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Swing Time

Directed by George Stevens with Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Victor Moore, black and white, 103 minutes, 1936

Colorized cover of VHS box of black-and-white movie

Colorized cover of VHS box of black-and-white movie

By Carter B. Horsley

Dance is artistically dramatic athletics and Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was the world's greatest dancer. His impeccable grace epitomized elegance, and his style incorporated elements of ballroom dancing, tap-dancing and ballet. His lithe form, bright smile and overall bearing personified class internationally for half a century with only Cary Grant coming a little close at the end of his career to approaching. Soft-spoken, he was a great, albeit underrated, singer, whose sophistication would precede Frank Sinatra's.

He had élan, the charismatic personality and talent that gave the promise of perfection and unmistakable genius and he was without question the greatest performing artist in the history of the cinema as evidenced by the incredible legacy of his career. Many artists create masterpieces, some several, but only a very few many and Astaire's oeuvre is without equal.

Although his solo performances such as the homage to Mr. Bojangles (Bill Robinson) in this film, or his gravity-defying prancing in "Royal Wedding," are truly remarkable, it was his duets with Ginger Rogers (1911-1995) that were the most popular perhaps because the public could more easily identify and fantasize with them.

Although the partners in the duets were fabulously synchronized, the focus was always on Astaire if only because his movements were not obscured by his partner's dresses. (This fact unfortunately tended to minimize the greatness of his partners even though the choreography, by Hermes Pan, was pretty much equal.)

In his excellent book, "The Great Movies" (Broadway Books, 2002), Roger Ebert, the film critic, makes the following observations:

"Of all the places the movies have created, one of the most magical and enduring is the universe of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. To a series of movies made between 1933 and 1939, they brought such grace and humor that they became the touchstone of all things elegant....what Fred and Ginger had together, and what no other team has ever had in the same way, was a joy of performance....When you see anyone - an athlete, a musician, a dancer, a craftsperson - doing something difficult and making it look easy and a joy, you feel enhanced. It is a victory for the human side, over the enemies of clumsiness, timidity, and exhaustion. The cynical line on Astaire and Rogers was, 'She gave him sex; he gave her class.' Actually they both had class, and sex was never the point.

Astaire was a skinny wimp of a man but he possessed incredible energy and his legendary and electric screen performances were usually shot in one, continuous take although they often required dozens of rehearsals. As Roger Ebert points out in his fine review of this film at http://www.suntimes/ebert/greatmovies/swing.html, Astaire insisted that the dance numbers be filmed "unbroken, always showing the full figures of the dancers from head to toes."

This was the sixth film in which Astaire and Ginger Rogers starred. The first was "Flying Down to Rio" in 1933 and other earlier ones included "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Roberta" (1934), "Top Hat" (1935)

According to Tim Dirks's review of the movie at his great website (http://www.filmsite.org), this film "is more entertaining for its dance numbers than its storyline (a script written by Howard Lindsay and revised by Allen Scott, and based upon an original story by Erwin Gelsey)." "One of the film's working titles was Never Gonna Dance, (the antithesis of Rogers/Astaire films), but was changed to Swing Tie to reflect Astaire's interest in making the film 'swining' and contemporary. Curiously, the film is almost a half-hour finished before the appearance of the first song and/or dance number. As in all Rogers/Astaire films, the non-sensical romantic plot is rather contrived and unbalanced, and is built mostly around a series of wonderfully choreographed dance numbers, duets, Art Deco sets and songs. As a dancer turned gambler, Astaire is challenged to raise $25,000 to prove to his father-in-law that he can support - and marry his fiancee Betty Furness. Screened during the height of the Depression Era, the film also served an inspirational purpose for the spirits of the country, especially with the song-dance 'Pick Yourself Up.'"

The film has six songs written by Jerome Kern including "The Way You Look Tonight" and "A Fine Romance.' "The Way You Look Tonight" was the movie's only Oscar for Best Song.

Astair plays John "Lucky" Garnett, a tap-dancer, who is engaged to Margaret Watson, played by Betty Furness. As the movie begins, he is finishing a routine in a nightclub and is changing to go to his wedding. He plans to leave show-business to become a professional gambler, he tells his old sidekick, Dr. Edward "Pop" Cardetti, played by the marvelously nervous Victor Moore.

His fellow hoofers in the act, however, worried about what will happen to them if Astaire leaves their group, steal his pants and convince him that the latest fashions dictate that his pants should have cuffs.

His fiancé's father, Judge Watson, played by Landers Stevens, the father of the film's director, George Stevens, is enraged that Lucky is late to the wedding and calls him to call off the wedding but does not realize that he is not speaking to Lucky, but another member of the dancing group.

Ignorant of the judge's phone call, Lucky shows up at the judge's home several hours late and is told by the judge that he would not let him marry his daughter "for ten thousand dollars." Lucky asks "How about twenty?" "Not for twenty thousand," is the reply. Lucky asks "Twenty-five?" The judge begins to reject that offer, but then declares, "Say young man, where could you get twenty-five thousand dollars?" and relents, if he can return with $25,000.

Lucky departs for New York with only his "lucky quarter" and his sidekick. In New York, Pop tries to get cigarettes from a vending machine using a button from his coat as Penelope "Penny" Carroll, played by Ginger Rogers, walks by and he asks her for change for his "lucky quarter." She gives him change and out pops several cigarette packs and lots of coins from the vending machine.

Lucky, however, wants his "lucky quarter" back and rushes after Penny, who bumps into someone and drops her purse, which Pop picks up in an attempt to switch quarters, but Lucky grabs away the purse before Pop makes the switch and Penny looks into the purse and cannot find the quarter and hails a nearby policeman.

The copy does not believe that anyone as well-dressed as Lucky, who is still in his wedding attire, would steal Penny's quarter and goes off. Penny then goes into the dancing studio where she works, followed by Lucky.

Lucky is offered a free dance lesson by one of Penny's associates and he picks Penny to teach him. He proceeds to dance with her very awkwardly, remarking that his "two feet haven't met yet, but I'll be teacher's pet yet." She then starts singing "Pick Yourself Up." Lucky tries again but they both fall to the floor and she is fired. Lucky tries to defend her and starts to dance, with amazing skill, and soon they are dancing together beautifully and she is rehired and the manager decides to arrange an audition for them at the Silver Sandal night club.

Lucky, however, does not own a dinner jacket for the audition and tries to win one by gambling, but he is not successful and Penny discovering him without his pants refuses to talk to him.

Lucky eventually is successful at gambling but Penny will have nothing to do with him even though he and Pop "picket" her apartment. Eventually, Penny's girl friend, Mabel, lets Lucky into Penny's apartment and he serenades her with the song, "The Way You Look Tonight." She relents and emerges from her room with her hair covered with shampoo.

So he and Pop picket in the hall outside Penny's apartment room, wearing placards that read: "PENNY CARROL UNFAIR TO JOHN GARNETT." After a week of picketing, Mabel sympathetically encourages them: "Keep up the good work, boys, the public is with you." Lucky has scheduled a second audition and "bankroll-ed" himself to prosperity, but Penny stubbornly refuses to see him: "I like being stubborn where he's concerned." Mabel suspects that she is in love with him, but she denies it:

At the audition, the orchestra leader, Ricardo Romero, played by George Metaxa, who is also in love in Penny, refuses to play music for Penny and Lucky and the club's owner reveals he cannot force him to because he "lost" him the night before to a rival nightclub owner, Dice Raymond, played by John Harrington, playing cards.

Lucky and Penny call to Raymond's nightclub to gamble and run into Romero, who is the new bandleader. Raymond bets Lucky "double-or-nothing" for his winnings at the casino in the club, but Lucky decides to gamble for Romero's contract. Lucky wins the wager but Romero still will not perform because of the late hour. Lucky, however, holds up Romero's hand with the baton and the music begins and Lucky and Penny perform to the "Waltz in Swing Time."

Lucky is in love with Penny and has not yet told her about his fiancé. She eventually finds out, however, and in a duet they sing "A Fine Romance."

Back at the nightclub, Lucky does a solo dance, "Bojangles of Harlem," in blackface, which is one of the great dances in screen history. When Lucky takes a curtain call, however, he notices his fiancé in the audience.

Raymond discovers that the wager for Romero's contract was not "on the level," Mr. Dirks wrote, adding that "Strong-arm gangsters of Dice's compel Pop to admit to Lucky: 'He pulled a cold deck on you and I palmed the Ace of Spades on him.' On another draw of cards with another fixed deck, Dice wins Romero's band contract back."

Lucky is congratulated backstage by his fiancé, but they are found together by Penny who also learns that Lucky has reverted to gambling again. Penny proceeds to accept Romero's proposal of marriage.

Penny asks Lucky if his fiancé dances well. He replies that he doesn't know, adding "I've danced with you. I'm never going to dance again," which leads to his singing the song "Never Gonna Dance" and the accompanying dance routine.

Lucky is subsequently told by his fiancé that she is not in love with him and plans to marry someone else. Penny, of course, is still supposed to mary Romero, but Lucky and Pop steal his wedding pants and there is a happy ending.

The story is sophomoric and soapy, albeit cute. The chemistry between Astaire and Rogers, however, is indelible. Rogers eventually stopped hoofing in the movies, opting for "serious" roles. Astaire, of course, went on to very long and incredible career doing what he did best, dancing and singing in the movies, feats he performed without equal.

In almost all of his filmed dance sequences, Astaire insisted on full-figure shots and no cut-aways. He was a perfectionist. Wasn't he grand.

This film is rated 11th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

Click here to order the VHS of this movie from Amazon.com for $14.95

Click here to go to the Internet Movie Database entry on this film


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