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, was 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 a dancer in the big city. The problem is he falls in love with her and thus complicates his desire to make money and his obligation to return home and marry his girlfriend. And so, there's a whole bunch of scheming with 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 is traditional for these types of movies in the ‘30s, it's classic screwball plotting taking us through the silly hijinks between main dance set pieces.
It takes 30 minutes 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 rather dance pictures with the occasional song. In Swing Time we don’t get a song until 25 minutes in and a second until the very end. But there are 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 pizzazz, dressing the set with a great black staircase and a luscious sparkly walled backdrop. 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. It’s deservedly celebrated with 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.