An Appreciation – Swing Time
If I had the chance to somehow visit any world of the movies, I think I would first choose the one inhabited by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It’s a place of elegance, joy, and a sense of being carefree—where your biggest worry is having to wear the right tuxedo or dress, and even people of little means smile as if everything is going to be alright in the end. It’s a place where terrible things don’t happen to good people, and all that’s left is love, music, and dancing. No wonder a film such as Swing Time (1936) would be released in the middle of the Great Depression—it gave audiences something to escape to, to be a part of something fun and fancy for two hours away from the tough realities of the world. Some people watch movies that depict real life; the beauty of this movie is that it depicts a life we dream of having.
The film is one of the great musicals ever made, right alongside classics such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and West Side Story (1961). I’ve returned to this movie over and over again, and part of the reason is how elegantly simple it is, and yet so effective in what it sets out to do. Using a word like “magical” may come off as a bit much when describing a film, but for this there is no better term. As with a dance, you know you’re seeing something wonderful when it looks effortless, and director George Stevens made this movie appear as if it were just that. There are no fancy camera tricks or elaborate editing choices; everything is done economically, but to full measure. Often times, the camera simply sits and watches just as we do, and yet what happens on screen is as captivating as anything else you could ask for. Chemistry and enthusiasm come with breezy ease here, and while much of that has to do with the music by Jerome Kern and direction by Stevens, there is no denying that the biggest reason has to do with its two main stars.
Astaire and Rogers. Rogers and Astaire. These are two names that will forever be linked together, and rightfully so. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were a perfect on-screen duo, and while each of them had success on their own (with Rogers winning an Oscar in 1941), there is very little debate that they were better as a team. They made ten films together throughout the 1930s, and while each of their outings has its own special quality, this (along with 1935’s Top Hat) stood out as their very best. Sometimes, realizing that something works cannot come analytically, but through a feeling. Astaire and Rogers felt right together. Not only were they tremendous dancers, but they had a pitch-perfect chemistry that drifted into scenes that didn’t even involve dancing. Both can exchange one-liners and witty quips like hotcakes, and keep the other going like an intricate juggling act.
Take, for instance, their first dance scene together, during the “Pick Yourself Up” number. Astaire plays Lucky, a gambling dance performer traveling to New York in hopes of a making quick buck. Rogers plays Penny, a dance instructor Lucky happens to run into. He has followed her into her dance studio to take a lesson, and playfully pretends he has two left feet in the process. When Penny gets frustrated, gives up on the lesson, and almost gets fired, Lucky brings her onto to the dance floor at the last second to show how great of a teacher she is. Watch the look on Rogers’s face as she is surprised that Lucky can not only dance, but that he can dance really well. The accomplishment of this scene is to see Penny come to this realization as the dance is happening. Watch as Lucky pulls them together in sync, and soon enough the two are step by step, riffing as if they were playing the music themselves. I love seeing them work together, making this dance that is filled with high energy, all the while expressing themselves as if they were doing it by second nature.
In all of the Rogers and Astaire films, the plots come by as a second thought to the musical and dance scenes, and many of them dealt with similar traits. They usually involve their characters meeting, falling in love, becoming separated due to some misunderstanding or lightly developed plot device, and resolving in the final scene with a musical number and a good ol’ laugh to be shared all around. Here, we see Lucky in New York hoping to raise $25,000 to impress his fiancée’s father and to earn his blessing for them to get married. Things change when he meets Penny, and their opening dance scene inspires her boss to enter them as a team to perform in a fancy nightclub. On Penny’s side, things get complicated when Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa), the musical director of the club’s band, has his sights set on winning her heart, even if it means refusing to play music for them. These are all elements that are at play, but none of them really get in the way of Lucky and Penny being together most of the time. In fact, both of their potential obstacles don’t feature much in the film at all, leaving plenty of room for Lucky and Penny to develop their relationship.
And how exactly is that relationship built? Through dancing and music, of course! Dancing is truly an art form when it has the ability to tell a story without the use of words, and through the dance scenes in this film, we can see how Lucky’s and Penny’s dynamic changes, even very subtly. With the first dance scene, we have a playful flirtation, a breaking-the-ice kind of routine. By the time we arrive at the “Waltz in Swing Time” number, they are completely in rhythm with one another, reflecting their blossoming affection. Watch closely during this dance, and you’ll notice that many of the same steps are carried over, and yet it captures a different feeling, because Lucky and Penny are now in a different place in their relationship. They turn and switch positions, going from fast to slow and back again. There is a kind of unpredictability here, a spontaneity in the steps that makes us feel as if they can do just about anything they want to on that dance floor. It’s a lovely moment between two lovely people, and the lightness in their dancing is both refreshing and whimsical.