Swing Time

Day 44.

So I finally watched a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire movie and their dancing is actually as great as everyone claims. Swing Time is often said to be one of (if not the) best film the two of them made together. Little did I know that this movie laid claim to a controversial dance number featuring black face. To be honest I was expecting a musical movie a la Singin’ in the Rain that I would love, but this movie fell short.

That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the music and dancing. I am in complete awe of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers‘s dancing abilities. Astaire is ridiculously smooth and effortless, even when executing complicated footwork. As for Ginger Rogers, she’s also an amazing dancer, especially considering she had to tap dance in heels and deal with long gowns. The chemistry between these two felt authentic and, like their dancing, effortless. They seemed to feed off of each other’s energy and instinctively know the next dance steps.

My favorite dance numbers are “Never Gonna Dance” and “Pick Yourself Up.” The latter has a catchy beat and I love the fact that Penny, Ginger Rogers‘s character has just met Lucky, Fred Astaire, but they manage to perform a fantastic routine. Both feature superb side-by-side dancing. The amount of genuine emotion in “Never Gonna Dance” is amazing and is exhibited not only through the dancing, but also with the music and lyrics. I was surprised at Astaire‘s vocals; they were perfect for this song. He goes from spinning around to hanging his head in sadness like everything else he does: effortlessly. The fact that this extraordinary dance number was done in one take (save for the last minute) shows the magnitude of the set, as well as the amazing amount of talent and strength needed to execute the crazy number of twirls and jumps. I was also pleasantly surprised by how great the songs were. Astaire‘s vocals are perfect for “Never Gonna Dance” and “A Fine Romance” is fun and cheeky.

So, I have to address the “Bojangles of Harlem” dance number. The dancing was excellent, particularly when Fred Astaire dances with the three shadows behind him. It was nice to see him pay tribute to legendary tap dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I was also surprised to discover that this number was Ushers inspiration for his “OMG” video. Nonetheless, the use of black face was, and still is, offensive and unnecessary. I will never understand why people thought that was okay. The ironic part about this tribute is that Bojangles wouldn’t have been allowed to perform at the nightclub in the film.

Despite the fabulous dancing, I couldn’t ignore the fairly lame story-line. It was missing a lot of logic and the ending with all of the fake laughing was annoying. However, Astaire and Rogers make up for it, for the most part. Fred Astaire exudes energy in every scene and his youthful and innocent facial expressions are endearing, unlike the annoying character of Pop. I also liked Penny because she is a headstrong young woman, and her friend Mabel’s New York dead-pan humor was also hilarious.

Swing Time may not be one of the most enchanting musicals I’ve seen, but the dance numbers are some of my all-time favorites.

6 thoughts on “Swing Time

  1. Actually the effortless look of the dancers took hours and hours of practice. Never Gonna Dance took 55 takes, and Ginger’s feet bled through her shoes, but she kept on dancing until they had it “in the can”. I don’t think that Fred’s tribute to Bogangles was in bad taste at all. Note that Bogangles didn’t think so, and I don’t think future generations will think so either. We are just too sensitive in our times. Understandably so, but too sensitive nonetheless. And finally it’s almost a cliche that people think the plot is pointless. I’ll take the position that this film’s plot is quite logical. It’s about Fred not knowing his own mind, and Ginger therefore “logically” changing her mind about him no less then SIX times. This is why I think that all the back and forth is indeed both funny and serious, and supported by the plot. And I do agree that the variety of dancing here is extraordinary, and though I’m a big fan of Kelly…for my money this film is the clearly the top dance film of the century….bar none.

    1. I watched an interview about the making of the film and heard about how long it took to film Never Gonna Dance. That definitely made me have more respect for how difficult the dance numbers were. I won’t pretend that I was outraged when I saw the Bojangles tribute because I know that the use of blackface was commonplace at the time. However, based on the negative history behind it, it would have been in better taste, and less racially insensitive, if he had simply performed without the blackface. I agree that we can be too sensitive in today’s society, but I am glad that it has led to a better understanding of different cultures and what people find offensive. Future generations will hopefully be able to appreciate the dancing alone, but still be aware of the negative stereotypes associated with blackface. As for the plot, I agree that the story is logical from your standpoint. However, I felt that certain parts like the pants gag in the beginning and end, Ricky’s easy acceptance of Penny leaving him, as well as Lucky’s decision to never make $25,000, weren’t realistic or funny.

  2. I understand about the plot. I think that Ricky could have put up more of a fight at his wedding…but note, that this bandleader had already proved himself to be sensitive to public embarassment, when Lucky uses his own audience against his stated desire not play for him and Penny. At the wedding, he’s not only again humiliated by losing his pants, but he’s also flying in the face of his bride, who reveals her true feelings, by in fact laughing at the whole thing. For him to resist her in front of all his family and friends, would have made it even worse from Ricky’s perspective. This is a man whose whole career depends upon what others think. He’s no only acting humanely, but also rationally.

    Anyway, I find the film to be a wonder of light and hope in the middle of the Depression, then (and now) raging right outside the move house doors. When Penny loses her job, she’s not only humiliated by Fred, but the audience would have felt it as something truly terrible. In hard economic times, people’s dreams are put on hold. This film is about persevering, no matter how difficult and complicated life becomes. And the dancing? Well I like Robert Mueller’s comment when he describes it as “the greatest in the history of the universe!”.

    You seem to have enjoyed the film. It improves for each viewing. But there is something is the modern perspective, that’s untouched by both its humor and its tragedy.

    1. You definitely make a good case! I never considered the plot in the context of the Depression. I did enjoy the movie, but I agree that some of the humor is lost on me due to generational differences.

  3. The depression was “the elephant in the room” in the movie theaters of the time. You might be interested in one of the greatest dances of the 20th century between a man and woman…”Let’s Face the Music and Dance”…from the charming little film “Follow the Fleet”, 1936. Fred literally pulls Ginger into the dance…and into life. It’s a little play within the plot of the film. It demonstrates their prodigious talents. They were the best and they knew it. Rogers was the stronger actor. As Fred sings to her, prior to the dance, she uses pantomime and acting to depict a depressed woman intent on suicide. Fred pulls her into the dance. When she gives her hand to him, it’s done with great dignity and grace. And then they dance…and do they ever…before they exit together stage right. If you have not already seen it, it never fails to inspire. They did twenty takes…but in the end, they close the first one.

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