An Appreciation – Swing Time
Notice how things change when we compare the feeling between this scene and that of the “Never Gonna Dance” routine. The last performance between Lucky and Penny in the film, this moment comes at the climax, when they both realize that the other is linked to another person, and that the only way to resolve matters is to break up. This is a much sadder scene, filled with emotion and melancholy, as we see Lucky try to keep Penny from walking out the door. As good as they both were here, I feel that this dance routine really belongs to Ginger Rogers. Rogers was not the creator Astaire was—she didn’t participate in choreographing the routines, but she performed just as well as her male counterpart, and here I would argue surpasses him in a way. Astaire insisted that dances be shot from a wide angle and with very few edits, and thus performances were often done from beginning to end. To know that this dance took 47 takes to perfect, involving spinning and climbing up stairs, only goes to show how much of a dedicated professional Rogers was. By the time shooting had ended, Rogers’s feet were bleeding. It’s been famously said that Rogers was arguably more impressive because she danced both backwards and in high heels, and this scene would be a testament of how good she really was.
Fred Astaire was a movie star whose looks were just as memorable as his dances. He was partly responsible for this, being that he almost always had his hair slicked back, wearing a dapper suit and bow tie, carrying a cane and top hat as if they were extensions of his body instead of props. As classy and well-refined as he looked in his attire, Astaire’s personality was much more laid back. He always slouched when he sat in chairs, and always had a playful attitude compared to those he shared screen time with. But as a dancer, there are few that have equaled him. The constant perfectionist, he would rehearse again and again until he felt he got a routine the way he wanted, and he never tried to duplicate the same moves in different films. Astaire was not as physical a dancer as Gene Kelly (the man he would so often be compared to), but Astaire had a smooth approach and graceful touch that many have tried to imitate. His influence reaches out much further than one might expect. Dancers from all over have cited him, and even the great Michael Jackson took much of his own inspiration straight from the man. Watch the music video of Jackson’s Smooth Criminal and see how that is literally an homage to Astaire and his work in The Band Wagon (1953).
We can’t talk about this film without examining the famous—and controversial—“Bojangles of Harlem” performance. A show put on by Lucky at the nightclub, the dance scene is a brilliant display of physicality and creative genius by Astaire. Unfortunately, the piece is overshadowed by the racial context with which it is presented. Yes, that is Astaire performing the scene in blackface, and I would not be surprised if there are people who see this film and have trouble looking past such a racist image. But we must step back for a moment and look at the scene both in historical and motivational perspectives. The times were different in the 1930s; seeing a person in blackface was more accepted in mainstream popular culture. But beyond that, what we must take into consideration is why Astaire decided to do the performance in such a way. Unlike other examples of blackface, in which the image is used only as a means of exaggeration and mockery, Astaire did it in tribute to one of his major influences. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, a black dancer whose name was an inspiration for the song and dance scene, played as a source for Astaire to develop his own personal style. The scene is Astaire’s dedication to him.
That isn’t to say that blackface is excusable, because it is not. I only point this out as way to look at the scene from a wider viewpoint, and for us to see the scene for what it tried to do. But with that in mind, what an amazing dance Astaire gives us. The scene opens with him dancing with a chorus line of female tap dancers, leading all of them together. Once the dancers exit and Astaire is by himself on stage, he goes off in an exuberant display of liveliness. He just simply keeps going, tapping his feet and hands like instruments that are a part of the band. And then there is that famous image of Astaire dancing with three of his shadows, going faster and faster to the point where the shadows can’t keep up with him and simply walk away exhausted. Realize that Astaire himself performed each shadow separately, and the way all four of them seemed to be in perfect harmony is just an incredible sight to see. When Astaire finally stops and coolly steps off stage waving his hand, he’s telling us that he just did something that no else in the world has done, and we know it too.
From the Academy Award-winning music by Kern (and Dorothy Fields), to the contributions of wonderful character actors like Victor Moore and Helen Broderick, there is so much great about Swing Time that one can simply sit back and take it all in. It is a fantastic entertainment, so full of delight and goodheartedness that I find myself uplifted every time I even think about it. Astaire and Rogers made one of the best couples the movies have ever seen, and their work here is an example of them at the height of their powers. What other tandem can feature in a movie where one of the most romantic scenes involves one person sitting at a piano singing “The Way You Look Tonight,” and the other lovingly standing next to them in a bathrobe with shampoo in their hair? If the chemistry necessary to make that moment work isn’t something special, I don’t know what is.