Sunday, December 18, 2016

Swing Time (1936)

Director: George Stevens                              Writers: Howard Lindsay & Allan Scott
Film Score: Jerome Kern                               Cinematography: David Abel
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore and Helen Broderick

Swing Time is generally considered to be the best of the Astaire-Rogers vehicles for RKO. Much of that success has to be due to director George Stevens, an A-list director who brought something more to the production than simply a knack for filming dance numbers. Unfortunately he was saddled with a sub-standard screenplay that undercuts his marvelous direction. The only songs that eventually become standards are “The Way You Look Tonight,” which Astaire not only sings in Rogers’ apartment, but Metaxa also sings to her in a nightclub, and “A Fine Romance.” Interestingly, both of the melodies were written to the same chord progression and sung together at the conclusion of the picture. “The Way You Look Tonight” even won the Academy Award for best song that year. The only other nomination was for Hermes Pan, the choreographer of the series. While contemporary critics lauded the dance numbers, today they don’t seem to have the same visual impressiveness as those in other films, probably due to the lack of really memorable music to accompany them. Recent research has uncovered the fact that Jerome Kern wasn’t especially inspired by the film and because Astaire didn’t like his tunes, he went to his rehearsal pianist Hal Borne to compose music better suited to the film. Because of his contract, Kern was able to have Borne’s name kept off the film credits. Ultimately, the conflict shows on the screen, and the film marked the beginning of the decline in popularity for the dancing duo’s pictures.

The film begins in a theater with a group of dancers finishing a performance. Fred Astaire as the leader is late for his wedding and is going to break up his act with magician Victor Moore. The other dancers in the group succeed in sabotaging his marriage to Betty Furness, and when Astaire tries to apologize by telling her father he’s in a new line of work, Landers Stevens tells him to come back successful and then he’ll give his consent. Moore goes with Astaire to New York, and immediately they run into Ginger Rogers who naturally takes an instant disliking to the dancer. But she also happens to work at a dance school. Helen Broderick is the sardonic secretary and Eric Blore is the fussy owner, and Astaire finagles a first free lesson with Rogers. Of course he acts the clod in order to continue the lesson as long as possible, and when she insults him in front of Blore she gets fired. But then Astaire dances with her to prove how good she is and wins her job back. Moore and Broderick also do a nice parody dance, and naturally Broderick gets fired anyway. Blore gets Astaire and Rogers an audition for a club but neither Astaire nor Moore have a dime between them, or a place to live. They gamble to make a living. But when Astaire misses the audition because he’s busy gambling to win a tux, she dislikes him even more. Nevertheless, his songs and persistence, as they must do in these films, pay off in the end.

The contrivance to keep them apart throughout the film is that Astaire still feels honor bound to Betty Furness but doesn’t have the nerve to tell Rogers. In terms of story, this is certainly one of the lesser films in the series, though it is popular with fans. Even the rival for Roger’s hand, Georges Metaxa, isn’t very interesting. And the big dance number, the waltz “Swing Time,” comes off rather oddly as well because it is a tap number and the orchestra plays at a very low volume most of the time in order to hear the tapping. And then there’s Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” number in blackface. Sigh. One of the remnants of our minstrel past that was rife in Hollywood in the early part of the century. It’s probably one of the things that ruined Holiday Inn for modern audiences, and it’s something of a spoiler here as well. In terms of positives, one of the real treats of the Astaire-Rodgers films is the fluid moving camera work by David Abel, and not just in the dancing sequences. As far as the production is concerned, the sets are quite opulent and a big step up from earlier entries in the series. In particular, the upstate country set with snow in the wintertime is wonderfully realistic. And despite quibbles with the music, the dancing overall is still one of the reasons to watch the pictures. Swing Time, while not the best in the series, is certainly worth seeking out to see the dancing duo in prime form.

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