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William A. Seiter
Lucky is tricked into missing his wedding to Margaret by the other members of Pop's magic and dance act, and has to make $25000 to be allowed to marry her. He and Pop go to New York where they run into Penny, a dancing instructor. She and Lucky form a successful dance partnership, but romance is blighted (till the end of the film at least!) by his old attachment to Margaret and hers for Ricardo, the band leader who won't play for them to dance together. Written by
Sebastian Gibbs <email@example.com>
SWING TIME (RKO Radio, 1936), directed by George Stevens, marks the sixth screen teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and if not their masterpiece, their best collaboration together. Aside from the predictable storyline that succeeds in presenting itself as an original screenplay, its their most lavish and stylish production, with the most memorable songs ever scored for a motion picture, compliments of Jerome Kern. Yet it's richness in sets and costumes makes one forget that this very expensive looking film was done at the height of the Great Depression.
The story begins with John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire), a professional dancer finishing up with his stage performance, and about to leave the theater and marry Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), his childhood sweetheart. Because his friend, "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore) feels his marriage would be a mistake, he succeeds into getting Lucky (whose biggest weakness is gambling) into a game of cards with his colleagues while others "arrange" to take time and have a tailor fix his pants by having cuffs put on them, while in reality his pants don't need cuffs. By the time he arrives at his wedding, the guests and preacher have long gone. Lucky persuades Margaret and her angry father (Landers Stevens), who disapproves of dancers, that if he can make $25,000 for his professional dancing, he can return to Margaret and claim her as his bride. The old man readily agrees to this idea and all is forgiven. Lucky and Pop train ride to New York City where while walking down the streets, a misunderstanding occurs between them and a young lady (Ginger Rogers) involving a lucky quarter belonging to Pop, in which a policeman (Edgar Dearing) enters the scene and sends the lady on her way. Trying to square himself, Lucky follows the girl, Penelope Carroll, to the dance studio where she works. He pretends to enroll in a class and has Penny as his teacher. Her employer, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore), fires Penny for insulting her pupil, whom she finds annoying whom she finds annoying and incapable of learning how to dance, but Lucky squares things by demonstrating how much Penny has taught him in one easy lesson. Amazed by the accomplishment Gordon arranges for Penny and Lucky to dance professionally at the Silver Scandal Night Club. Along the way, Lucky gambles his way to success, by winning a game of cards to obtain an orchestra leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), who loves Penny and jealous of her dancing partner. As for Pop, he finds middle-aged companionship with Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick), Penny's co-worker, best friend and roommate. Problems arise when Margaret returns to the scene and Ricardo insists on wanting to marry Penny.
SWING TIME's perfection mainly relies on the comic timing supplied by both its stars and character supporters, as well as the production numbers that surpass anything Astaire and Rogers have have done thus far. The score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields include: "Pick Yourself Up" (sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers); "The Way You Look Tonight" (sung by Fred Astaire, later reprized by Georges Metaxa); "The Waltz in Swing Time" (instrumental dance by Astaire and Rogers); "A Fine Romance" (sung by Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire); "Bojangles of Harlem" (sung by chorus/ performed by Astaire); "Never Gonna Dance" (sung by Astaire/ danced by Astaire and Rogers, along with "The Way You Look Tonight" and FINALETTE: Astaire and Rogers singing "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight." (Academy Award winner as Best Song of 1936). Of the musical highlights, "Bojangles of Harlem," Astaire's solo dance and his only black-face number, is an immediate classic that can be seen over and over again without any loss of interest. Reportedly a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Astaire manages to what would be offensive in today's society as both watchable and entertaining. Unlike the traditional black-face clichés, Astaire avoids the use of whiteness around the lips and presents himself in a complete tanned facial makeup, dressed in derby and spotted jacket. The scene where he dances in front of three shadows of himself on the wall has to be seen to really be appreciated. There's no doubt this was the best eight musical minutes ever recorded on film. Thank goodness due to political correctness that this number was never known to have been deleted from television prints. After seeing "Bojangles of Harlem," one would wonder how Astaire could ever top this? Well, he does, with "Never Gonna Dance," in he and Rogers dance on the glittering dance floor and finish it by dancing separately up a flight of two staircases. Great stuff.
SWING TIME brings back Helen Broderick, of TOP HAT (1935) fame, for the second and final time supporting Astaire and Rogers, once more delivering wisecracks in her deadpan manner, and her first of several opposite Victor Moore. As with each passing movie, Ginger Rogers has groomed, into an attractive young lady. By this time, her vocalization has matured, no longer the high-pitch girlish singer she once was in FLYING DOWN TO RIO (1933). Eric Blore, a regular in five Astaire and Rogers musicals, has less to do here than in his other collaboration with them. This time he sports a mustache, isn't playing either a waiter or butler.
SWING TIME, available on video cassette and DVD, and formerly presented on American Movie Classics, is shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies. To watch SWING TIME for the 50th time is like watching it for the first. Highly recommended, particularly during the late hours or during a cold, snowy afternoon, considering how snow does cover a lot of ground during the second half of the story. (****)
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