I have a love-hate relationship with “Swing Time.”
I love this film because the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers dances are, dance for dance, some of their most spectacular. George Stevens directs with assurance, the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score is a knockout, and the leads so relaxed, so charismatic at this point in their careers that watching them is rewarding.
But I hate this film because of the ending. It falls flat – a resolution that feels anticlimactic, and it breaks the mesmerizing spell of everything that has come before it. It makes me mad because this entry, while still one of the pair’s best efforts, could have been a true masterpiece.
Astaire plays Lucky Garnett, a dancer and gambler who loves his flash and style. He’s set to marry Margeret (Betty Furness), but his buddies don’t want to see him leave their show for the proverbial jail sentence. So they stall the wedding by holding his pants hostage … and it works. But Lucky promises Margaret’s father (played by director Stevens’ father, Landers Stevens) that once he makes $20,000, he will return to marry her.
Lucky and pal Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) set off for the city, dressed in their finest but broke. An encounter with Penny results in a lost quarter but a lovestruck Lucky follows Penny to her work, a dance academy where she’s employed as an instructor by Gordon (Eric Blore). Penny is enraged when Lucky shows up, but he saves her job and the two are set to audition for a show as a couple.
While Lucky’s gambling continuously gets in the way, he and Penny are a dynamic dance team. While Lucky fights his feelings for Penny while earning money, he also keeps himself from making enough money to marry Margaret. Then there’s bandleader Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa), who’s in love with Penny and wants to get rid of Lucky.
Unlike Fred and Ginger’s last outing, “Follow the Fleet,” where they had to share the lead duties, “Swing Time” focuses on them, and how wonderful it is. The plot is a fun nod to their own popularity, which led to the proliferation of dance academies across the country. While “Follow the Fleet” features the duo playing working class characters, here they follow that theme but with more glamor, a way of combining the sophistication of “Top Hat” with a touch of reality.
The dancing in this film certainly adds to their growing portfolio of brilliant numbers, and the numbers often are woven into the plot. And their first one, “Pick Yourself Up,” is simply spectacular. He’s still wearing his formal attire, but she’s in a simple black dress trying to teach him to dance, unaware that he already knows how. The number starts with Lucky clumsily trying to learn his steps, but once his secret is revealed, the dance soars with a lightness and, by the end, they literally are soaring as they jump over the short fence surrounding the academy’s dance floor. It’s hard not to feel good after watching a number that was also a nod to Depression-era audiences, who took to the notion that they needed to just pick themselves up and keep going.
“Waltz in Swing Time” is a dance performed in front of an audience at a club, and it’s a one-take wonder filled with abandon. It’s intricate but never slows, and it’s pure dance at its exhilarating best.
Stevens’ direction can be lovely, such as in the winter scene for “A Fine Romance,” one of the film’s most charming pieces. In it, Penny is trying to seduce Lucky, who wants to be seduced, but he told Pop to keep him an honest man. So Pop tries to sabotage the romance, much to Penny’s frustration. But the snowfall and snow-covered trees are gorgeously captured as Stevens slowly works his way through this winter wonderland.
The sumptuous 1930s art deco style of the Silver Sandal, the nightclub, is captured in all its glittering splendor. It’s the perfect setting for the dramatic “Never Gonna Dance” number, where Penny has decided to marry Ricky so Lucky can be free to marry Margaret. While “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” number in “Follow the Fleet” is boldly dramatic, it’s also a stage piece within the film, a self-contained number. “Never Gonna Dance” takes that drama but applies it to the film’s plot. The result is a dance filled with emotion as Lucky tries to keep Penny. The duo starts on the dance floor but cascades up the stairs to a platform, when Penny finally departs. So many takes were done of this number that Rogers’ feet reportedly were bleeding through her shoes, but she nailed it on the last take.
The other great number occurs just before this one, and it’s Astaire’s requisite. Lucky is paying tribute to Bill Bojangles Robinson. While Fred in blackface is not acceptable today, it’s clear Astaire was paying tribute to the great Robinson is as sincere way as possible, and the style of the dance perfectly captures Robinson’s. Astaire dancing in front of a screen showing silhouettes of himself was groundbreaking at the time.
But Stevens also seems a bit off with some of his touches. For example, the opening gag with Lucky’s tuxedo pants seems to go on and on. The lovely “The Way You Look Tonight,” with Lucky singing to Penny, who is giving way from anger to affection, should have been a touching moment. Instead, Penny has been washing her hair, and while Stevens captures her glowingly listening to Lucky sing the song, the number ends with the gag of Lucky turning around and reacting to Penny’s head covered with shampoo. The magic of this love song is broken by a misplaced gag.
The ending, though, really rankles. For those who don’t want it spoiled, please jump ahead to the next paragraph. With Penny set to marry Ricky, I expected something more exciting that Margaret showing up and simply announcing she wasn’t going to marry Lucky. This is an easy out to the plot and a letdown for the audience, which is primed for some last-minute stroke of genius. You would expect Lucky, who is gambling throughout the film, to risk it all for Penny and somehow win her back in climactic, breathless fashion. Instead, after Margaret’s announcement, everyone gets a fit of the giggles, and it goes on and on, long after I stopped laughing. Another gag with pants falls flat, and suddenly Penny and Lucky are together and the film ends.
Thankfully, the cast is terrific as always. The supporting cast includes the wonderful Helen Broderick who play’s Penny’s pal Mabel, although it’s the equally fun Moore who has most of the supporting screen time. Blore isn’t around long, but just relish how deliciously he pronounces the name “Penny.” It’s elocution at its best. Only Metaxa seems rather drab as the two-dimensional bandleader Ricky.
“Swing Time” was a huge success upon its release, and Ginger considered this her favorite of the Fred/Ginger films, mainly because of the chance to work with George Stevens. The film also won an Oscar for Best Song for the lovely “The Way You Look Tonight.”
“Swing Time” is fun, the dance numbers brilliant, and everyone should make this a must. Just lower your expectations for the ending, and you’ll have a grand time.