Swing Time, 1936, RKO Radio Pictures, Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore. Music by Jerome Kern & Dorothy Fields. Directed by George Stevens. B&W, 102 minutes.
Quite possibly the best musical from the Depression era, including all other Astaire/Rogers films, is Swing Time. The plot is fun, engaging, and not particularly complex, but the best storytelling happens through the moves of this incomparable pair.
John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is set to marry his long-time sweetheart, but numerous delays postpone the wedding, and the father-of-the-bride insists he earn $25,000 to prove his character.
Through one mishap after another, Lucky and his friend Pop end up in New York and on the bad side of Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor. To gain her friendship, Lucky takes a lesson from her, and the fun — and magnificent dancing — begins.
Fred Astaire’s notorious perfectionism in creating & refining each dance number and tireless work with famed choreographer Hermes Pan paid off. Three numbers in particular stand out; the first, “Pick Yourself Up,” is fun and exuberant, showcasing Ginger Rogers in top form. The second, “Waltz in Swing Time,” considered by many to be their finest dance together, is romantic and complex, with a slightly more subdued spirit than seen in “Pick Yourself Up.”
Yet it’s the final number in this film, “Never Gonna Dance,” that is likely the most evocative and beautiful Astaire/Rogers performance from any film. This poignant dance took place on an incredible Art Deco set and was shot almost completely in one long take (there’s one cutaway in the end), using one camera. When you watch it, you’ll understand why it took 47 attempts to achieve the final perfect result.
Ginger Rogers is often quoted as saying she did everything Fred Astaire did, “only backwards, and in high heels.” Almost true. She didn’t dance backwards too often, but she did wear high heels in virtually every number, and managing those dresses while dancing was a feat in and of itself.
The deceptive simplicity of the dress in “Never Gonna Dance” is amazing as well. A close look shows how complex the design is, fitted through the waist and flared out below the hips, all done with pleats.
You may recognize the Academy Award-winning song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” which went on to become Fred Astaire’s most popular recording and has been recorded by countless others since.
Years later in her autobiography Ginger Rogers would say “though I love all the films I made with Fred Astaire, I have a favorite child, and it is Swing Time.” This depression-era film provided a much-needed escape for its audiences when it was released, and still offers that break from reality today. If you watch only one Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers film, choose this one.