SWING TIME (1936)

  • Director: George Stevens
  • Writers: Story by Erwin S. Gelsey, Screenplay by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott, Music by Jerome Kern, Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
  • Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, and Betty Furness
  • Accolades: AFI 2007 Top 100 list (#90), 1 Oscar (Best Original Song – “The Way You Look Tonight), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Dance Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Rent or Buy on Amazon Video, YouTube, or AppleTV

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are probably the greatest dance team in Hollywood history, and they were fortunate enough to find each other at a time when you could string the outline of a movie around a couple of really good dance scenes and you’d have a hit. He was born in Omaha but worked the vaudeville circuit with his sister from a very young age, including one 1905 show titled Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. No less a luminary than Mikhail Baryshnikov said that he made “every other dancer look like they’re in the wrong business.” She was from Missouri and got her first movie offers after winning a Charleston dance contest in 1925. An oft-repeated quote is that “she did everything [Astaire] did, but backwards and in high heels.”They were thrown together as much by chance as anything, as side characters in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, and made nine more musicals together over the course of the 1930s. The sixth of these was Swing Time, which is the one that made it onto the AFI Top 100 list, though there is hardly a consensus about which is the best.

Astaire insisted on a very specific style of direction for the dance sequences of all of his films. They are remarkable in that there almost isn’t any, from a film standpoint. What I mean by that is that nearly every Astaire dance sequence is done in medium two-shot, with maybe only three or four cuts over several minutes. Even those cuts tend to be done in a way where you don’t notice them. He wants all of the concentration during those dances to be on watching him and Rogers, not on anything else. Here’s a sequence from fairly early in Swing Time. When Rogers (an instructor at a dance school) tells Astaire that he’ll “never learn to dance” and that he “should save his money,” she is overheard and fired by her boss (Eric Blore). Already besotted with her, Astaire (whose character is actually a professional dancer) decides to show the dance instructor “what she taught me.” This sequence ensues:

You’ll notice that it’s not quite all one take (there are a couple of cuts in and out of Blore’s face watching them, where we get to see that he looks exactly like Stephen Root, and that Stephen Root may in fact be a time traveller) but it really feels like it is. All the director (George Stevens, who went on to a highly acclaimed career that included two Best Director Oscars) had to do was point to camera at Astaire and Rogers and say “action!” It’s an extremely different feeling from prior film musicals, the most popular of which were made by Busby Berkeley. His big dance numbers tended to involve as many people as he could cram onto a set, and included lots of close-ups of details, like a kicking leg. it’s hard to imagine a bigger contrast than Astaire’s extremely straight-forward two shot.

I’ve never met an Astaire/Rogers movie where the plot wasn’t an afterthought, basically to kill time between dance numbers, and that is certainly the case here. I don’t normally mind, because Astaire is great at dancing and perfectly OK at everything else, and Rogers has charisma coming out of her earholes. Astaire plays a “dancer and gambler” called “Lucky,” who is told by the father of his fiancee (Betty Furness) that he needs $25,000 to “show his good intentions” before he’ll let the wedding go forward. Broke, Lucky and his buddy “Pop” (Victor Moore) hop a freight train to New York. After his meet-cute with Rogers, a series of misunderstandings ensue, which mostly consist of her getting mad at him and him having to beg her for forgiveness. In the end, the fiancee calls off the marriage before Lucky can (so Astaire’s not the bad guy) and he and Rogers’ character live happily ever after. In the meantime, there are plenty of very silly jokes, like when Lucky and Pop picket outside her apartment to ask her to take him back at one point.

In the meantime, we get some pretty decent songs from Jerome Kern, including the Oscar-winning “The Way You Look Tonight,” which you may have already heard outside the context of this movie. Kern had started on Broadway just after the turn of the century, and wrote probably a dozen songs that you’ve probably heard but don’t know where they’re from. The reason you don’t know that the shows he tended to write those songs for tended to be not particularly memorable, and the only one you’re likely to see revived on stage today is Show Boat. He had come out to Hollywood a few years earlier as movie musicals started to become popular. Swing Time was probably his biggest Hollywood hit, and also included songs like “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “Never Gonna Dance.” The latter feels weirdly modern to me, which I think I’d attribute to the way Kern was among the first to add jazzier rhythms to more traditional Broadway melodies.

We also get the somewhat infamous “Bojangles in Harlem” number, which is seen by many as now a black eye on this movie and Astaire’s career generally. It is meant, apparently, as a tribute to Black tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and features some spectacular dancing. But it also features Fred Astaire in straight up black-face, wearing a much more comical suit than Robinson actually wore. Look, I understand that cultural norms change over time, and Astaire probably thought this was totally normal, and probably regretted it decades later. But, um, it’s deeply uncomfortable to watch. Why did he think that he had to wear blackface for us to know it was about Robinson? He couldn’t say “this goes out to Bill Robinson!” and dance in his style? More to the point, Bill Robinson was 100% still alive, and tap dancing in movies that came out at the same time as this. You know what would have actually paid tribute to him? Putting him in the movie! But apparently nobody actually considered that. All of that said? I don’t think this movie should be “canceled,” to use the 2020 term. I think that, just as much as Gone With the Wind, or Birth of a Nation, or dozens, hundreds of other movies, I think we should still watch it with that context. Bad things still exist even if we don’t pay attention to them. The only way to really come up with solutions is to actually know what we’re talking about.

Anyway, this is the version of Swing Time that we have, and there are bits of it that are high art. If two thirds of it is skippable, well, they didn’t have YouTube in 1936. They didn’t have any other way to make viral videos. The twenty minutes of Swing Time where they’re dancing are definitely worth the rest of whatever’s going on here. And isn’t it that way with everything in life? I’d like to leave you with a scene, not from Swing Time, but from a movie from two years earlier, King for a Day, starring Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

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