Behind the Camera on SWING TIME
Tuesday December, 18 2018 at 10:15 AM
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With Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire expanded the stage-bound setting of one routine in Swing Time (1936), performing separate sequences on two different levels separated by a third venue - two sets of stairs. In another sequence, Astaire and Pan utilized their first bit of trick photography, as Astaire dances with his own shadow in "Bojangles of Harlem." The "Bojangles of Harlem" sequence is also unique in the Fred Astaire canon as his only blackface number. The original conception was actually much more elaborate than what ended up on film. A scenario called "Hot Fields" was prepared as a loose parody of the all-black vehicle "Green Pastures." It would have involved the Bojangles character traveling through a variety of stylized sets representing Heaven, Hell and jungle locations, and would have involved many routines with that most familiar Bill Robinson setting - stairs. Thirty-three scenes would have been required. No doubt such an elaborate series of sequences was deemed to be too expensive to construct and film. All that remains in the film is an introduction to the character involving an outsized bowler hat which turns into enormously long legs. Also of note in the final sequence is that the blackface makeup used was evenly applied, and was not the typically caricatured Vaudeville blackface which emphasized the eyes and lips.
The actual inspiration for "Bojangles of Harlem" was the RKO musical, Hooray for Love (1935), which starred Fats Waller and Bill Robinson. Dorothy Fields, with Jimmy McHugh, had written the songs for it and Fields wrote "Bojangles of Harlem" in a similar vein. According to author Arlene Croce in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, "When the song arrived on Hal Borne's piano rack, it was in 2/4 time. "I played it for Fred, and he had kind of a strange look on his face," Borne recalls. "That was the trouble with Kern. His melodies were the greatest but his syncopation was corny. It was corny then. Fred said, 'I like the melody and the lyric is just fine, but why don't we swing it? Then we can come back to 2/4.' But it still wasn't right. And it wasn't long enough. I added a section, which I played on an upright piano. It was based on a vamp idea that kept going up different keys. That was not a harpsichord, it was a doctored piano, and that was not Kern, it was me. We always had to do these things in production numbers."
During rehearsals for the "Bojangles of Harlem" sequence, Hermes Pan noticed that three light sources were creating a group of Fred Astaire shadows dancing in perfect sync, and got the idea for the special effects shots in the dance. Astaire was filmed in silhouette, then tripled. The dance proper was then filmed against a process screen and combined with the shadow footage optically by RKO effects chief Vernon Walker. The effect was by no means perfect, however, as there is some "bleeding" of the image - the process screen shows through Astaire's hair at several points.
By most accounts director George Stevens' presence made quite a difference on the set. His reputation for perfectionism matched that of Astaire, so the same shooting ethic observed during the dance sequences extended into the non-dancing sequences. This meant multiple takes to work through problematic scenes. One pesky problem that came up on the set dealt with the soap that Ginger Rogers had in her hair while Astaire sang "The Way You Look Tonight." Real soap would not do, so a variety of substitutes, including shaving cream and whipped eggs, were attempted. According to Rogers, whipped cream finally did the trick and held up under the hot lights long enough to get the shot.
According to author Arlene Croce, Stevens "could be as slow as [Mark] Sandrich and somewhat portentous. Toward the end of "Never Gonna Dance," he attempts a daring crane shot but then cuts to a stationary angle at the top of the stairs. It may have been one of the few Astaire-Rogers dances that couldn't be filmed entirely in one continuous shot, for its climax, a spine-chilling series of turns by Rogers, took forty takes to accomplish." In the most recounted example of the lengths the dancers and director would go to for perfection, witness the multiple takes required for the "Never Gonna Dance" number. Rogers recalled, "We did final work on this number into the wee small hours of a Saturday night, and more than forty-eight takes were recorded. Everything that could have gone wrong did during the shooting of this number: an arc light went out; there was a noise in the camera; one of us missed a step in the dance, where Fred was supposed to catch me in the final spins; and once, right at the end of a perfect take, his toupee flipped off! I kept on dancing even though my feet really hurt. During a break, I went to the sidelines and took my shoes off; they were filled with blood. I had danced my feet raw. Hermes [Pan, the choreographer] saw what had happened and offered to stop the shooting. I refused. I wanted to get the thing done. Finally, we got a good take in the can, and George said we could go home - at 4:00 a.m."
Shooting wrapped in late July, and Swing Time had its premiere in New York on August 27th, 1936.
by John Miller