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DVD Review: Swing Time

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“Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is tricked into missing his wedding because he believes his trousers to be out of fashion, and is required to earn $25,000 in New York City before the girl’s father will allow the marriage to take place, only Lucky doesn’t earn money as much as he wins it. By chance he runs into Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor who wants nothing to do with him until she finds out that against all odds Lucky is a fantastic dancer. Eventually they fall in love and she gets engaged to a band leader, but the marriage is averted when he falls for the same trouser con.

The main draw for Swing Time, other than the roulette games, is the dancing chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. They don’t disappoint. Director George Stevens frames the sequences in a continual long shot, which was probably standard at the time, but in retrospect seems like a novel approach. It allows us to watch the artistry of the dance without wondering if they’ve used a body double for the shots of the feet or employed other such tricks of the editing booth.

It’s interesting to note that we don’t see Astaire and Rogers fall in love in a typical way, rather they fall for each other on the dance floor. Most of the honest communication happens while they dance, for that matter. There are times it seems they’re making love simply by tapping their feet. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.

For a musical, Swing Time doesn’t contribute a whole lot to the American songbook. Only one song, “The Way You Look Tonight”, has had any lasting appeal, and you could make the argument that Frank Sinatra’s recording had a great deal to do with that. The song runs throughout the film in a recurring motif, often creating a segue between a lesser song and the subsequent dialogue and reminding us just how inferior the song we just heard really was.

Fred Astaire has a solo dance number often cited for its inventiveness, “Bojangles of Harlem”, a tribute to several blackface performers of the time. While a rather famous scene that involves him dancing in front of a rear projection of three large shadowed figures that mimic most of his moves, the scene is, at the very least, an odd departure from the rest of the film. What purpose does the blackface number serve other than the continuation of a vicious stereotype? None whatsoever.

It does not advance the plot or further develop a character one iota. It is the worst kind of racism, for it is completely unnecessary. We are supposed to give this sort of thing a free pass, after all it was 1936 and hindsight is 20/20, and if it served any purpose in the film we surely would[1]. But to include this simply for the sake of inclusion reeks of irresponsibility on the part of the filmmakers. We expect better and humanity deserves better, even if it was 1936.

starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, and Helen Broderick
written by: Erwin S. Gelsey, Howard Lindsay, and Allan Scott
directed by: George Stevens
NR, 103 min, 1936, USA

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[1] We have absolutely no problem, for example, with the likeminded portrayal of the bandleader’s butler. He, at least, is a character with lines who advances the plot.

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