Friday, March 23, 2012
#90 on the 2007 AFI Top 100 American Movies
Swing Time is a 1936 RKO musical comedy film set mainly in New York City and stars Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Eric Blore and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The film was directed by George Stevens.
Swing Time is considered by Croce, Mueller and Hyam to be Astaire and Rogers' best dance musical, featuring four dance routines that are each regarded as masterpieces of their kind. "Never Gonna Dance" is often singled out as the partnership's and collaborator Hermes Pan's most profound achievement in filmed dance, while "The Way You Look Tonight" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and went on to become Astaire's most successful hit record, scoring first place in the U.S. charts in 1936. Kern's score, the second of three he composed specially for Astaire, contains three of his most memorable songs.
But while it is considered to be one of Astaire and Rogers' greatest films, the film's plot has been criticized as has the performance of Metaxa. More praised is the acting and dancing performance of Ginger Rogers. Rogers herself credited much of the film's success to Stevens: "He gave us a certain quality, I think, that made it stand out above the others." Swing Time also marked the beginning of a decline in popularity of the Astaire-Rogers partnership among the general public, with box office receipts falling faster than usual, after a successful opening. Nevertheless, the film was a sizable hit, costing $886,000 while grossing over $2,600,000 worldwide and showing a net profit of $830,000. Still, the partnership never again quite regained the creative heights scaled in this and previous films.
In 1999, Swing Time was one of Entertainment Weekly's top 100 films. In 2004, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In the new AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) it has been added at #90.
* Fred Astaire as John "Lucky" Garnett
* Ginger Rogers as Penelope "Penny" Carroll
* Victor Moore as Edwin "Pop" Cardetti
* Helen Broderick as Mabel Anderson
* Betty Furness as Margaret Watson
* Georges Metaxa as Ricardo Romero
* Landers Stevens (George Stevens' father) as Judge Watson
Astaire introduces two new elements into his approach to filmed song and dance, both of which represent the abandonment of theatrical staging conventions. First is the use of space, horizontally in "A Fine Romance" and vertically in "Never Gonna Dance", and second is the introduction of trick photography in "Bojangles of Harlem". Partnered hopping steps/spins and the satire of self-conscious elegance feature prominently in the choreography, in which Astaire was assisted by Hermes Pan.
* "Pick Yourself Up": The first of Kern's standards is a charming polka first sung and then danced to by Astaire and Rogers. One of their most joyous and exuberant numbers is also a technical tour-de-force with the basic polka embellished by syncopated rhythms and overlayed with tap decoration. In particular, Rogers recaptures the spontaneity and commitment that she first displayed in the "I'll Be Hard to Handle" number from Roberta (1935).
* "The Way You Look Tonight": Kern's classic Oscar-winning foxtrot is sung by Astaire, seated at a piano, while Ginger is busy washing her hair in a side room. Here, Astaire conveys a sunny yet nostalgic romanticism but later, when the music is danced to as part of "Never Gonna Dance", the pair will create a mood of sombre poignancy. As evidence of its enduring appeal, this song is regularly featured in modern cinema and television: as in Chinatown (1974), or My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), and it played a prominent role as the key linking element in the final episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
* "Waltz in Swing Time": Described by one critic as "the finest piece of pure dance music ever written for Astaire", this is the most virtuosic partnered romantic duet Astaire ever committed to film. Kern - always reluctant to compose in the Swing style - provided some themes to Robert Russell Bennett who, with the assistance of Astaire's rehearsal pianist Hal Borne, produced the final score. The dance is a nostalgic celebration of love, in the form of a syncopated waltz with tap overlays - a concept Astaire later reworked in the similarly impressive "Belle of New York" segment of the "Currier and Ives" routine from The Belle of New York (1952). In the midst of this most complex of routines, Astaire and Rogers find time to gently poke fun at notions of elegance, in a delicate reminder of a similar episode in "Pick Yourself Up".
* "A Fine Romance": Kern's third standard, a quickstep to Field's bittersweet lyrics, is sung alternately by Rogers and Astaire, with Rogers providing an object lesson in acting while a bowler-hatted Astaire appears at times to be impersonating Stan Laurel. Never a man to discard a favourite piece of fine clothing, Astaire wears the same coat in the opening scene of Holiday Inn (1941), and never a man to waste a chord sequence, Jerome Kern uses the same sequence for "The Way you Look Tonight" and "A Fine Romance".
* "Bojangles of Harlem": Once again, Kern, Bennett and Borne combined their talents to produce a jaunty instrumental piece ideally suited to Astaire, who here - while overtly paying tribute to Bill Robinson - actually broadens his tribute to African-American tap dancers by dancing in the style of Astaire's one-time teacher John W. Bubbles, and dressing in the style of the character Sportin' Life, whom Bubbles played the year before in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Dorothy Fields recounts how Astaire managed to inspire the reluctant Kern by visiting his home and singing while dancing on and around his furniture. It is the only number in which Astaire - again bowler-hatted - appears in blackface. The idea of using trick photography to show Astaire dancing with three of his shadows was invented by Hermes Pan, who also choreographed the opening chorus, after which Astaire dances a short opening solo which features poses mimicking, perhaps satirising, Al Jolson - all of which was captured by Stevens in one take. There follows a two-minute solo of Astaire dancing with his shadows which took three days to shoot. Astaire's choreography exercises every limb and makes extensive use of hand-clappers. This routine earned Hermes Pan an Academy Award nomination for Best Dance Direction.
* "Never Gonna Dance": After Astaire sings Field's memorable closing line: "la belle, la perfectly swell romance" of Kern's haunting ballad, they begin the acknowledgement phase of the dance - possibly their greatest - replete with a poignant nostalgia for their now-doomed affair, where music changes to "The Way You Look Tonight" and they dance slowly in a manner reminiscent of the opening part of "Let's Face The Music And Dance" from Follow the Fleet. At the end of this episode, Astaire adopts a crestfallen, helpless pose. They now begin the denial phase, and again the music changes and speeds up, this time to the "Waltz In Swing Time" while the dancers separate to twirl their way up their respective staircases, escaping to the platform at the top of the Silver Sandal Set - one of the most beautiful Art Deco-influenced Hollywood Moderne creations of Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. Here the music switches again to a frantic, fast-paced, recapitulation of "Never Gonna Dance" as the pair dance a last, desperate, and virtuosic routine before Ginger flees and Astaire repeats his pose of dejection, in a final acceptance of the affair's end. This final routine was shot forty-seven times in one day before Astaire was satisfied, with Rogers' feet left bruised and bleeding by the time they finished.