Swing Time June 30, 2016
Lasting from 1933 to 1939 (unless you include 1949’s forgettable The Barkleys of Broadway), the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical pairings are so unambiguously pleasurable that it’s almost jarring to consider just how much work went into making them so unambiguously pleasurable. All musical comedies given the high budget necessary to create universally posh fantasy worlds of inane problems, screwball canniness, and unsaturated glamour, sharp dialogue and sequences of song and dance mesh together so cohesively that we don’t even think about the painstaking effort that must have been put into writing down such scintillating conversation, the tireless planning and rehearsal that must have been put into executing the spectacle of it all.
But the facile (and recurring) attainment of perfection is the very thing that has made the Astaire and Rogers partnerships so iconic in cinema: the flawlessness they achieved together is so abnormal that it almost seems otherworldly. In total, they made ten movies together, most of them masterpieces of escapism. 1936’s Swing Time, released as the duo’s freshness was beginning to wane in the eye of the Depression afflicted public, is oftentimes said to be the best.
Though I’m still slightly more partial toward the perpetually underrated The Gay Divorcee (1934), there’s no denying the excellence that Swing Time glossily nails. It’s not much of a killer in terms of story — it’s a typical example of the Boy Chases After Hard to Get Girl plot that so redundantly plagued the Astaire and Rogers films — but in terms of its song and dance work, it’s monumental. Featuring some of the best choreography and staging ever to be presented on the silver screen, Swing Time is a quintessential illustration of what Astaire and Rogers did best.
In the movie, Astaire is John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer (and gambler) engaged to marry Margaret (Betty Furness), a nice uptown girl that Lucky loves the idea of, but probably doesn’t actually love. But he’s willing to get hitched — he likes the little lady, and her family is loaded — and isn’t planning on ending the engagement any time soon.
Come wedding day, however, Lucky is apprehended by some friends and is late to his own ceremony. Margaret’s family, never fans of her fiancee anyway, are not amused, and don’t consider Lucky to be anything other than a troublemaker looking for more money to get his paws on and gamble away. In order to prove that his intentions are true, not two-faced, Margaret’s protective dad commands that Lucky must earn $25,000 to show that he really and truly loves Margaret. Lucky is willing to try (even though he’s not head-over-heels for the woman he’s supposedly going to spend the rest of his life with), and so he, along with his dim-witted, much older friend Pop (Victor Moore), travels to New York, looking for a way to come up with the cash.
Soon into their misadventure do they stumble upon Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dance instructor that Astaire, predictably, falls in love with at first sight. But because their first meeting is marred by an uncomfortable misunderstanding, Penny isn’t quite so smitten. And so Lucky spends the rest of the film trying to win her heart, despite the fact that he’s engaged, despite the fact that he needs to raise $25,000, and despite the fact that Penny is already romantically linked to Richard Romero (Georges Metaxa), a bland band leader.
But Swing Time’s dumb plot (which also accidentally characterizes Astaire’s character as something of a selfish cad) is the least memorable thing about it — more unforgettable are its scenes of song and its scenes of dance, which Astaire and Rogers undergo beautifully. The dances are versatilely spread apart, ranging from tap-dancing to foxtrotting to ballroom cavorting to quickstepping in an attempt to stay in sync with the emotional changes that become the movie as it treads along. Most magnetic is the nonchalant “Pick Yourself Up,” a tap-dancing exercise distinguished by its spontaneity and outright cheer, the “Bojangles of Harlem” instrumental, which, aside from its unforgivable, cringeworthy use of blackface, showcases some of the best dancing of Astaire’s career, and of course, the partnership summarizing “Never Gonna Dance,” whose gorgeous implementation (including a complicated step that involves twirling up a staircase) was so meticulous in its conception that it was filmed over forty-seven times, to a point in which Rogers’s feet were left bruised and bleeding.
But discomfort is the last thing on our minds when watching Swing Time — it’s an exultant musical as incisive as it is attractively mounted. Astaire and Rogers are expectedly incredible, the choreography jaw-dropping, the songs (featuring the era defining “The Way You Look Tonight”) expertly performed. Its storyline is head-scratchingly idiotic, but who needs something apt when everything else is so incandescent? A-