Tag Archives: Jerome Kern

Swing Time (1936)

031-ginger-rogers-and-fred-astaire-theredlistAlthough 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.

Penny and Lucky having a misunderstanding in the snow

Penny and Lucky having a misunderstanding in the snow

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?).

Penny and her suitor, Ricardo Romero

Penny and her suitor, Ricardo Romero

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.


Posted by on December 7, 2015 in Movies


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Show Boat (1936) – A Celebration

Poster - Show Boat (1936)_01In 1951, MGM released their film version of Show Boat, starring Ava Gardner, Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel, and it remains the version most known today. However, there was another, superior version made in 1936 at Universal Studios. It was directed by James Whale – director of FrankensteinThe Bride of Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man (and the excellent 1931 Waterloo Bridge) – and the film does display many of the themes that he explored in his earlier films: alienation, otherness. But Universal’s Show Boat, although successful, has virtually disappeared from popular consciousness. In the 1940s, MGM bought the rights to the musical from Universal and removed it from circulation in favor of their own version. It was not until the 1980s when it was shown again on television.

For years I’ve been cherishing my old VHS copy in lieu of a DVD. However, I am delighted to say that several years ago it was released on DVD. There are no extras or captions or anything, but at least I can finally retire my fading VHS.

The musical “Show Boat” was adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and Jerome Kern from the popular 1926 novel. The musical was released in 1927 and marked a new phase in the American musical. It was the first musical to successfully use songs to further the plot, a cohesive story that was not simply a series of dance and song numbers.

The novel is quite expansive – from the 1880s to the 1920s – and goes from the Mississippi River to Chicago and with its three generations is not an easy story to corral into a musical. I read in Jerome Kern (Yale Broadway Masteries Series) by Stephen Banfield, that the plot is so unwieldy and the ending so difficult to achieve effectively that every incarnation of the musical – the original musical, the movie versions and the revivals of the musical – trie a different ending each time.

The story is about racial prejudice, enduring love, and the nostalgia for the old days in the South and the almost mystical river contrasted with the modern and slightly disinfected North.

The show boat is Cotton Blossom, run by Captain Andy Hawks and his wife, Parthenia (Charles Winninger and Helen Westley), with stars Julie LaVerne and Steve Baker (Helen Morgan and Donald Cook) and their daughter Magnolia (Irene Dunne). Parthy is determined that Magnolia have as little do with show business as possible and does not approve of her friendship with Julie. But when a jealous would-be lover tells the sheriff that Julia is actually half black – miscegenation is illegal in the state  – Julie and Steve are forced to leave the boat, leaving Magnolia to take her place with charming ne’er-do-well gambler Gaylord Ravenal (Allan Jones) to replace Steve. Everyone tells her Gaylord is no good, but Magnolia marries him anyway. They leave for Chicago, but when he is unable to provide for her, he leaves her and she must earn her own way.

The cast is superb. Irene Dunne – though rather old to be playing an eighteen year old – actually does a very good job. She captures her naivete and is perfect as the character grows up and ages during the story. Charles Winninger and Helen Morgan were in the original 1927 musical and are also good, especially Helen Morgan, who can break your heart with a song. Allan Jones isn’t all that interesting in the role, but Gaylord is rather feckless anyway. Also standouts are Hattie McDaniel and, of course, Paul Robeson. If for no other reason, Show Boat deserves to be seen for Paul Robeson. This is one of the few opportunities for a modern audience to see him act. He did not originate the role of Joe in the musical, but the character and the song “Ol Man River” were written with him in mind. Jerome Kern reportedly said the song was inspired by Robeson’s speaking voice.

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

Paul Robeson, Irene Dunne, Hattie McDaniel and Helen Morgan

When it comes to racism, Show Boat is all over the place, though the story intended to transcend stereotypes and racial prejudice. That’s what makes it so fascinating and so much a product of its times and extremely useful for discussion. Julie LaVerne’s mother was black, but she can pass for white. Her husband does not care, nor even the man who is rejected by her (he is merely using the fact that she is black as a means of revenge) but the sheriff tells Captain Andy that Julie will have to leave because if people found out that a black woman was passing herself off as white, there would be trouble (i.e. a lynch mob?).

Show Boat also contains a scene where Magnolia does a song in black face while a segregated white and black audience look on. It’s a startling portrayal of black stereotypes, though by no means anachronistic of the period and it’s unclear whether Whale was making an ironic statement or simply wanted a dance in black face to reflect the period.

Another example of the film both reinforcing and eroding racial stereotypes at the same time are the characters Queenie (Hattie McDaniel) and Joe (Paul Robeson), who work on the Cotton Blossom. She represents the black mammy and he the lazy, shiftless black male. But both McDaniel and Robeson do a remarkable thing in transcending those roles and playing real people who have a real, affectionate relationship and they even have a fun and affectionate duet: “Ah Still Suits Me.” Robeson plays Joe less as a lazy man than as a man moving at the pace of the river who as figured out what matters in life. He often seems like the wise one, like the river, looking on compassionately.

In the character of Julie, however, the two themes of the story overlap: racism and the enduring love of women who must make their own way in life. Magnolia assumes at the beginning that if she discovered that the man she loved was no good, she would stop loving him, but Julie knows better. Once you fall in love, it’s too late, she says. That’s why you have to be careful who you fall in love with.

The story is filled with women who love weak, undeserving or irresponsible men, even Parthy and Queenie have men who seem irresponsible (Captain Andy – a negligent father if ever there was one – and Joe – though he does make more of the character). But unlike Julie, who falls to pieces after Steve leaves her and becomes an alcoholic (sadly reminiscent of Helen Morgan’s real life, who died from alcoholism when she was 41), Magnolia manages to keep on with life, despite her undying love for Gaylord after he deserts her. The irony is that Magnolia is even more successful without Gaylord and Julie would have been if she hadn’t started drinking.

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

Irene Dunne, Allan Jones, Charles Winninger, Helen Westley

I’ve always been attracted to stories that show the interconnectedness of life and the thread of family history that goes into making people as they are. The film ends with Kim – Magnolia and Gaylord’s daugter – following in the footsteps of her mother, though she has left the river far behind her. The ending has been criticized as weak, but I like how Kim’s life is seen as the culmination of all that has come before. If her grandparents hadn’t run a riverboat, if Julie hadn’t been forced to leave, Magnolia wouldn’t have taken her place, wouldn’t have married Gaylord.

There is a heartbreaking scene when Julie, now an alcoholic singer at a nightclub, hears Magnolia singing the song that Julie taught her years before: “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” She learns that Magnolia is desperate for a job, since Gaylord has left her. Without ever speaking to her, Julie gives up her job so that the manager will be forced to put Magnolia in the show. Another chain in the link that makes Magnolia’s, and later Kim’s, success possible. it is fitting that the entire family should gather to see Kim in her debut as a musical leading lady.

This musical has always had a special place for me among all the musicals I love. The story was glamorized and simplified for the MGM version, which provides an unabashedly happy ending, shortens the length of time covered in the story, removes Magnolia’s career, and removes much of what is provocative about the racial subplot, though it does retain one excellent song (“Why Do I Love You?”) that was removed from the 1936 version.

Jerome Kern score is, for me, one of the loveliest musical scores. Kern stands between European operettas and the distinctly American flavor of popular music of George Gershwin and he was one of the first to begin to bring a uniquely American sound to popular music. He’s less jazzy than Gershwin, but his melodies are unmatched. “You are Love,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man,” and the song that has taken a life of its own, “Ol Man River,” are the three most memorable songs, but the entire score is beautiful. I believe it is one of the great American musicals.

Paul Robeson sang what I consider to be the finest, most powerful version of “Ol Man River.” For some reason, in MGM’s version, all the songs were slowed down, including “Ol Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” The idea seems to be that a slower song packs a bigger emotional punch, which doesn’t necessarily work. Every time I hear the 1951 soundtrack, I get antsy wanting them to speed up. This is the tempo, faster than most people sing it, that I believe it really should be sung at.


Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Movie Musicals


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“Pick Yourself Up” – from Swing Time with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

1083_RS19_S012P120.jpgI’ve read a little bit of debate, though not a pressing amount, on who Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner was: Rita Hayworth, Ginger Rogers, Cyd Charisse, Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen. They’re all wonderful (though Rita Hayworth is a bit stiff for me, like she had an iron bar for a spine when dancing), but they’re also different, so perhaps it’s not fair to compare them

But for utter joy in dancing, no one beats Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. No one makes dancing look more spontaneous than those two, so effortless and so fun. You almost think you can get up and do it, too (I never think I can dance like Cyd Charisse).

Swing Time (1936) was their sixth movie together and has some of their very finest dances. The songs were written by Jerome Kern (of “Show Boat” renown) and the lyrics by Dorothy Fields (who writes some of the wittiest lyrics I’ve heard, like “A Fine Romance”).

In the story, Fred Astaire is a gambler gone out to seek his fortune so he can marry his sweetheart. However, once he gets to New York City, he runs into Ginger Rogers. She is a dancing instructor and he pays for a lesson, pretending to be absolutely awful. They then sing a song:“Pick Yourself Up.” She is disgusted with him, but when she then gets fired by her boss (Eric Blore) he pulls her back onto the dance floor to demonstrate how much she has “taught” him while the incomparably funny Blore looks on.

Part of what made Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire unique is how they used their dances to further the plot. In this case, you can see Ginger Rogers undergo a complete metamorphosis of feelings towards him in only two and a half minutes and it is wonderful to watch her expressions throughout. First she looks exasperated and annoyed, but as soon as he begins dancing there is a complicated mixture of surprise, hope, pleasure and excitement. There’s also hesitancy, as she’s not quite sure where this is going, but gradually changes as she allows herself to fully get into the dance when she realizes the extant of his prowess. By the end, they have become one, demonstrating a complete comfort and ‘rightness’ that is truly unique to them.

In Puttin’ On The Ritz: Fred Astaire and the Fine Art of Panache, A Biography, the author Peter Levinson writes about how Fred Astaire always had his dances shot in one long, continuous shot. He never broke it up or wanted the dance viewed from different angles. He felt the dance should be viewed as a whole, with the whole body of each dancer in view at all times.


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