acting was certainly all of a piece, as was the art direction. Being chosen to write music for an Astaire-Rogers film had become a mark of achievement, and so, the films were each able to showcase the work of different songwriters. Astaire himself was hypercritical of his own appearance on screen, and constantly sought new and more interesting ways of presenting dance on screen. In this film it leads him to pair with the contortionist dancer Harriet Hoctor, which is not an entirely pleasant event. George Gershwin wrote, in a letter to a friend, “The picture does not take advantage of the songs as well as it should. They literally throw one or two songs away without any kind of plug. This is mainly due to the structure of the story which does not include any other singers than Fred and Ginger, and the amount of singing one can stand of these two is quite limited.” The songs became standards after George Gershwin’s death two months after the film’s release, and they include “Beginner’s Luck”, “They All Laughed”, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” The last named song, which seemingly gained a lot of emotional weight in subsequent performances aware of Gershwin’s sudden and early death from an undiagnosed ailment, inexplicably lost the best song Oscar to the forgotten “Sweet Leilani” from an equally forgotten film Waikiki Wedding. In perhaps the most charming sequence, the piece “Walking the Dog” features Fred wooing Ginger while she tries to walk her dog on an ocean liner. It was the prevalence of non-dance elements like that one that led Arlene Croce, chronicler of the Astaire-Rogers films, to give her opinion: “The trouble with Shall We Dance was not, as he said, that it didn’t have enough singers, but that it didn’t have enough dancers.”
“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”, filmed with Astaire and Rogers on roller skates, took thirty-two hours to prepare and four days to shoot. Astaire usually directed that his dance numbers be shot in a single take. This one was too complicated to permit that, but his other rule, that the dancers be framed head to foot within the shot, was observed. Arlene Croce wrote “In the RKO days, the ideal was perfection within a single shot, and to reach it Astaire would shoot all day and often into the night.” For the filming method he required, RKO built something called the “Astaire dolly.” It was on tiny wheels and mounted the camera about two feet above the ground. The dolly was moved back and forth manually to maintain a constant distance from the moving dancers. The director H.C. Potter, who used it in a later film with the pair, is quoted as saying “in the midst of a hectic dance that’s quite a stunt.” To celebrate the completion of the shoot, Croce wrote, “Ginger. . .threw a mammoth roller-skating party at a local rink” about which Life magazine wrote “Extraordinary among Hollywood parties, this one was so much fun that few guests got drunk.”
I know you will enjoy watching Fred and Ginger, dancing to the music of the Gershwins, in Shall We Dance.