not in our stars, but in ourselves
15/52: A movie with an actor you love
The notorious early appraisal of Fred Astaire by a ruthless studio executive (“can’t sing, can’t act, balding, can dance a little”) has thankfully been disproved almost as thoroughly as intelligent design and geocentric models of the universe. While no one could argue that he was the handsomest movie star ever filmed, he was divinely gifted, which is to say hard-working, savvy, innovative, and driven. He was famous for his brutal rehearsals – brutal for him, that is. He would spend hours and hours each day, practicing and practicing and practicing, flagellating himself all the while for not being good enough; but with his partners, he was the epitome of tough-but-fair: cohorts like Gene Kelly would rant and rave and put partners through physically punishing rehearsals, but Astaire simply drilled his dancers until they got it right. (Cyd Charisse said her husband could tell whom she’d been practicing with based on her skin: “If I was black and blue, it was Gene. If I didn’t have a scratch, it was Fred.”)
This is all to say that I love Fred Astaire. I love his dedication, his finesse, his lightness and cleverness and charm. Kelly once said, “If he’s the Cary Grant of dance, then I’m the Marlon Brando.” Not a bad comparison at all – but of course, Astaire was Astaire-ing before Grant had quite established his onscreen persona. And in my opinion – as well as the opinion of numerous other film critics and fans and scholars – the pinnacle of his partnership with Ginger Rogers is Swing Time.
John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) is a dancer who’d rather be a gambler. He’s supposed to marry a nice, small-town girl when his dance troupe travels through their hometown, but his fellow dancers (a surprisingly masculine, apparently heterosexual buncha guys) conspire to make him miss the wedding. Lucky begs his would-be father-in-law to let them go ahead with the wedding, and vows to make $25,000 in his new line of business and then to return for a proper wedding. Lucky, accompanied by his faithful friend “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore), hops a freight train to New York City. All he has is his wedding suit and his lucky quarter. He encounters the lovely, feisty Penny Carrol (Rogers), and after getting her into trouble through a series of mishaps, he wants to make it up to her. He follows her to the dancing school where she works, and – initially pretending to be a hopeless klutz, just so he can spend more time with her – dazzles her as well as her boss with “how much you’ve just taught me.” I mean, he’s Fred Astaire. When he dazzles, no one else compares. He gets the pair of them a dancing gig at a chic nightclub, makes bundles of money, and seems to be on the road to true love. (Lucky and Penny – could there be any doubt that they’re meant to be together?) However, there are always bumps along the way. Not only does Lucky remain uncomfortably aware that he’s promised himself to someone else, Penny has someone breathing down the back of her neck as well: the odious bandleader who refuses to play for the two of them dancing together, until Lucky manages to win the band’s contract back from a rival nightclub owner. More bumps ensue, more misunderstandings, more resignation and acceptance of the loss of true love – but don’t worry, kids. This is Fred and Ginger. Things work out, in almost all ten of their pictures together.
All the songs in Swing Time are composed by Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Kern’s specialty was plaintive, evocative melodies, and they’re here in abundance: “The Way You Look Tonight”, “Waltz in Swing Time”, “A Fine Romance”, and the magnificent “Never Gonna Dance” (more on that presently). Not that there’s anything wrong with Irving Berlin (songwriter for Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, and Carefree) or the Gershwins (songwriters for Shall We Dance) – but there’s something about Kern’s music that brings out the real magic in the Astaire-Rogers partnership. His music captures the playfulness, the affection, and the yearning quality of expressing love and desire through rigidly choreographed dance.
Swing Time was a sort of midpoint Astaire-Rogers film (it was the sixth of ten), but it almost feels to me as if it were a culmination. For one thing, it recalls several earlier moments from their other films together: during the opening credits, we see silhouettes of the two of them dancing together, thus recalling the shadow-subterfuge during the “Continental” number in The Gay Divorcee; the shadow-dancing is also a major feature of Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” number (more on that soon, too); during “A Fine Romance”, the two begin serenading each other under a snowy gazebo, recalling the electric “Isn’t This a Lovely Day” song-and-dance number under a rainy gazebo in Top Hat; and the heartrending finale, “Never Gonna Dance”, is a fulfillment of all the tragic lyricism of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in Roberta. Swing Time was the mark of a decline in the duo’s popularity, so perhaps the apparently epilogue was unintended poetic justice. Or something.
Now, as much as I love Swing Time, I can’t let you all go into it without warning you: there is some Problematic stuff in it. To wit: Astaire appears in blackface during the “Bojangles” number. There’s no excuse for blackface, there’s no way to spin it, there’s no way to make it anything except the racist blight it’s always been. Astaire – the man anointed as the greatest dancer of the twentieth century by everyone from Mikhail Baryshnikov to Michael Jackson – was paying homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, someone he considered the greatest dancer of the twentieth or of any century. However, it’s awfully clumsy. And he’s not in blackface for just the number (which, it must be said, is an amazing feat of dancing): after he goes offstage, his world crumbles around him. His nice small-town girl shows up and he’s obliged to introduce her to Penny as his fiancee; the rival nightclub owners show up and reclaim the band; the bandleader shows up and asks Penny to marry him; and in the span of five minutes, Lucky the temporary black man loses everything. It’s strange. It’s not a good look. It was the ’30s, and unfortunately, there were some gross cultural representations and appropriations of “the other.” (There’s also an uncomfortable small part by a real black actor, Floyd Shackelford, all “yassah!” and “he don’ wan’ ta see no one, no sah!” – so be ready for that, too.) I don’t excuse any of it, but I hope it won’t detract from your enjoyment of the film.
Because, I mean, it is a wonderful film. Even if you ignore the “sheer heaven” of earlier numbers like “Pick Yourself Up” and “The Way You Look Tonight”, even if you’re not especially interested in the absurdist logic of the plot, even if you find the racism hard to stomach, you should do yourself a favor and stick with it until “Never Gonna Dance”. This is the final movement of a symphony, the grand moment of filmed dance, the greatest Fred and Ginger number ever conceived or performed or recorded. There is a brief, blink-and-you’ll miss it cut – but the majority of the dance is filmed in one take. (That one take took forty-seven takes to get right; later takes were necessary to ensure that no one could see Rogers’s bleeding feet.) The music revisits all the melodies up to this point, running through each as Lucky and Penny reluctantly say goodbye to each other, to true love, to happiness, to all those Hollywood-manufactured dreams. It is unexpectedly poignant, and it has made this particular audience member tear up on more than one occasion. If the film ended immediately after “Never Gonna Dance” – after Penny breaks away from Lucky, and Lucky reaches after her but remains still, visibly heartbroken – it would stand as one of the saddest movie endings in classical Hollywood.
Fortunately, it doesn’t end there. As I said, this is Fred and Ginger, the king and queen of “dance that’s a dream of romance.” The film ends with everyone laughing, all misunderstandings re-explained and understood, and with Lucky and Penny serenading each other as the sun breaks out from behind the clouds. A fine romance indeed.
P.S. It occurs to me that I’ve already written about this one. Tough noogies.