Swing Time (Blu-ray Review)
Release Date(s)1936 (June 11, 2019)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures/Warner Bros. (Criterion - Spine #979)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A+
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, in their sixth movie teaming, star in 1936’s Swing Time, arguably the best of the ten films this legendary movie duo made between 1933 and 1949. Astaire plays dancer and gambler Lucky Garnett, Rogers is Penny Carroll, a ballroom dance instructor. The film is based on mistaken identity and the on-again, off-again romance between them.
The film starts with about a half-hour of comic exposition until the first musical number kicks in. That number is Pick Yourself Up, staged in the dance studio where Lucky locks eyes on Penny through a plate glass window. Lucky rushes in and pretends to be a disaster on the floor so Penny will have to “teach” him. His “klutz” antics prompt the exhausted Penny to tell him no one could teach him to dance, and her boss fires her on the spot. Lucky immediately comes to her defense and leads her in an amazing, high spirited dance.
The film features four dance routines that are regarded as masterpieces. The other three in the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score are the Waltz in Swingtime; Bojangles of Harlem, Astaire’s solo tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson; and Never Gonna Dance. A Fine Romance is a comic non-dance duet between Lucky and Penny and, interestingly, the Academy Award-winning The Way You Look Tonight is only sung by Astaire.
Comedy is provided by the witty Howard Lindsay/Allan Scott screenplay and the supporting performances of Eric Blore as Penny’s boss, Helen Broderick as Penny’s co-worker and friend, and Victor Moore as Lucky’s crafty sidekick. Their dialogue is snappy, and often wry and sarcastic. With some of the best comic lines in the film, they shore up the slight plot with their veteran expertise in timing and delivery.
This was George Stevens’ first of two directorial assignments for Astaire-Rogers and his first film musical for RKO. The story is imaginative, the gags are good-natured, the supporting players are veteran comedy actors, and the song and dance numbers are timeless. The dances are performed mostly in a single take showing the dancers’ full bodies, with few if any cutaways. This was primarily at Astaire’s behest and he’s often quoted as saying, “Either the camera dances or I do,” a reference to the elaborately staged Busby Berkeley musicals being made around the same time that relied on unusual camera angles sweeping above geometric patterns of chorus girls.
Astaire is his usual charming self, and Rogers is quite his match as she initially conveys annoyance but later is literally swept off her feet. The final number, Never Gonna Dance, has a rueful tone, as Lucky sings that he will never dance again because he will no longer be able to dance with Penny. Reiterating themes from the earlier songs, this culminating number is a musical recap that ultimately swells into a magnificent romantic crescendo finale.
Plots in the Astaire-Rogers films usually are slight filler between the eagerly anticipated musical numbers, which are always inventive, beautifully choreographed (with the help of longtime Astaire collaborator Hermes Pan), and exquisitely performed. The films usually feature elaborate settings, huge ballrooms, and elegant costumes as visual escapism for Depression-era audiences.
Astaire and Rogers became sensations performing the Carioca number in Flying Down to Rio, in which they were second-billed to stars Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Realizing that this pairing signaled money in the bank, RKO cast them in eight movie musicals throughout the 1930s. They were reunited at MGM in 1949 for one more picture, their only one in color – The Barkleys of Broadway.
Swing Time, whose working title was Never Gonna Dance, offers comical obstacles and misunderstandings, dramatic reversals, witty songs, and spectacular dances. Though the plot is shaky, the stars, the music, and the dances make it irresistible. In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked Swing Time among the 100 Greatest Movies of All Time.
The Region A Blu-ray release contains a 2K digital restoration of the film with an uncompressed monaural English soundtrack and an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Picture quality is pristine, in keeping with the Criterion Collection’s high standard. Blacks are deep and rich, and the gradations of grey clearly reveal details. The lavish production design by Van Nest Polglase features art deco touches in furniture, jewelry, and architectural elements. The night club set for the climactic Never Gonna Dance number contains tables covered with cloths that shimmer and a black high-gloss Bakelite floor that mirrors the dancers as they swirl. In the Waltz in Swingtime number, a spotlight throws interesting patterns through the feathered bottom of Rogers’ dress. A Fine Romance is staged in a wintry wonderland of studio snow where Penny complains that Lucky isn’t very demonstrative. She leaves in a huff (in an open convertible, no less) as windshield wipers spew snow into Lucky’s face. In the opening of Bojangles of Harlem, chorus girls in sparkly black and white outfits dance as huge sliding panels open to reveal a giant caricature suggesting Bill Robinson. Astaire wears blackface as a tribute to this legendary performer.
Sound is well-defined throughout, with dialogue crisp and distinct. The musical numbers are beautifully orchestrated and serve as fitting backdrops for the graceful movements of Astaire and Rogers. In certain sections of the dance numbers, volume rises to coordinate with particularly impressive moves. The arrangements emphasize the drama of the dances, especially in Never Gonna Dance.
Bonus materials include an audio commentary; the In Full Swing featurette; archival interviews with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Hermes Pan; a new interview with George Stevens, Jr.; an interview with Mia Mask on the Bojangles of Harlem number; and an insert booklet with a critical essay.
Audio commentary – John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, discusses Swing Time in this 1986 commentary. The film features art deco production design. Hermes Pan worked on this film and 16 other Astaire films. The song It’s Not in the Clouds was cut because it was deemed not good enough and the film was running long. This created an imbalance, with the first musical number not occurring until a half-hour into the movie. “Though it contains contrivances, irrationalities, and inconsistencies, the film is richly satisfying.” The Astaire films inspired the growth of dance schools nationwide. In the 40s and 50s, Astaire started his own chain of dance schools. He referred to his style as “outlaw” – a combination of tap and ballroom with elements from other styles. Mueller describes specific dance moves seen in the movie in detail, particularly one called the Astaire double helix, in which the two dancers face forward at the beginning, spiral back, and wind up in each other’s arms. Rogers is tentative at first, then enjoys her own eventual exuberance. Astaire wanted bounce and syncopation in Bojangles of Harlem. Kern asked Robert Russell Bennett to write these sections. Just before Never Gonna Dance, dialogue is sparse because Lucky and Penny are reluctant to say goodbye. At the end, “all complications are submerged in a cascade of infectious laughter.”
In Full Swing – Film and jazz critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields’ biographer Deborah Grace Winer discuss the music and dance numbers in Swing Time and how Astaire and Rogers revolutionized the Hollywood dance musical. Astaire is referred to as the “greatest solo dancer of all time.” The Astaire-Rogers films transitioned musicals from massive choral extravaganzas to more intimate pictures. Astaire’s early career and entry into films is briefly chronicled. George Stevens had already directed many Laurel and Hardy films and Alice Adams, starring Katharine Hepburn, when he was asked to direct Swing Time. Dorothy Fields was the only woman among the pantheon of American song writers of the period. Astaire asked that at least two numbers have a swing beat. Kern hated improvisation, but Robert Russell Bennett added swing elements to The Waltz in Swingtime and Bojangles of Harlem.
Ginger Rogers audio interview from 1980 – Rogers discusses winning a Charleston contest in Texas, which led to auditioning for several Broadway shows and eventually a seven-year contract with Paramount Pictures. She first met Astaire when he was starring on Broadway with his sister, Adele, in The Band Wagon. She tells anecdotes about the various films she and Astaire made, noting that Swing Time is her favorite. Clips from Swing Time and still black-and-white photos from other Astaire-Rogers films are shown.
Ginger Rogers video interview from 1982 – Conducted by George Stevens, Jr., Rogers comments on George Stevens and his style of directing, and remembers him as kind, gentle, and sensitive. She never saw Stevens angry, and appreciated his facility for setting the mood of a scene.
Fred Astaire video interview from 1982 – Also conducted by George Stevens, Jr., Astaire recalls that director George Stevens never watched rehearsals and never faulted anything he and Hermes Pan showed him. “I was asked more questions than usual,” Astaire notes.
Hermes Pan interview from 1982 – Pan worked with George Stevens for the first time on Swing Time. Stevens was a “choreographer’s delight” because of the creative freedom he afforded Pan. The inspiration for one of the effects in the Bojangles of Harlem number was that three different light sources illuminating Astaire cast three separate shadows. The special effects department incorporated the idea into the Bojangles number using rear projection. On Never Gonna Dance, things didn’t go smoothly. Astaire and Rogers were tired and Rogers’ feet were blistered and bleeding, but both were determined to get the number “in the can.” On the 47th take, everything worked.
George Stevens, Jr. interview – George Stevens, Jr., founder of the American Film Institute and son of director George Stevens, discusses the evolution of his father’s career.
Mia Mask interview – Film scholar Mia Mask discusses the blackface tradition in entertainment and provides details about the filming of the Bojangles in Harlem number.
Booklet – The accordion-style insert booklet features a critical essay by Imogen Sara Smith and five black-and-white photos from the film.
– Dennis Seuling