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Swing Time

Swing Time(1936)

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Swing Time (1936) is in many ways a knock-off of Top Hat, Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers' breakthrough movie from just a year before. If only all rehash could be this entertaining.

As a clever combination of comedy, romance and musical, Swing Time can't match its predecessor. Subbing less able Victor Moore for amusing Edward Everett Horton in the role of Astaire's older buddy is a loss (Helen Broderick, mother of Broderick, returns as Rogers' wise-cracking older confidante), while the tangled boy-meets-girl, boy loses-girl-repeatedly plot often strains to hold itself together semi-convincingly. No, it's in the musical numbers that George Stevens' movie earns its place among Astaire & Rogers' best, as Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields team on the music and lyrics, respectively, this time.

With Astaire as hoofer/gambler John "Lucky" Garnett and Rogers as Penny Carrol, the Manhattan dance teacher with whom he becomes smitten during his first day in New York, the plot of Swing Time ebbs and flows in its songs and dances. "Lucky" woos Penny amusingly in the "Pick Yourself Up" sequence, set in the dance school where she teaches, run by Eric Blore (another Top Hat alumnus). After an encounter in the street, he pretends to be a clumsy non-dancer and lets her show him the steps, initially getting her fired, but then winning her over by being her perfect dance partner. Their love blooms when he sings "The Way You Look Tonight" to her, and grows stronger in the nightclub-set "Waltz in Swing Time" dance. That dance is vintage Astaire & Rogers, a nearly three-minute long take in which the couple is shown in a continuous, full-figure medium shot.

The intersection of plot and romance continues in "A Fine Romance," a classic tune of romantic dissatisfaction in which Penny needles "Lucky" for his lack of physical passion ("You're as cold as yesterdays mashed potatoes," she sings). She doesn't know that the reason he came to the big city was to earn money and "make good," so he can marry his fiancee (Betty Furness) back home. She discovers that at about the same time "Lucky" decides he'd rather be with her than his fiancee, but it's too late for "Lucky," at least temporarily. This leads to a plot turn in which Penny then decides to marry a swarthy bandleader (Georges Metaxa) who's repeated proposed to her, though this development is a crock. The action never shows the bandleader even being nice to Penny, and we resent the guy because everything involving him, including the machinations over his nightclub contract, drags Swing Time down.

That said, the unconvincing plot turn nonetheless results in the most sublime and, along with "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from Follow the Fleet, most dramatic of all Astaire & Rogers' numbers, "Never Gonna Dance." It's his last-ditch attempt to win her back, starting with the melancholy song in which he pledges never to dance again if he can't dance with her and moving into the pair's dance. The breathtaking dance, set in a lavish nightclub after-hours, builds in power and speed, with "Lucky" and Penny eventually each moving up the club's double staircases and rejoining above in a ridiculously fast set of moves. Rogers' spins here are just amazing, and as awe-inspiring as anything Astaire does in Swing Time. As the dancing and the music escalates in intensity, the last move of the number, as she breaks from him, speeds out of the frame and leaves him, longing, is heartbreaking.

The one song-and-dance not yet mentioned, Astaire's solo number "Bojangles of Harlem," is forever the movie's most problematic, since it's done in blackface. There's a palpable cringe quotient due to the misguided element of Astaire's tribute to fellow dancer Bill Robinson, especially early on, when he's accompanied by lines of sepia-tinted chorus girls. But it gets better as it progresses, especially when Astaire unleashes some fleet tap-dancing accompanied, in an optical-printing special effect, by three oversized shadows behind him.

It's a credit to The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step by Step, the DVD's featurette, that it emphasizes the dancing in the movie, and the short makes insightful observations for us laymen (John Mueller, one of the dance experts interviewed, does the disc's rather dry commentary track). It's heartening to see that thought went in to the featurettes in the five-disc Astaire and Rogers Collection, and that they aren't generic making-of shorts slapped together on automatic pilot. My viewing of Swing Time did, however, reveal a striking flaw in the boxed set that I hadn't noticed when I reviewed Top Hat. When I enabled the subtitles to catch all of the lyrics to "Never Gonna Dance," I discovered the set's subtitles don't include song lyrics. If you're not going to subtitle the songs in a musical, why bother? If someone is hearing-impaired and needs subtitles, are they going to get much out of the movie without knowing what's said in the songs, which so often advance plot and character?

All of the set's movies also include a two-reeler and a cartoon. Those on Swing Time - Hotel a la Swing and Friz Freleng's Bingo Crosbyana - are pretty forgettable, though. The offscreen legal action prompted by the second, which features a crooning insect, is more interesting than the actual cartoon. Bing Crosby's lawyer's threatened to file suit against Warner Bros. over it, claiming its Bing-imitating character was a "vainglorious coward." Alas, he's also not that entertaining.

For more information about Swing Time, visit Warner Video. To order Swing Time, go to TCM Shopping.

by Paul Sherman