Swing Time (1936)

My first blog entry for Fred and Ginger, Swing Time, is a magnificent display of the technicality behind the joyous song and dance numbers we have come to love.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers always depended much more on the dance numbers to show the progression of each of their characters then they did the actual plot, and this is certainly on display here.

John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) finds himself caught up at the dance club and misses his wedding.  In order to win back favor with his fiancee and her father, Lucky decides to head to New York to prove he is capable of supporting her with his career as a performer.  Once he earns $25,000 he is to return home and marry Margaret (Betty Furness).  However, when Lucky and his friend Pop (Victor Moore) arrive in New York, they meet a beautiful young dance instructor named Penny Caroll (Ginger Rogers) and Lucky’s plans to return home to his fiancee take a back seat to dancing with Penny in his arms.

Almost every Fred and Ginger movie is written the same way.  He falls for her immediately, while she is unsure about him; she then uncovers some hidden secret about him and begins to back away, but he wins her over in the final amazing dance scene.  Watching the same movie with the same actors over and over again could get really repetitive and annoying, but Fred and Ginger have a gift for performing song and dance numbers with so much joy and abandon and in a way that seems carefree and spontaneous.  They popularized the idea of going out for a night of dancing with a partner, as every woman in the 30’s and 40’s wanted to find a man that could swing her around on the dance floor like Fred did with Ginger.

The dance numbers in Swing Time were anything but easy.  There are four main numbers: one solo Fred Astaire tap dance, and three partnered dances, throughout which you are actually able to watch how Lucky and Penny’s relationship progresses with something as simple as a jump step.  In the first dance, “Pick Yourself Up”, the two throw themselves recklessly into each and every motion, dancing freely and gaily around the dance floor.  Their relationship is new and exciting, just like the dance.  In “Waltz in Swing Time”, Lucky and Penny are falling in love, gliding around the dance floor effortlessly like a couple giving into their emotions. Finally, in “Never Gonna Dance”, Lucky has lost Penny and tries to win her back in a dance that is one of the most beautiful and accomplished I have ever seen on film.  This performance is a conversation between two lovers, a final plea from Lucky to Penny not to leave, for if she does, he will never dance again.  The last dance took 47 takes to get right and Ginger’s feet were bleeding towards the end, but it works spectacularly: Fred is desperate and passionate with each and every move, and it ends with a magnificent payoff.  It is a wonderful example of the expert quality of dance that we have come to expect from this famous pair.

The solo tap number, “Bojangles”, is a wonderful showcase of Fred’s talent as a tap dancer and a tribute to Bill Robinson, one of his idols.  Unfortunately, Fred performs it in blackface and therefore most people cringe a bit when they watch it, which can obscure the genius in the dancing.  This was also the first dance number in a movie to employ visual effects, and while it isn’t executed cleanly by today’s standards, it is still really cool to watch.  Astaire’s shadow was filmed while he danced, and the footage was later tripled and projected behind the real man as he performed the same number perfectly in sync. The precision and skill needed to pull off this number is insane, and demonstrates how Fred took dancing to a different level.

Astaire always considered himself a musician first and dancer second, and when you watch his movies, it easy to see why.  Each tap made by he and Ginger is a note in their own song: they create their own beat and dance freely to it, and they have a joy and love for their craft that is easy to admire.  While some of their films might have a better plot or characters, Swing Time has what I would consider to be the best dance numbers; for that reason, it is my favorite Fred and Ginger movie.

The stats:

Swing Time landed at #75 out of 1347 movies on my Flickchart.  That converts to a ranking of 4.5 out of 5 stars or 94%.  It is ranked #4 out of 34 movies I have seen from the 1930’s.  It is ranked #4 out of 12 movies I have seen so far for this challenge.


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