A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Swing Time (George Stevens, 1936)

The plot of a Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers is typically a thread on which the gems (the songs and dances) are strung, and Swing Time is no exception. The screenplay by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott seems to exist largely to provide opportunities for Astaire and Rogers to open their mouths, the better to sing with, or to find places to dance. For those who care, it's the one in which Astaire plays a gambler named Lucky Garnett, who is late for his wedding to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), so her father calls it off and says that if Lucky can make $25,000, he can come back to claim her hand. So off he goes to New York, accompanied by his friend Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore), where he falls for Penny Carroll (Rogers), a dance teacher. And so on.... That anything this silly remains watchable 80 years later is the consequence of the unsurpassed artistry of Astaire and Rogers, the dance direction of Hermes Pan, the comic support of Moore, Helen Broderick, and Eric Blore, and six songs by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. Rogers does more than her usual share of the singing in this one, taking the lead on both "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance," but as usual it's Astaire's peerless phrasing that carries the songs, especially the Oscar-winning "The Way You Look Tonight," which is wittily staged when Rogers enters the room having lathered her hair with shampoo but not yet rinsed it out. The dance highlight is probably "Never Gonna Dance," the climactic number when Lucky and Penny each think they're doomed to marry someone else, but Astaire's solo, "Bojangles of Harlem," a tribute to the great Bill Robinson, is also superb -- as long as you're not offended by the fact that Astaire does it in blackface. (To my mind, the reverence paid to Robinson outweighs the minstrelsy, but only slightly.) Astaire always insisted that dance sequences be done in long takes, which led to 47 reprises of  "Never Gonna Dance" during the filming before a take that completely satisfied Astaire was achieved -- at the expense, it is said, of Rogers's feet, which began to bleed. This was the only film role of any consequence for Furness, whose chief claim to fame was that she opened countless refrigerator doors as the TV commercial spokesperson for Westinghouse in the 1950s.

No comments: