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Swing Time

Theatrical release poster
Directed by George Stevens
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Written by Erwin S. Gelsey (story Portrait of John Garnett)
Howard Lindsay
Allan Scott
Starring Fred Astaire
Ginger Rogers
Music by Jerome Kern
Cinematography David Abel
Editing by Henry Berman
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date(s) August 27, 1936 (USA premiere)
Running time 103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $886,000
Gross revenue $2,600,000 worldwide

Swing Time (RKO) is a 1936 Hollywood musical comedy film set mainly in New York 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,[1] Mueller[2] and Hyam[3] 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.[4]

But while it is considered to be one of Astaire and Rogers' greatest films, the film's plot has been criticized[5] as has the performance of Metaxa.[1][2] On the plus side is a particularly fine acting and dancing performance[6] from Ginger Rogers who, it is believed,[2] had an affair with director Stevens during the making of the film. 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."[2] 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.[7] 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.[8]

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.



John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a gambler and dancer who, after showing up late for his wedding to Margaret (Betty Furness), is told by her father that he must earn $25,000 in order to demonstrate his good intentions. He and his friend "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore) hitch the first freight train to New York, where Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance school instructor, and immediately falls in love with her. They prove successful together in the casino and on the dance floor. After raising the $25,000, he decides to marry Penny and beats off competition from dance band conductor Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa) to secure his bride.

Principal cast

Key songs/dance routines

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).
  • "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.

Contemporary reviews

  • American Dancer, November 1936: "Astaire's dancing can no longer be classified as mere tap, because it is such a perfect blend of tap, modern and ballet, with a generous share of Astaire's personality and good humor...Rogers is vastly improved...but she cannot, as yet, vie with Astaire's amazing agility, superb grace and sophisticated charm. With Astaire one feels, with each succeeding picture, that surely his dancing has reached perfection and marks the end of invention of new steps: and yet he seems to go forward with ease and apparent nonchalence."[9]
  • Dance Magazine, November 1936, Joseph Arnold Kaye: "Much has been written about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time except, perhaps, one thing: Astaire and Rogers are the picture; everything else seems to have been put in to fill the time between swings. Dance routines are fresh and interesting, dance is superb. When Hollywood will learn to make a dance picture as good as the dancing, we cannot even guess."[9]
  • Variety, 2 September, 1936, Abel: "Perhaps a shade under previous par, but it's another box-office and personal winner from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers combo...Film's 103 minutes running time could have been pared to advantage but Swing Time will swing 'em past the wickets in above-average tempo."[9]

DVD releases


Region 1

Since 2005, a digitally restored version of Swing Time is available separately and as part of The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol.1 from Warner Home Video. These releases feature a commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films.

Region 2

Since 2003, a digitally restored version of Swing Time (not the same as the US restoration) is available separately, and as part of The Fred and Ginger Collection, Vol. 1 from Universal Studios, who control the rights to the RKO Astaire-Rogers pictures in Europe. These releases feature an introduction by Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie.

Recent references

Frank Rich, writing in The New York Times in January, 2009, linked President Barack Obama's inaugural-address reference to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off" to the Fields' lyric in the movie. Rich, opinion writer and former drama critic, wrote that it was "one subtle whiff of the Great Depression" in the address.[10]

External links

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b Croce, Arlene (1972). The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. London: W.H. Allen. pp. 98–115. ISBN 0-491-00159-2. 
  2. ^ a b c d Mueller, John (1986). Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films. London: Hamish Hamilton. pp. 100–113. ISBN 0-241-11749-6. 
  3. ^ Hyam, Hannah (2007). Fred and Ginger - The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938. Brighton: Pen Press Publications. ISBN 978-1-905621-96-5. 
  4. ^ Mueller, p.101n: "In a 1936 letter George Gershwin was somewhat patronizing about the music: 'Although I don't think Kern has written any outstanding song hits, I think he did a very credible job with the music and some of it is really quite delightful. Of course, he never was really quite ideal for Astaire and I take that into consideration'".
  5. ^ Mueller, p.101: "the story is riddled with inconsistencies, implausibilities, contrivances, omissions,and irrationalities," Croce, p.102: "discontinuities in the plot," also see Hyam, p.46
  6. ^ Mueller, p.103: "her finest in the series."
  7. ^ Astaire, Fred (1959). Steps in Time. London: Heinemann. pp. 218–228. ISBN 0-241-11749-6. 
  8. ^ Croce, p.104: "Swing Time is an apotheosis."
  9. ^ a b c Billman, Larry (1997). Fred Astaire - A Bio-bibliography. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-29010-5. 
  10. ^ "No Time for Poetry" by Frank Rich, The New York Times 1-25-09 p. WK10 of NY edition. Retrieved 1-25-09.


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