Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick, Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa, Landers Stevens
Written by: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott, based on a story by Erwin S. Gelsey
Directed by: George Stevens
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 103
Date: 08/27/1936
IMDB

Swing Time (1936)

4 Stars (out of 4)

A Fine Romance

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

According to legend, when Fred Astaire first auditioned for the movies, someone scrawled the following note: "can't sing, can't act, slightly balding, can dance a little." Of course, he went on to change the Hollywood musical forever, with his unassuming charisma, his light frame and his insistence on a certain kind of choreography. He shot each dance sequence, from head to foot, in its entirety, without cutting. That was a unique idea back then, but in today's world of music videos and Moulin Rouge, it's positively outrageous.

Of course, Astaire might have had a good career on his own, but he's forever linked to Ginger Rogers, who has her own legendary line. Reportedly Katharine Hepburn said, "She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels." Ginger could also really act, as she proved later on in her solo career, winning an Oscar for Kitty Foyle (1940). She had the much harder job in the "Fred and Ginger" formula, pulling away from the lovestruck, pursuing Fred (sometimes involving some kind of mistaken identity or wrong impression). She had to be tough and angry while still remaining alluring, and she had to eventually change her mind and give in. (Some reports indicate that the pair really didn't like each other much off camera, but that's just too horrible to think about. It spoils the illusion.)

First paired up in 1933, Fred and Ginger made ten films together. Most agree that their two best are Top Hat (1935) and Swing Time (1936). Yet some scholars tend to rank Swing Time higher, based on the fact that it was directed by future Oscar winner George Stevens.

Now, some years ago, in college, I worked in a media lab, where we had tons of video equipment, and two video tapes in our permanent library: Top Hat and Swing Time. I watched them both an equal amount of times, at random, and to this day, I have a hard time remembering which is which. Both are wonderful.

Swing Time is the one that starts out with dancer John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) about to get married; his fellow dancers don't want to lose him, so they con him into thinking he has the wrong pants ("positively not one cuff!") and he misses his wedding. Trying to make things better, Lucky travels to New York with his pal -- and comedy relief -- "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore), where they meet Penny (Ginger Rogers). Lucky is instantly smitten. But in trying to pursue her, he nearly costs her her job as a dance instructor, until he saves it again (by showing how much he has "learned").

Things get more complicated while remaining joyously simple. Songs by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields include "Pick Yourself Up," "The Way You Look Tonight," "Waltz in Swing Time," "A Fine Romance," "Bojangles of Harlem," and "Never Gonna Dance." Swing Time was a bit more expensive and a bit less successful than Top Hat and did not receive a Best Picture nomination. It won an Oscar for Best Song ("The Way You Look Tonight") and was nominated for Best Dance Direction.

In 2019, the Criterion Collection released a spiffy new Blu-ray edition of this classic (will others in the series follow?), remastered in 2K and with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Author John Mueller's 1986 commentary track is here, and archival interviews with Astaire, Rogers, and choreographer Hermes Pan. New extras include an interview with George Stevens Jr., "In Full Swing," a featurette featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and author Deborah Grace Winer; and an interview with film scholar Mia Mask on the "Bojangles of Harlem" number. Film critic Imogen Sara Smith provides the liner notes essay.

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