Thursday, May 31, 2012

Worth Watching: Swing Time (1936)

Title: Swing Time
Director: George Stevens
Language: English
Rating: G

Swing Time introduces Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) to Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), and they're obviously going to get married and dance together as long as they both shall live, but only after they work past several plot contrivances.

At the start of the movie Lucky has a fiancee, Margaret (Betty Furness); they treat each other like distant acquaintances. Penny is pursued for half the movie by a possessive band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who at times has the speech patterns of a Bond villain. In one scene he's gloating sedately and says to Lucky, "Hello, Lucky... or perhaps you should call me lucky today," and I started to picture him cradling and petting a white cat.

Maybe I imagined him as a Bond villain to make his character more interesting. You see, I wanted more from the romantic rivals in this movie. The filmmakers put them in enough scenes to make you think they matter, but by the end, Ricardo and Margaret might as well be made of cardboard. Even though people watch these movies for the musical numbers and for Rogers and Astaire's cuteness and chemistry (and those elements are strong enough to make Swing Time worth it), the filmmakers could have still treated story and character with more care.

Penny scolding Lucky in Swing Time

Astaire's character is called Lucky because he's a gambler as well as a dancer. Most of the time he comes across as glib or bumbling, sort of likable but also flat. None of the gambling scenes in Swing Time is suspenseful, because the outcome is obvious each time and given the flimsiness of the plot it's not even that important anyway - you're just waiting for him to flirt with Rogers, sing to Rogers, or dance alone or with Rogers. And have Rogers sing to him, which she does a few times in the film.

The movie picks up when Rogers first appears as Penny, a dancer and dance teacher. One of the reasons she and Astaire were a good team was because they complemented each other. Rogers was a great dancer but didn't have nearly as extensive a background in dance or dance training as Astaire, who was incredible; however she was the better actor by quite a bit and could suggest depth, vulnerability, and inner conflict in her characters even in a movie like this one. She worked well with both drama and comedy, and pretty much every scene that spotlights her in Swing Time is entertaining. After Penny the most enjoyable character is her friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick), a middle-aged gal who's seen everything and takes pleasure in zinging people with witty lines.

Lucky and Penny first meet at a cigarette machine after Lucky's manager, Pop (Victor Moore), comes down with a bad craving ("I'd give my life for a smoke," he says). From that auspicious moment their relationship is expressed in some banter, some songs, and most notably through dance. I've been taking jabs at the silly parts of Swing Time so to be fair I'll emphasize now that the dance duets are wonderful and also beautifully highlight different stages in the Lucky-Penny relationship.

The first number, "Pick Yourself Up," is playful, light, and energetic, and my favorite of the three dance duets in the film. Penny has just gotten to know Lucky, and when she dances with him here he finally gives her a favorable impression of himself, after managing earlier in the film to annoy and humiliate her. I love the choreography, especially towards the end when they're leaping over the low barrier surrounding the dance floor. Rogers especially looks like she's floating, and I love her dress.

Fred and Ginger dancing the Pick Yourself Up routine

The second dance duet, "Waltz in Swing Time," is full of the grandness of love; they're no longer in the flirty getting-to-know you stage. This really is a beautiful number, with rich sound and abrupt changes in tempo, and watching them you feel like you're getting swept around the dance floor as well.

Fred and Ginger dancing the Waltz in Swing Time

Then the third dance duet, "Never Gonna Dance," is a sorrowful wake-up call. They remember that Lucky has a distant acquaintance a fiancee. Oh no. And Penny is going to give in to the charms of Ricardo Romero. So it's one last dance for the road, full of longing and things that can never be and a love that will go unfulfilled. The number unfolds on two different floors, with Astaire and Rogers dancing separately up a grand curving staircase in between.

Fred and Ginger dancing the Never Gonna Dance routine

Astaire also gets spotlighted in a solo dance number, "Bojangles of Harlem," a tribute to an incredible tap dancer, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who made cinematic history dancing alongside Shirley Temple in the 1930s in a few movies where he played tap-dancing servants (due to rampant racism, talented black entertainers of the time were by and large consigned to simpleton and/or servant parts when acting on-screen). Maybe it would have been nice to have gotten Robinson himself to appear in Swing Time and dance on his own too, because Astaire's dancing in the "Bojangles of Harlem" number doesn't resemble Robinson's (after looking it up, now I know why: Astaire's dancing style was inspired by John Bubbles, another innovative tap dancer).

On a positive note, the "Bojangles of Harlem" number is energetic and inventive; the best part is when Astaire is accompanied by three of his shadows, looming on the wall behind him and dancing right along with him. A great moment in movies and dance. The downside to the number is that it's in blackface. Actually Astaire's face is grayish, and he doesn't go for any racially stereotypical behaviors or physical characteristics, so he keeps it as classy as it can be. The most cringeworthy moment comes before Astaire starts dancing and involves a grotesque pair of giant legs hauled off the stage at the start of the number, with their shiny black shoes sporting a face on the soles.

What other musical numbers are there? A strong singing duet, "A Fine Romance," where Rogers shines (she's cute when she's in a strop), her performance giving richness to the cheerfully silly lyrics. Astaire gets to impersonate a seal. Incidentally another version of the song that I like is a duet with Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. But Rogers and Astaire are the ones who first sang it, out on a snowy day.

I wish the movie as a whole would have been worthy of the musical numbers. There are good non-musical scenes and sparkling dialogue, but the plot is just ridiculous. Had the story been stronger, with more at stake, I think the musical scenes would have also been better: intensifying something that's already powerful. "Never Gonna Dance," for instance, might have been even more poignant had the romantic rivals in the movie possessed even the remotest chance of laying claim to Lucky and Penny.

Instead the musical numbers just pop in and out, not quite fitting in with everything else. They come, they go, ending too quickly, and it's back to the awkward plot contrivances and, towards the end, the long moments of forced laughter (I've seen this in other old movies, where the actors just laugh and laugh on screen, because it's supposed to show us that they're full of fun and joy, when really it sounds desperate, like they ran out of dialogue and now have to do something to tell us that things are funny and that we should laugh too). Fortunately Ginger Rogers and Helen Broderick help prop up the non-musical parts with some life and wit.

*All images link back to their sources (Rotten Tomatoes).