not in our stars, but in ourselves
It’s a special birthday edition of the 250 Film Challenge. Now that it’s officially Fred Astaire’s birthday here*, I have decided to commemorate it by watching my favorite of all his films: Swing Time (1936). In my humble opinion, it is the funniest, the cutest, the most romantic, the best danced, and the all around greatest of his collaborations with Ginger Rogers – and possibly with anyone else. I cannot count how many times I’ve seen it, and it still sends me every time. Will it enchant you as thoroughly as it enchants me? I don’t know, reader, but I urge you to give it a try.
The plot is, as usual in Astaire/Rogers flicks, pretty slight. John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) is a dancer with a talent for gambling. He was supposed to get married, but his friends ensured that he missed the wedding. He therefore makes a deal with his fiancee’s father: once Lucky makes $25,000 (gambling, but he lets the father believe it will be on the stock market, which is sort of the same thing), then he will be permitted to marry dull little Margaret (Betty Furness). With only his lucky quarter in his pocket and his manager, “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore) by his side, he catches a freight train – hobo style – to New York. There, he meets the lovely dance “instructress” Penny Carroll (Rogers). Since their names are Lucky and Penny, they’re obviously meant to be together. However, there are lots of obstacles to overcome; after all, the picture has to be at least an hour and a half long. Lucky can’t find it in his heart to tell Penny that he’s betrothed to another. Penny has an obsequious bandleader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), hot on her heels to get married. There are the usual Shakespearean comedy misunderstandings and mishaps, thanks in no small part to Pop and to Penny’s friend Mabel (Helen Broderick) – and then the usual happy ending. Yeah, yeah, don’t worry. It’s Fred and Ginger here, not Burton and Taylor.
I am probably overstepping myself and my limited understanding of such things, but there seems to be something symphonic about Swing Time. Or perhaps balletic: there are motifs, themes, variations, repeated throughout the film in ways that very few ’30s musicals – or any musicals that I can recall off the top of my head – attempted. After you’ve seen the film – after, I tell you; do not deny yourself the pleasure of seeing these numbers for yourself before you go and read about them in depth – read over the Wikipedia notes on the song and dance routines. Someone very enthusiastic had a very good time. No, it wasn’t me.
Since you asked, however, I do want to go through the various numbers myself. They are among the very best of Astaire and Rogers’s partnership, and among the best in any musical ever. The first one, “Pick Yourself Up,” is my go-to if I need cheering. No matter how dark and gloomy I’m feeling, no matter how badly my day has gone, “Pick Yourself Up” never fails to pick me up. The song, a charming bit of fluff, features Astaire at his most mischievous and Rogers at her most nurturing. Then, the dance. The dance! I linked to it yesterday, and I’ll link to it again today. Watch it. Please, please. Do yourself that much of a favor. If you aren’t beaming by the time he sends her sailing over the balustrade, you really have something wrong with you.
Then there’s the lovely, quiet “The Way You Look Tonight” – now a standard to beat all standards, and best performed by Astaire in this film. The way it starts out – just him at the piano – and the way it makes Rogers’s face gleam softly, as if lit from within, is a beautiful moment of understatement in a genre that usually relies on bombast and full orchestra to make its romantic intentions known. It is so simple, so charming, so utterly heart-warming: the stuff that most of my dreams are made of. And, in the end, it’s quite funny too. Everything you could possibly want, in the span of two and a half minutes.
Following that, there’s a straight dance number, “Waltz in Swing Time.” It’s not a particular favorite of mine, perhaps because it is straight dancing and not so much story-telling, but it is a masterful piece of choreography, and masterfully performed. Maybe I don’t like it so much because Ginger’s dress makes her look like a poodle. Nevertheless, it is an impressive technical achievement – one of the best of all their numbers together. As Lucky says earlier in the film, he wants “to flirt with Terpsichore,” and that’s just what they’re doing here.
Lucky and Penny, accompanied by Pop and Mabel, go on an excursion to snowy upstate New York, where the two frustrated lovers sing “A Fine Romance,” a sardonic little ditty whose lyrics are well worth a read, if you still haven’t gone and watched the darn movie yet. It has been pointed out more than once that Fred looks a bit like Stan Laurel here – but that adds, rather than detracts, to the fun for me. She’s singing about wanting to be ravaged, even when he looks like that. It must be love.
Then there’s a number that is, frankly, tough for those of us not watching in 1936. It’s “Bojangles of Harlem,” and it features Astaire in blackface. Racism is racism, and I won’t attempt to excuse it, but I will say that there was obviously no intense to offend. Here, the man crowned as the greatest dancer of all time, by all kinds of other dancers, is paying tribute to the man he considered the greatest: Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. And it is a fantastic number, really. After dancing with a couple of dozen chorines, clad in black and white (a bevy of Odettes and Odiles, if you want to get classical about it), he launches into an extraordinary solo wherein he dances with three projections of his shadow. It’s not really his shadow, obviously. It’s far more impressive than that. It’s the outline of Astaire dancing, projected larger than life on the wall behind him. The real Astaire, dwarfed by the shadows, dances in front. And throughout the number, the real Astaire matches the shadow Astaires perfectly. There is no gesture or nuance of movement that he misses. It is obvious from the 1936 special effects that it’s not really Astaire dancing with his real shadow – and that makes his achievement all the more impressive. Try to do any sequence of movements. Now try to do it again, precisely the same. Go on and try. You will not be able to do it. Astaire could do it, the little show-off.
Finally, and best of all, Lucky and Penny bid their sad adieux to each other in “Never Gonna Dance” (not to be confused with the George Michael song). This is where the symphony really comes together. First, Lucky sings to Penny, one of the saddest songs of failed love ever written. Then, they begin to walk/dance as a wistful reprise of “The Way You Look Tonight” takes over the melody. The dance takes full flight as the melody changes again to “Waltz in Swing Time,” and they each one-two-three their way up either side of a fabulous Art Deco staircase. A driving, insistent, almost frenzied instrumental reprise of “Never Gonna Dance” (the “have I a heart/that acts like a heart/or is it a crazy drum?” part) then takes over as the pair pirouettes – and then breaks. With the exception of an almost invisible cut when they reach the top of the stairs, Astaire and Rogers perform the entire dance in one shot, which took about forty-seven tries to get right. All the labor was worth it, however, because this is just about the greatest ten minutes of tragedy ever recorded in a Hollywood film.
In short, I love this movie. I hope you will, too. Once more, Fred: happy birthday. You are just about my favorite person.
*Having lived in Australia for a couple of years, I am mindful of nearly day-long differences in birthdays. I used to get about 40 hours of birthday wishes, and that was really nice. I’d recommend it heartily.