Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Swing Time (1936)

Some of my very earliest movie memories are of watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on local television (KTTV in Los Angeles, to be exact!). They've been part of my life for just about as long as I can remember.

I was also fortunate to see several of their films, including SWING TIME (1936), in L.A. theaters growing up; they're part of my happy memories of going to "old" films at the Vagabond or the Leo S. Bing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Like MGM musicals, I saw these films so many times that in recent years I've focused on seeing other films, especially "new to me" movies. It's thus especially fun to return to an old favorite like SWING TIME after a number of years, seeing a very familiar film through fresh eyes.

SWING TIME is widely considered one of the best (and perhaps the best) Fred & Ginger film. I'm not sure if it's my favorite, mostly because I find supporting actor Victor Moore so annoying (he's on a par with Hugh Herbert for me), but it's definitely high on the list. The Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score and the dances simply don't get any better than they are in this movie.

SWING TIME is a bit slow out of the starting gate, more lightweight rom com than musical, as Lucky (Astaire) is due to marry wealthy Margaret (Betty Furness). Lucky's show biz pals sabotage his plans on his wedding day, but Margaret's father says he'll approve a new wedding date if Lucky can make good on earning $25,000.

Once Penny (Rogers) appears things pick up considerably, no pun intended: Lucky visits the dance studio where Penny is an instructor and pretends he can't dance, prompting the first great number of the movie, "Pick Yourself Up." From this point on, roughly half an hour into the 103-minute movie, it fires on all cylinders.

From there on out, you've got the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight," the "Waltz in Swing Time," and "A Fine Romance," as well as Astaire's great solo, "Bojangles of Harlem," with its remarkable effects. (And yes, the blackface may be uncomfortable by modern standards, but at the time it was filmed it was honoring both the American minstrel tradition and Astaire's friend Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Context is important, rather than looking back with current sensibilities.) For my money, the greatest of all the musical numbers in the film comes last, "Never Gonna Dance."

I would not only term "Never Gonna Dance" the greatest of Fred and Ginger's dances, I'd stack it against any musical number, anywhere, as one of the greatest ever put on film. The stunning Art Deco set with reflecting floor, Ginger' elegant gown (by Bernard Newman), the Kern-Fields song, the overwhelming emotions as they believe they've lost their chance at love...and most of all, the dancing, it's simply spectacular magic. Only Astaire and Cyd Charisse "Dancing in the Dark" in THE BAND WAGON (1953) ranks alongside it for me.

The plot's a lot of gossamer silliness as Lucky tries to get out of earning $25,000 so he won't have to marry Margaret, because he's now in love with Penny...but it doesn't really matter, because that last hour-plus of the movie is filled with musical glory.

The presence of one of my favorite '30s character actresses, Helen Broderick, helps make up for Victor Moore being in the movie, especially when she puts him in his place. The cast also includes Eric Blore, Georges Metaxa, and Landers Stevens. Bess Flowers and Dennis O'Keefe are said to be among the extras, but I didn't spot them.

SWING TIME was directed by George Stevens, who certainly made some diverse films in his long career, including SHANE (1953). The movie was filmed by David Abel, who had worked from the days of silents. He retired after THE AFFAIRS OF SUSAN (1945) and lived until the early '70s.

I watched the lovely Criterion Collection Blu-ray released earlier this year, which I recently purchased on sale. The disc has many extras, and there's also a booklet with an essay by Imogen Sara Smith, illustrated with stills from "Never Gonna Dance."

SWING TIME has been released on many other occasions, including the DVD set Astaire & Rogers: The Complete Collection and on VHS.

Highly recommended.


Blogger Jerry Entract said...

I was introduced fairly early in life to the Astaire-Rogers films as the BBC would show them quite often and my parents loved the films, especially my Dad. Then later I discovered my wife's Dad was also a Fred Fanatic.
"SWING TIME" is regarded highly, it seems, among their films, and rightly-so. The Kern-Fields score is sublime and one of their very best.
I seem to remember my Dad saying he had seen Fred and Adele Astaire dance in London when he was a youth.

11:04 PM  
Blogger mel said...

The most annoying film actors in my opinion were:
Frank Morgan
Paul Lynde
Red Skelton
Steve Martin
Robin Williams
Victor Moore
Neil Diamond
The Ritz Brothers

7:57 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, I love that you had the same childhood experiences watching these films in the UK as I did here! :) How marvelous your dad may have seen the Astaires perform. Wow!

Mel, I love your list! I'm fine with Morgan and Martin in small doses, and a little less so with Skelton, but yeah, that's a pretty good list.

PS I just realized I misspelled Hugh Herbert's and fixed it...I've done that before, one more reason he annoys me, I can't even keep his name straight! ;)

Best wishes,

8:45 AM  
Blogger Vienna said...

I do so agree with you - marvellous songs and dances. And Victor Moore is a pain!

2:14 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Vienna, nice to know that someone shares my antipathy for Moore LOL. But oh, those songs and dances...!!!

Best wishes,

9:47 PM  

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