Swing Time

Director: George Stevens
Screenplay: Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott (from a story by Erwin Gelsey)
Stars: Fred Astaire (Lucky Garnett), Ginger Rogers (Penny Carroll), Victor Moore (Pop Cardetti), Helen Broderick (Mabel Anderson), Eric Blore (Gordon), Betty Furness (Margaret Watson), Georges Metaxa (Ricky Romero)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1936
Country: U.S.
Swing Time Criterion Collection Blu-ray
Swing Time

The sixth of the eventual ten film collaborations between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Swing Time is one of their greatest films. The plot is, as in all of the Astaire-Rogers vehicles, a bit flimsy, but just sturdy enough to support the film’s raison d’être—its musical numbers, which feature what is arguably the best set of songs in any of their films (an admittedly bold statement given that their other films feature songs by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter, among others), as well as the most sublime choreography. Over their previous five films, Astaire and Rogers had developed a chemistry that needed only the slightest tweaking in each rendition, with a few variations on the dependable formula of animosity-turned-romance enacted through song and dance.

In this iteration, Astaire stars as John “Lucky” Garnett, a small-time hoofer and gambler who is all set to marry when his wedding is derailed and he is forced to go to New York City (with literally nothing in his pocket) to earn $25,000 to prove his worth to his fiancée’s stern father (Landers Stevens, father of director George Stevens). Along for the ride is Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore), an amiable old-time grifter and card shark who is Lucky’s best friend and best accomplice. Once in New York, Lucky meets Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor with whom he simultaneously falls in love and annoys mightily by unknowingly engaging in a con in which Pop steals a quarter from her. To get into her good graces, Lucky pretends to not know how to dance so he can get a free session with Penny, which offers us a rare glimpse of Astaire slipping and tripping over his own feet while trying to execute a simple dance step. He soon proves what an amazing dancer he is, though, and he and Penny are paired as high entertainment in a ritzy art-deco nightclub, which goes all over Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa), the club’s orchestra conductor who carries a torch for Penny and therefore refuses to play whenever she is on the dance floor with Lucky.

There are all manner of additional complications, including the aforementioned fiancée (Helen Broderick) to whom Lucky tries to stay true even though we know he is falling for Penny and she for him (of course, to keep things extra confusing, he is reluctant to tell her he is engaged, so all of his aloofness comes off like he just doesn’t like her). The plot is sometimes contrived, sometimes clever, and frequently lurches from development to development with only the thinnest threads of logic, but it doesn’t really matter because it supports some of the best musical numbers in the Astaire-Rogers oeuvre, including the beautiful, Oscar-winning ballad “The Way You Look Tonight” (which ends on a great visual gag without undermining the romance of it all), the jaunty “Pick Yourself Up” (which President Obama quoted in his Inaugural Address), and the amusingly satirical “A Fine Romance.” The score was composed by Jerome Kern, who at the time was best known for scoring the 1927 Broadway musical Show Boat, while the lyrics were penned by Dorothy Fields, who had already worked on several Broadway shows and nearly 20 films (the 1935 Astaire-Rogers film Roberta had been adapted from Kern’s 1933 Broadway musical, for which Fields had supplied additional lyrics to those originally written by Otto Harbach).

And then, of course, there’s the dancing, and Swing Time features some of the most transcendent, memorable choreography in all of Astaire and Rogers’ films. There are three major duets in the film, each of which represents a different stage of Lucky and Penny’s relationship, beginning with the initial courtship and ending with separation. Astaire and Rogers are always glorious to watch in concert, but they seem particularly synched in Swing Time, partially because of their ability to build on their previous work together. They had just had a major hit the previous year with Top Hat (1935), and while Swing Time was followed by a steady decline in popularity in their films, it remains a pinnacle of music and choreography, which mixes tap, ballet, jazz, and waltzes in ways previously unimaginable.

Unfortunately, the film is marred by one of its most famous dance sequences, Astaire’s solo performance to “Bojangles of Harlem,” the only time he ever appeared in blackface. While the number is ostensibly an homage to the great Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a great performer who broke numerous color barriers during his lifetime (including his many screen collaborations with Shirley Temple), it actually hijacks Robinson’s name in service of highlighting Astaire’s very different dance style. There is much to admire about the sequence in terms of music and movement; however, seeing Astaire partake in the racist tradition of imitating African Americans and therefore evoking all the pain and misery of slavery and then minimizing its painful fallout (this was the Jim Crow era, after all), will forever sully what is otherwise a genuinely splendid, effervescent musical romantic comedy for the ages.

Swing Time Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary from 1986 by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
  • Archival interview with actor Fred Astaire
  • Archival interview with actress Ginger Rogers
  • Archival interview with choreographer Hermes Pan
  • New interview with George Stevens Jr.
  • “In Full Swing,” program on the film’s choreography and soundtrack
  • New interview with film scholar Mia Mask on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number
  • Essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJune 11, 2019

    A long overdue replacement for Warner Bros.’s 2005 DVD, Criterion’s new Blu-ray of Swing Time has the film looking quite good. The 2K digital transfer was made from two 35mm fine-grains and a 35mm duplicate negative (the original negative was lost long ago). Dirt and debris have been largely scrubbed from the image, although the original grain structure is still clearly intact, which the increased resolution highlights admirably. The image has a definite softness to it, in keeping with the look of such productions in the 1930s, but there is still abundant detail in the rich costuming and amazing art deco set designs. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm fine-grain and digitally restored, leaving those resplendent songs sounding better than ever. The supplements are impressively robust, starting with the audio commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. The commentary originally appeared on Criterion’s 1986 laserdisc release of the film, and it’s still a great listen. As Mueller wrote in his liner notes for the laserdisc, he gives “background information and comments on the film and on its place in the Astaire-Rogers phenomenon. But when we get to the musical numbers themselves, I’ll be dealing closely with the specifics of what is coming up on the screen, trying to point out elements of style, approach, and effect in order to get at some of the richness that makes these numbers so infinitely reseeable.” There is a lot of new stuff, as well, starting with a host of archival interviews from the early 1980s: one with Astaire conducted by American Film Institute founder George Stevens Jr. in 1982; two with Ginger Rogers, one from 1980 and one from 1982; and one with Astaire’s choreography partner Hermes Pan conducted by Stevens Jr. in 1982. Stevens Jr. also appears in a new interview about his father’s career, and film scholar Mia Mask discusses in a separate program the “Bojangles of Harlem” sequence, addressing the problems inherent with blackface and why the number continues to be offensive (this is a necessary piece, as Mueller completely elides the sequence’s racism in his audio commentary). Finally, we get Full Swing, a 40-minute program about the film’s choreography and music that features new interviews with dance expert Brian Seibert (author of What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing), jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, and musical theatre expert Deborah Grace Winer (author of the Dorothy Fields biography On the Sunny Side of the Street).

    Copyright © 2019 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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