I LOVE old movies. LOVE them. In fact, when I was in high school, my US history teacher gave us an assignment to write about an American artist, so I wrote a 15-page paper on Ginger Rogers (and got an A), because I love her. Have you seen Kitty Foyle? We’ll save that for another blog series I want to do on old-timey movies about feminist warriors, because that is a great film, but not a great film for kids. But you know what is? Any musical she made with Fred Astaire. I’m gonna pick one here not because it’s their best (most critics would say Top Hat or Swing Time get that honor), but because it’s the best for kids to be introduced to the genre of 1930’s musical comedy. But honestly? If your kids dig this movie, they’re gonna dig all of them. OK, without further ado, I give you Shall We Dance.
Made in 1937, Shall We Dance is about a guy named Pete Peters who is a ballet dancer going by the name of Petrov–because a Russian ballet star is gonna go further in life than some dude named Pete Peters, amiright? He falls in love with a singer/dancer named Linda and follows her to America on a transatlantic liner. Due to some lies and miscommunication, everyone on the ship thinks they’re married and it gets out in the press and she flips out and hilarity ensues. Including a dance on roller skates. ROLLER SKATES. I am not even making that up, honest to god they dance to Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off on freaking ROLLER SKATES.
One of the best things about an Astaire-Rogers musical is the awesomely hilarious supporting cast, and you know it’s gonna be one of their better pictures if it has Edward Everett Horton and Eric Blore in it. In this pic, Edward Everett Horton is fantastic as Petrov’s promoter, particularly when he thinks their ship is about to sink. It’s just the sort of comedy kids like, and it’s laugh out loud funny for adults too. But Eric Blore is really my favorite, he’s just so freaking ADORABLE. And when the two of them interact in any picture, it’s hilarious.
Now, if your kids don’t get the idea of pretending to be someone else, this one might go over their head a bit. In fact, many of the Astaire-Rogers films will, because the plot hook in most of them is mistaken identity. But once your kids grasp that concept, it’s awesome from there on out.
One thing to keep in mind about any old film, ANY old film, is that race is gonna be a thing. In Shall We Dance, it’s not as bad–the only scene that might make you uncomfortable is the one in the immaculately clean engine room of an ocean liner, where the engine room workers (who sing and play instruments) are all black. And it might make you uncomfortable because you’ll realize that these are the only black people you’ll see in the movie. Welcome to 1930’s American film. Perhaps this would be a good time to explain to your kids that in the olden days, we didn’t treat people of color that well, and that we had to pass laws to try to fix it because it was wrong? Also: if you expand out to other Astaire/Rogers films, watch out for the blackface Bill Bojangles tribute in Swing Time. Oy.
The other thing about old movies is the smoking. The Boy believes that people who smoke should go to jail. No, seriously, he does. We have literally been driving down the street and he’s seen a person smoking and said “MOMMY! That person is smoking! They should go to JAIL!” And we have to explain that it isn’t against the law to smoke, even though it’s very bad for you. When we see an old movie where people are smoking, we remind him, “In the olden days, people didn’t know smoking was so bad for them.” On the other hand, in an old movie, there’s no nudity and no sex. In fact, Fred and Ginger don’t even have a real kiss onscreen in most of their films. And nobody swears.
There’s a reason why these movies have remained popular for 80 years: they really are that good. They’re funny, and the dancing is spectacular, and the music is catchy. Hopefully your kids will agree!