• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:November 22, 2017

Swing Time: The Way It Still Looks


When Barack Obama delivered his Inauguration Address on January 20th, 2009, he emphasized the need to “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off”, an obvious reference to the current economic crisis. The line was actually lifted from a Depression-era song, “Pick Yourself Up”, that was an integral part of the score for the classic musical Swing Time. Presidents don’t often talk about the work of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, but when they do, it is no surprise that this is the film that comes up.

The dancer John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is set to marry Margaret (Betty Furness), but his colleagues can’t see the point and actually trick him into missing the wedding. Margaret and her father are furious, but John promises to earn $25,000 as a way of showing his good intentions. Along with his old buddy “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore), John heads to New York where he immediately runs into Penelope Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a girl he turns into a charming enemy. Eager to make friends with her, John follows Penelope and discovers that she’s a dance instructor.

After showing Penelope and her boss his talents on the dance floor, the couple forms a partnership and starts making money together. John is close to earning those $25,000… but he has to work hard not to fall in love with Penelope.

Fantastic musical numbers
It isn’t until the first dance number that I see this movie turn into something special; that’s where “Pick Yourself Up” is performed, followed by a highly energetic polka. Prior to that, the tenets of the story are introduced and they’re so simple (not to say ludicrous) that it’s hard to care much for what’s going on. It doesn’t really improve, but director George Stevens still makes it work in his first great film, thanks to a good sense of humor, a light touch, enjoyable performances and those fantastic musical numbers.

Luck plays a big part in the story; John is a gambler and a generous viewer can always interpret that ingredient as a message about taking chances in life… but maybe that’s reading too much into it. The two stars are first-rate whenever they’re doing what they know best, and nicely supported by Moore and Helen Broderick off the dance floor as the sidekicks who also fall in love (they complement each other well, his timid style and her acerbic wit). The whole part with Georges Metaxa as a band leader who tries to woo Penelope is pointless, but who cares when Astaire sits down at a piano and sings “The Way You Look Tonight”, one of the best Oscar-winning tunes ever, one that has truly stood the test of time.

One memorable scene is followed by another. “A Fine Romance” is performed in a wintry setting where Penelope is sulking because John won’t respond to her overtures; “Never Gonna Dance” has a star-studded grandeur to it as Astaire and Rogers dance from one stage to the other; and then there’s the now-classic scene where Astaire appears in a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, famous for its innovative use of trick photography where Astaire dances with three of his shadows. The number is so engaging and technically impressive that one is likely to ignore the discomfort of watching the star in black face.

The final sequence is as ludicrous and silly as the opening scene where John’s buddies for some weird reason make him miss the wedding. One can only shake one’s head at it… and marvel at the fact that so many brilliant ingredients manage to overshadow such a crucial liability.

Swing Time 1936-U.S. 103 min. B/W. Produced byĀ Pandro S. Berman. Directed byĀ George Stevens. Screenplay: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott. Songs: Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern (“Pick Yourself Up”, The Way You Look Tonight”, “A Fine Romance”, “Never Gonna Dance”). Cast: Fred Astaire (John “Lucky” Garnett), Ginger Rogers (Penelope Carroll), Victor Moore (Edwin “Pop” Cardetti), Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness.

Oscar: Best Original Song (“The Way You Look Tonight”).

Last word:Ā “We did final work on [“Never Gonna Dance”] into the wee small hours of a Saturday night, and more than forty-eight takes were recorded. Everything that could have gone wrong did during the shooting of this number: an arc light went out; there was a noise in the camera; one of us missed a step in the dance, where Fred was supposed to catch me in the final spins; and once, right at the end of a perfect take, his toupee flipped off! I kept on dancing even though my feet really hurt. During a break, I went to the sidelines and took my shoes off; they were filled with blood. I had danced my feet raw. Hermes [Pan, the choreographer] saw what had happened and offered to stop the shooting. I refused. I wanted to get the thing done. Finally, we got a good take in the can, and George said we could go home ā€“ at 4:00 a.m.” (Rogers, TCM)



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