Judge Joe Armenio dances more like Beavis and Butt-head than Fred Astaire.
A glorious songburst of gaiety and laughter!
Swing Time (1936), along with Top Hat (1935), is usually considered one of the finest Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals, and it mostly lives up to its reputation; its musical numbers have a rare grace and vitality, and Ginger Rogers in particular gives a totally charming performance. It's also a bit of a frustrating experience, as the proceedings are frequently derailed by a lame script, pacing problems, and one dance number whose formal brilliance is offset by its casual racism. John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing, suggests in his commentary that Swing Time works better as a series of discrete scenes than as a whole film, and it's hard to argue; one's enjoyment of the film will largely be determined by how much he is charmed and willing to forgive.
Facts of the Case
The title of Swing Time is fairly meaningless; it's an attempt to cash in on the then-current swing craze, and has not much to do with the plot of the film or the music (which was written by the brilliant but stodgy Jerome Kern and is not very swingy, although "Waltz in Swing Time" at least nods in jazz's direction). The plot is pure romantic-comedy convention, dealing with the romance between dancer/gambler/raconteur Lucky (Astaire) and dance instructor Penny (Rogers). Lucky has been prevented from marrying his sweetheart (Betty Furness, Magnificent Obsession) by her prickly father, who insists that he prove himself by going to the big city and raising $25,000; while there he meets Penny and is smitten, but he is committed to someone else, of course, and she is being pursued by an unctuous bandleader (Georges Metaxa, Hi Diddle Diddle). In typical fashion, their coupling is derailed by miscommunications and arbitrary obstacles, and they're saddled with wisecracking friends who provide a parallel comedic romance (Victor Moore, Make Way For Tomorrow, and Helen Broderick, Top Hat). The attempt by Penny and Lucky to earn success as a dance team form the excuse for the dance numbers, which include "Bojangles of Harlem," "Never Gonna Dance," and "Pick Yourself Up." Fred and Ginger also sing, but don't dance to, "The Way You Look Tonight" and "A Fine Romance."
I feel a bit silly saying that the Astaire-Rogers dances are wonderful. Of course, they're wonderful. More knowledgeable minds than I have commented on the intricacies of their steps, so I'll hold off on the formal evaluations. My reaction is more emotional, visceral, a delight in the grace of their movement; Stevens' staging of these scenes is always cinematic, letting the dances unfold in long takes, utilizing the striking art deco nightclub sets. Several of the numbers, including their first, "Pick Yourself Up," also serve to advance the plot and help us to understand the characters. The interactions between Rogers and Astaire on the dance floor usually express their feelings much more eloquently than any of the dialogue that's put in their mouths; the sorrowful "Never Gonna Dance," which provides a rare moment of pathos, is perhaps the greatest example of this. The one musical number that's problematic is also the most formally dazzling. In Astaire's extraordinarily complex "Bojangles of Harlem," he dances by himself, with a proliferation of chorines, and finally with three massive rear-projection shadows of himself. It's a remarkable piece, marred by the fact that Astaire performs it in blackface (although as Mueller says, it's slightly subtler than true blackface; the greasepaint darkens his face but doesn't accentuate his lips). In a few words, Mueller dismisses any objection to the number by suggesting that it was a tribute to Bill Robinson and was not intended to condescend; this seems like a bit of a cop-out. I wouldn't go so far as to say that the blackface ruined my appreciation of Astaire's artistry, and the emotional calculus by which the ratio of discomfiture to aesthetic pleasure is determined will be unique to each viewer. But it is certainly unsettling to see such an example of Hollywood's often well-intentioned but unthinking failure to deal intelligently with issues of race, and it doesn't help that Astaire remains in blackface for quite a while after the number is over.
The film also has more formal, mundane problems, such as the fact that it takes forever to get started; apparently a musical number intended to open the film was cut, which means that about two reels pass before Lucky and Penny even meet, or we hear any music, and it's a few minutes more before they launch into "Pick Yourself Up." These opening 20 minutes are largely taken up with tiresome plot shenanigans by which Lucky is kept from his wedding by the other members of his troupe, who don't want him to leave, and ultimately is sent off to earn his fortune by his future father-in-law. Even after they meet, long stretches of the film are marred by tedious plot turns and, what's worse, witless dialogue; some sparklingly superficial writing, at least, wouldn't seem like too much too much to ask from this sort of film. Several scenes work terrifically, mostly because of the very force of Astaire's and Rogers' charm (I'm mostly charmed by pretty, plucky, earthy, but still sublimely graceful Ginger, I have to admit; it feels vaguely necrophilic to have a crush on someone who flourished 70 years ago). Most notable among these scenes is an outing in the snow in which Penny attempts to romance a guilty, reticent Lucky. It's a striking sequence, acted with subtlety and directed by Stevens with a wry, agile sophistication.
Warner Brothers' DVD release of the film, as part of their Astaire-Rogers box, is one of their better efforts. The transfer shows occasional print damage, as is inevitable with a film this old, but the picture is very sharp, the contrast is excellent, and the sound clean. I've often been frustrated by frivolous or sloppy commentary tracks on DVDs of "popular" cinema; it often seems as though DVD publishers are convinced that even the greatest of Hollywood films are interesting only for the gossip and trivia they inspire. I'm glad to report that John Mueller's commentary here is intelligent and scholarly, with some droll humor. He's clearly a great admirer of the film but recognizes its flaws, and hardly a sequence goes by that isn't enhanced a little by his detailed, scene-specific comments. The 15-minute featurette, The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step By Step also goes past bland praise for its subjects, focusing in detail on the mechanics of Astaire's and Rogers' dancing, giving viewers who are ignorant of dancing's mechanics (like yours truly) a sense of their formal mastery. The package is rounded out by a couple of short films that don't have much in common with Swing Time aside from thematic similarity, as they all deal with mid-1930s popular music. Hotel a la Swing (1937) is a fun two-reeler, directed by Roy Mack, about a group of entertainers who take over a hotel; your enjoyment of it depends on how inherently amusing you find the idea of singing telephone operators, chambermaids, and cooks. It also features a truly bizarre musical number called "Holiday in Hades," sung by a group of lovely chorus girls in skin-tight minidresses and devil horns, and a wild-eyed, frizzly-haired, Bride-of-Frankenstein-ish dancing woman on stilts. I'm not joking. Bingo Crosbyana (1936) is a cartoon by the great Friz Freleng about a suave fly crooner who's revealed as a coward when he fails to fight a villainous spider, and it's as awesome as it sounds. Both of the shorts have been restored and look as good as the feature; unfortunately, they don't have English subtitles, which would have been helpful in deciphering song lyrics.
I may be accused of accentuating the negative in this review, but that's only because I think enough ink has been spilled on the genius of Astaire and Rogers; I think they're great, too, and have little in particular to add to this praise. It does seem to me that Swing Time has some fairly critical flaws that often get lost among the hosannas; they keep it from being an entirely successful film, despite having some individual moments that rank among the greatest in the whole Hollywood canon.
Ginger sure was cute.
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• Commentary by George Mueller, Author of Astaire Dancing
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