Thursday, July 26, 2012

Swing Time (1936)

RKO Radio Pictures
Director: George Stevens
Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

Academy Award for Best Original Song
National Film Registry
#90 on AFI Top 100 Movies (2007)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were the biggest names and greatest money makers out of RKO Pictures’ list of stars. For their second picture together in 1936, and sixth pairing overall, Astaire and Rogers star in a feature titled after the popular music with audiences during the period, Swing Time. For the last three years the dancing duo had become the top money maker for RKO and possibly the reason the studio was still afloat during the Great Depression. Here in Swing Time they give what might be thought of as their finest dancing performances together, but poor writing would prove to be too difficult for their performances to overcome, giving hints that the Astaire/Rogers team might have peaked, and showing signs of a dip in popularity.

Swing Time is a an Astaire/Rogers musical comedy of a man who in trying to win the hand of one women in marriage ends meeting another woman and falls in love with her, and his struggle to of handling the situation. Lucky (Fred Astaire), a man with two great passions, dance and gambling, ruins what was to be his wedding night by arriving late due to day of gambling, and the only way to win his hopeful wife, Margret (Betty Furness) back is through a bet with her father. With his heart fixed on the prize, Lucky sets out to the New York, with his Pop (Victor Moore) as aid, to raise the funds to win back his future wife. Once in town Lucky happens to meet an attractive dance instructor Penny, and after a shaky beginning they become a beautiful dance partnership that looks to take the performance dance scene by storm. At the self-behest of Lucky’s feelings for Margret, he cannot help but fall in love with Penny. When Margret comes to visit Lucky the two women learn of each other and causes a rift in his relationship with Penny, but with Margret revealing her intention was to visit Lucky to give him news of her wish to marry another man Lucky’s hopes change. This allows Lucky and Penny to continue being together and dance beautifully to a happy ending.

Like any other musical, and especially with Astaire and Rogers, the story is very flat, filled with joyful coincidences that conveniently lead to the happy ending. However the feature is full of elegant dancing that, though not as grand a lavish as they were in earlier films, they do compliment the emotion of two people in love better than any previous film by these two wonderful performers. Directed by a still fresh to the job filmmaker, George Stevens, this film features a worthy blend of humor, with the help of fine supporting actors, and has what could be considered the finest acting performances of Astaire and Rogers in any film they had made together. The characters have flaws, the dances have passion, and emotions are played high, but that could not save the movie from a story with a flat plot filled with holes. This makes Swing Time fun to watch, but a difficult plot to accept, creating a paradox for how one may enjoy such a feature.

George Stevens was still a fresh a director at RKO. His first directing job was in 1934, a year after Astaire and Rogers were first paired together. He proved his worth as a talented filmmaker with Alice Adams, starring the difficult, but gifted actress Katharine Hepburn. Here he is given the chance to direct a big name film; big because of the names attached to the feature. Filmed in a rather simple manner, Stevens manifests his best attributes to directing with the subtleties, including humor and creating passion between the stars. This creativity is most notably the scene where Penny struggles to profess her love to Lucky and their eventual first kiss, which is perform out of site behind a door that suddenly opens to conceal the two, leaving us with only the reactions of the two lovebirds to a kiss that we, the audience, only create in our minds as the most passionate kiss imaginable. It makes for a wonderful moment of innocent and elated joy that all have at one time experienced and can relate to. Stevens would work many more times with both actors, even in features only starring one of the two.

Much can be said about the two stars, as they both gave tremendous performances, but it would be the supporting cast that aided in making their performances work. Eric Blore and Helen Broderick return as supporting cast to supply comedy in their roles. Blore’s scene as the operator of the dance school with Astaire and Rogers bickering with backhanded comments makes for a particularly humorously shared moment. His reactions to Penny for saying insulting lines to Lucky while Lucky takes the comments in good fun creates a scene so funny and relatable to anyone that had to be overly nice to someone in a job. His expressions to Rogers are priceless. Then there is Victor Moore, a long time stage and film comedian, playing the lovable, yet flawed father to Lucky. The person that gets pushed to the background of the film is Betty Furness, who plays Lucky’s originally planned bride, Margret. This 20 year-old actress was a hopeful star on the rise with her youth and beautiful looks, but it was not meant to be for her.

The names of Astaire and Rogers were synonymous to success for RKO. Regularly the studio would push the two together, quickly producing two features of the pair out a year to make the big money for the studio. With each feature together the two became increasingly better. Rogers, who before Astaire was not a dancer, was becoming the belle of the genre, to go along with her beautiful singing voice and grace. Astaire was becoming a better actor. He was no Gable, but you started like him more in a more vulnerable role, rooting for him as the nice, charming guy.

Here Astaire would choreograph what many consider the most creative and beautiful dances the pair ever performed.  Astaire seemed to have more freedom in his view of dancing creation. One number of particular creativity is that of the number “Bojangles of Harlem.” Featuring Astaire in blackface, meant to pay tribute to Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson, a popular African American dancer who can be found in a few Shirley Temple films. Aside from the racial stereotype of a man in blackface, the tribute is to the joyful dancing of the man who inspired Astaire. As a new step in creativity for Astaire he performs alongside three of his own shadows which were superimposed by special effects of the era to play along with and react with his own dances during the performance. It manifests just how Astaire was continuing to find new creative outlets for his dancing instead of sticking to the same old successful routines.

With Astaire and Rogers together come not just beauty and rhythm of the music, but the emotion of two people in love. With each dance you get the sense that the two are getting closer together. What stands out the most is their dance in the number “Never Gonna Dance” where during the dance Penny, who beforehand explained they were separating, is being seduced by their passion together with her dance with Lucky. It is a heartfelt number as Penny and Lucky share moments to wonderful joy and sorrow all rolled into one song, heartbreakingly concluding with Penny exiting scene, leaving a forlorn Lucky. What makes this number even better is Astaire direction as he does with all of his pictures: the dance is shot in long continuous shots. Here the dance was covered in actually two shots only because it needed to be for the exit to work. Astaire always wanted his dances to be this way, shot in one continuous take from head to toe to manifest the full action of the dance. This dance particularly was a story all its own and is worthy to be called the finest dance the two performed together. The scene was shot so many time to get it seamlessly that Rogers’ feet were bleeding by the time is way perfected. It is a dance of pure beauty.

The most notable product from the feature that contemporary audiences will note is the theme of the picture, “The Way You Look Tonight.” Performed by Fred Astaire, the song became very popular outside of the film and Astaire’s most admired song in his career. The song would win the Academy Award for best original song that year, and through time it would be covered by many crooners and become a popular hit at weddings.

With very well received dances and great acting from the star, the film was however panned by critics of its time for the weak plot and overall lack of effort in story for the feature. Since then the film has been well accepted for its marvelously great attributes, somehow overshadowing what is still generally considered weak storyline. The film would in 2004 officially be elected a national treasure by entry into The National Film Registry, preserving the picture at the Library of Congress. In 2007 AFI would honor the feature as #90 on their new list of Top 100 American Films, which some consider to be a high number, but musical enthusiasts absolutely love. Swing Time marked the unfortunate peak for Astaire and Rogers as a pair. Despite their praised work as actors and dancers, the film was not as big of a hit, and their popularity together would show signs of dwindling. Their time together was not over, but they were declining in admiration as the coming years approached.

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