Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

via: http://beverlygray.blogspot.co.uk/2017/02/lights-out-for-la-la-land.html   Unless otherwise noted, all images are my own.

Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire are back in their sixth of ten films together. Swing Time (1936) is usually considered one of the best of the bunch, mostly because of the score and the extraordinary dance numbers. Swing Time features three spectacular duets and one virtuosic solo by Astaire, and it’s all filmed on gorgeous art deco sets in shimmering black and white. In fact, it is the only Astaire-Rogers musical to make “AFI’s 100 Years…100 Movies–10th Anniversary Edition” list in 2007 (it was ranked 90th.)

When Swing Time was released in September 1936, RKO was churning out Astaire-Rogers musicals. Two premiered in 1935 (Roberta and Top Hat), and Follow the Fleet came out in February 1936, seven months before Swing Time.

But production slowed after this movie. Both Astaire and Rogers wanted to strike out and make different films, and Astaire was hesitant to link himself to one partner after spending decades performing with his sister, Adele. The movies also ballooned in cost as Astaire and the studio sought to outdo their previous efforts, so the profit margins slimmed towards the end of the 1930s. After Swing Time, the fevered pace of production from the middle of the decade decreased to one movie per year in 1937, ’38, and ’39. Then Astaire and Rogers parted ways but reunited for their final movie at MGM, The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) ten years later.

Anyway, Swing Time boasts an astonishing score packed with songs by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Dorothy Fields. It was their third of four films together, and by the time they teamed up in the mid-1930s, both were highly successful and respected.

Kern found huge success on Broadway with Show Boat in 1927, a collaboration with Oscar Hammerstein II, and then Roberta six years later. Kern and Fields first worked together on the movie version of Roberta (1935), which starred Rogers and Astaire. (The remake Lovely to Look At (1952) also features their music). Kern’s work appeared in dozens of movies including Lady Be Good (1941) and Cover Girl (1944). He died in 1945, and a biopic entitled Till the Clouds Roll By was released the following year.

Fields also enjoyed an immensely successful career that stretched for 48 years and featured over 400 songs for movies and stage shows, including Annie Get Your Gun, Redhead, and Sweet Charity. She had a fruitful partnership with Kern and other top composers including Hammerstein, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin. She also co-wrote “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby” with Jimmy McHugh, which you may recognize from Bringing Up Baby (1938) and many other movies.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger RogersBasically, Swing Time brings the big guns in terms of music and stars, plus it was directed by George Stevens, one of the greats. Mark Sandrich had helmed the previous three Astaire-Rogers movies, but Stevens was assigned Swing Time. It was his only entry in the series, and he brought his usual slow pace and perfectionism to the set, which apparently delighted Ginger Rogers. At this point in her career, she was especially focused on improving her acting, so Stevens’ habit of shooting multiple takes was helpful.

But it also meant that production moved a little slower: Stevens’ meticulous filming style combined with Astaire’s notorious perfectionism in the dance scenes translated to multiple takes for almost every scene and a lot of time.

The slow pace wasn’t the only thing holding up production. As I mentioned, Rogers was at a crossroads in her career. She wanted better parts in a wider variety of movies, but RKO kept assigning her the same sassy role in comedies. When production on Swing Time began, Rogers and her agent, Leland Hayward, were negotiating a new contract with the studio, but RKO didn’t play ball until she stopped showing up for rehearsals. This drastic strategy worked: the studio realized that the Astaire-Rogers series (and their bottom line) would suffer without her, so they negotiated a much better deal.

Rogers went on to play meatier roles in non-musical films such as Stage Door (1937), Primrose Path (1940), and Kitty Foyle (1940), for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. She also continued to appear in musicals and comedies, including classics like Bachelor Mother (1939) and The Major and the Minor (1942).

Back to Swing Time! Besides the two stars, this film was a reunion for several cast members. Eric Blore, who appears all too briefly towards the beginning of the movie, was a regular in the series. In fact, he appeared in more of the Astaire-Rogers films than any other supporting player. Look for him in The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat, and Shall We Dance (1937).

Helen Broderick, who plays Rogers’ best friend (and was also actor Broderick Crawford’s mom), was another Top Hat alum, and she’d also appeared in the Broadway show The Band Wagon in 1931. That production starred Astaire with his sister Adele, and remains notable as their final performance together. After the show closed, Adele married a British nobleman and retired from the stage. (You can read more about that in my Royal Wedding (1951) review.) And Betty Furness, who plays Astaire’s fiancee, appeared in an uncredited role in the first Astaire-Rogers film, Flying Down to Rio (1933).

To the film! We open in a vaudeville theater where a dance troupe/magic act perform their final number. We just glimpse the very end from the wings, but that’s not how the movie originally opened. The musical number “It’s Not in the Cards” originally featured Astaire with his dance troupe. It was filmed in its entirety but eventually cut, though the premiere print sent to Radio City Music Hall contained the whole number. But other theaters received Swing Time without the dance, and it has since been lost.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Victor Moore

Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) rushes off stage to change clothes for his wedding. But his fellow dancers and Pops (Victor Moore), the magician in the act, really don’t want him to tie the knot because he plans to quit show business post-nuptials.

So they play a little trick with his trousers, claiming that he can’t possibly get married in cuff-less pants! Amidst refrains of “No cuffs? No cuffs!” they spirit away his trousers and distract the bridegroom with dice. After all, Lucky got his nickname thanks to what we would call a gambling addiction, but what the movie treats as a somewhat-disreputable-but-mostly-sort-of-cute side profession.

Meanwhile, his bride, Margaret (Betty Furness), and her attendants wait at her house. Her father storms about, furious that Lucky has left his daughter waiting at the altar, but also angry that they got engaged in the first place. He’s not thrilled that his daughter wants to marry a dancer.

Swing Time: Betty Furness

Costume designer Bernard Newman was apparently obsessed with tulle-bunching when he worked on this movie. Look at the bridesmaids’ sleeves and skirts! They remind me of Rita Hayworth‘s costume in Cover Girl (1944):

Anyway, Lucky doesn’t make it to the wedding. When he finally does show up at the house, he finds a furious father and an humiliated bride. Fun fact: the father is played by George Stevens’ dad, Landers Stevens. He was a character actor who began appearing in films in the 1920s and remained active onscreen until he passed away in 1940.

Swing Time: Betty Furness & Fred Astaire

But father and daughter cheer up unrealistically quickly after Lucky claims that he missed the wedding because of a new business opportunity. He embellishes the lie by claiming that he expects to make $25,000 (almost half a million in 2017 cash) in just a few months, but he needs to go to New York to do it. Margaret and her father make him promise to return and marry her once he has the money. Lucky intends to make his fortune by gambling, but he doesn’t tell them that…

Fun fact: Betty Furness started her career as a model in 1930, became a contract player at RKO two years later, and appeared in 30 films before returning to New York. She intended to go on the stage, but instead found a long and varied career in television and consumer rights. She appeared in TV dramas but became most famous as the spokeswoman for Westinghouse appliances, a job she held for twelve years! She also appeared frequently as a TV host and quiz show participant. In the late 1960s, she became Special Assistant for Consumer Affairs in the Johnson Administration and campaigned against consumer fraud. She served on the board of Consumer Union, (publisher of Consumer Reports) for over two decades, and was executive director of the New York State Consumer Protection Board. She also worked as a consumer reporter on New York TV and on The Today Show, and she won a Peabody Award in 1977 for her show Buyline: Betty Furness. She worked until her death in 1994.

Back to the film. Lucky takes off for New York despite another attempt by his troupe to sabotage his plans. Pops comes, too.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Victor Moore

In New York, they immediately run into a pretty lady (Ginger Rogers) at a cigarette machine. The encounter involves Lucky’s lucky quarter, which Pops first exchanges for smaller coins and then steals back out of her purse.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Naturally, she is mad, but he is intrigued. As usual. It’s typical in the Astaire-Rogers canon to start the relationship with Astaire being obnoxious and Rogers hating him. The rest of the movie follows his attempts to win her over. Swing Time is no exception. You can watch the meet cute here.

Lucky follows her into a dancing school with its interesting slogans:

Swing Time: Fred Astaire

He asks for a lesson with his mystery “redhead,” Penelope “Penny” Carroll. The secretary and Penny’s best friend, Mabel (Helen Broderick) and the owner, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore) are happy to oblige. Fun fact: there are several references to Rogers’ red hair, though it shows up as platinum blonde in the black and white.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire, Eric Blore & Helen Broderick

Lucky pretends to be an uncoordinated fool in their lesson, which drives Penny crazy. But it also provides the opportunity for the wonderful song, “Pick Yourself Up,” one of the tunes written for the movie.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

You can watch it here:

But Penny is so frustrated by Lucky’s clumsiness that she declares him an impossible case. No one could teach him how to dance! (Ha–it’s Fred Astaire! I love the winking conceit of stars pretending to be bad at something when the audience knows they’re experts.)

Unfortunately, Mr. Gordon overhears Penny’s insult and fires her for discouraging a client. But Lucky pulls her onto the dance floor to show Gordon how much she actually “taught” him in their short lesson. It’s one of the most delightful routines Astaire and Rogers ever performed:

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Their romantic, formal dances are stunning, obviously, but I love their lighthearted, “casual” dances even more. There’s nothing casual about it besides their clothes, as this dance was just as choreographed and rehearsed to perfection as any other routine. But it’s beautiful to see them smile and laugh as they perform. It reminds me of the fantastic “rehearsal” in Roberta:

You can watch the dance here. Fun fact: Astaire and the other dancers reportedly rehearsed the dance numbers for eight weeks before filming began.

Mr. Gordon is so impressed that he arranges an audition for Penny and Lucky (quite cute that a gambler with a lucky quarter finds a lady named Penny, right?) at a swanky nightclub. But another mixup with clothes and a very unlucky streak at cards makes Lucky miss it.

Penny fumes, as she should, but Lucky wins her over with a tender rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight.” Now, it’s a classic romantic tune and frequent wedding song that’s been covered by anyone who can sing, but it was new when it appeared in this movie.

In a lovely, ironic twist, Astaire sings the song in Penny’s apartment while she washes her hair in the other room. The tune slowly pulls her away from the sink. She forgets about her bathrobe and shampoo-ed head until she catches her reflection in the mirror. Then she gasps and runs back into the bathroom. It’s a beautiful, funny moment and somehow makes the song even more romantic. It’s counterintuitive, but it really works.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Fun fact: it’s a big deal that Lucky’s serenade brought Rogers out of the bathroom in such a state. Washing one’s hair was an infrequent, almost secret ritual. (You can read more about that in my History Through Hollywood essay.) Also, the crew struggled to get the look of rich lather for Rogers’ soapy helmet. Actual soap and shampoo didn’t work, so they tried egg whites and shaving cream before finally landing on whipped cream! It was the only substance that looked “right” and stayed put long enough to film the scene; the others kept melting under the hot lights and running down poor Rogers’ face!

Another fun fact: Dorothy Fields recalled that when Kern first played the melody of “The Way You Look Tonight,” “…I had to leave the room because I started to cry. The release absolutely killed me. I couldn’t stop, it was so beautiful.” Audiences and critics loved it, too, and “The Way You Look Tonight” won Fields and Kern the Academy Award for Best Song. The tune beat out another now-standard, Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Born to Dance (1936).

Swing Time: Ginger Rogers & Georges Metaxa

After this charming scene and the now-iconic song, the pair get along great. They land another audition at the fancy club The Silver Sandal, but the orchestra leader Romero (Georges Metaxa) refuses to play for them. He’s in love with Penny, but she keeps refusing his marriage proposals. Plus, the owner of The Silver Sandal just gambled and lost Romero’s contract to a rival.

Sidenote: all the men in this movie are such dummies. They make ridiculous bets, and anytime one refuses to gamble, the other one says, “You scared?” and they immediately enter the game. Morons. But that explains all the terrible decisions in this movie!

Fun fact: “The Silver Sandal” in this film was based on the The Silver Slipper, a real nightclub on West 48th Street in New York City. The Silver Slipper closed in 1932, but the memory lingered…

The foursome are bummed because Romero’s refusal to play means that Lucky and Penny have missed another chance. Fortunately, there are fantastic stylized goblets to distract them!

Swing Time: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, & Helen Broderick

Then Lucky decides to gamble for Romero’s contract himself. He’s on a hot streak, but he needs some help with this bet, so Pops (a magician, remember?) uses his sleight of hand to pull the right card from the deck. It’s another reminder that Lucky and Pops are basically con men masquerading as professional gamblers/entertainers…But they get away with it this time.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

The variety of bow ties in this scene alone is staggering.

Lucky wins Romero’s contract and makes him play “Waltz in Swing Time” as their audition. It’s a gorgeous dance that becomes even more visually interesting with the shadows on the floor.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

There’s something so stunning and otherworldly about 1930s black and white combined with the astounding art deco set design and the magic of Astaire and Rogers.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Remember all the bunched and ruffled tulle from the wedding at the beginning of the film? Penny’s dress has the same details at the sleeves and hem. And the scalloped skirt twirls like a dream. It also looks awfully similar to Margaret’s wedding dress. Look at the collar, neckline, and buttons!

The owner of The Silver Sandal hires Lucky and Penny to be the resident dancers. He even offers Lucky a stake in the club. But that stresses Lucky out because he promised to return to Margaret as soon as he had $25,000. His bank account keeps climbing closer to the magic number; however; he is falling in love with Penny and doesn’t want to return to Margaret.

For some reason, his promise to Margaret remains the only vow he holds sacred. He lies and cheats and manipulates, but he’s deeply conflicted about his $25,000 promise. He asks Pops to help him avoid being along with Penny, but Mabel has the opposite goal. Meanwhile, Penny gets confused by Lucky’s behavior. Sometimes he seems to like her a lot, but then he’ll avoid or ignore her.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Amidst all of this drama, the foursome drive to the country in a convertible despite a snowstorm (?). The blizzard provides an amusingly “chilly” setting for the comic/sweet song “A Fine Romance.” The lyrics perfectly reflect the situation: first Penny sings about her frustration with their “romance” that remains stalled and platonic, then Lucky sings the reprise. But they end the song without any progress.

Fun fact: the lyrics include this line “You don’t have half the thrills that `The March of Time’ has,” which is a reference to the newsreel series produced by RKO. “The March of Time” had just started in 1935, but by the end of the ’30s it was the most popular newsreel shown in theaters. According to TCM, it was also the most sensational. So the lyric is an insult calling the person boring. You can see a parody of the newsreel series at the beginning of Citizen Kane (1941) under the name “News on the March.” “The March of Time” continued in theaters until 1951, but it was most popular in the late 1930s and ’40s.

Anyway, “A Fine Romance” is yet another standard to come out of this movie. You can watch the scene and the song here. Fun fact: I think that Rogers wears a coat that first appeared in the fashion show finale in Roberta (1935). Modified collar, fastener, and no belt?

Here they are filming this scene:

Back in New York, a spruced up Silver Sandal reopens. We get a slow, loving pan out from the extraordinary skyscraper floor and up towards the glorious double staircase. It’s glossy and art deco–note the cellophane cloaked tables. It’s all terrifically 1930s!

Swing Time

That evening, Pops tells Penny about Margaret and the $25,000 promise. She is bummed to learn about the engagement, but Mabel encourages her to tell Lucky how she feels, anyway.

Sidenote: Mabel is a great part of this film! The 1930s were a fabulous time to be a sassy, caustic best friend. Many of the female characters in 1930s films have a “I’ve seen it all, and frankly, I’m unimpressed” air about them that’s quite enjoyable to watch. See the heroines and their sidekicks in Hands Across the Table, Midnight, The Thin Man, Roberta, We’re Not Dressing, Stage Door, and many others. Mabel fits right in that tradition with her cynicism and dry, sarcastic sense of humor.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Penny bravely declares her love and Lucky finally admits that he feels the same way. They kiss, but it’s hidden from the audience thanks to a well-timed door opening. We just see the approach and a lipstick-smeared Lucky!

After this lovely moment with Penny, Lucky decides to give up Margaret and gambling. But first he has a big solo number to perform.

It’s “Bojangles of Harlem” and he appears in blackface. The number was intended as an homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, an incredible dancer and actor who appeared in movies in the 1930s (most famously with Shirley Temple as part of the first interracial dance team on screen), and he headlined vaudeville and Broadway productions for decades. Robinson was probably the most famous African-American performer of the era. You can watch him here and here. But the number is obviously terribly dated and controversial because of the blackface.

It is the only number Astaire performed in blackface during his career, and at least he doesn’t use the full caricatured makeup with big white lips and eyes. But it’s still horrible.

Often blackface numbers are edited out when old movies are shown today, but the core of TCM’s mission is playing movies unedited and without breaks, so they don’t cut out controversial scenes. I’ve decided to follow TCM’s lead and include stills and a discussion of the number. I certainly don’t want to celebrate the choice of blackface or make it seem okay, but I also don’t think it should be glossed over or ignored.

This is especially true for this number because it was intended to honor Robinson and lacks the racist mockery that is a hallmark of so many minstrel and vaudeville blackface routines. You can read a good article about this aspect of the number here.

So here we go. Fields wrote “Bojangles of Harlem” with Kern after she and Jimmy McHugh contributed the songs for the RKO musical, Hooray for Love (1935), starring Bill Robinson himself. But Hal Borne, Astaire’s rehearsal pianist and a talented arranger, had to spice it up a little before it was ready for Swing Time. In The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, author Arlene Croce wrote of the first time that Borne and Astaire heard “Bojangles of Harlem:” Borne remembered that,

I played it for Fred, and he had kind of a strange look on his face. That was the trouble with Kern. His melodies were the greatest but his syncopation was corny. It was corny then. Fred said, ‘I like the melody and the lyric is just fine, but why don’t we swing it? Then we can come back to 2/4.’ But it still wasn’t right. And it wasn’t long enough. I added a section, which I played on an upright piano. It was based on a vamp idea that kept going up different keys. That was not a harpsichord, it was a doctored piano, and that was not Kern, it was me. We always had to do these things in production numbers.

Borne wasn’t exaggerating; he frequently made changes to the music that ended up on his piano (especially Kern’s, who had the reputation of writing old-fashioned tunes even in the 1930s), and Borne was particularly skilled at adapting songs for Astaire’s production numbers. In fact, Astaire requested that RKO give Borne an “additional musical arrangements” screen credit for his work, but Kern didn’t like that and asked RKO not to give him credit nor payment for the arrangements. The film’s official arranger, Robert Russell Bennett, also contributed to the score, so it’s difficult to know exactly where the ideas originated.

“Bojangles of Harlem” lasts eight minutes, so it’s quite involved. But it was supposed to be even more elaborate; according to TCM, Astaire and dance director and collaborator Hermes Pan‘s original vision for the number had a “travel” theme and included thirty-three distinct scenes and many different sets. “Bojangles/Astaire” would dance through the locations and spend plenty of time on stairs, a hallmark of Robinson’s dance routines. But as you can imagine, RKO balked at the expense of such a complicated number, so Pan and Astaire came up with a simpler design.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire

It starts with a chorus of women in black and white shimmery costumes. The stage slides open not once but twice to reveal a sparkly backdrop which then parts to reveal a caricatured (it’s not good) black face that then becomes a pair of giant shoes connected to Lucky. It’s all very shiny and highly stylized, and a little alien. Or maybe that’s just the funny antenna hats the dancers wear.

Astaire performs with the chorus and then the ladies dance off stage and he performs with three shadows. The shadow sequence is an astounding piece of choreography and technical innovation that they filmed in three very long days after everything else on Swing Time was completed.

According to TCM, the idea for the shadow dance came to Pan while watching Astaire rehearse. Three lights happened to create three different shadows that appeared to be dancing with Astaire, and Pan thought it was worth recreating. To get the shadow effect, Astaire danced in front of a white screen while spotlit by a very powerful light. The shadow he created was tripled in the lab to get three Astaires, and then he performed the “foreground” choreography in front of a blank screen but under normal lighting.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire

The footage of the shadow dance was projected on set while he performed the foreground routine in order to synchronize everything. Then the shadows were combined with the other footage to create the four Astaires we see in the movie. Whew! It was the first time, but not the last, that Astaire used trick photography. (See The Belle of New York (1952) for a less stellar example…)

Fun fact: Hermes Pan was nominated for an Academy Award for Dance Direction (a category for just two years, 1935-1937) for this film. But he lost to Seymour Felix for The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

After the number, the film cuts to Margaret sitting in the audience. Triangle! And the hits just keep coming: Pops stupidly performs card tricks in front of the guy who lost Romero’s contract to Lucky. The man realizes that Pops cheated and forces Lucky to play again. This time, Lucky loses. So now The Silver Sandal has lost its orchestra, and Lucky and Penny don’t have music.

Penny is so upset about everything that she gets engaged to Romero. This time, it’s Lucky who obscures the kiss when he opens a mirrored door. It’s a lovely, melancholy rhyme to the other door kiss.

Swing Time: Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire & Georges Metaxa

The dancing duo say goodbye on the beautiful staircase. Lucky serenades his true love with “Never Gonna Dance,” an especially meaningful choice given who is singing it and to whom.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Penny looks impossibly lovely in her gossamer dress against the starry backdrop.

She can’t help but be pulled back to the dance floor for a glorious routine set to an instrumental version of “The Way You Look Tonight” and a medley of other songs in the score.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

They twirl up the stairs for final spins before Penny rushes away. Heartbreaking.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

It’s a gorgeous routine packed with spins and intricate footwork. Rogers floats effortlessly across the floor and Astaire glides with perfect grace.

Their skill and apparent ease belie the ridiculous work behind the scenes, though; in fact, this number was quite painful to film. Astaire’s preference for recording dances with as few cuts as possible meant that they had to perform almost the entire routine perfectly every time–no editing to hide mistakes. The filming of the dance lasted until 4AM and went through 48 takes. Rogers remembered that

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 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 – at 4:00 a.m.

Yikes! But it sure is a pretty dress:

Swing Time: Ginger Rogers

The next day, Lucky visits Margaret to end their engagement. But she explains that she doesn’t want to marry him either because she has fallen for someone else. The realization strikes the couple as terribly amusing!

Swing Time: Betty Furness, Fred Astaire, Victor Moore, & Helen Broderick

Lucky laughs so hard that he cries. In between gasping giggles, he tells Pops and Mabel that “We’ve just thrown each other over!” Mabel responds with a cheerful “I know how you feel. I’ve been divorced a couple of times myself!” before breaking into laughter. See what I mean about funny, jaded 1930s ladies?

Meanwhile, Penny agrees to marry Romero that day. The ceremony site looks lovely but the bride is bummed.

Swing Time: Ginger Rogers

Pops and Lucky decide to postpone the ceremony by pulling the “No cuffs? No cuffs!” trick on Romero, and it works yet again.

Swing Time: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, & Helen Broderick

Without trousers, there can be no wedding (seems like a fairly easy situation to remedy, but oh well), which suits Penny just fine. She breaks up with Romero and turns immediately to Lucky for a fade-out kiss. The End!

Swing Time: Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers

Fun fact: this movie includes the first onscreen kiss in the Rogers-Astaire series. But it wouldn’t be until Carefree (1938), two movies later, that we get a long smooch between the stars.

This movie was in production from May 11 to July 31, 1936 and premiered less than a month later on August 27 in New York. Its working titles were I Won’t Dance and Never Gonna Dance, which would have been ironic choices for a Rogers-Astaire film. Swing Time is slightly funny, too, as there really isn’t that much swing music in the movie.

Fun fact: one of the working titles did come back around: Swing Time was reincarnated in 2003 as the Broadway show, Never Gonna Dance. It mostly followed the plot of the film but added more Jerome Kern songs. It closed after 84 performances.

Like the previous Astaire-Rogers films, Swing Time one was a hit. But Frank Nugent at The New York Times found it lacking compared to the others. He wrote, “The picture is good, of course. It would have to be with that dancing, with Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, and Eric Blore. But after Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, and the rest, it is a disappointment.”

Oddly, considering the esteem in which the score is held today, Nugent blamed the movie’s faults on the music, writing that “Maybe we have no ear for music (do we hear cries of “No! No!”?) but right now we could not even whistle a bar of ‘A Fine Romance,’ and that’s about the catchiest and brightest melody in the show. The others—’Pick Yourself Up,’ ‘Bojangles in Harlem,’ ‘The Way You Look Tonight,’ ‘Waltz in Swing Time’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’—are merely adequate, or worse. Neither good Kern nor good swing.” History certainly proved him wrong!

Nugent complimented the dances, though, especially the “Bojangles” shadow number, writing that “Mr. Astaire’s solo tapping in the Bojangles number, with three giant silhouettes keeping step on the wall in the background, is one of the best things he has done.” He continued:

…the astute filmmakers at RKO Radio’s studio have not forgotten their reliably entertaining formula for an Astaire-Rogers show. The plot is never permitted to weigh upon the shoulders of the cast; of comedy there is a generous portion; of romance the lightest sprinkling; of dancing, in solo, duet, and ensemble, a brisk and debonair allotment. Add to these a handsomely modernistic, even impressionistic, series of sets, the usual appreciative photography and you have a picture that unquestionably will linger for a few weeks at the Music Hall.

And for over eight decades in American cinema history!

Here’s the trailer–enjoy! For more, follow me on TwittertumblrpinterestInstagram, and Facebook. You can buy this movie here, and as always, thanks for reading!











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12 replies »

  1. Great behind the scenes info!
    Ginger Rogers had such an amazingly interesting film career.
    The woman could do everything and more (even her pencil sketches while waiting between setups are astoundingly good!).
    So many stars like Cary Grant were pigeoned holed in stereotypical roles, but not Ginger!
    Do you know if she was always paid less than Fred?
    Wish TCM would put out a best of collection of just her non-dancing roles… She is always so watchable, fantastic at both drama and comedy.
    Great performances, like great songs, can last forever.

    • Thank you! Yes, Ginger Rogers had a very long, varied career! People tend to forget that she made over 70 movies, and only ten with Astaire. I think she was always paid less because he had a profit sharing deal with the studio and I’m fairly certain she didn’t get anything besides her salary. A lot of her movies are available on DVD/BluRay now, which is awesome! Thanks for reading and commenting! Always nice to hear from a Rogers fan!

  2. Great review and super pictures. Thanks too for video links. I love the Kern/Fields songs and the dancing is sublime. But the Astaire/Rogers scripts could have been so much better.

  3. Penny Carroll is so cute in shampoo. The Way You Look Tonight is a great song, I think this is some of their best work. They are truly one of the best on screen pairings aside from William Powell and Myrna Loy.

  4. One of the major stars of the movie was the way over the top Silver Sandal nightclub based on the Silver Slipper in New York City as you mentioned in your review. The real “Silver Slipper” was actually run by gangsters in the 20’s and 30’s.

    The club was not only managed but supplied with the purist Scotch during prohibition by none other than Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky, Bugsy Segal, and Frank Costello. They were known as the Broadway Mob because they ran their operations from 1500 Broadway and hobnobbed with Broadway stars and show biz types.

    The Silver Slipper became a variety club at some point and Ginger Rogers performed there for a spell. Since the lead character (Astaire) is named “Lucky” and Ginger had performed at the real “Silver Slipper” it makes you wonder if this was a callback to some real events and people in the film. Or an inside joke by cast and director perhaps?

  5. “Swing Time” is an odd movie. The first twenty minutes are so are excruciating – just horrible people being horrible to each other, and no musical numbers (I read somewhere that one was cut). Then comes “Pick Yourself Up,” and it all comes right.

    “Never Gonna Dance” is particularly splendid. I love the way it recapitulates the whole romantic arc of the film. It may be may favourite Astaire/Rogers routine. If it weren’t for that one cut at the top of the staircase (when cuts happen in one of these routines it is quite jarring because there is no change of angles to hide them), it would be perfect.

    It is, sadly, hardly surprising to find the female lead being paid less than the male, but in this case there are complications. Because Astaire was doing the choreography, uncredited, he was not free to make other films. For Rogers, however, her collaborations with Astaire were actually a minority of her output in the 1930s.

    Thank you, Cameron, for another absorbing and beautifully-illustrated read.

    • Thanks! Yes, the first number with Astaire and his troupe that we just catch the end of was originally included in its entirety! You’re right about Rogers’ output: only 10 of her 70 movies were with Astaire. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  6. During the Bojangles number, when they alternate the chorus girls dressed in black and then dressed in white, there is a girl dressed in white at the end of the line. It sure looks like Debbie Reynolds! Is it possible?

    • Interesting! But I don’t think so. She would have been about 4-years-old when they filmed this movie and didn’t come to Hollywood until 1948 or so. Thanks for the question!

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