Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Astaire and Rogers Series: Swing Time (1936)

Fred and Ginger reached the pinnacle of their dance
partnership with the number "Never Gonna Dance"
from 1936's Swing Time
Astaire and Rogers devotees love to argue the respective merits of Top Hat vs. Swing Time when trying to decide which is the best film in the screen couple's prolific partnership. All the dance aficionados, however, concur that Swing Time is by far the superior film in terms of choreography. I believe that should be the deciding factor in the question because after all, isn't the dancing the primary reason we watch those movies? I further support Swing Time's bid for best Astaire and Rogers film because I feel it has great songs, a cute plot, strong acting, and good costumes for Ginger. What else do you need for one of these pictures?

Once again Fred and Ginger get to dance to the superb music of Jerome Kern, and three of the songs in this picture that would go on to become Jazz standards. The plot also doesn't rehash the same mistaken-identity trope used in Top Hat and The Gay Divorcée, even though it does use some elements of mistaken identity. So it gets some points for originality. As always, the supporting cast is memorable with the wisecracking Helen Broderick as Ginger's friend Mabel, and Victor Moore as Fred's compatriot adept at slight-of-hand.

Fred Astaire plays a dancer and high-stakes gambler, who gets tricked into missing his own wedding. Now his fiancé's father refuses to give his consent unless Fred can prove his stability by earning $25,000. So off he goes to New York to seek his fortune. On the way he runs into the lovely dance instructor Ginger Rogers and is instantly smitten. In order to get to know her, he signs up a private lesson with her, pretending to be hopelessly clumsy on the floor. She gets fed up with him, however, and tells him off, resulting in her manager firing her on the spot. Of course the gallant Fred steps in and gets her job back by showing her boss all the fancy steps she "taught" him. This results in the gleeful "Pick Yourself Up" duet, the first of their three historic team-ups in this movie. It's an energetic tap number in which Fred and Ginger famously leap over a short a wall for the finale.

So Fred and Ginger decide to team up for a dance act at a club where Ginger knows the band leader, but Ginger still doesn't trust Fred entirely until he sings her the classic ballad "The Way You Look." Unfortunately the gig still doesn't run smoothly because the band leader at the club is in love with Ginger and incensed at the thought of her dancing with any man but him. In order to get him to play for them, Fred must use his gambling skills to win the band's contract from a mobster and compel their performance, resulting in the "Waltz in Swing Time" number, the second great dance in this movie, which also features quite a bit of tapping, but the moves are more sweeping and lyrical as fitting with a traditional waltz.

Now Fred and Ginger are riding high and have obviously developed feelings for each other, but Fred refuses to pursue her because he's engaged--though he doesn't tell her this. Ginger then memorably expresses her frustration with the song "A Fine Romance (With no kisses)." Things come to a head when Fred's fiancé shows up for the opening night of his new act with Ginger. Fred spots her as he performs his tribute to famous African-American dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, the only black-face routine I've ever seen that doesn't feel demeaning because it's not cartoonish and Fred's demeanor remains extremely reverent. It also boasts a then-amazing feat of special events with Fred dancing with three shadows projected on the wall. It's a beautiful work of symmetry and timing, still mesmerizing seventy-five years later.

At the same time that Fred comes face-to-face with his fiancé, the mobster who formerly owned the band accuses Fred of cheating and demands a re-match to win them back. Of course Fred loses, and when Ginger finds out about that and that sees that Fred intends to honor his engagement, she walks out on him. Before Fred can explain things to her, Ginger gets engaged to the band leader, and her partnership with Fred seems to be ended forever. But before Ginger leaves, Fred lets her know that she is the woman he would have chosen if he'd been free. He sings the mournful "Never Gonna Dance," and then the culmination of their storied partnership occurs seemingly organically as Fred tries to prevent her from walking away. The dance starts slowly, the two of the walking side-by-side, hardly a dance at all until Fred gracefully turns her. A reprise of "The Way You Look" plays, and they are in unison, sometimes an intimate romantic embrace, sometimes apart but so much in unison that it feels like they have a psychic link. The song swells and ends, and Ginger tries to leave, but Fred stops her. The power of their emotions changes the tempo to one of mounting passion and abandon. They dance with wild flourish to a medley of "Waltz in Swing Time" and "Never Gonna Dance," ending with a spectacular series of pirouettes up a grand staircase and Fred twirling Ginger so fast that her skirt flies up nearly to her hips. It's Hollywood lore that this dance was so intense that it made Ginger's feet bleed through her shoes while filming. Seeing as how this was her favorite number from her favorite picture that she made with Fred, I'm sure she thought it was worth it.

I give this film an 8.5 of ten. One of the best dance films ever created.

Buy it now:
Swing Time,Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 (Top Hat / Swing Time / Follow the Fleet / Shall We Dance / The Barkleys of Broadway)


  1. Wait, 8.1 out of ten for your favorite Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie? I've gotta see what a 8.2 or (Heaven help us!) a perfect 10 would be!

  2. This rating is based mostly on the merits of the dance routines and music. Although the dances are spectacular, there are only four of them, and one of them does not include Ginger. As much as I praise the other aspects of the film, they would be mediocre at best were they not elevated by Fred and Ginger's dancing to the fabulous score.

    I will, however, admit that this film might deserve a slightly higher score. I think I was a tad conservative in rating the whole series.

    Also it should be noted that receiving over an 8 is still a very good score for me. I rate 5 as average, 6 as slightly above average, 7 as solidly good, 8 as great, 9 as exceptional, and 10--if there is a movie that gets a perfect score--for something like "Casablanca." So by my rating, this is till a fabulous movie.

  3. I've changed the ratings of all these films to properly reflect their merit and place in cinematic history. "Swing Time"'s score has been elevated to an 8.3