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Great Movies Roundtable: Swing Time

#89 on AFI’s “100 Movies, 100 Years – 10th Anniversary Edition is “Swing Time.”

Made in 1936, “Swing Time” is usually considered the best of the 9 film collaborations between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and thus, I think it’s on this list less because of the significance or quality of this particularly movie, and more because of the importance of the Astaire/Rogers partnership to Hollywood. The plot is a ridiculous mess, but that’s not really important.  Astaire plays Lucky, a very cheerful and decent gambling addict, who heads to New York City to make his fortune so he can marry his bride, only to fall in love with Penny the dancing instructor, and eventually realized he never wanted to marry that other girl anyway.

General Thoughts?

 CRH:  The thing that makes this movie work is that it’s old Hollywood to its core. Old Hollywood movies have a softness to them, a subtlety that was primarily due to the fact that the censors were pretty stringent in those times. You can’t have sex scenes in those movies, not even kissing, so you have to communicate the passion in a very subtle way.  “Swing Time” has a dreamy style and all the best old Hollywood movies had that quality about them. We sympathize with the characters — even though they’re paper-thin — because we have all been in love before. This movie makes me laugh even though it was made nearly ninety years ago.

WK: It was fun and illuminating to watch this shortly after seeing “La La Land,” because it’s so different, even though it’s the same genre.  “La La Land” excels in the character and story department, but kind of flubs it when it comes to the songs and the dancing. “Swing Time,” one of the greatest musicals of all time, has a contrived plot and thin as paper characters, but the music and the dancing scenes are superb.  What both film have in common is an effervescent mood that just makes you feel happy while watching them.

What Works?

WK: Such great chemistry.  Between Astaire and Rogers, for sure, but also between Astaire and his sidekick, Victor Moore, who I think must be one of the best sidekicks of all time.

I love just watching Fred Astair move.  Even when he’s not dancing, he’s dancing, so graceful, so precise, so effortless. In every scene, in every moment, it looks like his feet just barely touch the ground. I thought it was a lot of fun to watch.  There’s just something about the way Astaire glides across the room that puts a smile on my face.  Oh, and the costumes.  So elegant and stylish. You can see the power of cinema as an escape from reality – this was made in 1936, at the end of the Great Depression.  There’s not a hint of hardship or suffering in “Swing Time.” It’s all romance and style and joy.

CRH: I’m with you: whenever I see him gliding across the room on the screen I can’t help but smile. he also had a very keen sense of how to deliver lines. He is just filled with charisma and wit. I found myself laughing throughout the course of the film. I also love the kind of dual romance that takes place in the movie between Pop(Astaire’s sidekick) and Mabel (Penny’s Friend )  it’s a funny romantic trip that’s just not popular anymore. this movie is one of the best of old Hollywood.

Fred Astaire is legendary for these dancing musicals. Fred Astaire is even well known in Millennial circles for his dancing ability. The first time I saw Fred Astaire was when he played an old con artist on the mediocre disaster film “The Towering Inferno.” His performance is the only thing memorable in that movie. it’s wonderful and marvelous to see him in his best work in the prime of his career.


What Doesn’t Work?

WK: Well, the plot, obviously.  And that usually really bothers me.  But the film itself seems so unconcerned with the plot contrivances, I just really didn’t care that it was ridiculous and implausible.  I won’t say very often that the plot isn’t very important, but in “Swing Time,” it really isn’t.

And I guess we have to mention the blackface scene. After watching it, and not feeling at all sure what I thought of it, I did some reading. A lot of people think this is the only “acceptable” blackface scene, that Astaire isn’t doing a racist caricature of black performers, but an honest tribute to tap-dancing legend Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Courtland, I was curious what you thought about that.

CRH:  Yeah, blackface is definitely frowned on these days.  But this scene is different than other blackface scenes that I have seen in old movies.  In those there is a hint of mockery.  There’s kind of a maliciousness that’s absent in this one. I think it comes across more as an homage rather than a full-blown minstrel affair.  It’s kind of complicated because people have complex reactions to this sort of thing, especially at the time.  For example, Al Jolson, who was well known for his minstrel routine, was actually well-beloved by the African American community in Harlem and was apparently well known for desegregating is parties and was often invited to black-only clubs.

Favorite Scenes?

 WK: Astaire singing “The Way You Look Tonight” was a highlight.  And the dancing academy scene.  I’m a sucker for slapstick.

CRH: That is a good scene! It’s touching and humorous. I also like the “Never Gonna Dance” scene after things don’t look like they’re going to work out between Penny and Lucky. There is a sweetness and subtle emotional vulnerability which really drew me in.  All the romantic scenes are done in a light, airy fashion which is very appealing.

Buying or Selling?

 CRH:  Definitely buying.  This movie is charming, funny, and touching. I think a lot more movies would be better if they learned some of this movie’s lessons.  Try to be subtle and try not to be so mean!

WK: It surprises me how differently I feel about “Swing Time” than I did about “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It’s all about Fred Astaire, for me. I’d much rather watch him dance than Jimmy Cagney, or really, anyone else.  I’m actually buying.  I’d like to see this higher on the list.



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Posted in All Reviews, By Courtland Hopkins, by Will Krischke, The Classic Movie Series.

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