Not to be confused with the 1996 Japanese film by the same title, or its 2004 American remake.
Peter P. Peters (Astaire) is a ballet star under the name of Petrov, but he longs to explore the possibilities of jazz and tap dancing—much to the disapproval of his impresario, Jeffrey Baird (Edward Everett Horton). While in Paris, Peter becomes fascinated by musical comedy star Linda Keene (Rogers) and arranges to travel with her on an ocean liner bound for New York. Peter's Stalker with a Crush, Denise Tarrington, is also aboard. In an attempt to discourage her from stirring up trouble, Jeffrey tells her that Peter is secretly married. Skeptical Denise leaks the information to Pull the Thread.
Peter and Linda hit it off and are frequently seen together, leading to speculation that Linda is Peter's wife. Linda tries to squash the rumor, as she intends to marry Upper-Class Twit Jim Montgomery, but Arthur Miller, her nearly-bankrupt producer, encourages it in hopes of staving off her proposed retirement from show business. Things come to a head when the newspapers publish what appears to be proof of the marriage: photographs of Linda in a nightgown, leaning over Peter's bed and watching him sleep. (The photos were actually faked by Arthur, who sneaked into Peter's hotel suite with a wax dummy of Linda left over from a previous stage show.)
Linda convinces Peter to marry her secretly so that they can immediately have a public divorce and squash the rumors once and for all. After the wedding, she starts to have second thoughts about divorcing him, but when she goes to his room to tell him so, she finds him with another woman—Denise, who has gotten Jeffrey to confess to his lie and is throwing herself at Peter once again. After assuring Denise that Peter really is married, Linda leaves the hotel and initiates divorce proceedings.
Some weeks later, Linda arrives at Peter's new show with divorce papers. However, when she sees the number that he created, in which all of the dancers are wearing masks of her face, her anger dissolves. By placing herself the dance among her doubles, Linda reunites onstage with a joyful Peter.
Shall We Dance provides examples of the following tropes:
- Alliterative Name / Repetitive Name: Peter P. Peters, aka Petrov.
- Artist Disillusionment: Linda experiences this in-universe after one too many costars assumes she's not just acting her love scenes and tries to kiss her offstage. She announces she's fed up, quits the show, and then starts making plans to marry Jim immediately and retire.Linda: [to Arthur] And it's all your fault, too. I was a happy, peaceful girl until you discovered me. Fame, name in lights. I never should have listened to you.
- Break-Up Song: Peter sings "They Can't Take That Away from Me" to Linda about the memories he'll have from their brief marriage. Also functions as a Grief Song, as he wishes they could stay married.
- Dance of Romance: Averted, surprisingly for an Astaire-and-Rogers musical. All of Peter and Linda's dances together are upbeat in tempo, with just a bit of Belligerent Sexual Tension in the first ("They All Laughed").
- Disposable Fiancé: Jim Montgomery.
- Fauxreigner: After hearing Linda say she does not want to meet a "simpering toe dancer," Peter assumes an outrageous Russian accent and pretends to be a Large Ham Insufferable Genius who considers himself too good to dance with her.
- Flowers of Romance: Peter brings a bunch of roses to Linda's apartment when he arrives to meet her, but throws them away when he overhears her disparaging comments. Later, he buys her a gardenia to celebrate their wedding.
- Frame-Up: Arthur frames Peter and Linda for a marriage, rather than a crime.
- Knitting Pregnancy Announcement: Subverted; see Mistaken for Pregnant.
- Have a Gay Old Time: When Linda asks Peter what he will do after the go their separate ways, he answers, "I've got to get back to being a bachelor again. Sort of catch up with my usual gay life."
- Informed Ability: There's no question that Fred Astaire is one of the greatest dancers ever — but he is not a ballet dancer, and it shows.
- Malaproper: Linda is so angry when she quits the Paris show that she can't speak properly.Arthur: You have to stay in the theatre.
Linda: Never. I refuse to be a bowl in a gold of fish.
Arthur: You mean a fish in a bowl of gold.
Linda: That's what I said, a bowl in a goldfish.
- Mistaken for Cheating: Linda finding Denise in Peter's hotel room.
- Mistaken for Pregnant: On the ship, Linda and Peter sit in adjacent deck chairs chatting while Linda knits a tiny sweater (for her dog). This sight kicks the rumor mill into overdrive.
- Mister Muffykins: Linda's little dog.
- Needle in a Stack of Needles: In Peter's show, all the Chorus Girls wear masks with Linda's face. Linda sneaks in among them and dances with him for the finale.
- Nice to the Waiter: Peter gives the flower seller a very large tip when he buys the gardenia. The flower costs ten cents, and he hands her a paper bill and tells her to keep it.
- Old-Fashioned Rowboat Date: Invoked. Peter and Linda go out in a rowboat (wearing dark glasses) so that they can talk about their situation privately without being recognized. From a distance, it looks like they're having one of these.
- The One That Got Away: Peter's show makes it clear to Linda that he sees her this way. Arthur helpfully drives it home by telling her, "He said if he couldn't dance with you, he'd dance with images of you."
- Also, one reason "They Can't Take That Away From Me" is so effective is because Peter has just married Linda and yet already feels that she is lost to him.
- Out-of-Context Eavesdropping: A policeman overhears Linda and Peter discussing the predicament the photographs have put them in and thinks they're talking about something else.Linda: You got me into all this. The very least you could do is marry me.
[The policeman looks shocked.]
Peter: It wasn't my fault any more than it was yours.
Linda: All right, it's my fault. But you've just got to marry me.
Peter: Well, now, I'd like to think it over.
[The policeman frowns disapprovingly.]
Linda: But why? There's nothing to think over.
Peter: All right. [The policeman smiles.] But where can we get a license? Everybody in New York knows us now.
[The policeman casually strolls past them.]
Policeman: Why don't you try New Jersey?
- Passive-Aggressive Kombat: When Denise and Linda meet.Denise: You know, you're a lot more intelligent than you look.
Linda: Why, thank you. I wish I could say the same of you.
- Pull the Thread: Denise tries to do this by leaking the information about Petrov's "secret marriage."
- Running Gag: The hotel manager's confusion about whether the connecting door between Peter and Linda's suites should be unlocked (if they are married) or locked (if they're not).
- Second-Act Breakup: Linda leaves the ship by mail plane when Jeffrey leads her to believe that Peter was just using her to shield him from Denise.
- Secret Relationship: Subverted in that not only does it soon become very public, but it never really existed in the first place.Newsboy: Paper, read all about the secret marriage!
Peter: Did you hear that? We're about the only two people in the world who don't think we're married.
Linda: We don't think we're not. We both know we're not.
Peter: Except me. I'm beginning to have my doubts.
- Snowball Lie: Jeffrey's lie to Denise drives the whole plot.
- Stage Names: "Petrov" and "Linda Keene" are actually Peter P. Peters and Linda Thompson. This proves handy when they want to get married discreetly.
- Stalker with a Crush: Denise.
- Third-Act Misunderstanding: See Mistaken for Cheating above.
- Triumphant Reprise: Of "They All Laughed" at the end of the finale.
- Upper-Class Twit: Jim Montgomery is described as "a Park Avenue cluck with the longest yacht and the shortest chin ever christened."
- You Say Tomato: Linda and Peter sing the song which gives the trope its name.
- The song was written because Ira Gershwin noticed that Ginger Rogers habitually said "ee-ther" and Fred Astaire said "eye-ther."