Swing Time: Heaven Can’t Wait

The problem with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, everyone agrees, is that there is never enough dancing. You have to wait through often silly plots and hit-or-miss comedy for the musical numbers that are the whole point. But the dances when they do come are so overwhelming and demand such breathless concentration that they must be limited. There is only so much bliss the human system can stand.

Of all the films Astaire and Rogers made together, Swing Time (1936) does the best job of integrating music and dance into a credible story. It also makes us wait the longest to see them dance together. The first number, “Pick Yourself Up,” doesn’t come until thirty minutes in to the movie, making it even more of an explosive relief than usual. Astaire has to drag Rogers unwilling onto the floor, but once they start, it’s like a match thrown onto a pile of gasoline-soaked rags. Fwoom! They dance as though the floor were hot, their taps crackling like oil in a frying pan. Ginger picks up her swirling, pleated black skirt and flashes her fabulous gams. Sometimes, rehearsing and recording these numbers was so grueling that her feet bled, but on-screen she is having the time of her life. “Sheer heaven, my dears, sheer heaven!” Eric Blore cries when they finish. And he was only watching.

All the musical numbers in Swing Time have some element of irony or surprise in their context, as the dance critic Arlene Croce points out in her definitive book on Astaire and Rogers. “Pick Yourself Up” starts with Ginger thinking Fred can’t dance. “A Fine Romance” is based on the equally false premise that he is a cold fish. He serenades her with “The Way You Look Tonight”—which very deservedly won Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern the Academy Award for best original song—only to look up at the end and see how she really looks, with a towel around her shoulders and shampoo in her hair. (In fact, Rogers is so fetching here that it’s a wonder she didn’t start a fad for wearing a bathing cap covered in whipped cream, as she did to achieve the effect.) Later, he sings “Never Gonna Dance” and promptly starts dancing. The film is a “jazz rhapsody,” Croce writes, whose “materials are romantic irony, contrast, the fantasy of things going in reverse.”

The dynamic in their dancing is that of their whole relationship: first a clash and then a fusion between her down-to-earth realism and his antigravity romanticism.”

Swing Time was the sixth pairing of Astaire and Rogers (out of a total ten, nine made at RKO between 1933 and 1939), and it manages at once to honor and subvert what was by this point a familiar formula: Fred meets Ginger, falls for her instantly, and woos her with dance. Here, for a change, what stands between them is not a contrived misunderstanding but a real obstacle: his engagement to another woman. His character, John “Lucky” Garnett, denies his true identity, dismissing dance and insisting that his real vocation is gambling. Once he finally meets Rogers’s character, dancing teacher Penny Carrol, the formula kicks in—even their names, Lucky and Penny, click together. As usual, he gets off on the wrong foot with her, so he pursues her to the school where she works and signs up for a lesson. This allows for the delicious joke of Astaire posing as a hopelessly inept student of dance. “First you must learn how to walk,” she instructs the man whose debonair gait, with its lightly swinging rhythm, is one of cinema’s glories. His galumphing impersonation of a klutz, complete with slipping-on-a-cake-of-soap pratfalls, illustrates his underappreciated gift for physical comedy.

After “Pick Yourself Up,” there is another agonizing wait for the next dance. The obstacles that delay their dancing constitute the movie’s plot—and they are mainly created by Penny’s jealous suitor, Latin bandleader Ricardo Romero (singer Georges Metaxa was actually Romanian). In keeping with Swing Time’s shift away from farcical fluff, Romero is not a harmless buffoon like the romantic rivals in other Astaire-Rogers movies; he is at once reasonably attractive and hissably mean-spirited. And Rogers’s character—not called on as she often is to stubbornly resist Astaire’s for no good reason—is her warmest and most vulnerably human. 

The film’s greater emotional realism owes much to director George Stevens, who was known in the thirties as a comedy specialist but whose gift for serious drama would emerge after his harrowing and heroic experience in World War II. This was to be his only film with Astaire and Rogers, but many others on both sides of the camera here were regular collaborators of theirs, like dance director Hermes Pan. Kern and Fields had written songs for the pair in Roberta the previous year. Fields was one of the era’s wittiest lyricists, as she demonstrates in “A Fine Romance” (“True love should have the thrills that a healthy crime has / We don’t have half the thrills that The March of Time has), but she went far beyond cleverness in “The Way You Look Tonight,” producing words whose elegant simplicity matches the ravishing Kern melody.

The usual retinue of character actors surrounds the stars. Edward Everett Horton is absent, and in his place is Victor Moore as Pop Cardetti, Lucky’s hapless but loyal friend. Moore had played comic roles in Broadway shows such as the Gershwins’ Of Thee I Sing (1931) and Cole Porter’s Anything Goes (1934), but his immortality rests on his almost unbearably touching performance in Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937), as an old man facing the loss of his home, his wife, and his usefulness. With his wobbly, cracking voice, he brings a hint of that pathos here, a far cry from Horton’s fussy, birdbrained double takes. Eric Blore, the most frequent supporting player in the series, appears briefly as Penny’s boss, contributing his trademark unctuous and sibilant verbal gymnastics. “He’s hissing at me again, the swan,” quips Mabel (Helen Broderick, the mother of actor Broderick Crawford), mocking his accent. Reprising her role as Ginger’s sidekick from Top Hat (1935), Broderick was one of those actresses who made a career of dishing out sardonic wisecracks, eyeing the world with wary, “Why me?” skepticism. The Eve Ardens, the Jean Dixons, the Helen Brodericks, all those weary, astringent, sharp-tongued, bighearted women—where have they gone? 

Rogers, though a star and a beauty, was close to this type herself. Her irritability, her haughty deadpan, belong to a woman who always gets stuck with the pests, the screwballs, the pompous bosses, the dance students who step on her feet. She has the universal traits of the thirties working girl: she is wised-up, suspicious, and implacably sensible. And this is precisely why Fred needs her: Ginger is his ballast. Without her, he might float off into the empyrean, loosed of all ties to earth. His temperament is as airy as his physical presence; in each film, before meeting Rogers, he is carefree, a condition he celebrates in “Don’t Let It Bother You” (The Gay Divorcee, 1934), “No Strings” (Top Hat), and “Slap That Bass” (Shall We Dance, 1937). She bursts his bubble and gives him something to work for. Rogers’s physicality likewise matches her character: she supplies what James Harvey describes as a “tension of resistance” in their dances. Her opposition and eventual surrender play out in her spine and shoulders, which go from taut to melting; her body is as expressive as it is breathtakingly lovely. The dynamic in their dancing is that of their whole relationship: first a clash and then a fusion between her down-to-earth realism and his antigravity romanticism. 

Swing Time is a comprehensive time capsule of thirties imagery, distilling Hollywood’s Depression-era escapism, starting with the iconic image of Astaire gaily hopping a freight train in a silk hat and morning suit. The screenplay (originally written by Howard Lindsay, who had directed Astaire on Broadway in Gay Divorce, but extensively reworked by Allan Scott, a regular on the series) uses a running motif of gambling, with varied episodes of card-sharping, sleight of hand, and fantasies of easy money. A second thread (no pun intended) is an intensive focus on clothes, from the “no cuffs” gag that is twice pulled on would-be bridegrooms to separate them from their pin-striped trousers, to the game of strip piquet in which Lucky tries and fails to win a tuxedo from a soused Englishman.

The film has jokes about picket lines and jokes at the expense of the rich—after Lucky turns up late for his wedding, his fiancée’s irate father (Landers Stevens, the director’s father) is eager to forgive him after his gift for making a quick buck is revealed. There are Jewish tailors, chorus girls, and arguments over sandwiches; there are gangsters and nightclubs, including one of the most ravishing art deco settings of the era, the Silver Sandal club, designed by John Harkrider. The shiny black dance floor appears to float atop a forest of luminous skyscrapers, and floor-to-ceiling windows frame the quartzlike spires of Manhattan; even the glittering gusts of snow falling over the city lights seem like deco weather. There are stars twinkling in the walls, and polished surfaces everywhere—Penny and Lucky’s kiss behind a dressing-room door is echoed later by a shot of Penny and Romero kissing in a mirrored door that opens to reveal Lucky’s stricken face. 

Harkrider is also credited with the costumes for the film’s big production number, “Bojangles of Harlem.” These trappings are somewhat vulgar and distracting, most of all the blackface that Astaire regrettably wears (for the only time). While the song is an exuberant tribute to the peerless Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson, the dance is more complex, certainly not impersonation—indeed, it highlights the difference between Astaire’s style and traditional tap, with its restrained upper-body movements and close-to-the-floor footwork. But his performance is filled with stylistic grace notes—slanting poses, jazzy hand gestures, a flashing grin—that are clear allusions and homages to Robinson and other black tap dancers whom he revered and had learned from, such as John W. Bubbles, who was renowned for his rhythmic complexity and invention. Astaire shows off his own here, adding clappers in his white gloves to the taps on his shoes. When, finally, he is alone onstage, he goes to town—accompanied by three elongated shadows that loom over him, at first following, then challenging, then walking out on him.

While his duets with Rogers achieve effortless harmony—notice how often they dance in unison, as equals—Astaire’s solos have an edge of restlessness, frustration, even danger. He is so often described as “perfect,” but what makes him riveting to watch is that his perfection is never mere correctness, his elegance never just smoothness. He is not a tidy dancer: his limbs fly, his lines break, his feet don’t point, and he doesn’t seem to spot when he turns. And though he was indeed a fanatical perfectionist who rehearsed himself to the bone, his dances have a thrilling unpredictability, a feeling that he is plying, experimenting, pushing himself. He can go further alone, but not as happily.  

When he dances “Waltz in Swing Time” with Rogers, an overhead spotlight casts their shadows on the floor, creating chic silhouettes like the ones that appear in the movie’s credits. The idea of a jazz waltz was Astaire’s, and this is one of his most refined pieces of choreography, filled with surprising touches—as when he jumps over her outstretched leg—and constantly shifting rhythms. Their light flurry of taps is like the snow falling outside. Rogers’s frothy white dress, with a flounced train and poufy sleeves like Viennese whipped cream, is as different from the dazzlingly sleek, low-cut gown—also white—that she wears in “Never Gonna Dance” as this purely joyful performance is from that aching, intimate drama. 

“Astaire and Rogers exhaust superlatives, yet after you get tired of praising them, there is ‘Never Gonna Dance,’ their masterpiece.”

Astaire and Rogers exhaust superlatives, yet after you get tired of praising them, there is “Never Gonna Dance,” their masterpiece. The dialogue scene that precedes it, in which Lucky and Penny face the apparent end of their romance, is the most honest and moving they ever shared, free of posturing and spite and misunderstanding. The song Astaire sings, looking up at Rogers from the foot of the stairs, is clever and offbeat and layered with meaning as it plays with the relationship between dance and love, the fundamental subject of all these films. Yet the dance says so much more than either of these, summing up everything that has gone before and gazing into the abyss of a future apart. 

Silent, dignified, she walks down the stairs, passing him; he runs after and intercepts her with a small, pleading lunge. They fall into step together as the music shifts to “The Way You Look Tonight.” Harking back to the scene where she tried to teach him how to walk, they tread slowly, side by side around the floor. They had done walking-into-dancing before, for instance at the start of the sublime “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” in Roberta; but if that transition was so seamless it made you swoon, this one makes you gasp as they walk a slow circle and then suddenly shift into a rapid series of side steps, filled with tension that shows in Rogers’s raised, squared shoulders. In this first section, they are almost marking—that is, sketching steps rather than dancing full out. This is the memory of dancing, its ashes, its ghost. The choreography, with its leans and sways; its shallow, rippling dips; its stark, semaphore-like poses of thwarted yearning, has a sense of something held back, a heartbreaking restraint and formality. They move in tandem, with stunning breaks, as when she freezes with her arms upraised and he wraps one arm around her waist and spins her. 

Then, as the music changes back into “Never Gonna Dance,” she walks away and he sags like a scarecrow, arms hanging limp, knees bent, head bowed. He comes back to life, catches her, and whips her around. His urgent pleading becomes a rapid side-to-side step that reignites the dance. They had done an argument in dance before, too, in “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” from Roberta, but that was comic, while this is deadly serious. The tempo picks up, the music turning bluesy and brassy; they are dancing full out now, doing big, swirling jumps—and then there is a fleeting quote from “Waltz in Swing Time.” They relive that pinnacle, waltzing up the two curving black staircases. But when they get to the top, “Never Gonna Dance” returns, even brassier and bluesier, and Rogers does a series of fierce, spiraling turns that finally propel her out the door. Astaire slumps into a pose of defeat, one of his huge, eloquent hands slightly outstretched. 

There will be a happy ending, of course, replete with laughter, song, and every rough edge smoothed away. But nothing can really follow this dance, and noth­ing can touch it. It goes beyond perfection, and hopelessly beyond words.