Although it’s not a Christmas film, Swing Time always made me think of Christmas, mostly because of the snow. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers share a comic/romantic song in the snow and during their many forays into gambling and dancing through New York City nightclubs one can see through the windows the falling snow. Like an enchanted land.
Of the ten movies Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made together, Swing Time is my favorite. It is the sixth film they made at RKO and contains some of their most beautiful dances and some of composer Jerome Kern’s most lovely songs, complete with witty lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The plot may be flimsy, but the music actually furthers the plot and provide a continuity almost separate from the plot. And it helps that it is directed with a light touch by George Stevens.
John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a hoofer engaged to a rich society girl (Betty Furness) and needs to make his fortune in New York before her father will allow him to marry her. But Lucky’s real talent is gambling. As long as he has his lucky quarter, he can’t lose and he plans to gamble his way to a fortune. Accompanying him to New York is Pop (Victor Moore), a fellow sharpie who’s better at magic tricks with cards and coins than he is at gambling.
But once Lucky is in New York, he runs afoul of Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and they have a little mix-up in the street over Lucky’s lucky quarter. Lucky is much more favorably impressed by Penny than she is by him and he follows her to her work place, where she is a dancing instructor, and asks to take lessons. Initially, he pretends to be hopelessly maladroit, but after he gets her inadvertently fired, he turns around and demonstrates to the proprietor (Eric Blore – always a delight) how much Penny has “taught” him. Now Penny really is impressed with him (or at least his dancing) and the two of them agree to team up dancing at night clubs.
What follows is a series of comic difficulties, misunderstandings, crossed-lovers, witty songs and gorgeous dances. There is a bandleader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who is a rival for Penny’s affections. Lucky begins making it big as a gambler, but is afraid to win too much, because then he’ll have to return to his fiance and he’s fallen in love with Penny. Meanwhile, Penny has fallen in love with him and can’t understand why he is aloof.
The plot is pretty weak, but what gives it sophistication are the cast, the music and the dances. Jerome Kern wrote some of his most lovely melodies, perhaps most famously “The Way You Look Tonight.” It’s an unabashedly romantic song, but given a comedic setting. Lucky sings “Lovely…Never, never change – Keep that breathless charm – Won’t you please arrange it? ‘Cause I love you – Just the way you look tonight” while Penny stands unseen with her hair in a lather of shampoo (supposedly either whipped cream or egg whites).
Because this is Astaire and Rogers’ sixth film together, their dancing is at its best here. Rogers, if you watch their films in order, grows more assured and more graceful through the films and Swing Time is the height of their collaboration together (Along with Shall We Dance and Follow the Fleet – those two not their best films, but some of their best dancing). With “Pick Yourself Up,” they give the impression of complete spontaneity, but it is also during the dance where Penny first warms to Lucky and shows her excitement and the future possibilities between them. Her entire change of attitude happens during one dance and you can see it develop on her face. In “Waltz in Swing Time,” they give sophisticated, gorgeous polish without losing the joy. With “Never Gonna Dance,” heartbreak, disappointment, pleading. It’s really their most emotionally sophisticated dance together.
Fred Astaire always did his wooing through dance and in most of his films with Ginger Rogers, he never gets anywhere with her until they do dance. But he doesn’t just woo; he can express his uncontained joy at being in love or even reveal his vulnerability. And Ginger Rogers always responds. A dance between them is like a conversation (am I gushing a bit?).
One of the things I hear a lot is that Astaire and Rogers’ musicals were the ultimate example of the kind of delightful, escapist fluff that was so popular during the depression. But if you look at it, Swing Time is still firmly rooted in that depression. Whereas you can watch Harold Lloyd lose and find multiple jobs in a short period of time in the 1928 silent film Speedy, losing one’s job in Swing Time is no joke for Penny and her friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick – a dryly wisecracking presence).
Lucky and Penny are living high, but it’s still precarious. Fortunes can come and go and there are numerous reversals. When Penny and Lucky first meet on the street, Penny thinks Lucky has stolen a quarter from her and when she calls a police officer to help her, is dismayed when the officer automatically takes Lucky’s side because he is well dressed and she’s a working girl, even though Lucky really has less money than she has.
One controversial aspect of the film is the dance that Astaire performs solo, “Bojangle of Harlem.”It is an inventive and lively dance where he interacts with three of his own shadows, but he performs it in blackface, though in a slightly less offensive, lighter blackface than was often employed. The dance id said to be done in honor of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, perhaps the most famous tap dancer of the day who Astaire knew and admired from their days in vaudeville, though he is also said to be acknowledging John Bubbles, a less known dancer today who played Sportin’ Life in Gerwshin’s “Porgy and Bess.”
Composer Jerome Kern is not known for his jazzy music. His specialty was melody. But between Fred Astaire and lyricist Dorothy Fields, they managed to liven him up a little, though there is still very little jazz or swing time actually going on. Dorothy Fields adds considerable pep simply through her witty lyrics. One of my favorite songs is “A Fine Romance,” which Penny and Lucky sing in the snow to express their frustration over their non-starting romance. Rogers’ sings “A fine romance, with no kisses – A fine romance, my friend this is – We should be like a couple of hot tomatoes – But you’re as cold as yesterday’s mashed potatoes.” Lucky responds by singing that “To love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has – We don’t have half the thrill that the march of time has.”
“Never Gonna Dance” is the climax of the film and actually encapsulates all that has come before. Penny has discovered that Lucky is engaged and feels betrayed by him while he both mourns her loss and makes a desperate plea to win her back. He sings of a “la belle, a perfectly swell romance,” which is a reference to words spoken by them before they earlier sang “A Fine Romance.” But now that it’s over, he’s “never gonna dance, only gonna love you.” This first clip is the singing part of “Never Gonna Dance.”
This clip has the dance part that comes after he sings. If you listen, you can hear Kern’s music move from “The Way You Look Tonight,” the song Lucky originally wooed her with, to “Never Gonna Dance,” then to “Waltz in Swing Time,” a reference to the dance were they were flying high and back to “Never Gonna Dance.” I think it’s Astaire’s most emotionally vulnerable dance.