Swing Time

On Film / Essays — Mar 13, 1990

The Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers film, Swing Time, is a classic example of how music and dance can be used to tell a story, express emotions, richly explore human relationships, subvert logic, and send us singing and skipping into the street—or, in the video age, around the living room.

An ideal musical should use music, not just as an ally of the story, or as a simple diversion from it, but as its motor. And, if it’s going to be that important, it’s got to be good. Swing Time triumphs on that score. The songs turned out by composer Jerome Kern and lyricist Dorothy Fields are among the finest ever created for a Hollywood musical. They include two classics, the luminous “The Way You Look Tonight” and the satiric “A Fine Romance.” Their efforts are significantly embellished by the superb orchestrations, arrangements, and background compositions supplied by Robert Russell Bennett.

The high quality of the music in many of Astaire’s musicals makes them special, but their uniqueness comes from the fact that these splendid songs and arrangements come to us filtered through the sensibilities of one of the greatest dancers and choreographers who ever lived. And Swing Time is one of his crowning achievements—a few Astaire films may rival this one in choreographic invention, but none surpasses it. And, while the script may lurch improbably at times, the quality of the musical numbers again and again justifies, at least in retrospect, each lurch. The three duets, in particular, are among Astaire’s most profound creations. They explore different phases of the love relationship—exuberant courtship, ecstatic celebration, and painful separation—and are linked choreographically: a signature step introduced in the first duet reappears in the other two, transformed to suit the differing emotional situations.

There seems to be a special glow to the Astaire-Rogers relationship in Swing Time. More than in any other of their films, we care about them,worry about their inevitable troubles, and rejoice in the sweetness of their equally inevitable reconciliations. In Swing Time, the Astaire-Rogers partnership truly becomes, in Dorothy Fields’ felicitous construction, “the la belle, la perfectly swell, romance.” This is achieved, not only by the high choreographic and musical values, but also by the quality of theacting. This was their sixth film together, and with each one, Rogers became more self-confident and Astaire became less self-conscious. In Swing Time they hit one of the peaks.

In a recent interview, Ginger Rogers selected Swing Time as the best of the series and gave great credit for this to its director, George Stevens. “He gave us a certain quality, I think, that made it stand out above the others.” Certainly outstanding is the quality of Rogers’ performance in the film, her finest in the series. As a dancer she had grown enormously during the three years of the partnership with Astaire, developing fluidity, confidence, and rich choreographic insight. Her acting is richly textured and engagingly convincing, and she is especially able in this film to leaven the defensive haughtiness of her character with a touching vulnerability. We all know who is going to marry whom at the end of the film, but when Rogers is hurt by some plot convolution or other, she convinces us that we should really care.

Contributing greatly to the success of the film are the ancillary comedians: the fumbling, but sly, Victor Moore, the acerbic Helen Broderick, and sputtering Eric Blore.

Finally, the film is also notable for the splendor of its decor and costumes. A signature element of the Astaire-Rogers films is their gleaming Art Deco sets, and Swing Time has the most stunning of all. On this high quality laserdisc, carefully reproduced and retimed from a one-inch videotape master in the RKO archives, they are clearly on view.

Astaire’s solo in Swing Time is his only blackface number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” a salute to the great black tapper, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In part, this was inspired by a Robinson number in a 1935 RKO film, Hooray for Love, and we’ve included this number, which also features the legendary Fats Waller, at the end of Side 4, at Chapter 16. And Chapter 17 has some behind-the-scenes photos from the production of Swing Time.