Thursday, May 17, 2012

"Swing Time" (1936)

Of all the films Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers appeared in together during their historic RKO Studio days of the 1930s, my favorite is their original movie musical, Swing Time, directed by George Stevens.  This wasn't based on a Broadway hit like The Gay Divorcée or Roberta.  Like Top Hat with its score by Irving Berlin and Shall We Dance with its score by George and Ira Gershwin, Swing Time had songs moviegoers were hearing for the first time.  Songs that are still popular today.  In his 1950s dramas A Place in the Sun and Giant, George Stevens looked at America's social class system.  He takes a lighter look at class consciousness in Swing Time -- and he took that look during the Great Depression when the country really needed this Astaire & Rogers entertainment.
This musical comedy has a look at working class upward mobility in career and in love.  Fred Astaire plays John Garnett, just a regular All-American guy who happens to have terrific talent.  He's a featured dancer in the chorus of a musical stage show.  His nickname is "Lucky" because that's what he is when he gambles.  He loves to gamble.  He doesn't behave like a star but the other dancers know he's tops in the act.  Lucky's leaving to marry an upper class girl with a stuffy Wall Street-type father.
Father doesn't feel that a dancer is of the right class to wed his daughter.  She's sweet and pleasantly bland.  Tricks are pulled by the chorus guys so Lucky won't wed and break up the act.  We need these tricks so Lucky will be forced to get to New York City and meet Ginger's character.  She's probably engaged to the wrong person too.  That'll give Fred plenty of chances to dance her in love with him.  Broke but dressed for the wedding, the wedding that didn't happen, John "Lucky" Garnett hops a train like a well-dressed hobo and heads for the Big Apple.  Top Hat, Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1935, made Astaire a bona fide Hollywood star after years of Broadway hits.  The top hat itself became his trademark.  Stevens takes his trademark, a sign of sophistication and privilege, and warmly places it on the all-American guy.  Cinematically, this image is like a George Stevens salute to the working class.
Depression era audiences could feel "he's one of us" and also wish they had his luck.  With his best friend and comic sidekick, Pop (played by Victor Moore), Lucky arrives in Manhattan.  Pop wants to get something from a vending machine.  They need change.  Enter pretty Penny Carrol, street smart career girl on her way to work.  With a New Yorker's suspicious exterior, she gives Lucky change.  Some confusion happens with her purse and she thinks Lucky stole coins out of it.  It was Pop's fault, an innocent mistake.
Penny calls a cop over to help her get her change back.  The cop takes one look at Lucky and sides with him, assuming that formally-attired men are too upscale to commit petty crimes.  To the cop, John Garnett appears to be privileged and in the correct social class.  He's free to go about business.  Poor Penny gets no help at all.  "Cossack!" she calls the policeman.  Lucky wants to square things and make sure that she gets her 25 cents back.  He watches as she enters her workplace.  It's a dancing school.  Perfect!  Penny's best friend and comic sidekick, Mabel (played by Helen Broderick) also teaches dance at the school.  That means we've got someone for Pop.  Lucky enters and pretends to be a total klutz who needs instruction.  He requests Miss Carrol.  She, of course, is irritated.  But he's a customer.  Ginger starts the first of the original Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern songs that'll become a standard in our American songbook -- "Pick Yourself Up."  They sing verse and chorus as he feigns awkwardness and lands them both on the floor.
As the cop did, her boss assumes it's Penny's fault and fires her.  Lucky saves her by claiming Miss Carroll has taught him a lot. Lucky leads her into the dance area with "How did you say that last step went?" He breaks out into an amazing improv step. A swing time music intro starts. She's smiling.  The boss sits down, at Lucky's invitation, and "Pick Yourself Up" becomes like an audition number that keeps Penny employed.  Rogers and Astaire were gifted with choreography by Hermes Pan.
These two working class people, Penny and Lucky, are perfect for each other.  The song itself, "Pick Yourself Up," is a pep talk for folks knocked down by the Depression.  We need it in this current Recession.  By the way, there's a quote that started in the 1970s or '80s that goes "Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels."  Wrong.  Ginger totally deserved equal pay, benefits and billing.  But Ginger never lifted and twirled Fred like he did her in this Swing Time number.
The dance thrills Penny's boss.  He arranges an audition for them at Manhattan's most deluxe art deco nightclub.  To get money for clothing and such, Lucky's gambling comes in handy.  With Lucky, Penny finds faster and unexpected upward social mobility.  Mabel likes Lucky.  He helped her bank account in those hard times.  When Mabel asks if Penny's falling for him, Penny poo-poos it with the comment that he's just "...a common gambler."  Mabel pulls a wad o' cash out of her pocket and praises him as being "an uncommon gambler."  Penny and Lucky have a tiff.  He playfully "pickets" her apartment floor, something the "common man" of the Depression would do.
This leads in to the tune that won the Academy Award for Best Song of 1936.  Astaire introduces "The Way You Look Tonight" while Ginger's character shampoos her hair.
Penny's heart warms to Lucky.  Lucky loves her too and wants to see her move up in her career.  But he can't profess his love to her until he's free of his fiancée.  Penny thinks he's cool to her attempts to generate some romantic heat.  This leads to another original song that's become a standard -- "A Fine Romance" sung by both Astaire and Rogers.
This number ends with a miffed Penny getting in a car and clicking on the windshield wipers to flick snow on Lucky.  The rhythm of the windshield wipers will be repeated by the intro of the "Bojangles of Harlem" number later.  Ricardo Romero is the pompous star bandleader in the swanky nightclub where Lucky and Penny are scheduled to perform.  He's wooing Penny but, oddly and obviously, never hooked her up with an audition.  Why Penny ever dated this selfish jerk is beyond us.  Ricardo is such a knob.  But that's why she needs Lucky to dance her back into a state of good common sense.  Romero tries to block her romance and her career by not playing their number.  Lucky takes care of that.  He and Penny dazzle the crowd with the thrilling "Waltz in Swing Time."  The term "poetry in motion" applies here.  No lyrics.  Just a dance for the sheer joy of the dance.
Penny and Lucky are featured performers.  They've moved up the ladder in their careers.  Lucky has a keen business sense that he utilizes.  His fiancée's dad just assumed that a dancer had no business sense.  Lucky is now headliner and part owner of the nightclub.  He's responsible, kind and honest.  After his show-stopping solo number, "Bojangles of Harlem" (Astaire's tribute to his idol, dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson), we see the fiancée in the audience.  She's fallen for someone else and doesn't know how to break the news to John.  She doesn't realize he's fallen for someone else too.  But Penny sees them together, assumes he loves her and gets herself engaged to Romero on the rebound.
We're soon to see a pinnacle in all the Astaire & Rogers dance numbers.  Lucky and Penny think they've lost each other forever.  Director Stevens, in the reflection of a mirrored door, shows us Ricardo about to kiss Penny.  Before his lips touch hers, the mirrored door opens and there's a somber-faced Lucky saying, "Penny."  A gorgeously-composed shot.  Romero leaves them alone to talk, possibly for the last time.  It's a tender scene, full of restrained emotion and so well-acted.  Stevens shows not only the extraordinary talent of two ordinary people but their extraordinary depth of feeling too.
They may have seemed like "common clay" to other people but, as a team, they've moved up to an almost celestial level.  They are "uncommon."  That's reflected in the art deco nightclub set decoration and their attire.  When first we saw Penny Carroll, she seemed to be coming out of a subway station and was on street level headed to work.  Now she looks like she's up amongst the stars.
The first dance floor encounter, in the "Pick Yourself Up" sequence, began with a walk in rhythm to see if she could teach him to dance.
The "Never Gonna Dance" number starts with a melancholy visual rhyme of that motion.  The instrumental section of the number itself is a medley of all the songs in their meeting, their fine romance and this bittersweet goodbye.  Bittersweet but temporary.
As they've been upwardly mobile in their relationship, they will be upwardly mobile in "Never Gonna Dance" as they part and individually dance up a long art deco staircase to a reprise of the "Waltz in Swing Time."
When they reach the top, there's a driving and faster reprise of "Never Gonna Dance" and Ginger executes a series of spins that ends in Fred's arms.  They hold dramatically, then part and she dances out of the door, leaving him alone and sad.  That dance is a work of art, full of longing and quite the emotional journey.
At the end, Lucky is still lucky.  He wins Penny back and leaves Romero to the boys in the band.   The working class girl who was treated impolitely by a cop and almost unjustly fired by her dance studio boss has had a great career opportunity, found true love and is now on top of Manhattan for a happy ending in Swing Time.
Ginger Rogers won an Academy Award.  For her portrayal of an independent working class career girl named Kitty Foyle, she won the Oscar for Best Actress of 1940.  She's excellent in that feminist drama.  Fred Astaire was a Best Supporting Actor nominee for his 1974 work in, of all things, an all-star disaster thriller called The Towering Inferno.  Neither star ever was nominated for work in a musical -- and musical comedies are hard work.  Look at "Never Gonna Dance."  If all those emotions had been expressed verbally by Fredric March and Merle Oberon in a drama, they probably would've been Oscar nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress.  The stars of Hollywood musical comedies didn't get the same respect even though, in cases like Swing Time, they spoke and danced their complicated emotions.  Here, George Stevens showed that the Astaire and Rogers acting was as impressive as their dancing.  Incidentally, for further proof that Ginger didn't do everything Fred did, only backwards and in high heels, watch Carefree with songs by Irving Berlin.  (Spanish audiences know this movie as Amanda.)  In this 1938 release, Fred plays a psychiatrist, Tony, who puts his celebrity patient, Amanda, in a hypnotic trance to the song "Change Partners."  He will lift and twirl her in that number.
He will lift her in the slow-motion dream sequence dance to "I Used To Be Color Blind."
In the country club dinner scene after radio star Amanda sings about a new dance called "The Yam," all the patrons join them for that swing number.  The big finish to it is Fred lifting Ginger over his leg on eight individual dining room tables in succession.  It's a must-see.  They knocked it out of the park with that big finish to "The Yam."  Even today that kind of finish that would make contestants on Dancing With The Stars want to pack up their bags, call it quits and promise "Never Gonna Dance" on stage again.  They could never match nor surpass Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in peak form.
Here are some other classic films directed by George Stevens worth renting:  Alice Adams starring Katharine Hepburn, Woman of the Year with the first teaming of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, The Talk of the Town, The More The Merrier with Jean Arthur in a Best Actress Oscar-nominated comedy role, I Remember Mama and Alan Ladd as the famed western character, Shane.


  1. This is my favorite all-time Fred and Ginger flick. I thought I was the only one! Jazzy music, hot tunes, and the ultimate in cool fun. Who could ask for more? Thanks for the great read! :)

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