Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott
Based on a Story by: Erwin S. Gelsey
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa
Running Time: 104 min
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were first paired on screen in Flying Down to Rio in 1933. They weren’t the leads in that film, but they made such an impression on audiences that RKO jumped on the chance to turn them into fully fledged stars by bringing them back together the following year for The Gay Divorcee. This was a hit so RKO continued to produce ‘Fred and Ginger’ films throughout the rest of the 30s. The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle marked their ninth and final film together that decade before parting ways to pursue their own solo careers. They did work together one more time in 1949 in The Barkleys of Broadway, but this received a mixed critical reception and middling box office, so when looking back at Fred and Ginger’s partnership that fruitful 30s output is what most people have in mind.
In the middle of this golden period was Swing Time, directed by George Stevens. He was better known as a comedy director than a musical director at that point and he’d go on to direct prestige pictures in his later years, such as the classics Shane, A Place in the Sun and Giant. So he perhaps wasn’t the obvious choice to direct a Fred and Ginger musical, but did a cracking job, delivering what is often considered one of the pair’s best films. Criterion must rate it highly as they’re releasing it in a beautifully restored Blu-Ray in the UK and I put on my dancing shoes to check it out.
Swing Time opens with dancer and professional gambler Lucky Garnett (Astaire) coming off stage and getting ready to marry to Margaret (Betty Furness) that same evening. His supporting dancers aren’t keen on the idea though, as they believe they’ll be out of a job once he’s moved away with his new wife. So they play some devious tricks to make sure he’s late to the ceremony. Lucky gets to the venue after the guests have gone so his future father-in-law is furious and won’t give permission for the nuptials to go ahead. Lucky manages to talk him around, but only if Lucky can prove his worth by earning $25,000 during his intended trip to New York.
So Lucky heads to the Big Apple, but along the way he bumps into Penny Carroll (Rogers) and a series of incidents and misunderstandings lead him into following her into the dance school in which she works. Lucky initially pretends not to be able to dance, but eventually shows off his skills (in order to save Penny’s job) and the school’s owner (Eric Blore) signs them up to dance at a glamorous local club. There are further complications with the club’s bandleader Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who loves Penny and is jealous of Lucky dancing with her so won’t let them dance together. Whilst all this is going on, Lucky and Penny fall for each other, as you might expect, so Lucky faces a dilemma with regards to his fiancée, particularly when he gets close to reaching his $25,000 mark and even more so when Margaret shows up.
As is often the case with the Fred and Ginger musicals, the story doesn’t bear much scrutiny and acts largely as a fluffy frame for a series of song and dance numbers. However, as a light and frothy romantic comedy, the film works pretty well. The dialogue isn’t as sharp as some classic comedies of the era, but the performers do their best to make it work. Fred and Ginger prove they’ve got charm and charisma off the dance floor and shine in their lead roles, but some of the supporting players are memorable too, particularly Victor Moore and Helen Broderick as Fred and Ginger’s respective friends/chaperones. Metaxa is weak as the villain though (in the very mildest sense – there’s no real ‘bad guy’ here).
There’s only really one reason anyone watches a Fred and Ginger musical though, and that’s for the dance numbers. They certainly don’t disappoint as the pair are at their elegant, agile and graceful best. I’m no expert in choreography, in fact I despised most classic musicals as a youngster, but I can appreciate the skill and beauty of the superb sequences in Swing Time. Many of the scenes, particularly the ‘Waltz in Swing Time’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’ numbers, also effectively develop the characters and story, conveying important emotional beats and such through movement and body language, as well as through the song lyrics of course.
Helping further enhance the quality of the dance sequences is one of the finest collection of songs ever written for a film. There are only 6 songs, but 3 of these (‘Pick Yourself Up’, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’ and ‘A Fine Romance’) became standards and are still regularly sung to this day. ‘Never Gonna Dance’ isn’t quite as well known anymore but is a beautiful ballad that’s every bit as good as the other songs. The 2 remaining numbers are lengthy, instrumental-led pieces meant to drive the dancing so were never meant to stick in your head the same way.
The great Jerome Kern composed the music, with input from producers/arrangers Robert Russell Bennett and Hal Borne, but the lyrics are of equal, if not greater quality here. These came from the renowned lyricist Dorothy Fields who collaborated with Kern on the songs here as well as others during her illustrious careers. Her work here is wonderful, with dozens of classic lines in each song. One particularly memorable couplet from ‘A Fine Romance’ is “We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes. But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” This sharp writing helps the non-dancing musical sequences remain every bit as memorable as the dance numbers.
There is one elephant in the room when discussing Swing Time though, and that’s the ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ number. This features Astaire in blackface makeup dancing as the titular character, based in name but not style on Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. What makes this a little more insulting than usual is that Robinson was famous for being one of the first famous black performers to not use blackface makeup (which most were bizarrely forced to do back then). Also frustrating is the fact the scene comes directly after the most beautifully romantic and sweet moment in the film, bringing a sour note following such a tender one.
If, however, you can get past the racism and remind yourself that this practice was the norm back then so it’s merely a product of its time, Astaire’s dancing is excellent in this sequence. Also, after a horrifically offensive opening to the number, the staging is effectively clever when it incorporates shadows of Astaire dancing as though he’s dancing with two copies of himself.
Some of the sexual politics are questionable too, so the film certainly shows its age in places, but it’s hard not to fall for the film’s charms elsewhere. It’s a light, funny and delightful comedy musical with some wonderful dance numbers and stands as a fine testament to the skills and charms of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers partnership.
Swing Time is out on 8th July on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture is a tad soft, but there’s a decent dynamic range and only very slight damage in places, so for its age the film looks very good. It sounds great too.
There are plenty of special features included:
– New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
– Audio commentary from 1986 featuring John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
– Archival interviews with performers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and choreographer Hermes Pan
– New interview with George Stevens Jr.
– In Full Swing, a new programme on the film’s choreography and soundtrack featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer
– New interview with film scholar Mia Mask on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number
– PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
It’s a solid set of features, though not everything quite hits the mark. The commentary for instance spends a little too much time simply describing what’s happening on screen for my tastes, though Mueller has some interesting facts to dispense here and there. The archival interviews are very short but it’s nice to hear from those originally involved in the production. The ‘In Full Swing’ piece is the star here though, providing a decent insight into the main reasons the film remains popular; its music and choreography. It’s also a great decision on Criterion’s part to include Mia Mask’s interview on the controversial blackface “Bojangles of Harlem” sequence. She certainly doesn’t excuse the scene, but provides a valuable and occasionally disturbing insight into the common practice of blackface routines and where they stemmed from.