Swing Time (1936) dir. George Stevens
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
By Alan Bacchus
The Warner Bros four-pack (The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, Swing Time and Shall We Dance) acts like a four part time capsule of one of the legendary eras of the studio system - the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers song and dance team. Three of the pictures were directed by the same man, Mark Sandrich and this fourth one, Swing Time, arguably the most celebrated picture of the bunch, directed by the great George Stevens.
As usual there’s a scheme and a whole lot of disreputable behaviour going on. Lucky Garnett (Astaire) is mostly despicable in his journey, playing a gambler who needs to make $25,000 in order to appease his father in law to be to marry his daughter. After he moves to New York he meets his dance partner Penny (Ginger Rogers) who holds the key to his success as an dancer in the big city, Problem is he falls in love with her thus complicating his desire to make money and his obligation to go back home and marry his girlfriend. And so, there's a whole bunch of scheming, Lucky lying to Penny, his girlfriend, and himself and at the same time gambling his way into debt. Also, his unconditional hatred for Ricky Romero the latino bandleader is slightly racist.
As traditional for these types of movies in the 30's, it's classic screwball plotting taking us through the silly hijinx in between main dance set pieces.
It takes 30mins before we see Astaire and Rogers in action, and when they get going, they are both electric. Astaire's effortless style makes him look like he’s floating on air, gliding across the dance floor with ease and elegance. There’s also a clever smirk on his face, a cocky look and recognition of his immense talent. And Rogers, she's nimble and athletic and doing it all in heels.
These films aren’t really traditional musicals, but dance pictures with the occasional song. In Swing Time we don’t get a song until 25mins in and a second until the very end. But there's four stunning dance set pieces, each one distinct and unique and a classic in the annals of cinema history.
The final ballroom set design is magnificent and the stuff of the great Bubsy Berkeley pictures. Stevens stages the last numbers with great pizazz, dressing the set with a great black staircase and a luscious sparkly walled backdrop. And the reflective floor is perhaps borrowed from Berkeley's trademark design - and who knows maybe even borrowed from another Warner Bros set.
The Bo Jangles number is the best though, deservedly celebrated, Astaire's performance, a stunning solo tap dance backed up by three different shadow versions of himself projected as giants in the background. And we barely even notice that Astaire is in blackface.
"Swing Time" is available on DVD from Warner Bros Home Video via the TCM/Warner Astraire-Rogers Collection