Thursday, November 3, 2011

Swing Time (1936) - Directed by George Stevens


Note: This essay of Swing Time appears here in the Wonders in the Dark Top 70 Musicals Countdown, coming in at #6.

I sat down with my 3-year old daughter the other day and invited her to watch a dancing scene from Swing Time with me. She’s very interested in dance these days and taking a class (ballet) so I figured I would show her. It was the scene where Fred and Ginger are doing the “Pick Yourself Up” number, which is a boisterous dance. My daughter asked me a few questions about the movie at first as Fred and Ginger were talking, but she was mostly entranced and watched the scene with me in silence during the dance itself. I know it sounds simple, but I realized for the first time that dancing requires little explanation or greater understanding of context and/or plot to really understand it. It is truly a physical communication to those of us in the audience. Even small children instinctively know how to dance. It's not something you have to teach them. Dancing speaks to us on an instinctive level, and there never was, nor will there ever be another dancing duo like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose chemistry and artistry remain unsurpassed.



Swing Time is arguably Fred and Ginger’s greatest film. I know that Top Hat (1935) has lots of admirers (myself being one) but I think Swing Time has a bit more emotion working for it and in that way, is a bit of a departure. Director George Stevens may have had something to do with the film's different feel compared to the Mark Sandrich films. But, like all the Astaire-Rogers films, Swing Time has a plot that is mostly fluff, and usually only serves to get the stars from one song/dance number to the next. In this one, Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, member of a dance troupe, who also has a penchant for gambling. On his wedding day following a dance show, his friends hold him up, causing him to miss the wedding, whereby he is told by his father-in-law-to-be, that he must make it big in the dance business and only then will he allow him to marry his daughter. With his friend, "Pop" (Victor Moore), they ride the rails to NYC, where through a chance encounter on the street, Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), who is a dance school instructor. Most of the film that follows is filled with the usual contrivances: mistaken intentions, love triangles etc. It’s all second fiddle anyway to the song and dance in the film.



Of late, I've been trying to gain a greater understanding of Fred Astaire's talent and artistry. Few people debate his solo dancing, which is rather tremendous. What I've noticed though, is his chemistry with other dancers besides Ginger Rogers is a mixed bag. Oh sure he worked with some of the most beautiful women and/or technically gifted dancers of the Hollywood era: Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen, Eleanor Powell etc. But most of them are too perfect in a way. They seem to be going through the motions of the dances with Astaire (who tends to be a perfectionist anyway) and the chemistry with Astaire suffers for it. Something is missing. That something is Ginger Rogers. Arlene Croce in her Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book writes that Ginger Rogers “brought out his (Fred’s) toughness and also his true masculine gallantry.” In John Mueller’s Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, he writes, “Rogers was outstanding among Astaire’s film partners not because she was superior to the others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop where dancing began.” What I believe made the pairing so remarkable, was their onscreen commitment to the dancing in whatever way they knew how. Fred’s perfectionism and trained excellence paired well and contrasted with Ginger’s ability to project independence and something resembling improvisation while they danced. What she lacked in formal training, Ginger made up with guts and know-how, which brought her sexiness and confidence to the foreground in their films together, elevating their dances.



There are three Astaire-Rogers dance sequences in Swing Time, my favorites being “Pick Yourself Up” and “Never Gonna Dance”, both of which arise out of the plot. In “Pick Yourself Up”, Lucky has just made himself look like a terrible dancer on purpose in front of Penny in the dance school. She gets fired because of it, and Lucky tells the director that she in fact is a great teacher and he proceeds to dance his heart out with Penny in a number that may be the most exuberant number they ever performed. What I love about the scene is the way that Ginger appears shocked and surprised at how well Astaire's character can dance. She sells this expression during the opening moments of the number, and this is an example of how her acting continued during the dance sequences. There are great changes in rhythm in the scene and it’s my favorite example of just how joyful these two could be onscreen. I also get the impression from watching this dance that Astaire and Rogers project an attitude: They're good and they know it. I've attached the video here....






Their final dance is “Never Gonna Dance”, which is performed after Lucky feels he has lost Penny to another man and is his plea to her that he may love again, but he’s never gonna dance with another. This dance is performed with deeply felt emotion. He slowly convinces her to begin the dance after they walk around each other for a bit. Then they part and as she walks away, he grabs her and she whirls around to face him. Their bodies throb with synchronicity and reluctance, like some passionate love affair between two people who are not supposed to be together. It’s hard not to become engulfed in the dance’s emotive and physical allure. It’s probably the most passionate and sexy dance Astaire and Rogers ever did. Famously during this scene, which had to be filmed in more than forty-eight takes, Rogers’ feet had terrible blisters and began bleeding during the shooting. In her book, Ginger: My Story, she writes, "I never said a word about my own particular problem. 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." 


Astaire has a tremendous solo dance in the film, but it is one sequence that must be addressed with special context. It is the “Bojangles of Harlem” number, which Astaire performs in blackface. Traditional blackface was of course laced with prejudices and highly caricatured performances. But, this sequence in the film, as noted by many critics and historians, is a clear homage to the great African-American tap-dancer, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, someone whom Astaire greatly admired. Moreover, Astaire also pays tribute during the scene to another great dancer of the time, John Bubbles, an African-American tap dancer who in fact taught Astaire a thing or two later in his career. In Levinson’s Puttin' on the Ritz, he documents an interview from the 1960’s that Bubbles gave which regards a tap lesson he once gave to Astaire, which highlights Fred’s regard for Bubbles: “It was on the stage at the Ziegfeld Theatre. He paid me four hundred dollars. He couldn’t catch the dancing as quick as Ann Miller, though, so I taught her so she could teach him to save time for them…..I gave them heely-toes, cramps, stomps, heely-toe turns, and cramp rolls.” It’s interesting to note that Astaire’s make-up is not the black, burnt-cork type, but a lighter brown color. My only complaint with the scene is the prop of the giant sole of the shoe with the large lips and bowler hat that I personally find offensive. But, the dance and performance are clearly not. In fact, it may be Astaire’s greatest solo dance sequence ever put on film, including some astounding, rapid-fire tap sequences and a brilliant, three-shadow back-projection effect behind Astaire as the shadows try to keep up with him. This sequence rightly earned the great choreographer Hermes Pan a Best Dance Direction Oscar nomination. If interested, for some added context around blackface, I point us to Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), which takes a unique approach, both historically and conceptually to address blackface in its many forms.



Outside of the famous dancing in the film, there are also a couple of great songs as well. With music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy field, their songs “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance”, both became huge hits and standards throughout the years. “A Fine Romance” is performed in a wonderful and memorable set-piece with Astaire and Rogers in a winter wonderland of snow, with snowflakes falling all around them. “The Way You Look Tonight”, one of the most beautiful songs Astaire ever sang, has a touch of irony in the scene, as Astaire sings on the piano, while Rogers has her hair covered in shampoo suds in the bathroom. She comes out to meet him at the end of the song and totally forgets she hasn’t rinsed her hair. It’s a sweet and funny moment.



Despite their amazing chemistry, Astaire and Rogers might not actually have liked that they were paired together in so many films. Famously Astaire wrote to his agent, Leland Hayward after the The Gay Divorcee (1934) became a hit: “What’s all this talk about being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland – I did not go into pictures to be teamed with her or anyone else, and if that is the program in mind for me I will not stand for it……if I’m ever to get anywhere on the screen it will be as one not as two”. Ginger in a BBC interview in 1987 said this: “We were a team. He didn’t do it by himself, Fred was not my Svengali. A lot of people think he was. I was very much my own woman.” Whether they got along or not, what’s amazing is that they were able to be professionals during the onscreen performances to the point of creating immense chemistry, be it through a heated rivalry or common goals of success, despite whatever differences they had. Swing Time is their final great pairing and perhaps the culmination of all their work throughout the years prior to this film. Their dancing here feels especially perfectly timed, creative, and in the final dance, terrifically passionate. What they left the movie-world will forever be remembered fondly and their beautiful dancing will always retain its charm and elegance. 

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