#44) Swing Time (1936)
OR “Fred & Ginger and Lucky & Penny”
Directed by George Stevens
Written by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott. Based on a story by Erwin S. Gelsey.
Class of 2004
The Plot: “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a dancer with a gambling problem. After a broken engagement and a promise not to return until he’s respectable, Lucky ends up in New York with his friend “Pop” (Victor Moore). They meet dance instructor Penny (Ginger Rogers) and her sassy confidante Mabel (Helen Broderick) and…oh who cares? Fred & Ginger dance together and sing the Great American Songbook and it’s just great.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls it a candidate for “the duo’s best film” and gives praise to director George Stevens, composer Jerome Kern, as well as Astaire and Rogers of course.
But Does It Really?: Yes, with one big reservation (see “Wow That’s Dated” below). That scene notwithstanding, the film is an enjoyable, pleasant musical. Fred & Ginger compliment each other beautifully on screen and they’re still fun to watch over 80 years later. When they try to shoehorn in a plot things lose momentum (especially towards the end), but Stevens keeps things moving as best he can and creates a delightful film. Now if only we could get rid of that Bojangles number we’d have a bona fide classic, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Shout Outs: No specific references, but a lyrical shout-out to the “March of Time” newsreel series in “A Fine Romance”.
Everybody Gets One: Most of the cast were Astaire/Rogers regulars whom we’ll see again in “Top Hat”. Though I’d like to give special mention to Broadway star Victor Moore and character actor Eric Blore, a.k.a. the voice of Disney’s Mr. Toad.
Wow, That’s Dated: Sure there’s a lot of ‘30s talk like “screwy dames” and “ducky”, but we’re not here for that, we’re here for the BLACKFACE WARNING. About 75 minutes in we get Fred’s “Bojangles of Harlem” number and Bill Robinson is nowhere to be found. If the number wasn’t painful enough, the next big scene takes place in Fred’s dressing room and HE KEEPS THE BLACKFACE MAKEUP ON THE WHOLE TIME. And the film was doing so well up to this point.
Title Track: Fred says the phrase “swing time” once right before the title number, almost exactly halfway through the film.
Seriously, Oscars?: Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields won Best Original Song for “The Way You Look Tonight”. The film’s legendary choreographer Hermes Pan was nominated in the category of Best Dance Direction. That’s right, for a hot second in the ‘30s, the Oscars gave an award for choreography. Meanwhile we can’t even get a Stunt Coordination category now.
- For some reason Warner Brothers (the film’s current rights holders) go out of their way to digitally remove all RKO Pictures references from the opening and end logos.
- Fred even gambles gracefully!
- That “great big ditch” line must have been quite the shocker in 1936.
- All films should feature reaction shots of Eric Blore. All of them.
- Not counting the opening shot, “Swing Time” doesn’t have its first musical number until 25 minutes in.
- Why does no one instinctively trust a woman in this film?
- And then Fred & Ginger dance together and it’s pure movie magic.
- I always find it amazing that a song like “The Way You Look Tonight” had to be written, and didn’t just emerge fully formed. Also amazing is that it was written for a specific scene in a specific film.
- The print I saw started visibly wobbling during the New Amsterdam scene. It must have really been cold!
- Oooh, Mabel’s a multiple divorcee. How scandalous back now.
- Ricardo makes his orchestra play at his own wedding? What a jerk.
- As previously mentioned, the ending starts to fall apart quickly, but then they sing in counterpoint and it’s all lovely and I don’t care anymore.
- Fred & Ginger did four more movies together, but “Swing Time” is considered the peak of their success as a dance team.
- After their break-up, Ginger did a movie with no dancing or singing in it and won an Oscar!
- Fred retired a few times, but always came back for more. He received an honorary Oscar for his body of work, and received a Supporting Actor nomination for… “The Towering Inferno”?
- Everyone has covered “The Way You Look Tonight”. Most recently some kid on “The Voice” sang it (though really he’s covering the Sinatra cover).
- Everyone has also covered “A Fine Romance”, but once you learn that one of those people is Dame Judi Dench the others do not matter.
- President Obama referenced the lyrics to “Pick Yourself Up” in his 2009 inauguration speech, and a small portion of the internet lost its minds.
- “Swing Time” came to Broadway in 2003 under the name “Never Gonna Dance”. In a season that included “Avenue Q” and “Wicked”, the show never took off and closed after two months. Good choreography, though.
Listen to This: Before teaming up with Ginger, Fred’s dance partner was his sister Adele. While appearing on Broadway in “Lady Be Good” they introduced the standard “Fascinating Rhythm”. This recording features George Gershwin on piano, and is one of the rare recordings of Adele Astaire before she retired from showbiz.