AFI Top 100 Ranking: 90
Release: September 4, 1936
Writer: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott (adaptation), Erwin Gelsey (story)
Director: George Stevens
Star: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore
Cinematography: David Abel
Music: Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields
Ugh, why can’t they just shut up and dance?
“Swing Time” is preposterous, stupid, at times unwatchable…and yet its dance numbers are some kind of perfect. Though they look effortless, I’m sure endless hours were spent creating these three-and-four minute magical sequences. If only a fraction of that time had been spent on the screenplay…
The plot…well…I think I understood a little bit of it. Fred Astaire portrays a gambler/dancer named Lucky, who misses out on his wedding because his brothers convince him his pants aren’t up to snuff (seriously). His fiancé tells him that she won’t marry him unless he goes to New York City and make $30,000 (seriously), so Lucky goes and meets Penny (Ginger Rogers). From there things get muddy.
The characters change their motivations and come to decisions that make The Idiot Plot from romantic comedies seem inspired. The Lucky character is originally portrayed as a gullible pushover in the first two reels, but is suddenly ballsy enough to begin betting big bucks and telling off the wrong people once he gets to New York. He also basically destroys Penny’s life a piece at a time for a half hour after he meets her, and then suddenly we are supposed to believe they are a dancing team? I’d say looking anywhere below the surface would reveal huge plot holes, but they are often right there onscreen.
Penny and Lucky’s romance is one of the most convoluted in any romantic comedy I’ve ever seen. He’s engaged to another woman but apparently can’t simply cut it off even though he’s falling in love with Penny, but then again she doesn’t seem to like him at all, except for the fact that she lets him follow her around everywhere. I finally threw up my hands and gave up trying to keep track during a beautifully shot sequence in the woods just north of the City, where Astaire and his father (Victor Moore) talk about the plot. The father doesn’t want Lucky gambling because he might win the $30,000 (because the fiancé will figure that out by telepathy, apparently) and he wants Lucky to stay with Penny, but then Lucky pleads with his Father to not let him get near Penny. I don’t know why, either. The father seems to be rooting for them to get together, but later, when they are about to kiss, throws a snowball at them to stop them. Yeah, I don’t understand it either. Oh, and in the background of all this Penny has another handsome suitor (who’s a nice guy to boot) champing at the bit to marry her.
If none of that made sense, it’s because of the plot, not my writing.
If the romance doesn’t make sense, then plot mechanics make even less. Lucky has a phenomenal dance number on the “reopening” night of a popular nightclub, but later when he and Penny lose control of the orchestra (seriously) they throw their hands up that they are finished, apparently forgetting that the audience would surely clamor for more of their dancing after seeing Lucky’s first performance that night, and then it would be quite simple to find another place to dance in. They are, after all, in New York City. By the final scene, the writers seem to give up entirely and just have the characters all simultaneously cackle until the movie fades to black.
Sections like those are nearly unwatchable, filmed with tepid dialogue in boring medium shots with actors apparently unaware of what the word “subtlety” means (Astaire’s shocked face is so overdone it might as well have come from a silent film).
Ah, but when “Swing Time” lets its characters sing and dance, everything else falls away. There’s more emotion in half a minute of Astaire and Rogers dancing than all the excess trash surrounding it. There are rarely cuts during the musical numbers, and the film is all the better for it, because it gives the scenes a grandeur and reality missing from the rest of the movie. Their final dance number, “Never Gonna Dance” is breathtaking. Here we can see the pain they feel at their imminent separation and the idea that they may never be able to dance with one another again. It’s as sensual as if they were making love to one another.
Astaire has a “solo” number, “Bojangles of Harlem” (in unfortunate blackface) that is filled with the kind of creativity and high energy modern musicals have long forgotten. At one point he’s leading a line of twenty dancers in what appears to be a waltz effortlessly. Later in the number, he dances before three of his shadows, perfectly in sync at first until the real Astaire begins to out-dance the shadows. Moments like that can leave you cheering.
If not for the dancing, “Swing Time” would have been long forgotten. Sure, there are a few things about the film outside the dance that are passable, but those are details, not the meat and bones. The aforementioned scene in the snow is kind of wonderful to look at, and makes me wish more romantic comedies filmed in the snow. The club has some great set design going for it, with a staircase that goes on for an eternity and a floor finished with a great painting of the city. Its tables all appear to use cling wrap as tablecloths, but the less said about that the better.
The director, George Stevens, gives the musical numbers a lush, full quality missing from everywhere else. Stevens is a great actor’s director (he had recently directed “Alice Adams,” which is quite possibly Katherine Hepburn’s best performance in a career of best performances), so it’s shocking to see the abysmal acting moments coming from almost the entire cast. The exception is Rogers, who never quite gets bogged down in her character’s stupidity and remains elegant and appealing throughout. I just don’t understand why Stevens couldn’t have taken the time the actors needed to create interesting characters, or why he didn’t insist on a comprehensible, witty script instead of the dreadful thing he shot.
My Score (out of five): **